Obituaries

Neal Blumenfeld: Psychiatrist, citizen of the world

Neal Blumenfeld, who died on Dec. 1, 2013

Neal Blumenfeld, eminent psychiatrist, citizen of the world, passed at his home on Dec. 1, 2013. He was 83.

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 Nov. 26, 1930, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and spent most of his adolescence in Sacramento, California, after having lived in Cleveland, Ohio and Salt Lake City, Utah.

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 Free Speech Movement as a moral issue, rather than an issue of 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.

His 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 both 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 endless supply of witty anecdotes entertained and engaged.

The lefty has left, and an era has ended, but his indomitable spirit and joie de vivre remains and touches us.

A celebration of Neil Blumenfeld’s life will be held on Jan. 18, 2014, at 1 p.m at the 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 Fifth St., Berkeley, CA, 94710.

Feel free to share your messages of condolence and/or memories of Neil Blumenfeld in the comments.

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no cost, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to editors@berkeleyside.com

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  • sue tomasello

    I remember Dr. Blumenfeld from the days when I worked at Herrick, ’75-’86. I knew him but not well. I now know he was a man who did not flaunt his virtues. I wish I had the opportunity to really talk to him but the work environment is not always suitable for that. Another physician who recently died was Robert Swanson, a vascular surgeon from the same era although I think Dr. Swanson was only about 70. Sadly, Berkeley has lost a couple (perhaps more) very cool men.

  • Colleen Neff

    Neal was our neighbor for 13 years and his passing is a real loss for all of us on the block. His son Peter has been the most devoted caregiver and friend over these last few years as well. RIP Neal Blumenfeld.

  • Adam

    Neal and Lise were great, and will be missed.

  • Stephen Taylor

    I remember Neal, a longtime friend of the family, 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 newswriter 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 I could afford to give my time, and 3) it made me feel better about my life’s trajectory. Thanks, Neal, for putting it all into perspective.