A prolific writer, Sylvia Rothchild used both fiction and nonfiction to explore the complex interactions of American and Jewish cultures and identities among the descendants of Jews who arrived in the United States during the great wave of eastern European immigration in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Among the first writers to reshape for a general readership materials from oral histories collected from Holocaust survivors and emigrés from the Soviet Union, she devoted much of her writing and lecturing to conveying individuals' experiences of some of the great historical watersheds in modern Jewish life. Read Judith Kates's full article on Sylvia Rothchild in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
March 1, 2009 ~ A Remembrance of Sylvia Rothchild
by Alice Rothchild
Today is the second day of the rest of our lives.
Ten days ago, you danced at my party,
With willful determination and a touch of vertigo.
Sporting enormous, dazzling earrings,
You mingled with guests and friends,
Engaging in the conversations and complaints of the living.
A day later, your spirit soared with Rachmaninoff.
During intermission, you snuck defiantly off
For a forbidden brownie and chips,
Hungry for more easy pleasures.
Four days later, I walked the ghost rooms
Of your memory laden house.
The kitchen table cluttered with checks, written, unsent,
Letters to answer, papers to read,
Plants expectantly waiting for water.
Thirteen messages blinked on your answering machine.
A tree service,
A man eager to tell you about a music festival on Cape Cod,
Bamboozled friends and relations,
Unable to figure out the date of your surgery,
Because you couldn't figure it out either.
Or perhaps you just wanted to keep everyone guessing.
A life interrupted.
You lived and died
By the power of your brain.
You still had plans.
A memoir to finish,
Friends to comfort,
A d'var torah to write,
Yiddish songs to sing.
A trip to sun yourself on the deck,
With the bay glistening in the warm embrace,
Of the curved brown arm of Provincetown beaches.
When we returned from your last emergency room visit,
With your fractured pelvis, you remarked,
"Well, I guess I won't be driving again."
Your stubbornness was legendary.
Eighty-six years ago, you first emerged, a thorny blossom,
From the tangled knot
Of your immigrant parents.
Rebel, troublemaker, doubter.
Imagine, the daughter of a mother who could not read,
Aspiring to be a writer,
Majoring in chemistry.
At sixteen, you fell for a handsome, smart, musical guy,
Who, in your own words, "was a lousy boyfriend,
But a wonderful husband."
You were lucky,
So was he.
Bright, creative, curious, adventuresome, talented,
Fellow travelers yearning to flee.
You read Thoreau's Walden Pond,
And dreamed of living in some small New England town,
Where you fell in love with kale, asparagus, and corn,
A community orchestra, oil painting, Hadassah,
METCO, writing for Commentary,
And three wild, eclectic children running free,
On an acre-and-a-half of grass, forsythia, poison ivy, towering pines,
A brook and a weeping willow.
We did not have an easy time, you and I.
You were a fierce tiger-of-a-mother
And I was your cub.
You were grounded in your Williamsburg past and reborn Jewish intellectual present,
With your post-Betty Friedan, modern woman self,
A complicated blend of post-Holocaust insecurities,
And first generation aspirations and accomplishments.
Open minded and opinionated.
Welcoming and withholding.
Joyful and judgmental.
A formidable ally and advocate,
A formidable opponent,
A tough act to follow.
Some say, you got the children you deserved.
I say, I got the whole of you.
When I gazed at your rumpled body in that hospital bed,
I hoped you were dreaming Bach cello suites,
Or Mahler's Ninth,
Maybe, late Beethoven,
Or drifting gently with the rocking lu, lu's of Shlof Mayn Kind.
But now the battles are over,
And the orphans and survivors gather together,
To hold each other and say,
And you take your irrevocable journey,
Finding your place next to Daddy,
Where he has been waiting patiently for you.