Balanced Writing (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The dilemmas of American modern- Orthodox Jewish life are searchingly and sensitively explored in this posthumous collection of newspaper columns Rifka Rosenwein was an original. A smart and successful journalist, alumnus of Barnard and Harvard, proud modern-Orthodox Jew, feminist, suburban mom, she lived, and wrote about, these intersecting - and not easily synthesized - experiences with insight, precision, humanity, humor, deep feeling and style. The rare and remorseless cancer which ended her life in the fall of 2003, at the age of 42, stilled a unique and precious voice. Rifka wrote for a range of publications - the Wall Street Journal, Manhattan Lawyer and Brill's Content - was New York editor at Inc., managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and was appointed editor of American Demographics just a few weeks before receiving her diagnosis. And for seven years, from 1996 until her death, she wrote a monthly column for The Jewish Week, America's largest Jewish newspaper. Titled "The Home Front," her column aimed to record the experiences and reflections of a well-educated suburban Jewish soccer mom (the suburb in question here is Teaneck, New Jersey). Yet, as Robert Goldblum, the Jewish Week's managing editor, notes in his sensitive introduction to this volume, "in many ways Rifka transcended the formula," not only in the strength and wit of her voice, which put into words the experience of a generation of second- and third-generation Jewish young adults, but also in the way her column became an exercise in contemporary history, as she registered significant currents of change, like the emergence of Orthodox feminism and the evolution of the Holocaust's presence in American Jewish life. We used to joke that she was "the Jewish Anna Quindlen," yet in these columns, even at their funniest or most prosaic, the farther longings and darker memories of Jewishness are never far behind. Now some sixty of Rifka's columns have been gathered and reprinted in a wonderfully engaging volume, "Life in the Present Tense," published by Ben Yehuda Press, a new and adventuresome publishing house founded by the Jewish Internet legend and culture maven Larry Yudelson. I cannot pretend to objectivity here. Rifka was a close friend; we grew up in the same shul in the same neighborhood, the pre-gentrified Upper West Side of the 1960s and 70s; the West Side was always a great neighborhood, then as now. In those years, though, it was - like the rest of New York - a grittier place, and home to a stunning variety of ethnicities and classes, closer to the working class liberalism of the old left, closer to the European - and regularly tragic - pasts of many of the neighborhood's denizens. Much of that background left its mark on Rifka's writing, in her fierce sense of community and place, in her mix of the cerebral and streetwise, her humor, lucidity and down-to-earth humanity. In her first column, she wrote, "Judaism - and parenting - are in the details." A few years later she wrote, of her personal boycott of German goods, "sometimes, mourning is in the details." And, indeed, much of this collection moves between these two vectors, parenting and mourning, in particular mourning the Holocaust (Rifka's father was a Holocaust survivor, as well as a Yiddish journalist) and more recent Jewish sorrows. Yet through a focus on the details, of her children's lives and the lives of the community around her, of the precise ways in which the darker sides of Jewish fate register in our lives, and of the course of her own illness, and the myriad acts of kindness her illness elicited in others, Rifka is able to weave in the end a fabric rich in hope. That first essay, a gem "On Marrying Jessica," may become a classic of American-Jewish writing. The would-be bride of the title is her 4-year-old son's non-Jewish classmate. His announcement of his intentions leads Rifka to a wry meditation on where to draw the line of Jewish particularism, at preschool, high school, and of "teaching my children the American Jewish walk, the tightrope act that somehow allows for remaining open to the society around us while preserving the Jewishness within us." (This particular affair of the heart, Rifka writes, was short-lived. "Apparently, Jessica has decided she doesn't play with boys anymore. And my son has returned to his trucks, at least for now.") That is not the only tightrope act in the book. Rifka details, with precision and humor, the endless trade-offs of work and parenting, added to which is the loneliness of being an Orthodox woman professional, a nearly undreamed of role. While Betty Friedan's Second Stage was published in 1981, Orthodox feminists were, as a group, barely entering their first stage. This volume will offer future historians a marvelous picture of what it was like to live through the Orthodox feminist revolution. Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.