French Jewish singer dies after 8-year battle with cancer

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Sylvie Braitman wanted to live, and so she pushed her cancer out of the way.

And for eight years, the San Francisco performer did just that, until “the queen of the comeback,” as one friend called her, couldn’t fight the disease anymore. She died Nov. 10 at age 50.

“Most people would have just given up, but she didn’t,” said Eileen Morris, a friend of Braitman.

When Braitman needed a wheelchair, she continued to direct plays and sing on stage. She threw a 50th birthday party this summer with a live band and hula dance lessons for her guests.

“Every time we’d talk, it would be this real kick in the pants, like — this is how you’re supposed to live,” Morris said. “She really figured it out.”

Braitman was born in France to nonobservant Jewish parents. She studied law and political science in college, then became a sound engineer, as there were few women in the field at the time.

She and her husband, Philippe Chourak, visited San Francisco in 1985 and relocated here soon after. They had two children, Maissa and Reuben, now 19 and 17 years old, respectively.

Music was her first love, and she studied voice at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1994.

She performed at venues throughout the Bay Area, like San Francisco’s Thick House and Petaluma’s Cinnabar Opera Theater, and at community events like the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley. She sang in French, Yiddish and English.

She also wrote, directed and performed original pieces of theater, among them, the one-woman show “My Father’s Journey,” about her father’s life; “Longing for the Land,” a mini-chronicle of the early years of Zionism, and “Long Live Life … Theresienstadt 1941-45,” a cabaret-style compilation of music written and sung in the concentration camp.

At that point, in 2001, “she was in paralyzing pain and she still directed it and sang in it. That was Sylvie,” said Eleanor Shapiro, director of the Jewish Music Festival.

“I never knew anybody to fight for life as much as she did,” Shapiro added. “She was an incredible fighter. And she fought through music. Music really kept her alive … She had an incredible will to survive.”

She recovered from that low point, said Jane Merschen, another friend. It was one of many downs, followed by an upswing.

“Being in a wheelchair didn’t stop her. It was amazing how she bounced back from that. Part of me thought she’d bounce back this time, too,” Merschen said.

Friends unanimously described her as honest, brave and kind. They said her tenacity and relentless willpower inspired all around her.

She had a sly sense of humor and “could do a lot with just an eyebrow,” Morris recalled.

“She carried herself like she knew the answers to everyone’s problems,” Merschen said. “And she was never afraid to talk about her inner problems. A lot of us hide behind masks, but she didn’t.”

Braitman’s family kept kosher and regularly attended Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

Rabbi Alan Lew counseled and prayed with Braitman throughout her illness. He said she interpreted her cancer in an unusual way: She saw it as the result of how her parents suppressed any mention of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of many of her relatives, including her grandparents. “She was quite extraordinary,” he said. They often talked about spirituality and Jewish living.

“I feel a connection to Judaism,” Braitman told j. two years ago. “It is a joy, a religion full of life.”

She is survived by her husband, Phillippe, daughter Maissa and son Reuben.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.