Shatzi Weisberger

“Dying is a very mysterious thing, and I want to experience it.”

Elena Stein
July 18, 2023
Allan C. Carandang

When the pandemic began, I called Shatzi Weisberger—a lesbian, AIDS nurse, death educator, and lifelong organizer—to check in on her. She was 89 years old, and I was worried. I’d met Shatzi a few years earlier when she joined the New York City chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP-NYC), the national grassroots organization where I work, which seeks to end US support for Israeli oppression of Palestinians. “Do you need groceries?” I asked. She paused. “I don’t need groceries; I need friendship.” Thus began nearly three years of weekly conversations and one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. We celebrated birthdays at the beach, drank piña coladas at the pier, and belted showtunes at our favorite gay piano bar. And of course, we organized and marched side by side.

During the first months of the pandemic, JVP-NYC hosted a series called “Conversations with Movement Elders.” I interviewed Shatzi for one of these events in May of 2020, and our discussion—an edited version of which appears below—offers a look back on a lifetime of political work and her thoughts on death and dying. What Shatzi couldn’t have known at the time is that her life was about to explode in community and political purpose.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Shatzi broke the state-imposed curfew to join the uprisings against anti-Black violence. I will never forget the moment when a group of protesters saw that she had come to join them—and broke out into cheers. It happened again at the next protest, and the next. Moved by the ways her presence energized actions in the streets, a group of young JVP members helped Shatzi run a Twitter account, @peoplesbubbie, which catapulted her into an online sensation. From that point on, at major demonstrations in New York, from Nakba Day to Pride, strangers of all ages would approach Shatzi, asking for photos with her and her iconic signs—which bore messages like “92 year old Jewish dyke for a free Palestine”—and tell her what her example meant to them. After decades of living on the margins, she told me that she’d finally found a way to both make serious political contributions and experience loving community.

Last fall, Shatzi was diagnosed with a terminal illness. In the weeks that followed, she was overcome by the outpouring of love—from the cohort of mostly young JVP members who cared for her around the clock to constant visits from friends to the 700 people who contributed to her end-of-life costs. On December 1st, Shatzi died in her home at the age of 92. After more than five years of leading workshops on death and dying, Shatzi experienced a death that, while more physically painful than she’d hoped, was profoundly resonant with the one she wished for in this conversation—a death characterized by a “transcendental experience” of connectedness and love.

A few days before she died, our care team asked Shatzi what message she would share with queer, trans, and feminist Jews of younger generations who, like her, were committed to Palestinian and collective liberation—and who, like her, had experienced isolation and family ruptures because of their identities or political commitments. Despite the pain of her illness, her face filled with warmth and pride. “I will be there behind you,” she said. “I will be your bubbie.” If that offer is meaningful to you, she is now your movement ancestor to claim.

Elena Stein:
In one month, you will turn 90.

Shatzi Weisberger: I think it’s amazing!

ES: It is amazing. Your life has had many chapters. What are your earliest memories of becoming political?

SW: When I was about 11 years old, I was at summer camp. At the time, there was a lot of information in the paper about India’s struggle for independence. I mentioned to the son of the camp directors, who was about 18, that I thought it was important that India become liberated from England, but that its people weren’t quite ready. He said, “Why do you think that?” I responded, “I read it in the paper.” He said, “You can’t believe everything you read in the papers.” I never forgot that.

ES: What were some early groups you were a part of?

SW: I had been working as a nurse in Long Island and I hated it. I’d had the grandiose idea that I could effect change, but I couldn’t—not as a single person with no connections. In the mid-1970s I moved to New York City and shortly after, I attended a demonstration to protest nuclear activity. We all lay on the ground as if there had been a nuclear attack. I remember crying because I felt that I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing with the right people. After that, I joined with a few other lesbians to form Dykes Opposed to Nuclear Technology (DONT). When we started the group, many people had no idea about nuclear activity. Then, in 1979, Three Mile Island—the nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania—happened. Radiation was in the air; it was very frightening. Opposing nuclear activity became part of the general political scene, and I didn’t feel the need to continue working in that sphere anymore.

I was also part of the Yentas, a group of lesbians who met every Friday night. We had Shabbat, and we chatted about everything. One International Women’s Day, a group of us went to a conference at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village about women doing political work globally. Afterward, our group met with the organizers to talk about Jewish women doing political work. I realized that I had to really educate myself about Israel and Palestine. I grew up very Zionist, but I didn’t know a great deal about it. That was the start of my support for Palestinian rights. It broke my heart that the Jewish people, who were always in the forefront of civil rights, were now the oppressors.

ES: And from there you got involved in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination?

