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This time around we’re taking a look at Cathy Zheutlin’s life before she became the Spiritual Life Coordinator at Cedar Sinai Park. We’re going to hear about her life experiences and how these shaped who she is today.

If you missed Part 1 of this story, be sure to check it out here!

–Gloria Hammer

‘I have always had an interest in making the world a more just place.’
-Cathy Zheutlin

You grew up in Southern California in West Los Angeles; tell us about your family.

I am one of five children. My dad is a radiologist and my mother a nurse but she did not formally work for very long. Once married, she raised five kids and that was her job. I was fortunate to attend grade school and high school in progressive schools, and I got a lot of attention from both teachers and classmates. I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz but dropped out to make movies.

Give us an overview of your early film career.

The Women’s Movement was just beginning to have momentum. I joined a collective of women to make films by and for women. We created a series called “After Sorrow Comes Joy;” these were films about women’s lives. I had access to UC Santa Cruz and public television. We learned how to use the equipment; it was a lot of teaching ourselves. It was empowering. Our programs were about women in the workplace, women and sexuality, women and healthcare, etc.

You moved to Los Angeles…

I went back to LA because I grew up there. My father had invested in someone’s movie and was able to ask for a favor and the favor was to put his daughter on as a production assistant. My job was called a runner. I was asked to go get this and get that. I used my time to hang out with the camera department – that was what I was interested in. The camera department is the first to arrive and last to leave. I learned camera assisting. I then moved to the Bay Area, where I was part of a group of women friends who created a company that produced the very first film festival of films made by women. We also went into producing films ourselves.

Can you tell us what you focused on?

This is in the late 70s. We made a film called In the Best Interest of the Children; it was about lesbian women losing custody of their children based on injustice and prejudice. It was an award-winning film. I worked on several documentaries as a camera assistant or a camerawoman.

In your film career have you worked on any mainstream films?

I worked as a camera operator on the TV show “Murphy Brown.” But, even there I started to push for women’s rights in the camera department. I worked on the award-winning Rosie the Riveter, where I started as a camera assistant and worked my way up to camera operator. This film had mainstream acknowledgement.

Would you call yourself an activist?

I have always had an interest in making the world a more just place. I have had the freedom to be my own editor and work on films that mattered to me: on one hand I have had a smaller audience because my interests were more progressive than the mainstream, On the other hand, I maintained integrity.

As an activist, do you agree that these are the same issues people are still working on?

We have been working on the same issues all our lives and we will continue and our children will continue.

I know recently you produced the award-winning Living While Dying. That was a five-year endeavor, but what earlier film projects do you want to discuss?

There were so many. I was the cameraperson on a film about people who transformed abandoned neighborhoods by squatting in empty houses in Philadelphia. If I hadn’t made that film I never would have met those people.

You mentioned a film, Just One Step. I think you said it was around 1986. Is that when you had transitioned from camera operator?

I made the transition from cameraperson to a director and producer on Just One Step. It was learning by doing or saying yes to things without knowing how challenging and difficult they will turn out to be. I would get in too deep to turn back. I would go forward and just make mistakes and keep going. That seems to be the story of my life.

Just One Step: The Great Peace March took two years. It was nine months of filming. This was a walk with 500 people from LA to Washington D.C. I filmed for nine months, and it took another nine months to raise money and edit the film. While I was editing, a peace march was being organized in the USSR. It was the first Soviet and American peace march. This was when Gorbachev was in power and that kind of thing could happen. Somebody wanted that peace march filmed. I got financing to go and I wanted to go because Russia was the country of my ancestors.

Is this where you met Edis Jurcys, your husband?

Yes, it was a complicated project. Two directors, one Russian and myself – and I did not speak Russian. My future husband was one of the three camera operators on the project. The project included 200 Americans and 200 Soviets. There were eight of us on the film crew.

Most of the American crew were vegetarians and we ate together. Edis, a Lithuanian, also ate with us; it was unusual for a Soviet citizen to be a vegetarian. We spoke the language of film. Edis spoke a little English. I was able to keep the romance going because I went back to the Soviet Union to edit, and back again to show my American film.

