Remembering Mickey Tenenbaum, realtor and activist who once ran his cat for mayor as a political statement

A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he was active in Berkeley Citizens Action and served on the city’s Solid Waste Commission.

Mickey Tenenbaum. Courtesy: The Tenenbaum family

Mickey Tenenbaum – devoted husband, father, brother, attorney, realtor, progressive activist – died last year, Jan. 28, 2021, at age 75 at his home in Berkeley. Mickey had suffered a major stroke in December 2017 that left him needing round-the-clock care.  Mickey will be remembered around Berkeley as “the people’s real estate broker,” and a knowledgeable, fun, and generous friend.   

Born Mark Allen Tenenbaum in Brooklyn, New York, on May 9, 1945, (but renamed by his older brother), Mickey grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  His parents, Milton and Bertha Tenenbaum, were very involved in social justice issues, politics, and Cleveland cultural events.  Mickey loved music – especially classical, rock ‘n’ roll and folk – and played French horn and classical guitar. He was also a huge baseball fan, loyal to the Cleveland Indians, and enjoyed playing softball into adulthood. Mickey excelled in school, especially math, but sometimes got into trouble for his mischievous sense of humor, or standing up for his rights, or missing band practice because he was delivering newspapers on his bike (in the snow!) before school.

At Lake Forest College in Illinois, he met Debbie Feinswog. They quickly became college sweethearts and they both earned bachelor’s degrees in history. They eloped in January 1966 (so they wouldn’t be expelled for missing curfew too many times); a formal wedding for relatives followed in September. Mickey introduced Debbie to hiking and backpacking, which he had enjoyed at summer camp in Vermont as a teenager. Together they crisscrossed the country many times, camping along the way; favorite places were the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Glacier Park in Montana.  

A trip to Berkeley during the 1967 Summer of Love convinced the young couple that this should be their home. They moved to Berkeley for good in April 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and Chicago was swarming with National Guard. As an anti-war activist, Mickey became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He spent his first years in California running Oakland Draft Help across the street from the Oakland Induction Center, helping other young men stay out of the Army. At the same time, he attended UC Berkeley School of Law (then known as Boalt Hall), often accompanied by their dog Moogie; he decided not to practice law after the war ended but remained an inactive member of the Bar. Mickey and Debbie also spent half of every week in a “Spartan Mobile Mansion” trailer on their land in Boonville in Mendocino County.

Next, Mickey worked as a mail carrier in Richmond and other towns, while Debbie went to nursing school.  He then got the idea of becoming a dump truck “owner-operator” on construction sites, a skill he learned graveling the dirt road in Boonville; the money was good but his old truck ate it all up in repairs.

The highlight of Mickey’s life was when daughter Maggie was born.  He devoted extraordinary time and caring for her as a baby, later patiently helped her with schoolwork, and took enormous pleasure in her performances with a host of Bay Area choirs and theater companies.

Mickey was active in Berkeley politics, including BCA (Berkeley Citizens Action), and helped with many progressive causes.  He was on the city’s Solid Waste Commission and also supported CCC (Community Conservation Center) during their early recycling days.

As a political statement, he even submitted his cat Kiefer P. (for Pussycat) Tenenbaum as a candidate for mayor of Berkeley in 1994. He believed Kiefer’s qualifications were at least as good as some of the other applicants for the job. He filled out Kiefer’s application form (since Kiefer’s writing skills were not great), along with a couple of supplementary letters, photos, and letters of recommendation from several people (mostly children) who knew him and a few dog, cat, and rabbit friends. One letter was addressed to vice-mayor Linda Meow. News reporters came to the house and took pictures, and there were stories in the newspapers and on TV.  Kiefer was disqualified because he was not registered to vote.

From the March 18, 1994, edition of the Los Angeles Times. Credit: Newspapers.com

For his next career, after having owned various homes in Berkeley, Mickey decided to become an independent real estate broker. His niche was helping people find affordable housing, buy their first home, or form a co-housing community.  He aways went above and beyond for his clients, and many became lifelong friends. He regularly donated part of his commission to the client’s favorite cause or charity.

The family took many trips east to see family over the years and enjoyed traveling to England, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Hawaii, and all over the United States.  

Mickey was a voracious reader, an avid movie-goer, music and animal lover, reliable friend, and a true mensch. Some of the words and phrases that friends and relatives wrote about him on Faceboook immediately following his death were:  Sweet. Kind. Amazing. Generous. Decent. Adorable. Gentle. Loving. Smart. Inquisitive. Engaged. Funny. Courageous. Loyal. Infuriating. Principled. Passionate. Persistent. Stubborn. Opinionated. Cherished. Calm. Knowledgeable. Shrewd. Fearless. Quirky. Beloved. Warm. Welcoming. Lovely. Brilliant. Unforgettable. Understanding. Committed. Precious. Mischievous. Creative. Resourceful. Playful. Spontaneous. Thoughtful. One of a kind. Like a brother. The best____. My favorite ____. Gave so much to other people. A unique sense of humor. A heart of gold. Relentlessly caring. A fighter to help people. A hero to the community. An original. An inspiration. A wonderful human. A dear man. A special person. Such a great guy. Such a sweet soul. A beautiful soul. A kind and gentle soul. A precious soft soul. A blessing.

We want to express our gratitude to Mickey’s home caregivers: the Paua family, especially Toafa (T), Moni, Ana, and Pesi, and also Valeah Downer.  We appreciate the support of family and friends who stuck by us, visited, and made Mickey smile and laugh.  

Mickey is survived by wife, Debbie; daughter, Maggie Tenenbaum, and her partner, Ignacio Zulueta; brother, Bob, and his wife, Carol; sister, Toby, and her husband, Henry; nephew Teddy, his wife, Minsun, and their children, Jemma and Asher; niece, Tracy Blackwell; brother and sister-in-law Ben and Mal Feinswog and their children and grandchildren.

We miss his presence in our lives. Donations in Mickey’s honor can be made to the ACLU, your favorite environmental organization, or a local charity. A memorial service has not been held due to the pandemic.