The first time I really traveled on my own was the year after college. Feeling restless, I enrolled in language school in Bologna, Italy, packed my yellow backpack and set off.
Except I had a story to file for Elicia Brown, my editor at The Jewish Week, to whom I hadn’t mentioned anything about my trip. She was exceptionally patient when I explained that I was actually six time zones to the east, and that computer access was spottier than I’d imagined it would be (in Italy, all too often, it still is). I have a mortifying memory of faxing several pages of handwritten copy.
Amazingly, she kept giving me assignments when I returned some months later. For the next several years, I was her Queens correspondent, roaming around a borough I barely knew with a road atlas on the passenger seat of my Civic. Those peregrinations around the polyglot enclaves of Rego Park and the Rockaways proved no less of an adventure than my sojourn through the canals of northern Italy.
Elicia was my first editor, a fellow Columbia University alum and New Yorker. And throughout my turbulent 20s, Elicia offered something of a road atlas by her own example. A longtime Upper West Sider, Elicia embraced Judaism, journalism, family and motherhood with the kind of unambivalent relish I envied during years of itinerancy and searching, both literal and metaphorical.
Queens was Elicia’s home borough, and as with so many other things, she was an insightful guide. She knew that tucked amid the byzantine highway interchanges were scrumptious bakeries and ornate temple sanctuaries — if I could just figure out whether to make a left on whichever-numbered drive, street, place, court or circle before landing, whoops, back on the Belt Parkway.
So many cities have fascinating Jewish stories lurking in neighborhoods a visitor, or even a local, might overlook.
Together, we sought out compelling Jewish stories from a borough in flux: Uzbek oud virtuosi, Farsi social clubs, Soviet chess grandmasters, German postwar entrepreneurs, chasidic pioneers, Israeli falafel vendors and many, many Holocaust survivors.
New York was far more Manhattan-centric then, especially for tourists. While our work was entirely local, what I learned from Elicia has informed my travel reporting ever since: So many cities have fascinating Jewish stories lurking in neighborhoods a visitor, or even a local, might overlook.
And no place epitomized the churning dynamism of urban neighborhoods more than Queens, then and now. Chinese restaurants and Indian temples sprouted as the Reform and Conservative synagogues of Elicia’s childhood, built by upwardly mobile Jewish families in the suburban era, struggled to hold on.
Fresh waves of newcomers— many of them Orthodox, others Israeli or Central Asian — revived Jewish life in the borough, reminding us that to know a city is to look beyond its heritage and monuments to the vitality of its ever-changing present. That perspective seems obvious at home, but often eludes the traveler.
“Hello, hello,” sang Elicia’s voice on my answering machine when I’d get in from a trip to Forest Hills or France, always ready to hear about my adventures and hash over a story. Elicia had the biggest, warmest smile you ever saw, and it came through loud and clear in her voicemail.
To know a city is to look beyond its heritage and monuments to the vitality of its ever-changing present.
None of us who knew her can believe that smile is gone. She was a few years older than I, which is to say that she died shockingly young, at 48, of ovarian cancer last month.
One year, I came back from Seville to news of Elicia’s wedding plans involving what some of her relatives referred to as “a lady rabbi,” a phrase that sent us into feminist giggles.
A few years after she married Jeremy Pomeroy, the happy pair gamely schlepped to dinner at my Hamptons winter sublet. I remember being amused when Elicia, heavily pregnant, fell asleep on my couch while I cooked.
Motherhood was a land I had yet to visit. But like so many others, I was inspired by her probing, deeply felt columns on Jewish family life, rich with observations that lingered in the mind long after you read them.
The most useful piece of advice on writing I’ve ever received came from Elicia. I’ve long since forgotten the topic, but her words have stuck with me: “I think you should try paying more attention to the very first and very last sentence of your stories.”
That counsel made me a better writer. Adopted as a metaphor, it made me a better traveler, too. From the widespread tributes circulating in the wake of Elicia’s death — including the recent Rockower Award honoring a December 2016 essay about her cancer — it is evident that her premature final chapter, like all the others, followed her own wise, wonderful advice.