Even after all these years, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why my parents, Sam and Ruby Rosenberg, chose to raise their children with such a strong Jewish identity. While they were part of a generation raised in kosher households where Shabbat was faithfully kept, they did not see that life as a central part of their mission. Instead, they focused on certain themes: family would be the bedrock to continuity; kindness, especially to the newcomer, was stressed – because, after all, our ancestors were strangers in Egypt.
And then, right around the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, they started to talk about Israel as the Jewish homeland and from then on, never stopped talking about the modern Jewish state. “Your mother and I almost moved to Israel before the country was founded in 1948, but …” my father would say on occasion, but would never finish the sentence.
But I persisted. Eventually, he told me that they saw Israel as a new beginning – a place where they could begin a new life with their children. But somehow, they just couldn’t find the strength to leave their families behind, and so they resolved to instill a love of the homeland from 6,000 miles away.
At first, my sister Phyllis seemed like an unlikely Zionist. She was book smart and a good piano player and seemed like every other 11-year-old girl in her class. And then one night, after my father returned from a Hebrew School open house at Temple Israel in Swampscott, he asked if he and Phyllis could speak. He explained that her teacher, a recent Israeli émigré, had told him that he was wasting his money sending his daughter to Hebrew School.
Within months, Phyllis had immersed herself in Judaic studies and that summer at Camp Tevya, she began to learn Hebrew with a tutor. In junior high, she enrolled at the old Hebrew College in Brookline, and by the time she was 14, she was nearly fluent in Hebrew. Meanwhile, she led the local USY chapter and was the first one in our family to go to Israel.She obsessed over Israel until she was able to return in 1976, when she spent her junior year in college at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In one of the aerogram letters that she dutifully sent each week, she explained that she had fallen in love with a Jerusalem native; a guy with a good soul. “His name is Ramy,” she wrote, and “I intend to marry him.” Within a year, they did marry – but not in Jerusalem, where they had hoped to stay, but in Swampscott, just steps from our house, at Temple Israel.
I had expected them to return to Israel almost right away. After all, that was where she felt most at home. That was where she was supposed to raise a family. That was where she belonged.
Instead, she inexplicably took on the challenge of running a business with my parents. At first, they opened a women’s clothing store on Shirley Ave. in Revere, and then moved to nearby Northgate. As the business thrived, my sister faced fertility problems – it took her seven years, but finally, in 1988, she gave birth to a daughter, Lana. And a year later, she had another girl, Rachel. By then, big box stores began to take over the retail landscape and my sister and parents decided to close. It was the end of an era for their business, but for Phyllis and Ramy, it was a new beginning as a family.
Phyllis eventually shifted to becoming a Jewish educator on the North Shore. Few of her colleagues probably knew that she had successfully run a small business and she never talked about it. Instead, her life revolved around Lana and Rachel. Newly retired, my parents would spend several days a week with the girls. “Nachas,” my father would say, holding the tiny hands of his granddaughters. “This is Yiddishkeit. This is what family is about.”
As a child, Lana talked nonstop about Judaism and Israel. In high school, she started a club for Jewish students. She earned a scholarship in the engineering program at Boston University but by the end of her freshman year, Lana realized she belonged in Israel. A year later, her sister Rachel joined her there, where both would graduate from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
By then, my parents had passed, and Phyllis was determined to join her daughters and make Aliyah. Fluent in Hebrew, Lana built a career in public relations and seamlessly shifted from Hebrew to English with her colleagues and clients in Tel Aviv. Lana was Type A and hard charging, and always seemed to be working, and traveling for business throughout Europe. She even spent months in Abu Dhabi long before Israel and the UAE officially established relations.
But something was missing. “I want to get married and be a mom and have babies,” she would tell me when I would visit her in Tel Aviv. And then four years ago, Lana announced she had met Barak. “I’m going to marry him,” she said, and in August of 2018, she stood under the chuppah with him with the waves of the Mediterranean in the background.
A year ago, Phyllis and Ramy took part in their own exodus from the diaspora. They sold their house in Peabody, boarded a plane to Tel Aviv, and joined their children. And on the morning of March 14 or Nissan 1 – the first day of the new Hebrew calendar year – Lana gave birth to a boy in Tel Aviv.
The child is named Ben Sam. The Hebrew letters of Ben – bet and nun – represent the names of Barak’s grandfathers, Betzalel and Nachum. “And Sam, after the person who always did everything by the book, Sammy Rosenberg,” Lana wrote in a text.
In Tel Aviv – in the Promised Land that my parents would never see – my father’s name will live on in a little boy who will grow into a man and hopefully a husband and father someday. This is my family’s blessing this Passover: the miraculous return to the Holy Land of another generation – led by a strong woman, who showed that it’s possible to follow your dream to a place where you belong.
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at Rosenberg@jewishjournal.org.