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‘Seek Peace And Pursue It’: A Son’s Remembrance

‘Seek Peace And Pursue It’: A Son’s Remembrance

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Just before my mother, Rebbetzin Esther Friedlander Rosenblatt, was to return home to Annapolis, Md., at the end of the recent Sukkot holiday, after spending a family-filled week with us, my daughter took her aside. She told Mom that the baby she was expecting any day was a boy, and that she and her husband planned to name him for my late father.

My mother was thrilled and eagerly awaited returning to the New York area for the brit milah. She had suffered tragedy in her life and she relished every opportunity to celebrate joyful occasions.

My father, Rabbi Morris D. Rosenblatt, died more than 24 years ago. He had recently retired, having led the congregation in Annapolis for four decades. On a warm Saturday night in June 1985, he was crossing the street from the synagogue to his home to make Havdalah for my mother when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver.

At the time, my mother was 68. Most people assumed she would soon leave the community and seek relief from the painful memories of that awful night by moving closer to my brother and his wife in Silver Spring, Md., or to Baltimore, where we lived.

But while Mom’s 47-year marriage had been cut short, her deep affection for and ties to the Annapolis Jewish community, and specifically her beloved congregation, Kneseth Israel, kept her rooted, engaged, vital and needed for the rest of her life.

Not only did she remain in her home, but over the next two dozen years a new phase of her life emerged.

She was no longer the official rebbetzin of the congregation. But as subsequent rabbis came and went, she continued visiting the sick, collecting for charity, performing acts of kindness and making newcomers feel welcome — freely dispensing her charm, wit and wisdom along the way.

As the soul of Kneseth Israel for 64 years, she performed mitzvot not out of a sense of obligation but out of a caring heart. She loved people and people loved her. As my brother Jason said, hers was a “lev tov,” a good heart.

That was evident from the outpouring of grief and affection when news reached family and countless friends of her sudden and unexpected death from a heart attack two weeks ago, five days after her return to Annapolis.

We were all in shock, even though she was 92.

She’d had a weak heart and grown increasingly frail in recent years, but her optimism, remarkable memory and youthful spirit had lulled us into believing she’d be with us for more years to come.

Mom’s life was not an easy one. Born in Poland, she came to Baltimore at the age of 8 with her mother, to join her father, a rabbi and Talmudic scholar, who had arrived three years earlier.

Six weeks after my parents’ marriage in 1938, my father, at the age of 25, lost most of his hearing, a disability particularly difficult for a young rabbi. But his gentle manner, compassionate nature and firm commitment to Jewish tradition made him a beloved figure to his congregants, as well as to the Jewish midshipmen of the Naval Academy he served for four decades as a civilian chaplain.

And all that time my mother was at his side, navigating conversations and delicate situations, serving in multiple and indispensable roles in our family, in the shul and in the community.

After Dad died, my fiercely independent mother opted to live alone and remain in her home across the street from the shul. Haunted by old memories, I still have trouble crossing that street, but she did it every Shabbat, even when it became difficult for her to walk.

She was an institution in shul, making sure to share a few private moments at the Kiddush with congregants, gracing each with her big smile and Southern charm. (Just when she acquired a Southern accent, after emigrating from Poland, remains a mystery.)

Everyone was “Honey.” And everyone was special.

Over the years some of her pithy advice and phrases — we called them Bubbyisms — became known far beyond our family. One favorite was: Put a little cheese in everyone’s blintz.

Another: Old age is not for sissies.

Her antidote? Fake it til you make it.

She especially loved the advice from Pirkei Avot: “Seek peace and pursue it.” Because that’s how she lived.

Only a few weeks ago she smoothed the ruffled feathers of a congregant who had threatened to quit the shul over an imagined slight. She’d had a lifetime of experience in dealing with people, understanding their quirks and qualities.

Above all she cherished her friendships, her freedom, her family — she was especially close to her sister, Frances Zywica of Baltimore — and her shul. She was so proud when Kneseth Israel marked its centennial four years ago and she did everything in her power to assure its survival as its membership aged.

As if in return, the shul, its members, and current rabbi, Moshe Weisblum, and his family, surely lengthened her life and filled her final years with great compassion, devotion and honor. They sought her advice even as they enriched her days with calls, visits and countless other gestures of caring.

Sitting in shul each Shabbat, my Mom took great comfort in looking up at the lovely stained-glass window dedicated some years ago by the congregation in memory of my Dad. Its theme and title: L’dor va dor, from generation to generation.

She was proud of the legacy she saw in her sons, her two “daughters in love,” as she called them, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In many ways, Mom’s death marks the end of a generation for our family, for Kneseth Israel and for the Annapolis community.

But l’ dor va dor reminds us of the unending story of Jewish tradition and family. And that message was underscored for us when, during the week of shiva for my mother, our daughter gave birth to the little boy Mom was so eagerly anticipating, a sweet comfort for a grieving family.

This week he was given the Hebrew name Moshe Yair — Moshe for my father, as promised, and Yair, meaning “to enlighten” or “to bring light.” As my daughter explained at the brit milah on Tuesday morning, “it is what my grandparents were all about.”

She noted that on Simchat Torah, celebrated a few days before Mom died, we completed the cycle of Torah reading, from the death of Moses to the story of Creation, a world of chaos and darkness until God said, “let there be light,” and there was light.

The juxtaposition reminded her of my mother’s resilience and optimism, even after the death of her beloved Moshe.

“We pray Moshe Yair will live up to the legacy of his great-grandparents,” she concluded, “and to all of us bring light and joy.”

To which I can only add, Amen.

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