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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

MEMORIAL | Silvia Tennenbaum (1928-2016)

Silvia Tennenbaum, 1928-2016.
June 9, 2017—A memorial service for our former neighbor Silvia [Pfeiffer] Tennenbaum was held today, Friday, at noon.

Her tombstone was unveiled at the Green River Cemetery on Accabonac Road in Springs.

Present were her brother and her three sons and many other relatives and friends.

Silvia died last year on June 27 at 88 at the Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She had moved in 2014 from her home in Springs to the Quadrangle, a Jewish-affiliated nonprofit independent-living facility in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where she reportedly continued to follow her team, the Mets. 

At a reception following the unveiling at Ashawagh Hall, her eldest son, Jeremy, told us that the Quadrangle was founded by a couple of Haverford professors and that the Philadelphia area is heavily populated by nonprofit religion-based assisted-living facilities. It is close to where Jeremy lived, and he took charge of managing his mother's last years.

Jeremy reported that his mother was suffering from bleeding ulcers and pneumonia and asked that there be no intervention. "She was ready to go," he said. She had previously lost much of her mobility out of a reluctance to move around.

Two of Silvia's fellow Mets fans, who show in their
 hair their solidarity with Silvia and The Team.
Silvia had a defiance about her during her last decade of life in Springs, symbolized by the blue streak she put in her hair. 

Two of the women who came to the unveiling were retired Postal Service staff members at the Wainscott Post Office. They were grateful for the Mets tickets that Silvia subscribed to and would bring them in weeks that she couldn't use them. 

Silvia was born in 1928 in Frankfurt, Germany, daughter of a mixed-religion marriage between Lotti Clara Stern and Erich Pfeiffer-Belli. Perhaps because of the rise of Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism in Frankfurt, her parents divorced in 1930. (It turned out that the Nazis tended to leave alone couples with one Jewish partner and a Christian partner, but no one could be sure.) 
Silvia's brother.

Four years after divorcing her first husband, Silvia's mother married William Steinberg, a talented conductor. Together with Silvia, now eight years old, in 1936 the couple fled Hitler's German tyranny. Steinberg went to Tel Aviv, where he helped create the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. In 1938 he was recruited by Arturo Toscanini to assist him in running the NBC Symphony Orchestra. 

Silvia was a fervent Mets fan.
Silvia loved America. She graduated from New Rochelle High School in 1946 and attended Barnard, earning a BA with honors in Art History in 1950. As a new immigrant, she took to baseball as a way of embracing her new  homeland and followed the Brooklyn Dodgers until, through Walter O'Malley's teachery, they decamped for Los Angeles in 1957. (Ask a Brooklyn Dodger fan: "If you had a gun with only two bullets in it and were in a room with Hitler, Stalin and O'Malley, which one would you shoot?" The answer will be: "Shoot O'Malley, twice!") 

She switched her allegiance to the New York Mets and never for a minute ever left them.

Studying for an MA in art at Columbia University graduate school, she met and, in 1951, married Lloyd Tennenbaum, who was a student in mathematics and philosophy and became a rabbi. 

Meanwhile, Silvia's father, by then conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, became also a guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic and in the 1960s the family stayed in East Hampton during the summers.

The Tennenbaums moved for seven years to Lynchburg, Virginia, where Silvia gave birth to three sons. Her husband was eventually appointed rabbi to two congregations on Long Island's North Shore and the family settled in Huntington, New York. 

Million-dollar sale
of paperback rights.
There Silvia wrote her first book, Rachel the Rabbi's Wife (1978), a caustic roman à clef about the life of a self-important rabbi and a demanding congregation that believed in its entitlement to unlimited support services from the rabbi’s wife. The book was a huge success. Silvia told me she sold the paperback rights for a million dollars, and used the money in part to build on the property a studio where she liked to write. 

However, by 1981, when we became her neighbors, the couple had separated. Silvia retained the house. She was extremely welcoming and told us all about the merits of registering as Democrats in East Hampton.

During the next 33 years, Silvia continued to be outspoken and flamboyant. She had her front fence painted a bluish-tinged purple, not quite the same color as the streak in her hair.

In the 1980s, one of her letters to the East Hampton Star prompted a local resident to place in front of her house a sign, “Communist Headquarters”. A critic of Israeli policy toward Palestinians, she preferred not to be formally associated with the large Jewish Center of the Hamptons and instead affiliated with Sag Harbor’s Temple Adas Israel, the oldest synagogue on Long Island, led until 2014 by widely published Rabbi Leon A. Morris. 
Silvia's three sons, L to R, Rafe, David and (holding the "veil"),
Jeremy, with Rabbi David Geffen.

Silvia and her husband were divorced in 1986 (he was a few years older than Silvia and predeceased her by a decade). She had returned to Columbia, where she earned an MA in art history in 1983. Besides frequent letters to the East Hampton Star, she wrote for the New American Review and the Massachusetts Review. One story, “A Lingering Death,” was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for “Best American Short Stories of 1979.”  Her second novel, Yesterday’s Streets (1981), was a fictionalized account of her family’s life among upper-middle class Jews in Frankfurt, Germany from 1900 to 1936. In 2012, Frankfurt named this book its "Book of the Year”. 
She is survived by her three sons — Jeremy, David and Raphael (Rafe). She was buried at Green River Cemetery in Springs on June 29, 2016. Rabbi Daniel N. Geffen of Temple Adas Israel presided then and presided again over the unveiling, followed by a sharing of food, beer and memories at Ashawagh Hall.

Additional Comments


Silvia was generous. She gave us a few things she didn't need when we first became her neighbor. She was always responsive to our suggestions about improving our properties and planted pine trees between us after just one suggestion. We and others missed her greatly when she moved to the Philadelphia area.


Alice notes how much fun Silvia was to talk with. She always had an interesting individual point of view, and effectively marshaled facts, often little-known ones, to support her view. We enjoyed her hospitality when we first arrived and were beneficiaries of fertilizer generated from horses in her back yard. She also often shared lilacs from her prolific bushes.