A Natural Phenomenon

Remembering Robert Rosenberg, one year later.

Cancer was just about the only thing that could get the better of Robert Rosenberg - journalist, author, poet, Israeli Web pioneer, raconteur, bon vivant and long-time fixture on the Tel Aviv cafe and bar scene.

Robert, who died a year ago, aged 54, was making plans until the last weeks of his life. He was an irrepressible optimist, buoyant and supremely confident. Life's disappointments couldn't bring him down because, in many ways, he was larger than life; immune to the daily grind. Like William Blake, he was the creator of his own system of beliefs, and he stood by them doggedly till the end.

I met Robert in March 1979; I remember the date and meeting well, because I still have the article he wrote about it for The Jerusalem Post. He was writing for the Post, after stints at UPI and Time Magazine, and I was a neophyte theater director, staging David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" at Jerusalem's Tzavta Theater. We were both 28; both post-'60s interlopers in an Israel of which we felt part, but with which we never entirely saw eye-to-eye.

When, later, I visited Robert and his wife, Silvia, for the first time, in their apartment on Jerusalem's Hanevi'im Street, he whipped out a Polaroid camera and pinned the photograph that resulted at the bottom of a huge photomontage covering the better part of an entire wall. Apparently, everyone entering the Rosenberg apartment for the first time was subjected to the same treatment - and, judging by the number of pictures on the wall, an army of people had visited.

That was Robert all over: gregarious, impulsive and all-embracing. In those days, he drove an enormous black Citroen, which suited him well, because everything about Robert was extreme. From his grenadier's mustache, sonorous voice and six-foot-plus frame to his awesome capacity for alcohol and his ability to talk for hours without, apparently, breathing, Robert was an energy-radiating natural phenomenon.

If Robert was present, you could no more avoid him than you could avoid Paris Hilton at a celebrity bash. But, unlike Paris, Robert's qualities were all innate; he did not need flashy clothes or Daddy's money to make an impression. He lived a modest life and was a conservative dresser. It was very unusual to see him in anything but jeans and a blue (in the early days) or white shirt. It was as if he understood implicitly that a flamboyant personality needs to be clothed modestly, lest it overpower its surroundings.

Our lives continued in parallel. I joined The Jerusalem Post, Robert and Silvia moved to Mevasseret Zion and adopted their daughter, Amber, and then, in the mid-1980s, we all transplanted ourselves to Tel Aviv, where the air suited us better than the increasingly cloying religious atmosphere of Jerusalem. Robert and Silvia established themselves in a Rothschild Boulevard penthouse and Robert took up semi-permanent residence in Cafe Tamar, on Sheinkin Street, where he held an impromptu years-long salon.

Robert worked as a journalist and editor, wrote poetry, was a vital part of the English edition of Haaretz from its very early days, published a series of detective novels and even wrote a few nonfiction books. For many years, his "Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv" column gave English-speaking readers of The Jerusalem Post a glimpse into the less-accessible recesses of the city that he adopted and made his own. Robert loved schmoozing, exploring and expounding, and the column gave him an opportunity to do all three. As a body of work, the Tel Aviv columns are probably the best researched and most complete description of the ethos of Israel's metropolis in the English language.

The Internet, when it emerged into public awareness in the mid-'90s, found a ready and eager devotee in Robert. In some sense, it brought together all the strands of his abundant personality. He marveled at - and mastered - the technology; he immediately grasped the potential of the medium for mass communications and he had an inborn understanding of the challenges it posed, and the opportunities it offered, to the news industry.

Being who he was, Robert chose to grab the opportunity and deal with the challenges. In 1995, when the Web was still barely on the public radar, he established Ariga, a Web site devoted to Robert's two main passions (Silvia and Amber aside): the arts and peace. It is difficult to appreciate today how revolutionary it truly was. Robert was blogging before there was even a word for what he was doing. He provided incisive and iconoclastic daily reports on goings-on in Israel at a time when news reporting was limited to the mainstream media - and Israel-watchers outside the country barely had that. It is no exaggeration to say that Ariga trailblazed the emergence of non-establishment, nonaligned reporting from and about Israel.

For 11 years, Robert single-handedly ran Ariga, writing his daily situation report and hosting poetry, essays, paintings and much more from a wide swathe of writers and artists. It had a devoted and global audience, not all of them of Robert's left-wing persuasion. Ariga was committed to dialogue and humankind, and people from across the political spectrum understood and appreciated that. Robert saw human beings where others see only foes.

A mutual friend once described Robert as having an F. Scott Fitzgerald quality and, looked at from the perspective of his tragic death, I think that's true. He was a dreamer, a romantic, perhaps even a visionary. He gave voice to possibilities that less-free minds are unable to even conceive. A conversation with Robert could range from post-Zionism to modernist art to cyber-culture, and he reveled in all with equal facility and glee.

Robert had an unusually dexterous mind and was not shy about expressing an opinion. Toward the end of his illness, when he was in great discomfort and increasingly bedridden, Silvia would place one of her paintings at the foot of his bed for him to contemplate, a different painting every day. Meditating on Silvia's lusty, life-affirming colors gave him joy and peace, he said. And joy and a feeling of peace are what Robert brought to all of us who knew him.