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OBITUARIES | Joseph N. Feinstein, 1933 - 2008

Teacher was host of 'Teen Talk'

June 02, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Joseph N. Feinstein was a champion of the idea that education should address young people's hearts as well as their intellect.

He developed the first class in Los Angeles city schools designed to help students deal with death and other forms of loss. In the 1980s, Feinstein was host of an award-winning television talk show that allowed teenagers to tackle tough social and family issues.

Decades later, the harvest of his idea stood before him. One of Feinstein's former students, now a social worker specializing in geriatrics, tended to him in a skilled nursing facility.

"His class had such an impact on me," Jill Spector said. "When I look back on it, it's one of the main reasons I went into social work."

Feinstein, who taught at Grant High School in Van Nuys for more than 30 years and was a talk-show host for nine, died of heart failure May 24 at Kaiser Permanente Panorama City Medical Center. He was 74.

Beyond the generations he taught at Grant, Feinstein reached many more students and their parents over the airwaves. During its height, "Teen Talk" aired Saturday mornings on Channel 9 and featured youth talking about issues that included divorce, turning 13, drugs, class clowns, AIDS and incest.

With his training as a child counselor, years of teaching experience and natural affinity for the age group many parents dread most, Feinstein was the perfect host.

"He would look at you and listen to you and get what you were saying," Spector said. "So you wanted to talk to him, you wanted to spill your guts, because you knew you had somebody who was going to genuinely listen."

Authenticity mattered to Feinstein, who also co-produced the show, selected the topics and often found young people willing to talk on air. "Teen Talk" promised the straight talk teens appreciate: "No baloney, no hiding, no copping out," he said in a 1986 Times article.

Feinstein taped 237 editions of the show, which ran from 1981 until 1990 and received four local Emmy Awards for children's programming. Feinstein also won a local Emmy as co-producer of a documentary on incest.

After Walt Disney Co. purchased the station, "Teen Talk" was canceled, along with other public affairs shows. Feinstein warned that the action would have long-term consequences.

"We will pay for our neglect of our young people in more prisons, more defacing of public property," he said in a 1991 Times article. " . . . You can't silence these kids. They will just express themselves in a much more hostile way if you don't give their feelings and opinions a good airing."

Walt Baker, who was program director at Channel 9, had tapped Feinstein to create the show because of the teacher's innovative high school classes. In addition to teaching social studies, he presented a course called "Death and Living." Feinstein was so taken with the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist and author of the seminal 1969 study "On Death and Dying," he developed a class based on it, said his wife, Fran Feinstein.

"He went to his principal three different semesters. The principal said, 'No, no,' " then finally agreed, Feinstein's wife said.

In Feinstein's classroom, talking about death was not taboo. Students addressed their fears and misconceptions. They listened to speakers, including paramedics, cancer patients and mortuary directors. They visited a cemetery. They wrote their own obituaries.

The class taught teenagers that death will come, that life is to be appreciated and enjoyed. The class also taught Feinstein.

"I've been a teacher for 21 years," Feinstein said in a 1978 Times article, "and with this class, I've come to the conclusion that schools are interested in the wrong part of the students' anatomy; there's too much attention given to their intellectual side and not enough to what's going on inside their hearts."

Born Nov. 3, 1933, in Bronx, N.Y., Feinstein was one of two children born to his mother, who was a housewife, and his father, who worked in retail. In 1955, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in history from Hunter College. The next year he married Fran and began teaching high school.

In 1961, Feinstein earned a master's of education from UCLA and later obtained a counseling credential from USC.

Feinstein also was a marriage, family and child therapist in private practice in Sherman Oaks.

After retiring from teaching, he became director of mental health services at Wilkinson Multipurpose Senior Center in Northridge, where he helped older people deal with grief and issues related to aging.

But the students he taught were his pride.

"After 30 years we couldn't go anywhere without 'kids' who are now 50 years old coming up to him," his wife said. "He really made his mark."

In addition to his wife, Feinstein is survived by a daughter, Susie Roberts of Beverly Hills; a son, Brad Feinstein of Albuquerque; a sister, Seena Levine of Spring Valley, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps Rabbi Alfred Wolf Scholarship Fund, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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