From Left to Write: Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English

Today’s post is part of the From Left to Write online book club. The idea of this book club is not to write a book review, per se, but rather to write a post in which the blogger connects that month’s book to an experience from his or her own life. March’s book is Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, a novel written by Natasha Solomons.

Today I drove my daughter to Hebrew school. This is not remarkable in and of itself; I have driven her to Hebrew school every Sunday for the past two and a half years. And, the temple where she attends Hebrew school is also the home of my son’s preschool. In other words, I’m at that temple at least five days a week. This temple is, in many ways, our community. Yet I did not grow up in the Jewish faith.

For my husband, there is nothing remarkable in having a synagogue be a regular destination. He grew up in an observant Jewish family and they lived in a small town without a lot of other Jews. The synagogue was a natural place for his family to gravitate to.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a large Eastern city, where Jewish families were plentiful, but my family was not one of them. My father had been raised Jewish and my mother had been raised Catholic. When they decided to get married in the late 60′s, their families had objected on religious grounds. My parents disregarded their objections and, perhaps not surprisingly, as adults neither was interested in organized religion. When I was a child, my family observed Jewish holidays with a family meal, but the only time I ever entered a synagogue was at friends’ bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. 

Yet, somehow, I always felt Jewish. I remember reading the wonderful All of a Kind Family series of books about a large Jewish family living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century and thinking that I was a part of that fictional family’s legacy.  When I was studying abroad in Paris, I lived with a Sephardic Jewish family and was fascinated to learn about a whole new Jewish tradition, one that included a festive couscous to mark the end of Passover and throwing water after a departing guest to ensure that she would return some day.

I met my husband after college, when we were both in law school. We were friends before we became a couple, and one day, when we were still just friends, my husband told me that it was important to him to marry someone Jewish. “How Jewish does she have to be?” I asked. “Like, would you marry me?” He conceded that he might be willing to marry someone like me because at least I had Jewish grandparents and therefore understood some of the key cultural aspects of being Jewish, like not putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich. (Ten years of marriage and two kids later, it always makes me smile to remember that conversation. You could almost say that I proposed to him.)

Despite the difference in our upbringings, my husband and I feel the same about raising a Jewish family. I don’t think that it was an accident or a coincidence that I ended up with a Jewish man. I think it was one of the things that brought us together — even though I actually had to undergo a formal conversion to Judaism before we got married.

With Judaism still recovering from the horrific events of the 20th century, raising Jewish children feels imperative. My husband’s paternal grandparents both fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930′s. Their families back in Germany, needless to say, were wiped out.  My Jewish grandparents had six children and eleven great-grandchildren. Of the eleven great-grandchildren, only four are being raised as Jews.  I’m not good at math, but those are not great numbers if you are trying to keep a faith alive.

I thought a lot about my husband’s paternal grandparents — only one of whom I was lucky enough to meet – as I read Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, a novel about a Jewish couple who flees Nazi Germany in 1937. The Rosenblums ended up in England, where a baseline of casual anti-Semitism put tremendous pressue on refugees to assimiliate, even at the cost of losing their faith and identity as Jews. Although American history is not free from anti-Semitism, our self-image as a nation of immigrants created more room for immigrants to this country to hold onto their language, their traditions and their faith without fear of complete exclusion from the larger society. But, of course, assimilation comes to all groups — with the exception of those who seek to cut themselves off — and with it the risk of losing all connection to the past.

For me and my husband, and for many of the families we know through our temple, the things we do to raise our children as Jews in this mainly Christian country are important.  We force them to go to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings, we take them out of school on Yom Kippur, and we resist the urge to succumb to Christmas (although we do celebrate Christmas with my parents, as I explain here).  These are small but critical ways that we keep that connection to our long-dead ancestors — many of whom, like the Rosenblums, were forced to leave everything behind and flee in the worst of circumstances.

A “From Left to Write” Book Club post. In conjunction with the book club, I received a free copy of  Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English.  Buy your copy here.   You can find more bloggers’ reactions to Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by following the links on the From Left to Write website. Follow From Left to Write on Twitter here.

