By Harriet P. Gross
It’s astounding how, as we get older, the past keeps coming back to live with us again. Not that we’re living in the past ourselves; more that the past, living within us, is forever resurfacing as part of the present. And some of those enduring memories have amazing relevance today.
My latest case-in-point: Hannah Rosenthal, who fills Barack Obama’s new position as “special envoy to combat and monitor anti-Semitism.” She’s a feisty woman who has been having something of a bad time of late since her very public disagreement with Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, over the matter of J Street and what effect this brash young U.S. lobbying group might be having, or will have, on the Jews of Israel.
Although the J Street controversy is much in the present, its principal player has thrown me back into the past, because I not only know what Hannah Rosenthal is doing today, I have some suspicions as to why.
I’m afraid I paid little initial attention to her presidential appointment. Hannah Rosenthal is perhaps not an uncommon name for a Jewish woman; there must be at least a few of them throughout the United States. But I’ve learned that she’s the one who grew up in Chicago’s south suburbs, my home for many years. She’s the daughter of Frank Rosenthal, once that area’s senior, most esteemed and respected, rabbi.
When I left there almost 30 years ago, she was a young aspirant to the rabbinate herself. But times change, and goals change with them, although Hannah Rosenthal’s desire to further Judaism never wavered.
Let me tell you something about her father. Born, educated and ordained in Germany, he was one of the young rabbis who survived Hitler’s concentration camps, then brought his giant intellect and all that went with it to our quiet little corner of the United States. He was a brilliant scholar, superb at sharing his scholarship with others, along with his passion for Judaism.
I did not belong to Rabbi Rosenthal’s temple, Anshe Sholom, which was far too big for me, affiliating with one of the nearby smaller congregations. I studied with him, and as a columnist and feature writer for the local twice-weekly community paper, I had frequent contact with him on many other matters. He was occasionally rigid, more often didactic, but always worth speaking with and listening to. I respected him and revered him. So did everyone else.
When he died (sadly, of colon cancer; it was said that he, like so many “macho” men then, ignored symptoms until it was too late), the Union of American Hebrew Congregations sent the esteemed Morris Kertzer, an author-educator rather than a pulpit rabbi, to help the temple through its terribly tough transition. I had often used Rabbi Kertzer’s best-known book “What Is a Jew?” in teaching my own temple’s teenagers; when he had come earlier to serve us during our rabbi’s sabbatical, we became friends. I invited him to my home for dinner after his first day at Anshe Sholom, and he announced his arrival with a weary, heartfelt “Oy,” wondering aloud how that towering, beloved figure could ever be replaced.
(This was a very practical matter, according to Kertzer’s assessment: A young rabbi would probably not be up to the challenge of handling such a large congregation, especially one expected to be in mourning for a long time; an older, more experienced rabbi, already settled down in a satisfying pulpit of his own, would probably not want to uproot himself and his family for what would have to be the impossible task of filling unfillable shoes.)
But the temple survived, engaged another rabbi and has even had one or two more since. It’s become much smaller over the years as the area’s Jewish population has diminished, but while other congregations have merged, Anshe Sholom still retains its independence. It has never again risen to the heights of those Frank Rosenthal glory days. Hannah Rosenthal lived through that, and maybe made her non-rabbinic decision because of that.
Rabbi Rosenthal always remembered his German roots and their aftermath, the whys and hows that determined his life’s direction. His daughter must be much like him. Why else would she have said, when asked if she could get over her clash with Ambassador Oren, “Yes. But I don’t forget anything”? Knowing her father, I have to believe her. Let’s see where her own remembering takes her in navigating issues of American and Israeli Jewish relations as well as anti-Semitism.