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A feminist voice, fully engaged in Jewish life

Remembering columnist Elicia Brown, who succumbed to ovarian cancer at 48

Longtime columnist Elicia Brown died last week. She was 48.
Longtime columnist Elicia Brown died last week. She was 48.

“Maybe it’s the high heels. Maybe it’s the sky-high spirits. Maybe it’s the smile hinting ever so slightly of mischief.”

With those words, Elicia Brown began her “All She Wrote” column in The New York Jewish Week, parent publication of NJJN, in October 2010.

That month’s column was about Rochelle Shoretz, the lawyer-turned-advocate who had formed Sharsheret, the Teaneck-based support group for young Jewish women who were battling breast and ovarian cancer.

Elicia told about how Shoretz coped with her own breast cancer diagnosis, which took her life in 2015 at 42 after her cancer went into remission, returned, and spread.

Elicia could have been writing about herself.

Diagnosed 2½ years ago with ovarian cancer, she died on Friday evening. She was 48. Her cancer had gone into remission, returned, and spread.

“There’s so much in life to appreciate,” Elicia quoted Shoretz as saying. “She doesn’t allow herself to entertain thoughts about mortality, instead focusing on finding an ‘enjoyable, enriching, meaningful way to live.’”

Elicia’s friends and colleagues say that was how she lived, and died.

Elicia worked as a staff writer at The Jewish Week from 1998 to 2002 and as a monthly columnist, sharing stories about her husband and two young children, and chronicling her illness. 

A well-rounded news and feature writer who handled a wide variety of personal profiles and news stories while on The Jewish Week staff, Elicia had previously worked as a copy editor for The Japan Times and a staff writer for Financial World Magazine.

In her “All She Wrote” column, she wrote about the challenges and pleasures of motherhood. About her spiritual life: “I fully embrace my identity as a liberal Jew.” About “all the small headaches of a middle-aged mom, from negotiating the frenetic aisles at Fairway Market to professional deadlines to the social dynamics of second and fifth grade.” 

“Elicia,” says Jewish Week managing editor Robert Goldblum, “opened a window into how a young Reform mother tries to negotiate the Jewish tradition and the modern world — the joys and struggles of that journey, and translating all of it through the eyes of a feminist. Her columns were full of humor, full-to-brimming of family life, and full of insight about living a committed Jewish life from a non-Orthodox perspective. And she sought to understand the lessons of the wider feminist movement and how they fit into a Jewish context for a new generation.”

An essay she wrote last year for JTA, “At Hanukkah, finding light in a time of illness and darkness,” won a Rockower Award from the American Jewish Press Association.

Post-diagnosis, Elicia often wrote about the state of her health and of her spirits. Her sister-in-law, Ali, had died on the day Elicia received her own cancer diagnosis. “My world, already dimmed by the unimaginable loss [of Ali], darkened further into a nightmare that was beyond my comprehension,” she wrote in November 2015, in a column headlined, “After cancer, Thanksgiving will never be the same.” “In my stranger, new universe, with few obligations other than getting well, almost every day became a day of thanksgiving.”

Elicia was buried in Sag Harbor on Long Island’s East End.

“Just a few yards away is buried Betty Friedan, the godmother of contemporary feminism,” writer Deborah Nussbaum Cohen, a former colleague of Elicia’s at The Jewish Week, wrote in a Facebook post this week. “In Friedan’s ground-breaking book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ she wrote in 1964 of ‘the problem that has no name,’ meaning the malaise women felt when their sole happiness was supposed to be derived from marriage and motherhood. 

“A generation later, Elicia, in her many thoughtful columns for The Jewish Week, embodied how far we have come, and that there remains work to do,” Nussbaum Cohen wrote. “It seems fitting that Elicia is buried near Friedan. They were both Jews and great writers and feminists.”

In Elicia’s memory, we reprint her final Jewish Week column on page 31.

Her column about Rochelle Shoretz ended on an optimistic note.

“The more time that goes on, the more I think maybe I’ll be around for another 10, another 20 years,” she quoted Shoretz as saying. “Maybe I’ll be able to dance at a [child’s] wedding. Maybe I’ll be able to see some grandchildren.”

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