Remembering Tina Rotenberg, teacher, painter and writer

Tina was a poet of distinction, with many friends in the Bay Area poetry community. Her work also brought pleasure, surprises and challenges to public school children of all backgrounds.

Tina Rotenberg
Tina Rotenberg. Photo: Courtesy family

Bettina (Tina) Rotenberg (1950–2019) died unexpectedly on July 26, 2019, in Toronto, Canada. She was a teacher, painter and writer, and Berkeley resident from the time of her graduate studies at UC Berkeley until 2010, when she moved to Toronto, her original home.

As a Harvard undergraduate she studied with the historian of Jewish culture Yosef Yerushalmi. Her Berkeley Ph.D. was in Comparative Literature, with Chana Kronfeld and Robert Alter among her teachers. Her dissertation was on visionary writing in the French, English and Hebrew traditions, focusing on Balzac and Flaubert, Blake and the Hebrew prophets.

She was a poet of distinction, with many friends in the Bay Area poetry community. Her work appeared in reviews such as Sulphur, and she read her poems in local venues.

She endured grave sorrows and illness, yet remained remarkably productive and generous. An example is the active part she took, as a teacher and student and community member, in the life of Congregation Netivot Shalom, the Berkeley synagogue she began attending during the last ten years or so of her life in Berkeley.

One of her most valuable undertakings was the program of instruction in visual and language arts, which she created for public school children in the Bay Area. The program, called Visual Arts Language Arts, or Vala, drew on the talents of many local and area artists, including musicians India Cooke, Kash Killion, John Schott, and the late Glenn Spearman; printer and bookmaker Alastair Johnston, poet Raymond ‘Nat’ Turner, printmaker and punk rock icon Debora Iyall; dancer Veronica Williams, shadow theater player Leon Kassipides, capoeira artist Janet Stevens, actor and Word-for-Word director Sheila Balter; and painters Sean Nash, Augusta Talbot, and Amy Trachtenberg, among many others.

Tina was for many years the organizer and manager of this operation, which regularly brought pleasure, surprises and challenges to public school children of all backgrounds. The idea was that making meaningful things would change students’ perception of school, and classroom teachers seemed to agree. Year after year she obtained grants to sustain the program, and she taught in it herself, in all a heavy task, which she accomplished with dedication, resourcefulness and lively imagination. Exhibits of art by her students at venues such as the Berkeley Art Center and Judah Magnus Museum were astonishing for their variety and quality.

Bettina wrote a book about Vala, published in 2010, titled I Dare to Stop the Wind: Challenging children in the public schools through the arts & poetry. An earlier essay exploring the work of Vala artists and students was published in Third Mind: Teaching Creative Writing Through Visual Art (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2002). More recently, in 2019, a book of her poetry was published, The Face I Never Saw (Adelaide Books). San Francisco poet Sarah Menefee wrote that the voice in this book has “a clarity and grace that are seldom ever heard.” Ann Smock, Professor emerita of French at UC Berkeley, wrote on reading the manuscript:

Bettina Rotenberg’s rhapsody pieces together fragments of a stifled language. It assembles ambiguous memories of a lost love, twisted stories of an ancient home, a sanctuary. The task is one of reunion. As the work proceeds, it resembles a pilgrimage, or a quest for asylum, or a ritual of patient devotion. The path is hard: deceitful signs abound, as well as false redeemers and terrible asylums. Sometimes delusions can hardly be distinguished from a prophet’s or a poet’s visions. All the while, however, a transfigured world is coming together—and the capacity to begin perceiving it, too, as it pieces itself together, over and over, in myriad mobile configurations. Among Bettina Rotenberg’s many voices—inspired, sardonic, sorrowful—there is a beautifully forthright one, greeting the future.