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Celebration of the life of Neal Blumenfeld, MD, Saturday

"When young psychiatrist Neal Blumenfeld read that students had staged a protest at Sproul Plaza, he drove his Triumph TR-3 sports car as close as he could get to the campus, then walked over for a first-hand look.

Within days of that 1964 protest he'd been ousted from his part-time consultancy with the Berkeley Police Department and had established himself as what Free Speech Movement leaders described as 'the movement shrink.'

His activism’s never wavered in the years since … "

So wrote the Berkeley Daily Planet's Richard Brenneman, aptly describing the indomitable spirit and joie de vivre of Neal M. Blumenfeld, MD. Neal, the eminent psychiatrist and citizen of the world, passed at his Berkeley home on December 1. He was 83.

A celebration of his life will be held this Saturday, Jan.18, at 1 pm at Northbrae Community Church, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley. In lieu of flowers the family requests that tax-deductible donations be made to the Free Speech Movement Archives, 1801 5th Street, Berkeley, CA, 94710.

Neal was preceded in death by his beloved wife Lise, his parents Dr. Charles M. and Pauline Blumenfeld, and sister Mrs. Diane Miller, and is survived by many: his three children, Eve, Peter and Thomas; three stepchildren: Mimi, Judy and Mike Wolff; five grandchildren: Laura, Alex, and Nick Blumenfeld, and Alex and Nat Wolff; and friends, comrades, neighbors, classmates and colleagues.

Neal was born on November 26, 1930, in Minneapolis, and spent most of his adolescence in Sacramento, after having lived in Cleveland and Salt Lake City. He graduated from UC Berkeley, received his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and performed his residency in psychiatry at Yale University. He served as Army captain while stationed in Vicenza, Italy, where he and his first wife Leah Zeff adopted two children, Eve and Thomas. Peter was born nine years later. Neal settled in Berkeley and was a prominent figure in the Bay Area mental health scene since the 1960s.

Not defined by his medical acumen alone, Neal was an astute political observer. A passionate civil rights advocate, his fervor found expression in the Free Speech Movement, which he fully embraced among countless human rights causes. He viewed the FSM as a moral issue, rather than a youth rebellion, writing: “It is intriguing to speculate on why the moral issue is so frequently ignored or derided.… Perhaps it is too disturbing to recognize that there are people who can say: ‘I have not given over my whole conscience to any system -- I reserve the right to protest (and if necessary to break the rules of the system in that protest), when the system trespasses upon basic rights.’” As a philanthropist, he was a man committed to the betterment of those who either could not, or were not empowered, to help themselves.

At various times in his life, Neal could be described as a radical, revolutionary, Socialist, Neo-Trotskyist, lefty, and self-proclaimed BhuJew, yet these labels do not do justice to the depth of his commitment to the causes he believed in. A goal in his life was to make common cause, to help the oppressed, to stand up for the worker, to defend the individual and environment from corporations, and to give voice to the voiceless. A man with a large heart for those who needed help, he was a believer that a just society is a fair society.

Neal's adventurous spirit took him from Cuba to Eritrea, on trails and rope bridges, in cold rivers and lakes, up mountains and down gorges. His athleticism led him to enjoy everything from basketball and hiking to climbing, bicycling, tennis, and swimming, winning his age division in Master’s swimming at age 69. Neal enjoyed art and music, and he loved to play his steel guitar and sing his favorite folk songs and Spanish Revolutionary War ballads.

An avid life-long learner, he was both intellectually curious and physically active, equally at home in the library or public park. Intellectual, writer, environmentalist, linguist, raconteur, historian, antagonist, preservationist, and explorer, his vivacious spirit and larger-than-life personality captivated those who knew him. His dry sense of humor and seemingly endless supply of witty anecdotes entertained and engaged.

My personal recollections of Neal are as a longtime friend of my family, and as a man of sagacity and wit. Years ago when I was at a difficult point in my career, Neal asked me what I was doing. I said, “Volunteering as a news writer at KPFA.” Neal responded: “It's good that you can do that.” That statement has stayed with me for 34 years because it worked on many levels: 1) it was good that I was giving to the community, 2) I was fortunate to be able to afford to give, and 3) it made me feel better about my life's trajectory. Neal in a seemingly simple sentence, had put it all into perspective.

The lefty has left the building and an era has ended, but Neal's spirit and joie de vivre remains and touches us still.

(Peter Blumenfeld contributed the bulk of this obituary. The full text of Brenneman's article on Neal the Berkeley Daily Planet can be found at http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2004-10-12/article/19850?headline=Psychiatrist-s-Encounter-With-FSM-Shaped-Life-By-RICHARD-BRENNEMAN&status=301)


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