Rifka Rosenwein ‘kept learning’

Rifka Rosenwein ‘kept learning’

Ten years have gone by since the death of journalist Rifka Rosenwein, a young Teaneck mother of three who shared her family’s joys and challenges in popular “Home Front” columns for The New York Jewish Week.

Aside from journalism, the Ivy League-educated Rosenwein loved Mishnah, the six-section, 63-tractate code of Jewish law that forms the basis of the Talmud. Once a week for 18 years, she studied Mishnah with her friend Judy Heicklen, who moved to Teaneck in 2000 – a year before Rosenwein was diagnosed with cancer.

In commemoration of Rosenwein’s 10th yahrzeit, the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in Manhattan will host a day of learning dedicated to the study of Mishnah. (For more information, see the box.)

Rifka Rosenwein

“Rifka studied here and was actively engaged here,” Drisha’s founder and dean, Rabbi David Silber, said. “In her memory, we want to inspire people to take a second look at Mishnah, arguably the most important Jewish texts that we have in terms of our ongoing interpretive tradition. The study of how Torah is interpreted over time begins with this all-embracing oral tradition of the Jewish people.”

Speakers include Avraham Walfish on “Commandment and Control in Marriage: The Poetics of Mishnah Kiddushin Chapter 1,” Devora Steinmetz on “Mishnah and Memory: An Educational Exploration,” and Eliezer Diamond on “From Cases to Concepts: R. Jose’s Views on Property Rights as Reflected in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmudim.”

Walfish has done groundbreaking work in looking at Mishnah from a literary standpoint, which Silber says “makes the texts much more accessible to the general public. A literary approach shows it’s not just a bunch of laws, but has a certain artistry to it. Many people think Mishnah is dry and don’t appreciate its complexity.”

Rosenwein did appreciate it, long before the literary analysis approach came into vogue. Her weekly studies with Heicklen began in 1985 when the two women – then casual friends living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – discovered they had both bought the new vowelized Pinchas Kehati edition of the third-century compilation, an edition that has become popular worldwide.

“We’d meet after work, and it just blossomed,” Heicklen said. “We found Mishnah very accessible. It’s in Hebrew, as opposed to Aramaic like the Gemara [Talmud]. It really worked for us.”

When Heicklen moved to Tokyo for three years in 1993, and later when she lived in London, she and Rosenwein continued their studies by phone. Marriage and children, careers and other obligations did not keep them from their learning. Neither did cancer.

“Even when she was diagnosed at the end of 2001, we kept learning,” Heicklen said, recalling that some 150 people attended their final siyyum – a celebration marking the completion of a tractate – the Saturday night before Rosenwein died.

Wanting to sponsor something appropriate in her study partner’s memory a year later, Heicklen decided to fund a program in Mishnah at Drisha, where she is a board member. “This is kind of a culmination,” she said of the upcoming yahrzeit commemoration, though the study program will continue.

Rosenwein, who also worked at the Wall Street Journal and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during her career, was married to Barry Lichtenberg and the mother of Akiva, Meir, and Miriam.

“I feel it’s important that Rifka’s yahrzeit be marked with a shared study of Torah, which was integral to her life,” said Lichtenberg, who is remarried and still lives in Teaneck. “Learning Torah together enables one vital connection to Rifka’s spirit to remain. There is a sense of comfort in that this aspect of her legacy continues, and we’re hoping to expand it with this program.”

Lichtenberg expressed appreciation to Heicklen for supporting the Mishnah program in his late wife’s memory, and was actively involved in planning the yahrzeit event at Drisha. “We are looking forward to a wonderful turnout,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for others to learn about Rifka, and for our children to see another facet of their mother coming to life.”

For reservations, email jgolden@drisha.org.

What: Day of study at Drisha, focusing on the Mishnah

Why: To mark Rivka Rosenwein’s 10th yahrzeit

When: Sunday, October 27, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, 37 West 65th Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10023 | 212.595.0307

How much: Free and open to the public

For more information and reservations: jgolden@drisha.org or 212-595-0307

read more: