Born in New York City in 1935, Anne Roiphe graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1957. She published her first novel, Digging Out, in 1966, followed in 1970 by Up the Sandbox, which was later adapted into a movie. Roiphe often became the subject of controversy for her writing, in both feminist and Jewish circles. Her writings on Judaism created a stir for her descriptions of her assimilated family’s Christmas tree, as well as her thoughts on whether the root of problems in the Jewish community lie with obsession with the Holocaust. She has written for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Tikkun, and the Jerusalem Report, among others, and has published novels, memoirs, and collections of essays that confront issues of feminism, motherhood, assimilation, and Jewish identity.
Novelist, journalist, and essayist Anne Roiphe was a respected contributor to the world of letters before moving away from assimilation toward an exploration of Jews and Jewish subjects.
Family and Early Life
Roiphe was born December 25, 1935, to Blanche (Phillips) and Eugene Roth, a lawyer, and grew up in affluence in New York City. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1957, married Jack Richardson the next year, and divorced in 1963. She had one child from that marriage, as well as two children and two stepchildren with Herman Roiphe, a psychoanalyst, whom she married in 1967.
Roiphe is probably best known as a novelist. Her first novel, Digging Out, appeared in 1966 to good reviews, although as a whole her work has met with mixed critical success. Most of Roiphe’s protagonists are women driven by issues of personal identity: mother-daughter conflicts, struggles over middle-class values, and clashes between women’s personal aspirations and societal expectations. While her early novels often had Jewish protagonists, Jewish issues were decidedly incidental to the themes and plots of the novels.
Jewish Identity in Roiphe’s Writings
Ironically, Roiphe’s return to Judaism was instigated by her family’s “celebration” of Christmas. In 1978, Roiphe wrote an article in the New York Times on how her family displayed a Christmas tree each year. The article became something of a cause célèbre, provoking a torrent of contemptuous and reproachful criticism from the Jewish community. In response—although perhaps more as a personal search than as an answer to her critics—Roiphe wrote her first nonfiction book, Generation Without Memory (1981). An account of a late twentieth-century American Jew detailing, reevaluating, and occasionally defending her assimilated life, Generation Without Memory is at turns insightful and shallow, raising tough questions without always necessarily engaging them head-on. At the end of the book, however, Roiphe declares her intention to search out a more meaningful form of Jewish life for herself.
Not surprisingly, Roiphe’s work since that time has been devoted largely, although not exclusively, to Jewish themes. As a journalist, Roiphe has been a frequent contributor to liberal Jewish magazines such as Present Tense and Tikkun, while also writing for the secular press, including a regular column in the New York Observer, for which she wrote from 1997 to 2002. She has also been a contributing editor to the Jerusalem Report. Her novels since the Times piece have focused largely on Jewish themes: Lovingkindness is a story of a mother coming to terms with her ba’alat teshuva daughter, while Pursuit of Happiness is a thinly veiled depiction of Roiphe’s own family history. Secrets of the City, originally published serially in the Forward, narrates the personal and political problems of a fictional Jewish mayor. Roiphe also wrote A Season for Healing, an extended rumination on balancing the universal and the particular implications of the Holocaust. Many critics, however, felt that Roiphe went too far by actually indicting Jewish “obsession” with the Holocaust for a host of problems facing the Jewish communities of America and Israel. Despite such criticisms, Anne Roiphe has become an important voice for those Jews who, while perhaps uncomfortable with organized religion, nevertheless feel an attraction and a commitment toward their Jewish heritage. On June 7, 2004, Roiphe was awarded the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award for Literary Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Roiphe has written novels, nonfiction books, and memoirs. Her husband of nearly 40 years, Herman Roiphe, passed away in 2005 due to a sudden heart attack. In wake of this life-altering event, Anne Roiphe published a 2008 memoir titled Epilogue: A Memoir, which reflects on her marriage and takes readers through her grieving process.
Roiphe, reflecting on her writing career while preparing for the release of a new novel, Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind (2015), wrote:
Some eighty-year-old writers rest. Some do not. I am not sure what I will do. I have a new book I have to finish before I consider if there will be another following. The books I have written, the ones on my shelf are not immortal. I am however proud to have been part of the conversation that takes place among the readers of books, the readers of small magazines, of journals, the curious and the angry, the hopeful and the not so hopeful among us. (p. 1)
Selected Works by Anne Roiphe
Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind (2015).
Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason (2011).
Epilogue: A Memoir (2008).
An Imperfect Lens (2006).
Water from the Well: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah (2006).
Secrets of the City (2003).
Married: A Fine Predicament (2002).
1185 Park Avenue: A Memoir (1999).
Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World (1996).
A Season for Healing: Reflections on the Holocaust (1988.
Generation Without Memory: A Jewish Journey in Christian America (1981).
Up the Sandbox! (1970).
Digging Out (1966).
Conan, Neal. “‘Epilogue’: Anne Roiphe on Becoming a Widow.” NPR. December 23, 2008.
Hoyt, Carolyn. “Anne Roiphe” Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook (1994).
Roiphe, Anne. “What 50 Years of Writing Have Taught Me.” Publishers Weekly, June 11, 2015.
Ross, Jean W. “Roiphe, Anne Richardson.” Contemporary Authors 89–92 (1980).
Steinberg, Sybil S. “Anne Roiphe.” Publishers Weekly (August 2, 1993): 57–58.
Strickland, Ruth L. “Anne Roiphe.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Yearbook: 1980 (1981).
Winter-Damon, Tim. “Roiphe, Anne (Richardson).” Contemporary Authors 45 (1995).
Zelechow, Bernard. “The Odyssey of Anne Roiphe: Anatomy of an Alienated Jew.” Midstream 35 (August/September 1989): 43–47.