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Sydell Lemerman, who lived in Berkeley for 52 years

Sydell Lemerman: October 19, 1921 – August 16, 2013

Sydell’s journey started in Jersey City, New Jersey as the middle child of Isadore and Sadie Borsky, progressed to Berkeley, where she spent 52 years, and ended in Santa Monica where she moved to be closer to her daughters, Gail and Barbara.

We can tell the details of her life: she worked for the Federal government for almost 30 years, not even counting her work during World War II. At the USDA she helped administer food stamps, school lunches and free cheese giveaways for the Western Region. After she retired, she did what she had always wanted to do: retail.  She worked at the Gudrun Sjoden store in Berkeley where she loved engaging with the customers and buying and wearing the product. She worked for her dear friend, Elaine Ensler, at Ensler Lighting for many years. She and Ray, her husband of 55 years, traveled with his walking group around Europe and she did volunteer work.

But it was Sydell herself who was the real story. She had an indefinable allure. No matter what she was doing — work, exercising at the Albany pool or YMCA, volunteering at Telecare, being a neighbor — she made devoted friends, friends who she was honored to know and care for and who cared for her.

Her friends spanned age groups and identities. She was open-minded and accepting and knew that relationships were the most important thing. The friends of her children and grandchildren became her friends, too. She was there if you needed her or Ray, and those friends paid her back a thousand times over.

After Ray died in 1998, she kept going, supported by her family, and by dear friends and new friends, and by Sy Levine who predeceased her in 2010. She is also predeceased by her sister, Ruth Borsky of Jersey City.

No life is perfect and Sydell had her medical challenges, especially in her last years, but she always kept going, usually quickly. Whenever her granddaughter, Rachel, would be asked in school to name the person she most admired, it was always her grandmother. Her grandchildren, Reuben, Laura and Rachel, could always bring a huge smile to her face. Having Laura and Reuben and all Reuben’s friends in the Bay Area added another rich layer to her life.

She will be profoundly missed by her family, daughters Gail (Harold) Zellman and Barbara (Marc) Birenbaum, of Pacific Palisades, California and by her grandchildren Reuben Zellman (Erika Katske) of San Francisco, Laura Zellman (Robert Cartelli) of San Jose, and Rachel Birenbaum of Oakland, by her great-grandson, Rion Cartelli and by her brother, Frank, of New York City. And, of course, she will be missed by all of her friends who made her life so rich and interesting.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Oct. 20, at 1:30 pm at Temple Beth El in Berkeley.  Donations in her name can be made to Telecare at Alta Bates, Open Hand in San Francisco, or the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley.

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

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...