Forgiveness – At Yom Kippur, readers share their stories of reconciliation

Stricken with cancer and near death last year, Jack Rosenfeld delivered an unforgettable homily to his three adult children.

"Right here, right now, in front of me," he said in a wheezy Godfather-like whisper, "I want you to look each other in the eye and ask for forgiveness for anything [hurtful] you ever said or did to each other, knowingly or unknowingly…I need to know there is peace among my children."

Fourteen hours after muttering those words, Rosenfeld died at age 80.

In the days preceding Yom Kippur, a day rooted in the sacred power of self-examination and forgiveness, Rosenfeld's daughter Karen Roekard of Berkeley looks back on her father's deathbed words with nostalgia — and deep appreciation.

He delivered the speech at a time when his children desperately needed to hear it, when their interactions, according to Roekard, were characterized by "not much to say, too many unspoken resentments, too much anger seeping out in snide comments."

Their father's words helped them begin to reassess their relationship, and to handle the intricacies of their father's estate with relatively little conflict.

Now when there is friction between the siblings, they remember their forgiving words to each other and, "thank God, have been able to return to the place of Shabbat and shalom bayit [domestic tranquility]," Roekard says.

In anticipation of the Day of Atonement, which starts at sundown Sunday, Sept. 22, Roekard and other Jewish Bulletin readers shared personal stories of forgiveness. Their experiences point to it as a powerful salve not only for the person being forgiven but for the one doing the forgiving.

"A good way of thinking about this is covenant," says Rabbi Yoel Kahn, former leader of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco. "What happens when we transgress in relationships with another person is that we break our covenant. It's a betrayal of trust."

Forgiving, Kahn says, helps re-establish or repair personal covenants, spoken and unspoken. Forgiveness frees the forgiver "in some sense to re-establish wholeness in her or his life by no longer carrying this burden around."

Rabbi Helen Cohn of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco also believes hauling around the albatross of resentment can lead to emotional distress.

"There are people I've known who say, `I never forget and I never forgive,'" the rabbi says. "When we spend a lifetime doing that, we can find ourselves fairly isolated. There is such bitterness that comes with that, such a closing off of relationships."

Renee Lewin knows how transformative forgiveness can be.

Though the San Francisco resident and her older sister Herta McCready were never close, they grew particularly distant in early adulthood after McCready went through two divorces and got hooked on alcohol and prescription drugs.

Lewin, now 65, recalls how in 1953, "on my wedding day, she called me and said in slurred speech that I was making a dire mistake and would end up like her, eventually. She refused to attend my wedding, but her then-husband forced her to come. Spaced-out as she was, I'm only glad she didn't make a scene."

In the ensuing years, the sisters spoke little, and when they did, Lewin says, "I wasn't even listening to what she was saying because the speech was so slurred when she talked."

Years later, Lewin's sister remarried her second husband, moved to Marin County and kicked her addictions. A year ago, she invited Lewin over for lunch and a swim. Reluctant at first, Lewin accepted the invitation.

It turned out to be one of the most important decisions she had made in a long time.

"We had a marvelous time talking almost nonstop. Her husband hardly got a word in," Lewin recalls. "It made me feel good that she turned her life around. We've seen each other several times since, exchanging clothes and jewelry. Sisters can become close but, as in our case, it may take some 60 years to happen."

Walnut Creek artist Jean Rosen tells another story of family reconciliation. In her case, it was not she who forgave or was forgiven. Rather, she helped facilitate a reunion between her estranged parents, Mildred and Bob Rosenfeld, who divorced in 1986 after 40 years of marriage and had hardly spoken since.

In 1994, Rosen, who works as a substitute teacher, drew a simple pencil sketch of a student at a desk with an urban scene in the background. She titled the piece "Oakland Student."

Last year she submitted the drawing to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, which was seeking works to include in a traveling exhibit of women artists.

After her drawing was selected for exhibit in Beijing during last fall's fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, it was returned to the capital, where, Rosen assumed, it was placed in the National Museum of Women's archives.

Rosen did not think much about the drawing until one day she received a letter from her father, who lives in the Washington area. Since Rosen had told him about her drawing, he had contacted the museum and discovered that Rosen's sketch was temporarily on display at the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the letter, Rosenfeld revealed that he had called his ex-wife, who also lived in the Washington area, and asked if she would accompany him to see their daughter's piece.

Much to his surprise, she had agreed, and the pair went to see the drawing in April.

"They had a wonderful day — had lunch, took photos," Rosen says. "This was a historical event because my father had not had a time to get together with my mother in a pleasant way in over 10 years. They'd been coexisting in the community but not really talking or sharing anything."

Since that meeting, Rosen's parents have met on several occasions. Their daughter doesn't imagine her parents will reconcile, but she is glad they have been able to enjoy each other's company without quibbling.

"I'm looking at my art as maybe being a bridge," the artist says. "I hope it will lead to healing and peace for my parents."

Often, forgiving family members can be one of the toughest kinds of forgiveness acts to pull off, Cohn says, "probably because the emotional ties are so much deeper and longer and from childhood. Everything is magnified."

At the same time, Cohn notes that when relatives refuse to forgive one another, the stakes are particularly high.

"What I see over and over again is that when there is distress or tragedy in someone's life, the people they turn to first are their family," she says. "When we have cut ourselves off from family because of these feuds, it leaves us empty-handed."

As hard as it can be to dissolve family feuds, yet another kind of mercy — self-forgiveness — can be even more difficult.

Elizabeth Schainbaum knows all about it.

She had argued with her friend Nitasha: The spat, Schainbaum recalls, was a result of built-up miscommunication, disappointment, hurt feelings and unmet expectations. Although the two resolved their argument, Schainbaum found herself unable to cast the incident from her mind.

"In spite of our resolution, I felt compelled to reiterate my apology," recalls the 23-year-old Marin resident. "Nitasha responded by staring at me blankly. She had completely forgotten about our altercation."

Nitasha's casual response and ability to forget the spat spurred Schainbaum to rethink her own approach.

"The only one who hadn't forgiven me was me," she says. "Our conversation triggered the realization that if you can be forgiving to others and others can do it to you, you should extend the same courtesy to yourself."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.