Gitenstein: Finding her way from Florala

By Richard Friedman 

When you can’t get a book out of your mind, the author has done a great job.

Rose Barbara Gitenstein, who grew up as one of about 15 Jews in Florala, a tiny dot on the map along the Alabama side of the Alabama-Florida border, has written such a book. “Experience Is the Angled Road: Memoir of an Academic” was published in August.

This is a compelling, instructive and easy-to-read memoir. Sharing the drama, challenges and triumphs of her life, Gitenstein traces her journey from Florala to the presidency of The College of New Jersey.

Gracefully written, she weaves her memories together by drawing on three generations of intra-family letters. While the letters are deeply personal, they reflect universal things: human imperfection; internal struggles; hurts, anger and disappointment; ambition and achievement, and an enduring love and strength of character.

Chatting via Zoom from her New York home, this gifted and personable Alabama native was asked what she sees as the key messages of her memoir.  She answers quickly: The power of resilience, which she especially saw in her father and her maternal grandmother, and the importance of seeking out good mentors, which she has done, who can both guide and challenge you.

Her father, Seymour Gitenstein, who died in 2010 at 94, moved from New York to Florala in 1932 at age 17. He came South to help run his father’s textile manufacturing business, Riverside Shirt and Underwear Corporation. The family prospered, he would employ 1000 people and become a well-known civic and philanthropic leader.

The author, his daughter, Bobby, known as Rose Barbara while growing up, was born in 1948.  Bobby’s older brother Mark would become President Obama’s ambassador to Romania and President Biden’s ambassador to the European Union. He also served as Chief Counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1990s and is the author of the book, “Matters of Principle: An Insider’s Account of America’s Rejection of Robert Bork’s Nomination to the Supreme Court.” Susan, the youngest, developed her own publicity firm, focusing on financial services.

Despite the family‘s achievements and prominence, the letters that anchor this memoir tell a poignant and all-too-human story; Seymour Gitenstein carried what for him was a dark and painful secret — he was a homosexual. In his later years, he revealed this to his daughter, though there had been hints throughout his life.

Meanwhile, the author’s New York-raised mother would struggle desperately to find her place in Florala before her life began disintegrating in the late 1970s due to early onset Alzheimer’s.

Living Room Worship

At the heart of this story are the challenges that all the Gitenstein children faced, struggling to find their way and blaze their own paths. They would attend schools far from Florala — but never far from the family‘s travail.

One thing that Gitenstein emphasizes in her memoir is that though the family lived among few Jews, they clung to their Judaism, conducting worship services weekly in their living room.

Gitenstein, who has kept her name professionally, would marry a Florala man, Don Hart, who was raised Baptist. It was not a simple courtship. Both families were uncomfortable. For the Harts it was their son marrying someone Jewish; for the Gitensteins it was their daughter marrying someone not Jewish and a native of Florala. Nonetheless, her husband has supported Gitenstein’s commitment to Judaism, which included sending their two children to Hebrew school and having their son become a bar mitzvah.

A younger sister, Susan, married a Palestinian man who died a few days before the Zoom interview. Though not Jewish, he wanted to be buried in Florala in the local cemetery’s small Jewish section.

Ultimately “Experience Is the Angled Road”  — a phrase coined by Emily Dickinson — is a story of how a young Jewish woman, thought of by the Florala townspeople as “the girl who had everything,” overcame her insecurities and sense of never fully belonging, both within and outside her home.

Gifted academically and motivated, Gitenstein’s journey was not easy. Along with the quiet turbulence and unease that hung in her family’s air, she has struggled most of her life with the effects of a debilitating disease — ulcerative colitis.  She writes about having major, life-threatening surgeries and the pain of not being able to have kids biologically, though she and her husband would adopt two children. She struggled over including her health challenges in her memoir because she has never wanted people to think of her as an “invalid” — which, she notes, also means “in-valid.”

There also have been other life-changing challenges.  Her best friend from Florala, Cliff Matthews, was killed in a car crash in their senior year of high school.

She almost lost her own life when she and her family were living in Missouri where she had an academic job. Driving through a colossal rainstorm and flooding, she was washed down into a culvert after she, her husband and two students got out of the car seeking safety.  Gitenstein then was washed 350 yards through the culvert, exhausted and surviving on sheer will. She swam out of the culvert into a storm-created lake where her husband miraculously was waiting for her in the water.

As she thought about it during the Zoom talk, she came to see the culvert episode as a metaphor for her life — swimming through turbulence, surviving on resilience and sheer will, and landing safely in the arms of her loving husband.

Never About Her

Two other things distinguish this memoir.  Even as Gitenstein recounts her most traumatic and dramatic memories, she writes with understatement, believing “less is more.” She also writes with humility; the book is about her, yet it is never “about her.”

Some of her most powerful and compassionate writing is about her father.  A man who loved music, he enjoyed nothing more than sitting at the piano, alone in the living room of their spacious Florala home, lost in thought as he was playing classical pieces, embraced by the tranquility of the moment.

In writing about her father and the management of his factory, Gitenstein sets the stage for her next book.  She reflects that as she climbed through the ranks of academia, she tried to emulate the management style that made her dad so beloved by his employees.  He knew their names — all 1000 of them.  He knew their families.  And he had a way about him that made his workers feel important.

At the College of New Jersey, this is exactly what Gitenstein tried to do as she helped transform the institution from what was once a state teachers college into a regionally-prestigious institution. Vesting others in the mission and connecting with them personally have been cornerstones of her success.

It is interesting, though, that other than a few snippets in her introduction, “Experience Is the Angled Road” contains little about her challenges and triumphs as a successful college president.  When asked why, she tipped her hand.

That experience, said the girl from Florala, is the centerpiece of her next volume of memoirs.