Berkeley educator, Olympic torchbearer dies at 31

During the 1984 Olympics, Ilan Biederman was so in awe of Greg Louganis that, in an attempt to copy one of his medal-winning dives, he broke his nose.

Always the athlete, Biederman finally did participate in the Olympics — but not in the way he had planned. Three months after carrying the Olympic torch through Oakland, Biederman died of a spinal disease in Los Angeles on April 1. The Berkeley resident was 31.

For 10 years, Biederman had been fighting osteoblastoma, a rare disease in which recurrent tumors appear on the spinal column.

He was born in Argentina in 1971, and was raised in Los Angeles, where he attended a Jewish day school.

According to younger sister Yael of Berkeley, he was full of energy and loved the outdoors. He also was extremely athletic, and had no fear — on the ski slopes, or anywhere. A "hotshot on skis," she called him.

He loved most sports, especially mountain biking and Frisbee golf.

Biederman's illness started with back pain during college that was treated by anti-inflammatory drugs.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, he enrolled in Tel Aviv's Sackler School of Medicine. While there, he needed his first and second surgeries. Soon after, he had to drop out.

During the last 10 years, Biederman underwent numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. He was operated on 14 times, replacing body parts with hardware and screws.

Nevertheless, said his sister, "his response to it was very much not 'why me?' and self-pity. He responded with optimism and was determined to beat this thing."

In 1997, he attended a Shabbat dinner at the home of Anna Dinaburg, a friend of a friend. Two years later, they went out on a date and immediately fell in love.

"Our first date was in August, and we moved in together in December," said Dinaburg, also of Berkeley. On Aug. 7, 2000, the one-year anniversary of their first date, they became engaged. At that time, "he had sailed through his ninth major spinal reconstructive surgery and was doing well. He was on top of the world." No one suspected the disease might be fatal.

Biederman was studying for a master's degree in education, but he had to drop out. He also taught Hebrew school at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom.

In March 2001, Biederman had two more rounds of surgery. When he woke up from his 11th operation, he could not feel his legs.

"Even though the whole family had been through this with him, it was devastating," said Dinaburg. Her sister, Alissa Stolz of Seattle, was the one who nominated Biederman to carry the Olympic torch, and on Jan. 18, he did so, with Dinaburg pushing his wheelchair.

Biederman told the Jewish Bulletin that he gained inspiration to fight his ordeal from his grandparents, all Holocaust survivors.

"This tumor changed my life — it changed who I am," he said in January. "It has made me appreciate life much more fully, and it gave me this attitude that I have to really enjoy and make the most of each day."

On Biederman's 31st birthday, March 7, he and Dinaburg exchanged rings, though there was no rabbi and no one else present. Both she and his family considered them to be married. Dinaburg had quit her job at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay to take care of him full time in the last year.

His sister said Biederman transcended cliques and was well-liked by everyone.

"He was really brave in the simplest way — of being connected and unembarrassed about the fact that he was sick," said Dinaburg. "He had a high level of self-confidence, and people were so drawn to him, even as he was dying."

Biederman is also survived by his parents, Leon and Aviva Biederman, and grandparents Cela and Lazaro Dunkelman, all of Los Angeles. Send donations to the Ilan Biederman Memorial Fund, Camp Ramah, 15600 Mulholland Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90077.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."