Honoring thy father and brother

Robert Rosenbaum found a way home to Judaism. Raised without any tangible religious identity by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he converted three years ago and then became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco in the fall of 2005.

“Rabbi Helen Cohen’s Introduction to Judaism class really made a big impression on me,” said Rosenbaum, 45, a freelance German translator. “Judaism’s approach to God seemed so refreshing and appealing. I was impressed with how non-dogmatic Judaism could be about God, and how the rabbi was so warm and accepting of so many views.”

Growing up in Sarasota, Fla., among hard-core evangelicals helped to skew Rosenbaum’s attitudes toward religion and theology. “All that salvation and damnation turned me off,” he said.

His father’s indifference to most Jewish practice did not help either. “I don’t really know how much his Jewish identity meant to him. He didn’t go through the motions of celebrating Judaism,” Rosenbaum admitted. “He never celebrated the Jewish holidays and was not at all religious. But he has passed away, so I’ll never get the chance to ask him.

“But he went to synagogue once a year to observe the anniversary of the death of my older brother, who drowned 30 years ago,” said Rosenbaum, who moved to San Francisco several years ago but spent nearly a decade in Germany after graduate school. “It left an impression on me that he would do that.”

Rosenbaum’s journey from being unaffiliated and non-religious to full-scale immersion into Judaism began nearly six years ago. A sudden and intense interest in his family’s history led him to cousins in New York who shared with him a treasure trove of family artifacts.

“It was an enriching feeling to connect with family I grew up knowing nothing about,” he said proudly about the unexpected avalanche of family history that found its way to him. “They sent me some of my grandmother’s old papers, which were in German, including a note written by my great-uncle, my grandmother’s brother, in 1920. It was informing her and the family about visiting their father’s burial site, instructions for observing his yahrzeit as well as the dates of it for the next several decades, and the date of his death in German and Hebrew.”

Rosenbaum also discovered more about his own family’s connection to world history, something his father, for unknown reasons, simply avoided.

“My father had a whole set of cousins who were brought out of Vienna at the last moment,” he said. “I had read up on the Holocaust, but never knew my family had a connection to it. A couple of my father’s relatives died in the concentration camps, including my great-uncle, the author of the letter to my grandmother. He died at Auschwitz.”

So it seemed natural to Rosenbaum to embrace his paternal roots and convert once Cohen’s class ended. He studied, went to the mikveh, and became a legal Jew.

The next logical step, he decided, was to become bar mitzvah, which he did at Temple Emanu-el under the tutelage of Cantor Roslyn Barak. He and a group of seven other adults met weekly for a couple of hours for seven months. They learned to read Hebrew, chant the prayers and their Torah portions and discussed the meaning of their Biblical passages.

“If my father had raised me Jewish, I would have had a bar mitzvah ceremony when I was 13,” Rosenbaum said. “So I had to do it myself. It’s an experience a Jew goes through. Previously I had been bewildered by the liturgy and sequence of services, so I hoped Barak’s class would clear it up.”

Rosenbaum said the group b’nai mitzvah ceremony was highly emotional. “Most of my siblings flew here to attend, although none of them pursued Judaism.” He has four sisters and a brother. “But I know they’ve been curious about our heritage, having grown up with the same legacy I did. And some of my non-Jewish relations came as well.

“During the bar mitzvah ceremony, I felt like I was going through this for all of them,” he continued.

Rosenbaum doesn’t attend synagogue regularly, but he is extremely proud of being Jewish.

And you can definitely find him there at least three times a year when he observes the yahrzeits of his parents and older brother. Just as his father did.