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Journalist Rifka Rosenwein dies at 42

NEW YORK, Nov. 19 (JTA) — Rifka Rosenwein, a journalist whose monthly column in the New York Jewish Week over the last seven years chronicled her personal life as a suburban wife and mother — and eventually her battle against a rare form of cancer — died Tuesday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. She was 42. Rosenwein, who lived in Teaneck, N.J., was a writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal, Brill’s Content and Inc. magazines. She also served for several years as the managing editor of the JTA. She slowed down her freelance writing after she became ill nearly two years ago in order to devote more time to her recovery. But she managed to find the energy recently to collaborate with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the prominent Jerusalem scholar and author, on a biography of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The biography is slated to be published next year. In May 1996, with her column titled “Home Front,” Rosenwein inaugurated The Jewish Week’s weekly Back of the Book series of rotating authors. Her first piece, “On Marrying Jessica,” described her child’s first notice of the opposite sex. “My four-year-old son announced his first marriage proposal the other day,” she wrote. Later columns focused on such issues as Jewish holidays, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Rosenwein’s return to her family’s hometown in Europe. Her columns often touched deep generational chords with baby boomers. Then, in February 2002, Rosenwein was told, “You’ve got cancer.” “They are words none of us is ever prepared to hear,” she wrote. “I certainly wasn’t. With these words, my life as I knew it ended.” Rosenwein shared the vagaries of the disease, her uncertainty about the future and how cancer colored every subsequent family event and holiday for the last year and a half. “I am on cancer time,” she wrote after Purim 2002. “I can no longer peer down the road and look forward to the Bar Mitzvahs, the graduations, the career highlights, the new kitchen.” Her last column, “A Tale Of Two Cities,” on Sept. 5, talked about Teaneck. “I knew it would be a great place to raise my kids and live a Modern Orthodox lifestyle,” she wrote. After her diagnosis, “a whole new town opened up to me” — a community that reached out to her family, supported the unemployed, recited Psalms for the ill and brought her food. “These are the very same people who take care of their families, pursue their careers and carpool to soccer,” she wrote. The Jewish Week’s managing editor, Robert Goldblum, said that during her illness, “Rifka’s column was remarkable for its honesty and lack of sentimentality.” “She wrestled with God right in front of our eyes, and she tried to live a day at a time, continuing to create memories for her children and telling them, through her columns, a little about her past,” he said. “The image I’ll always hold of her, from a column about her son coming home humming a Beatles tune, is Rifka yanking her kids off the couch to dance to some Fab Four tunes,” Goldblum said. When her husband, Barry, came home from work, she wrote, “I pulled him onto my makeshift dance floor and twirled him around to the tune of ‘Eight Days a Week.’ ” Like all good columnists, Goldblum said, Rosenwein “deeply touched her readers.” “When she missed a column here and there during the course of her illness, we would routinely get calls at the paper asking why she hadn’t appeared in her regular first-week-of-the-month slot,” he said. “I came to realize that readers weren’t calling simply to ask about her column. They were calling to find out if she was okay.” Once a year, Rosenwein surrendered her space in The Jewish Week to her husband, Barry Lichtenberg, who wrote about the family’s life from his perspective. His column last month, titled “A Yom Kippur Prayer,” was about his wife. “Your wife is ill and you have to get out of bed,” Lichtenberg wrote. “One week you’re bicycling with your wife and kids, the next week she is in surgery.” “Your wife is ill and you turn to and against God,” he wrote. “Your wife is ill and melancholy creeps into your soul . . . Your wife is ill and you clutch at scraps of normality . . . Your wife is ill and you find solace in quiet and discrete moments scattered among chaotic days . . . Your wife is ill and you worry.” “My wife is ill and Yom Kippur approaches,” he wrote. Rosenwein attended the Ramaz day school in Manhattan, Barnard College, the Michlala Seminary in Jerusalem and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In addition to her husband, she is survived by children Akiva, 12, Meir, 10, and Miriam, 7; her mother, Blanche Rosenwein of New York; and a brother, Moshe Rosenwein of Springfield, N.J. Earlier this month, Rosenwein spoke at the funeral of her father, a Holocaust survivor, about what it means to be a survivor. This week, Rosenwein’s own body was flown to Israel for burial. Before the High Holidays last year, Rosenwein wrote, “As I enter these days of awe, I am of course praying for a refuah shelaimah — a complete recovery — for myself and for many others who have taken ill. And I am praying for peace in Israel and here in the United States and an end to all the bloodshed. “Though I have asked God repeatedly ‘Why me?’ I understand that the real question is ‘Why not me?’ ” she wrote. “Tragedy strikes so many people, many more meritorious than I, so why not me?”