SW: Well, I got involved with the Palestine Solidarity Committee [an anti-racist feminist organization co-founded by the scholar Rabab Abdulhadi]. I was in charge of the literature table. I lived in a third-floor walk-up, and I had seven or eight crates of books that I would schlep downstairs for events. Afterward, I would schlep them back upstairs. And I did workshops with friends in feminist spaces on Palestinian self-determination. If many Jewish women were present, there was a lot of Zionist sentiment. Still, those workshops did awaken some people.

ES: After being part of these and so many other struggles—you distributed the anti-incarceration newsletter No More Cages, you marched in Pride with a group you helped found called Radical Jewish Lesbians Organizing—you then organized with the New York City chapter of the Independence Party. Can you tell me more about that?

SW: The idea was to build a party where people of color—Black people in particular—were at the table from the very beginning, and to address the fact that many states, including New York, do not allow Independents to vote in primaries. I made phone calls and knocked on doors and talked to students at community colleges throughout the state. I did that for 25 years. Then one summer, I kept putting the work off. I’d tell myself that I didn’t feel well or I was too tired, I’d do it tomorrow. This went on for a couple of weeks and I was quite disgusted with myself, until finally it occurred to me: I didn’t want to do it anymore! That realization was such a relief—though I also cried because I’d lost this passion that had sustained me all those years.

Three or four days after I made the decision to quit, I realized: I’m bored, I need a project! As a nurse, I’d always been interested in death, but I wasn’t comfortable with it. So I took a course in thanatology at the Open Center, a holistic training center, and then I trained with [what was at the time called] Visiting Nurse Service of New York to become a volunteer with hospice.

“Often people talk about a good death as one where there is no suffering. But I object to the idea that the only way to have a good death is not to experience pain.”

ES: Many of us are fearful of death. In a lot of ways, our society is organized around this fear—we deny death, prolong the dying process, put it out of sight. Can you talk about the cultural fear of death, and about what brought you to investigate death and dying as you have?

SW: We live in a deathphobic society. A hundred and fifty years ago, women had babies at home with midwives and people died at home. I’m not saying that people didn’t have any fear of death, but death was natural. Now we’ve medicalized health: Women have babies in hospitals and people die in hospitals.

One of the things that had a big impact on me was how my best friend died. She was healthy as far as she knew, and then one morning she woke up very sick. I was there when the doctor came in and notified her that she had an incurable abdominal cancer. He said, “We can’t do surgery, it’s too far gone. We can do chemotherapy, radiation, or medication. Or you could do hospice.” Her response was: “I’ve had a good life, I’ll do hospice.” The first week she was home we laughed, we talked, she watched TV. The second week, it hit her; she was terrified. All she would say to me is, “I’m a coward.” She decided to stop eating and drinking. She died a little over a week later. But she had no pain. So her fear wasn’t about pain—it was about letting go.

Often people talk about a good death as one where there is no suffering. If that’s the most important thing for you, I totally support whatever you do to that end. But I object to the idea that the only way to have a good death is not to experience pain. The goal of minimizing pain is often achieved through medication, and people who are taking a lot of medication are often semiconscious or unconscious in the dying process. It occurred to me recently that without medication, birth is very painful, and yet many women decide to do it. How come that’s okay? The first time that I mentioned this to someone, they responded, “At the end of a natural childbirth, you have a baby. What do you have at the end of dying?” I said, “That’s the whole point—we don’t know!”

ES: You have the most extensive plans for your own death of any person I know. Just like living is an art, you remind me that dying can be an art: I can design it, I can have desires for it, I can get curious about it. I find that very profound.

SW: Dying is a very mysterious thing, and I want to experience it. I hope that I will not die in my sleep, that I won’t get hit by a car or fall and hit my head. I hope I will be notified that I have an incurable illness. I want to be in my bed. I want my friends to come and say their goodbyes, and pick up items I have bequeathed to them. And then, when I die, I want my dear friend Amy Cunningham, who is a fantastic funeral director, to place a tray of dry ice next to my body so anybody who wants to can come and say their final goodbyes. Then I want Amy to drive my body upstate, where it’s possible to do a green burial [where the body is placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud without embalming chemicals so as to minimize environmental impact]. I’d like to be wrapped in a shroud and buried at a site in the woods that I chose. Eventually, my body will start to deteriorate, and things will grow—weeds, bushes, flowers, maybe a tree! I’ll bring life into the world with my dying.

I’ve read that at the end of life, many people give up all of their neuroses, and it’s possible to have a transcendental experience—a total awareness of connectedness to and love for everybody. That has had an impact on me. I’ve started to think that when I die, I won’t be alone—there might be a connection that I haven’t yet fully experienced. I would love that.

Elena Stein is the director of organizing strategy with Jewish Voice for Peace, the largest anti-Zionist Jewish organization in the world.