One of life’s many mysteries is how it can be that we are all equal, but some of us stand out.
Another one of those mysteries is why some people die far too young, and yet another is how their survivors deal with the gaping new hole in their lives.
Rifka Rosenwein’s life illuminates all these mysteries.
Ms. Rosenwein, who lived in Teaneck, died 20 years ago, at 42. She will be remembered with one of her favorite things, Mishna study, by her family and friends, as well as by people who regret never having met her, at her shul, Congregation Rinat Yisrael, on Sunday, November 5. (See below.)
There is no question that Ms. Rosenwein was an extraordinary person.
Her father was a Holocaust survivor, so she grew up knowing that life was uncertain, that fear, grief, and rage were unavoidable, and that Jews weren’t necessarily safe in a safe-seeming world. She also grew up with talent and ambition.
She became a journalist, as her father had been before the war; after graduating from Ramaz, Barnard, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she had a stellar career. She interviewed Natan Sharansky when she was in her mid 20s. She wrote groundbreaking pieces of financial journalism for the Wall Street Journal; she also wrote some of those eccentric front-page stories that give the otherwise charmless Journal very real oddball charm. She had a great career as a financial journalist, as a legal journalist, and as managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
She married Barry Lichtenberg, a lawyer, and they moved to Teaneck so their three young children could have room to play, access to the outdoors, and a home in a flourishing modern Orthodox community. That’s when Ms. Rosenwein began to write the columns for which she’s probably best remembered today. The columns, called Home Front, ran in the Jewish Week; some of them since have been gathered into an anthology, “Life in the Present Sense.” They’re beautifully written, emotionally wise, and intellectually honest; in many ways the world has changed greatly in the last 20 years, but the columns are too present to appear as relics of a long-ago time. They’re far too vivid for that.
“Recently I went to someone’s house and there still was a yellowing article of Rifka’s on the refrigerator,” Mr. Lichtenberg said. “It was about how important it is to keep kids’ drawings, projects, whatever.” And in a way his friends were doing the same thing, holding on to something important to them: Rifka’s words.
As much as Ms. Rosenwein didn’t want to move from the city to the suburbs, her book traces the evolution of her feeling toward Teaneck. She came to appreciate the closeness of the community, while not losing her awareness of the downsides of that closeness. And as her illness progressed, both she and her family were comforted by the enveloping warmth in which Teaneck in general and their own corner of it, Rinat, surrounded them.
No one could keep Rifka safe, but the community protected her family.
Rifka Rosenwein and Barry Lichtenberg had three children, Akiva, Meir, and Miriam, who was just 7 when her mother died. “The kids read her book like it’s canon,” their father said. It’s a way to keep hearing their mother’s voice. “It’s really like they get wisdom from it. They read it and reread it and they can recite from it.”
In 2006, Mr. Lichtenberg remarried. Sandee Brawarsky and Rifka Rosenwein were good friends; after Ms. Brawarsky treated Ms. Rosenwein with great kindness and unobtrusive sensitivity toward the end of her life, she suggested that her husband consider marrying her friend, whom he did not know. But Ms. Rosenwein knew both her husband and her friend very well. The match took. And ever since, Sandee and Barry have modeled a life that allows for both old and new love, for deep memory and forward movement.
Mr. Lichtenberg has marked Rifka’s yahrzeit with a program every year, he said. Sometimes they’ve been small, just for family and close friends. Other years have seen bigger gatherings. This year’s program is the most ambitious yet.
Judy Heicklen of Teaneck, a past president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, was Ms. Rosenwein’s chavruta — her study partner — for 18 years. Out of that intellectual relationship a deep, time-and-space-defying bond developed.
“I started learning Mishna with Rifka in 1985,” Ms. Heicklen said. They were acquaintances rather than friends then, but “we started learning together, and it was magic.”
The friendship blossomed. “We were incredibly close friends,” she said. “Literally, we spoke every week for 18 years. I moved overseas, and we would learn by phone. We went through jobs, we went through boyfriends, she got married, she had kids, she moved to Riverdale, I moved to London. We kind of grew together, from our early 20s until our early 40s.”
They studied Mishna. “We were very public about our learning,” she continued. “It wasn’t something that a lot of other women did, but it just worked for us.
“Mishna is really accessible. You don’t have to know Aramaic, you just need a decent understanding of Hebrew; you could learn, and it would be relevant to your life right now.”
Her friend “had such an influence on the larger community,” she continued. “Her columns resonated with people. She was down to earth. She talked about the little things, and they rang true.
“She had a lot of fortitude in facing her illness. She was bright. She was funny. She had a real can-do attitude.” And that’s why she’s remembered so vividly, 20 years later.
Ms. Heicklen has supported the Rifka Rosenwein Mishnah Project at Drisha; it’s cosponsoring the program with Rinat. Drisha’s founder, Rabbi David Silber, will give the keynote talk.
Miriam Lichtenberg is a rabbinical student at Hadar, the traditional egalitarian school that’s just begun ordaining rabbis. She’s in its first cohort.
She’ll facilitate text study, “Responding to Absence: An Exploration of Mishnah Taanit.”
“It’s really an honor to teach in my mother’s memory,” she said.
It’s particularly moving to do so at Rinat,” she added. “I was so young that I wasn’t there for this, but Judy and my mom made their last siyyum in Rinat. And now, 20 years later, I’m teaching in that community.
“And it’s also an honor because as my mom talks about in her book, and I know to be true for my own lived experience, when I was growing up, that community was the village that helped my family through my mom’s sickness and then especially in the immediate aftermath of her death.
“I see my passion for wanting to be deeply immersed in a text downstream from her passion for text. It flows from that same place. So to get to teach Torah, something she especially treasured, it’s pretty cool.”
Ms. Lichtenberg feels that she’s taking the next logical steps on the path her mother first explored.
“My mom was very into women’s tefillah; she described it in her own words in her book. She loved learning with Judy, and she wondered aloud if her grandparents and great-grandparents ever could have imagined that she, as a woman, would have a longstanding chevruta.” Now, her daughter has the next steps on that path.
She plans to teach about continuity and loss. The writers of the Mishna lived in the post-Temple world, much as they hated to admit it. They looked backward and forward.
Both for the rabbis in the Mishna and for Ms. Lichtenberg, it’s a constant tension.
“Even though I’m trying to build something that is continuous from this world, I can’t let it go,” she said. “It’s always going to be a part of me. I’m proud of who I am, and I think that who I am is in large part because of her and also in large part because of the way that my family has moved forward.”
The family also includes Akiva, a medical resident in a joint program in psychology and neurology, his wife, Tova Reiter, and their baby, Rivital. “Her name means ‘overflowing with dew,’” Mr. Lichtenberg said. And there’s also Meir, an accountant specializing in international tax law.
Talking to Miriam and Barry Lichtenberg and Judy Heicklen brings the Jewish cemetery cliché to mind. “May they be bound into the bond of life,” someone will intone at a funeral. But it’s true for Rifka Rosenwein. She was so vivid a person that it’s easy to imagine her being braided into a long plait, sparkling brightly, among the Jewish people.
Who: Rifka Rosenwein
What: Is remembered by her community on her 20th yahrzeit in a program called Mishna and Renewal
When: On Sunday, November 5, from 9 a.m. to noon
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck;
it also will be Zoomed
Sponsored by: Rinat and Drisha’s ongoing Rifka Rosenwein Mishnah Project.
For more information and the Zoom link: Email email@example.com.