I was a shabbos goy for the Rosensweig family in my hometown when I was 11 to about 14 years old. Their eldest daughter and I were good friends – we would in fact have lunch most days in the school rooms at the temple which was just a few blocks from our senior public school – and they lived just down the block from us.
I didn’t do it very often as Mrs Rosensweig was a very organized woman but sometimes I would get these calls just before sunset from Etta to please come help her mom. Whenever the call came, I was always delighted to go help, and to learn a little more about the culture, the food, the family life that Etta and her 3 sisters and 1 brother shared with their parents… including her father, the rabbi.
At the time, Temple Beth Israel was the only temple in town so all observant Jews went there – Reform, Conservative and, I would assume, Orthodox. Rabbi Rosensweig, in explaining to me the differences, said that he himself was an Orthodox Jew who lived an Conservative life. There was something so rabbincal about that statement that it took me a long time to understand what he was saying but I think I finally got it; as the man who lead such a divergent group of people as those members of his temple, he needed to be seen to be both principled and approachable, whatever the background or needs of any member of his ‘flock’.
Mrs Rosensweig, and Etta too, taught me a lot about what I thought of as the domestic side of their world – about keeping a kosher kitchen, about the rituals over Shabbos dinner, over the Passach seder, about the cleansing rituals of Conservative women (this one kind of shook me up). But the food – I learned to love Jewish food! I am crazy about matzoh & egg salad to this day for lunch, but it goes way beyond that. Mrs Rosensweig was a good cook and she was a good teacher, so not only did I learn about the foods, but why some foods were so important, or so not allowed. To this day, I still feel sort of sorry for my kosher friends who don’t know the deliciousness of fresh lobster but I respect them for following their hearts.
From Rabbi Rosensweig, I learned a lot about the Jewish faith and history. I mean, a lot. Rabbi, of course, means ‘teacher’ and he loved to teach. I must have seemed like a bit of a sponge to him because nothing he said was boring or unimportant to me. And all the while I was learning about what it meant to be Jewish, I was spending 3 hours a week in confirmation classes with the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran church. 3 hours a week, through pretty much the entire school year, for two years.
I remember more from my time with the rabbi than I do at Holy Cross. Which says a lot, don’t you think? (And then, three years after that, after a 2-year Lutheran confirmation process, I was ALSO confirmed as an Anglican, high church variety. But that’s another posting…)
Both of my grandfathers, whom I adored, were deeply prejudiced men, including being very anti-Semitic. Neither of them ever said anything to me about my friendship with Etta or the Rosensweig family for which I was very grateful because I’m not sure how much standing up to them I could have done. But I would have. I did stand up to one grandfather when he found out about a Catholic boyfriend, and that was hard enough. Did I say I really adored both my grandfathers despite their many character flaws?? But I think it was these men, and their attitude towards people who were “other” than they that helped forge my truly, deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong about, well, life.
The war on women in US politics right now… the incredibly cruel and offensively racist rants, literature and other public expressions of rage and hate against Barack Obama… the resurgence of neo-Nazism and neo-facism… the constant efforts to turn democracies into theocracies or, just as bad, putting one religion above another…. the new & oppressive voter ID laws in the US…. it all strikes a bitter note with me, leaving me to think that the world is such a sad, angry, bitter place right now, leaving me to wonder what on earth I can do to make it better.
But then, when I roll up through the week and arrive on a Friday afternoon, I think of the Rosensweigs and getting ready for the Sabbath meal – the candles, the bread, the wine, the hot meal ready when the timer automatically goes off. And I remember a time when life slows down, when family gathers & breaks bread, when prayers are said and lives past are remembered, and I think that these are things which are important, eternal. These are things which are good and right, and these are things which we can all celebrate and enjoy as the Friday sun sets and the night sky rises.
So whether you are enjoying a Friday night martini and night out with friends, or a Sabbath dinner at home, or something in between… make the most of it. Make the most of every day of your life.