You have been married 30 years. Tell us about your family.

We married in Moscow almost two years from when we met. Edis, a talented still photographer, was Roman Catholic, I am Jewish. I wanted to raise my daughter Jewish and I had a conversation with Edis and explained that this was important to me. He said fine. Edis had a daughter, Rasa, who is now a mother of four and a company controller in San Francisco. At age 10, Rasa came to the United States with him. Nine months later, Edis and I had a baby. Teresa is now a kindergarten teacher in San Diego.

Where did you live when you first came to the United States?

We were living in a one bedroom in Santa Monica. We couldn’t afford LA and didn’t like the culture, so we moved to Portland. Twenty-two years ago I joined P’nai Or. I could walk there; they were meeting at a church in my neighborhood.

I became a film teacher but realized I wanted a job that could integrate motherhood and my work. I parted from filmmaking at that time and became a massage therapist. The path of massage took me in the direction of intuitive healing as well as hands-on body mechanics.

What is intuitive healing?

Energy healing stimulates the energy flow in or around a human body to restore balance on all levels, thereby enabling the body to heal itself. It clears blocks and interference from the biofield. People have natural healing. I facilitate that.

You had a Bat Mitzvah at 50? Who had her Bat Mitzvah first, you or your daughter?

When it was time for my daughter to go to Sunday school, she was super shy so I attended with her. I attended a Reform synagogue as a child but as an adult at P’nai Or my understanding of the spiritual foundation of Judaism developed. The rabbi at the time was Aryeh Hirschfield and he offered a class in adult Bat Mitzvah. I signed up.

The rabbi would explain: you’re not coming of age when you have an adult Bat Mitzvah, you are becoming a leader in the congregation, a Jewish leader. That was 20 years ago. Chronologically, I went first. This was before Teresa became 13.

You were serving on the Board of the Congregation at P’nai Or.

Yes, I served on many committees. There was a board meeting I came late to only to find they elected me president in my absence. I said yes before realizing how difficult it would be. Kind of like the Jewish story when Jews got the Torah and we said yes and then we said “tell us how to do what we just said yes to.” My life has been like that … I have served on every committee and still serve.

We should talk about your recent film, Living While Dying. You have been quoted in your film saying, “The art of living well and dying well are one.”

People for the most part are afraid to discuss death. My mother’s partner, Clair, 92 years old, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Clair allowed me to capture what it meant to live each of his final days with heightened awareness. Clair said,” My cancer was a gift.”

What are your thoughts on what you set out to accomplish in this film?

Dying has something to offer the living: the wisdom that comes from the clear, conclusive awareness of what really matters. In exploring the death of several people around the world the documentary focuses on how people choose to live while dying. The process heightens the awareness of what it means to live each day with purpose and joy. My invitation to the audience is to explore a journey of not knowing and being humbled by mystery. Beginning in 2012, this film took me five years to complete.

Congratulations for being chosen in 2018 as an official selection at the Portland Film Festival as well as the Third Action Film Festival. I would think the experiences gained by making your film Living While Dying gave you a wide range of insights for your decision to apply to the job as spiritual life coordinator.

I looked at the application for quite a long time. I didn’t know if I qualified. As a filmmaker, I worked on radio and video projects about inter-spirituality for 10 years with Rabbi Rami Shapiro. I hoped I could take my skills as a producer of films and coordinate Jewish life for this organization. I was very honest in my application letter. They interviewed me and said okay.

If you live into your 80s you will probably face end of life issues. Being an elder means you are in your last chapter. I think my film about facing mortality has been useful preparation for my job and probably influenced my decision to apply.

Gloria Hammer, is an Oregonian and the mother of Jordana and Margot. Their Grandmother, Sadie Feves was dedicated to the Robison Home and Rose Schnitzer. Gloria’s grandchildren, Sadie and Henry, are the light of her life. As an educator, Gloria especially enjoys writing and teaching pilates. She loves spending winters in Palm Springs attending the film festival with her husband Jeff. Producing the film, The Three Rabbis was one of her biggest projects.

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