Elizabeth Edwards died of breast cancer this week — a disease that disproportionately affects Ashkenazi Jewish women. Edwards left legions of admirers and readers devastated. While she was (unfortunately) most recently in the headlines for her husband’s sordid affair, the quality that most inspired the public devotion and fascination for Edwards was her honesty about the tragedies that befell her — the death of teenage son and her own cancer diagnosis, long before she faced John’s infidelity.
And in the wake of those calamities, she chose not wall herself off, which would have been more than understandable; instead, she put her energies into helping others who didn’t have what she had. Some considered the Edwardses class traitors for enjoying personal luxury while crusading for the poor, but I always felt it worthwhile of them to acknowledge their privilege, while keeping the spotlight on society’s suffering members.
Without Elizabeth Edwards, we might not have health reform. By pushing her husband to prioritize the issue, she pushed all the Democratic candidates, Obama among them, to make it a campaign promise and then an administrative goal.
Many a eulogist has noted that Elizabeth Edwards approached a life that occasionally seemed Job-like with “grace” — and while this is true, it glosses over the fact that Edwards admitted to crippling depression, struggles with religious faith, and even anger before coming to the conclusion that, as she wrote in a poignant, final Facebook message, “I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious.”
A few cranky conservatives are predictably being awful in the wake of her death — holding her omission of religion in that final statement against her. But my guess is that Edwards’ insistence on finding comfort and solace here on earth from family, friends, and good works —what we Jews call tikkun olam — rather than waiting for some sort of heavenly reward, is precisely what endeared her to so many.