Almost a decade ago, before Facebook enabled us to be friends with people we’d never met, before blogs gave us front-row seats into the intimate lives of strangers, I was friends with Rifka Rosenwein.
She didn’t know me, although my name might have seemed vaguely familiar to her since, like her, I was a journalist and we’d worked with many of the same people. Our lives were very different — she was 10 years older than me and raising three children in the Modern Orthodox suburb of Teaneck, N.J., whereas I was intermarried, childless and living in Jackson Heights.
Nonetheless, on the weeks her column ran in The Jewish Week it was the first thing I turned to. I enjoyed her honest, detailed and often self-deprecatingly hilarious observations about balancing career, kids, Judaism and secular life. As an aspiring columnist myself — I started my Jewish Week column, “In The Mix,” almost exactly a decade after “The Home Front” debuted — I admired how Rifka’s pieces packed a world of meaning into 800 words, hooking the reader from the first line.
(In writing about Rifka, I feel compelled to break from our style of referring to people by their last name; for someone who wrote in such an informal and personal manner, the formal custom just seems too awkward.)
Although we’d never met, I found myself crying when she was diagnosed with, and ultimately succumbed to, cancer. And although I’d never met her husband, Barry Lichtenberg, I wept a year after her death when he wrote about the family’s trip to Israel to visit her grave.
In a way, Rifka and I had met many times — more than 60, to be exact, in her columns, which were open and casual enough to feel almost like personal letters.
Now, four years after Rifka’s premature death at the age of 42, a collection of her columns have been published in “Life in the Present Tense” (Ben Yehuda Press), with a foreword by novelist Tova Mirvis and an introduction by Jewish Week Managing Editor Rob Goldblum.
By and large, the columns in “Present Tense,” some more than 10 years old, retain their power. If anything, they may have become more moving since their original publication because, like the diary of Anne Frank and other memoirs by writers whose lives were tragically cut short, we read them with the knowledge and dread of what awaits. It’s hard not to read foreshadowing into columns, such as “The Mourning Never Stops” — where Rifka, reflecting on mothers whose children have died, writes “a child lost is a child lost. He or she is irreplaceable.” Likewise, it’s hard not to find it chilling when, in June 2001 — a few months before being diagnosed with cancer — she writes, “If I have, in a best-case scenario, reached the middle of my life, then that means that half my life is over. Now if that’s not enough to give one pause, I don’t know what is.”
Ironically, despite the tragic circumstances and the fact that several of Rifka’s later columns directly address her losing struggle with cancer, much of the book is quite entertaining. And many of her observations hold just as true today for a liberal Jewish mom living in Queens as they did for an Orthodox one in New Jersey.
Having myself struggled considerably with decisions of how much to work and how much to spend time with my children, I nodded knowingly upon reading of Rifka’s “preoccupation — no, I’d say an obsession — with the lives of other women,” and I identified with her self-criticism for “ending up in front of the VCR with take-out Chinese food” instead of working on some scholarly treatise or project for her kids.
Perhaps because my pre-K daughter is already “engaged” to her classmate and neighbor, Milo, I particularly loved Rifka’s debut column, “On Marrying Jessica,” about her 4-year-old son’s proposal to a non-Jewish classmate. The piece deftly explores her ambivalence about sending her son to a pluralistic, as opposed to Orthodox, nursery school, but as with all of Rifka’s columns, the big issues are always grounded in humor and in the tangible details: her son’s reverence for “particularly awesome trucks,” the experience of “putting matzah in your kid’s lunchbox at Passover, knowing full well that most of the other children will be having their regular peanut butter sandwiches.”
Later, in “The Gender Thing,” she tells, in the straightforward, deadpan style that is her hallmark, how her daughter “picked up a rather large toy dump truck, examined it thoughtfully and then proceeded to cradle it in her arms, the way one would with a baby.” From there, she muses about stereotypes and Orthodox feminism.
As my two daughters are just starting to play together, I was especially fond of “His Brother’s Keeper,” where Rifka muses about her children’s relationships with each other, noting that, “After 8 p.m., it seems, we are leading parallel lives. My husband and I will be downstairs eating a late dinner and filling each other in on our day, while my children are upstairs in their room, discussing how their own days are filled.”
Rifka’s pieces work for me when they touch the universal middle-class American Jewish mom experiences with which I identify, but they also work when she addresses experiences that are foreign to me: her background as a child of Holocaust survivors, her strict observance of Shabbat and Passover and, of course, her perspective as a terminally ill patient living “on cancer time” and gratified by the assistance that pours in from her tight-knit community.
“I left my beloved New York City for this New Jersey village eight years ago, kicking and screaming all the way about the horrors of living in a close-knit, homogenous suburb where everybody knows your business,” she writes. “Well, all I can say is, thank God for this close-knit, homogenous suburb where everyone knows your business.”
Just as they work for me, I think others of widely disparate backgrounds — whether Orthodox or secular or not Jewish at all — will relate to these columns. So I am glad “Life in the Present Tense” is out there and am confident it will give loyal readers a chance to reunite with Rifka while introducing a new generation to her life, engaging writing and still-quite-relevant observations.
However, I did find the arrangement of the essays confusing. I understand the editors’ desire to group the work thematically, rather than chronologically, but I wish the three sections — “The Home Front,” “Musings on Holidays and Faith” and “The View from Here” were explained better. More importantly, I wish the editors had at least placed the columns chronologically within the three sections and had included a photo of her.
On a more superficial note, the low-budget quality and sloppy proofreading gives this book something of a self-published feel. Which is a shame because Rifka — a longtime staffer for The Wall Street Journal — was a talented, top-notch professional deserving of something classier.
Nonetheless, in this day of viral marketing and the Internet, her words can transcend these limitations. And let’s hope, many, many people add her to their list of friends.