Comments

  1. Another great post. I was raised Muslim but not in an observant household. Of all of my siblings I’m the only one who is a practicing Muslim and this is very important to my dad. BTW: My dad has been married to my Jewish stepmom since I was 5 years old. Now that I have a son I think it is very important to raise him with an understanding of Islam but also an understanding of other faiths since we have family members who are Christian and Jewish. Holidays are always interesting in my house :-)

    • Wow! That is an ecumenical family. I have found that my kids are pretty understanding when we explain that we are Jewish but my mom is not, so Santa comes to her house.

  2. Great post! And All of a Kind Family was my FAVORITE series when I was a kid. I think I read all of the books more than twenty-five times!

    • Have your kids read them? My husband read them to Zuzu and she loved them. I think it is important for Jewish kids to have positive stories about Jewish families, not just read Anne Frank, you know?

  3. I think I read the All of a Kind Family series when I was a kid. I don’t remember the names of the books I read, or much about them, but I bet there weren’t many books about 5 sisters and a little brother growing up in New York. And that was pretty much my sole exposure to Jewish life until I was in college, since I grew up in a small, rural middle America town, where we are fairly exotic because we were catholic!

    • I think that is so great that you read those books even though you weren’t Jewish and didn’t grow up around a lot of Jewish families!

  4. I am Jewish by birth and raised that way. I married a non-Jew, and am not particularly observant, but I still identify as Jewish. Ultimately, it is the traditions that are important to me, like you said, to “keep the connections” to those before us.

    Visiting from From Left To Write.

    • With any faith, you keep what is meaningful to you. So much of being Jewish is cultural.

  5. My husband and I were both raised Catholic, but for a million reasons have decided not to follow in that tradition for our son. Lately I have to admit there is some draw to finding a spiritual connection for our family – I’m just totally positive it’s not the one we were both raised in.

    I think it’s awesome that you have a meaningful connection to your faith and can be confident you’re raising your children in the right environment. I’m a little envious.

    • Well, we are all reacting to what we grew up with. I am reacting to not having been raised in a faith and feeling a hole. You and your husband obviously had a different experience and are working through the ramifications of what you experienced growing up.

  6. Good post and I can understand your feelings. I don’t see the Jewish faith disappearing any time soon, but then again, I don’t consider myself Jewish, so I might not feel it or see it like you do.

    My mother was Jewish, my father Catholic. They chose to raise me Catholic b/c my father had the deeper faith. We didn’t celebrate the Jewish holidays at our house but we did at my aunt’s and still do at her house and my cousins. Getting Christmas and Hanukkah presents was fun!

    I married a Jew who considers himself Agnostic. We are raising our son Catholic.

    A few years after my father died my mother remarried…an Orthodox Jew! From one extreme to another for her!

    Did you catch all that?

  7. I think it is interesting (and unpleasant) to note that list in ‘Mr Rosenblum’ was actually written by British Jews, who wanted the new refugees to assimilate and not disturb the status quo. There was a great deal of tension between the Jew of different origin: Eastern European Jews compared to those from Germany or Austria, and those who had been in Britain for a generation or two.

    I think some of the tensions Jack feels in Dorset are not anti-semitism so much as city/ country attitudes.

    Thanks so much for your post!

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Natasha. Those tensions, between the well-off, assimilated German Jews and the less fortunate, newer Russian or Polish Jews existed in America as well. But I do think that American society is so much broader and less homogenous than British society, at least in the 30′s and 40′s, which allows for more tolerance of difference.

      Did you ever read Lore Segal’s book about coming to Britain from Germany at the same time?

  8. I can’t believe there’s a book series – anywhere – that I haven’t heard of. Bummer. I so get the religious aspect as an adult, even though I’m obviously not Jewish. But of my maternal grandparents’ five children’s seven grandchildren who were all raised Catholic, there are seven great grandchildren, and only my two are being raised Catholic. Not great numbers there, either….

    • You shoudl read the first All of a Kind Family book to Little MIss. You guys would love it. Heart-warming tale of a family of five girls growing up on the Lower East Side around 1914 or so.

  9. Great post. I didn’t know you officially converted to Judaism before you married. Did you have any qualms about that? Would you have converted to Catholicism if your husband had been Catholic? I’m genuinely curious!

    • Oh no! I would never have converted to Catholicism or any Christian denomination. The truth is, I couldn’t because I don’t believe in it. My whole point was that I always felt Jewish although I had not been raised that way, and that Judaism as a faith is shrinking so it feels extra-important for me to carry that faith on.

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