Berkeleyans this week are mourning the loss of Estelle Jelinek, who died on Monday at the age of 78. Estelle possessed a fine intellect and considerable skill as a writer and editor, and she used these gifts on a wide variety of projects and causes, prompted by a strong social conscience and a kind heart.
Those of us who worked on the printed Berkeley Daily Planet remember with gratitude that she donated her time as a volunteer copy editor for many years. She believed in the importance of a free press, and acted on her belief by coming in on deadline days to help us get the paper out on time—or sometimes late at night—with a rare combination of precision and a sense of humor. In all the time that she was there, we had only one complaint about her work: from a guy who used to enjoy finding ludicrous errors in the pre-Estelle Planet, who said she’d spoiled his fun.
This was not her first experience with public interest journalism—she spoke with pride of her participation in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She went south to Mississippi in 1967 to join the struggle, and worked as a reporter with the Southern Courier, a civil rights newspaper out of Mississippi and Alabama, until 1968.
She moved to the Bay Area in 1968 with her then-husband Don Jelinek, whom she’d met in Mississippi. Here, she lent her talents to a number of emerging social movements.
She was an outspoken feminist. Her Ph. D. thesis at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976 was The Tradition of Women's Autobiography, which was published as a book in 1986 by MacMillan.
According to SUNY Buffalo Professor Claire Kahane, it was “one of the first to propose [that] a gender-specific literary tradition existed for women's life-writings.” She also edited and wrote the introduction to Women's Autobiography,Essays in Criticism, published by Indiana University Press in 1980.
Back in Berkeley in the 1980’s, she continued her support of the social movements she believed in. She worked hard on behalf of homeless women. Ranko Yamada, the executor of Estelle’s estate, told me that they became close friends after working together on the Berkeley Women’s Commission in the mid-80’s. Ranko said that the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center (WDDC) was already planning to honor Estelle Jelinek as a key founding member at its 25th anniversary celebration on June 2.
Another favorite cause was the Chiapas Support Committee. After visiting the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, in a Global Exchange Delegation, she and Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez started the organization to raise some money for the movement there. It gained non-profit status in 1998, and Estelle became a board member. She worked with them for many years later.
At the same time, she continued her writing and editing career. Her full list of publications extends to more than three pages. She reported for the independent progressive Berkeley newspaper Grassroots from 1980 to 1985.
In recent years, suffering from depression and the continuing pain of fibromyalgia, she became a dedicated swimmer, which gave her some relief. Characteristically, she also became a campaigner for Berkeley’s public pools, including the now-demolished warm pool.
Behind this long list of causes and accomplishments was a sensitive, thoughtful woman who bridged the personal and political with grace and style. I’ll remember her most for acts of generosity small and large: her outrage as a Jewish-born intellectual about the Planet’s travails inflicted by misguided zealots, her gift of her vintage framed photo of soprano Renata Tebaldi to an aspiring opera singer she admired, the sympathetic email she sent me recently when she read here that I’d had my car stolen—all the little kindnesses you take for granted until the author of them is gone.
Donations to honor Estelle can be made to the Women's Daytime Drop-In Center, P.O. Box 11612, Berkeley, CA 94712. There will be a memorial gathering on Sunday, May 5. For further information, call (510) 527-0173.
Estelle Cohen Fine Jelinek is survived by her sister, Roslyn Cohen Sher, of Marlton, N.J, her nephew Leon Sher of Livingston, N.J., and many former colleagues and friends in Berkeley.
We’ll miss her.