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Other cancer patients might have chosen to keep their illness tucked away from the public eye as they gloomily endured a difficult treatment. Simcha Esther (Shari) Gershan refused to be one of those "victims." The New Jersey mother of four believed in living life as a joyous celebration, no matter the challenges.
And stage-four lung cancer was no exception.
After she was diagnosed in April 2008, the always health-conscious nonsmoker was shocked. She concluded there had to be reason she was chosen for this particular journey. So the 41-year-old embraced the illness as a gift whose lessons should be shared with the world.
Gershan immediately created a blog, in which she chronicled her various treatments as well as her fears and hopes for the future. It also encouraged people to undertake mitzvot and to reach out to others with love. The site has drawn 30,000 hits to date, with visitors from France, England and other countries reporting the changes they have made in their lives and acts of kindness they have performed in her merit.
Friends and strangers were drawn by her contagious enthusiasm for life, said her husband Yoni. His wife aimed to "show people how to celebrate in good times and in bad times," he said. "Even in the darkest moments, she looked upward."
Her journey is documented in a powerful film, Time of My Life, which recently premiered in New York City and will be released here in the winter. The feature-length movie was created by Gershan and Israeli filmmaker Tsvika Tal, who formerly worked for A&E and the History Channel.
The title of the film was chosen with great care. It means now is the time; life is short, use every moment. But it also means to live life as a wonderful celebration, in spite of any tragic circumstances, explained Yoni Gershan.
His wife did just that. A theater major at New York University, she became Orthodox after a year of study in Israel. She became so renowned for her gourmet cooking, she was even featured in the magazine Bon Appetit for her multicultural food extravaganzas when she worked at the United Nations. An activist in her community, she cofounded a Montessori-based yeshiva after she found the local schools to be lacking.
Friends say that even after she was diagnosed with her illness, she did not lose her vitality. According to her original diagnosis, she was to live for three months. She ended up surviving for 18. She passed away on Yom Kippur, but not before describing her illness as an "amazing, awesome and holy journey."
THE DOCUMENTARY is not a typical tearjerker about terminal illness. It is a story of hope and transformation as viewers observe Gershan transform her life, community and the cancer experience through her humor and optimism. Gershan began using her Hebrew name and made an effort to repair all of her relationships as part of her healing process. The community around her became involved in numerous hessed projects in her merit. And her approach to cancer was unique as she turned her chemotherapy appointments into parties and tried alternative approaches to medicine.
"This is not a sad depressing journey dedicated to black on white," she says at the beginning of the film, set against the backdrop of Manhattan. "This is a precious soul singing its song. No matter what a person goes through in life, no matter what the test is, it's all a beautiful colorful journey, of singing our own personal song, of fulfilling our mission in life. Embracing whatever God brings our way with joy."
She takes viewers into her private life, following her to chemo sessions, carpool, discussions with family members and friends and meetings with alternative practitioners. One segment which drew hearty laughs from the audience was her appointment with a sheitel macher, in which she tried on numerous wigs and made quips about them, including a blond number which made her look in the mirror and wince, "This makes me look like Rod Stewart!"
Tal, the founder of Tiferet Filmworks, who grew up in Israel and now lives in Manhattan, met Gershan 14 months ago and was immediately intrigued by her story. "She was full of energy and very animated. She didn't want to make a movie about her suffering. She wanted something to inspire people, that would give people who are suffering in life a tool to be able to deal with it better."
The approach was extraordinary because, he said, "there's a whole industry of sad films. But they do not explore the spiritual side of things. They don't bring in the mental control a person has over a situation."
Tal followed Gershan around with his camera nearly every day for 14 months, keeping the camera rolling at Gershan's request even during her darkest, most painful moments. Fortunately, most of the footage shows her facing her worst fears with humor and optimism.
Many scenes were filmed at Sloan Kettering Medical Center in New York, where physicians and patients are not accustomed to seeing cameras, particularly in the chemotherapy room, said Tal. Gershan made the most sober-faced physicians grin with her endearing antics and wise observations.
In one scene, as she prepares for chemotherapy, she and her husband banter about bald being beautiful, naming all the bald celebrities they can conjure up. Gershan jokingly announces she will ask her friends to shave their heads in solidarity with her. "They won't care, they all cover their hair anyway," she said.
Tal said the experience of making the film changed him. "I learned so much from her," he said about Gershan.
He anticipates that the film will resonate with people suffering from cancer, and believes that it will help give them inspiration.
But the film also has a universal appeal although it's about an Orthodox mother from Passaic dealing with cancer. "Anyone facing any kind of hardship needs to examine these same ideas. She gave people a different way of looking at their lives," he said.
"The message of the film is that we make our experience with our colors the way we want it. She was a painter and she was going to paint the picture how she wanted it," said Tal.
"We have no control over what happens to us, but we can elevate our experience."