People walk down Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on a Shabbat afternoon..
(photo credit: ONDREJ ŽVÁCEK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Last week we commemorated 11 years since my father died. He died at age 90 in Jerusalem during Hanukka, having lived here for 30 years with my mother, all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, over 100 in number.
My father, Moshe (Moe) Fuchs was born in 1916 in New York, the youngest of eight children born to immigrant parents who came to the US from Europe in 1904. They lived in Canarsie, Brooklyn, New York, at that time an Italian neighborhood. There were no religious day schools in those days. All the children went to public school and to Hebrew school in the afternoon to supplement their Jewish education.
At the beginning of the century, being Orthodox in the US was very difficult. People who came from Europe were told that in the US life is different from life in the shtetl. They would not need their religion in the “new world.” Many people threw their tallit and tefillin overboard as they came to Ellis Island. The work week was six days, including Saturday. Most jobs demanded working on Shabbat. My grandfather had a new job every week. It was illegal to open your store on Sunday; my parents had a friend who went to jail very often because he opened his grocery store on Sunday instead of Shabbat.
My father’s older siblings pretty much assimilated despite their parents’ strict adherence to religion. However, the younger siblings, including my father, stuck to their religion. They joined the Young Israel movement and there they met other young people who were determined to preserve their Orthodox lifestyle. My father walked every Shabbat from Canarsie to Brownsville (a nice walk) to be part of that supportive group.
They founded a Jewish employment agency which helped young people find jobs where they would not have to work on Shabbat. They had conferences about the importance of keeping Shabbat. My grandmother and her friends would go to the Jewish shops in Brownsville on Friday afternoon to encourage the owners to close their shops on Shabbat.
Keeping Shabbat was a tremendous challenge in those days because people lost jobs if they refused to work on Saturday. Many people could not withstand that challenge.
The Young Israel movement also gave these young people opportunities to meet like-minded young men and women. Many of them married each other and together raised families committed to a true Orthodox lifestyle. Our parents met and married in 1940.
My father studied accounting so that he could be self-employed and not have to work in a firm that might demand of him to work on Saturdays. Unfortunately, all the state exams were given on Saturdays. He would walk from Canarsie to Brooklyn college on Saturday morning, sit in the exam room all day, and at nightfall would take the test in a fraction of the time the others would have.
My father spent three years in the US Army during World War II. He was stationed in Japan and left his wife and child in the US. During this time, he stuck to his religion. I found a letter among his belongings where he tells the story that his commander found that his gun was dirty. My father refused to clean it on Shabbat, deeming it to be an unnecessary task that did not warrant breaking Shabbat. He was to be court-martialed but when his commander saw that my father stuck to his values he relented and showed respect for my father. My father returned to civilian life in 1946, back to his family, developing his accounting practice and continuing his activities in the Young Israel movement.
As the day school movement grew in America, religious life became easier. His four children benefited from a fine Jewish education in day schools and yeshivot. We all went to Bnei Akiva and did not have to struggle to live a fully observant life. Our parents would beseech their relatives to send their children to Jewish schools. Whoever received a Jewish education stayed Jewish-identified. However, many of our relatives continued to send their children to public schools and today they are totally assimilated.
Shabbat in our parents’ home was special. My parents were not wealthy, but we had beautiful Shabbat clothing and my mother’s Shabbat table was plentiful. My father worked until the last minute Friday afternoon, but once Shabbat came in, there was no talk of business, no idle conversation, just speaking about the weekly Torah portion, singing and enjoying the special Shabbat atmosphere. My parents were active in the Young Israel movement and the Hapoel Hamizrachi Zionist movement. They were part of a group of people who built Jewish Orthodox life in America.
As their children began moving to Israel, our parents picked up and joined us here. They reaped the blessings of their hard work.
When I hear discussions on the radio about Shabbat observance in Israel, it is hard to believe that in our own country we have to debate whether or not people should work on Shabbat. We have a Jewish state, we brought the world the concept of a day of rest, how can we give up this important principle?