I am dedicating my publisher’s space to my friend, our writer, published author, longtime Teaneck resident and proud Jewish Link contributor, Joe Rotenberg, z”l, who passed away suddenly early last week.
It’s hard to describe Joe Rotenberg in one relatively short column. I laughed along with the hundreds of viewers at Joe’s virtual levaya when Joe’s rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah, began his hesped last week by apologizing to Joe that his levaya would not be as long as Joe might have preferred. For those who knew Joe, Rabbi Baum was so right.
Joe was a modern-day Renaissance man, truly unique in his passions and pursuits. He loved his family, always looked to help others and loved living in the Teaneck community. He lived and breathed the world of investing where he made his living, followed sports (baseball and hockey mainly) super passionately, but he was also an avid history and literary buff. Joe loved to share what he knew, and wrote so prolifically that it’s hard to believe he was human (the stories just came “flowing out” of him, he would like to say to me).
I met Joe in 2014 when he came over to me at my son’s TBO baseball game (it was his grandson’s game also). He had already started contributing in the early months of the paper by submitting baseball stories for our growing sports section, so I was already familiar with his name. I had noticed him earlier in the season as a grandfather who came to literally every game and was unafraid to cheer, shout and, yes, occasionally loudly but respectfully, disagree with an umpire’s call.
In that first discussion, Joe told me how much he enjoyed The Jewish Link but he felt our paper could use a bit more fiction and short stories.
He told me about the stories he had been writing and offered to send them to me for review. This kind of exchange happens to me relatively often; a community member approaches or emails me and tells me they want to write or submit something to publish. Often I don’t hear from that person ever again, but I was really unprepared for what Joe sent me.
The next day I received by email 10+ stories he had written. It took me a week or two to get through them as they were quite lengthy, but it was very clear that Joe was a writer. He started in our paper in late 2014 writing various series of short stories and, later, what he called a Teaneck Journal. This morphed over the years into a regular bi-weekly contribution we called Tales From Teaneck. Joe submitted his last story to us on February 1, a week before he passed away. (We know this is bittersweet, but on pages 90 and 91 of this week’s edition, please enjoy one of Joe’s last story submissions, titled, “Mirror Lake.”)
I often chided Joe for his use of the pseudonym “Jake Rabinowitz” in a good number of his pieces. I always said to him: “Joe, everyone knows you’re writing about yourself...why not just be Joe Rotenberg?” But he seemed to relish the freedom of writing in the third person, and enjoyed maintaining that separate nom de plume, even though he would sometimes send pics of his own family for us to accompany his “Jake” stories.
Our relationship really grew in the last few years as Joe would call and visit my office quite often, at least monthly or more. We would sit and talk about almost everything under the sun, but usually and primarily about his writing efforts, his story ideas, his inspirations for past, current and future stories, and his efforts to get his first book, “Timeless Travels,” published and promoted.
One of Joe’s sons noted at the levaya that his father simply never stopped; he was always looking to grow and do more. That is so true. He and I were actively planning his next career of becoming either a book publisher or a literary agent. I have no doubt that if he lived longer, he would have achieved both goals.
He would often ask me if I could convince my youngest son Eyal to consider coming out of retirement in baseball (basketball comes first in our family, as some know), as Joe was a big fan of his. When I told my son Eyal that Joe passed away, he was quite sad and told me that he liked his classmate Akiva Rotenberg’s grandfather and remembered him well as someone who really liked watching and rooting not just for his grandson, but for all the kids he knew. I also recall that Joe would always have a nice word for almost every player after every game.
And to show how small and interconnected our world is, my friend Micah Kaufman told me this week that Joe was one of his inspirations for getting involved in youth sports. As Micah told me by phone, "Joe stood out for being one of the nicest and most caring of the coaches I had growing up."
I was really taken aback when I heard from Joe’s special wife, Barbara, who shared with me that Joe’s last words to her on the last Motzei Shabbat of his life were: “Was I in the Jewish Link this week?”
I cried upon hearing this, cried again when I shared it with my editors, and I am crying again as I write this. My editors and I who all work hard on the paper each week know and believe that what we do is important, but to hear how much our paper meant to Joe is downright staggering.
Joe, I will miss all of our discussions and your office visits, and we at The Jewish Link will miss you! We extend our deepest condolences and Baruch Dayan HaEmet to Joe’s wife Barbara and his children, Jeff and Rachel Rotenberg, Michelle Rotenberg, Yoni and Chani Rotenberg, Daniella and Scott Wittenberg, and Ariel and Sheri Rotenberg, as well as his many grandchildren.
By Moshe Kinderlehrer/Co-Publisher, The Jewish Link