Sunday, July 10, 2016

R.I.P. | June 27–Silvia Tennenbaum

Silvia Tennenbaum (1928-2016).
Silvia Pfeiffer Tennenbaum died at 88 on June 27, 2016 in Bryn Mawr Hospital, Bryn Mawr, Pa. 

She was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the daughter of Lotti Clara Stern and Erich Pfeiffer-Belli.

Her parents divorced in 1930 and in 1934, her mother married William Steinberg, a conductor. The Steinbergs fled Nazi Germany in 1936 and Silvia was sent for the next two years live in Basel, Switzerland with her aunt Gertrude Ritz-Stern. Her parents went to Tel Aviv, where Silvia's stepfather helped establish the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

The Steinbergs came to America in 1938 after William Steinberg  was hired to assist Arturo Toscanini of the NBC Symphony. Silvia graduated from New Rochelle High School in 1946 and attended Barnard, graduating with honors in Art History in 1950.

She was a tomboy who loved movies and baseball. A fan first of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field in Flatbush, she later came to love the underdog New York Mets and became a longtime season ticket holder at Shea Stadium. 

She started graduate school at Columbia but left in 1951 after marrying Lloyd Tennenbaum, a Columbia student in mathematics and philosophy who became a rabbi. Her stepfather meanwhile was picked to lead the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1952-1976).

Silvia and her husband started coming to East Hampton in the 1960s to visit her mother and stepfather who was principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The Tennenbaums lived the next seven years in Lynchburg, Va. during which time Silvia gave birth to three sons and started her writing career. After briefly serving in Plainfield, N.J., Lloyd Tennenbaum was appointed rabbi to two congregations on Long Island and the family settled in Huntington, N.Y. where Silvia Tennenbaum began writing.

In her first and most famous book, Rachel the Rabbi's Wife (1978), Silvia tells a thinly fictionalized, funny story of her own experience as wife of a rabbi who is vain and a congregation that expects the wife of the rabbi to donate her time to pet activities of the congregation’s leaders.

By 1981, the couple had separated and Silvia lived mostly in her old house on Fireplace Road, becoming active in East Hampton civic and political life. She and her husband were divorced in 1986.  By then, Silvia Tennenbaum had returned to graduate school at Columbia and completed her MA in art history in 1983. An avid traveller and prolific diarist, she is also the author of Yesterday's Streets (1981), a fictionalized account of life among upper-middle class Jews in Frankfurt, Germany from the start of the twentieth century to the Nazi takeover. In 2012, the city that Silvia Tennenbaum had fled named Yesterday's Streets as their "Book of the Year”.

Silvia was generous with her opinions. One of her critical letters to a local paper prompted someone to post a hand-painted sign saying “Communist Headquarters” near her driveway. She kept it for a time.

 As a writer, Silvia continued to find success publishing stories. One of them, “A Lingering Death,” was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for “Best American Short Stories of 1979.”

In 2014, she moved to the Quadrangle, an independent living facility in Haverford, Pa., where she continued to keep up with news. Silvia is survived by her three sons, Jeremy Tennenbaum of Wynnewood, Pa., David Tennenbaum of Chicago, and Raphael Tennenbaum of Brooklyn. She was buried at Green River Cemetery on June 29; Rabbi Daniel N. Geffen of Temple Adas Israel presided.


Silvia was a neighbor, and a neighborly one she was. She told me she got a million-dollar advance on the paperback rights to Rachel the Rabbi's Wife, which allowed her to build a studio in the back of her house where she did her writing. She gave us a few things she didn't need when we first located near her, and was always responsive to our suggestions about improving the community. We and others missed her greatly when she moved to the Philadelphia area, and continue to now that she has passed on.

See also: One-year anniversary of her death.

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