Larger than life

Sit down for a few hours with the accomplished,entertaining Ruby Ray Karzen, and share her life experiences.

Cherry on the Top By Ruby Ray Karzen Mazo Publishers, Jerusalem 367 pages; NIS 100 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cherry on the Top By Ruby Ray Karzen Mazo Publishers, Jerusalem 367 pages; NIS 100
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ruby Ray Karzen, is a feisty, larger- than-life lady, well-known in both Jerusalem and various American cities and towns – especially Chicago, where she was a rebbetzin, supporting her equally well-known husband, Rabbi Jay Karzen.
Cherry on the Top is a memoir of a very interesting life.
Karzen’s life began in New York on May 9, 1938. Her parents, Isidore Ray and Minnie Gartner Ray, were born and married in Poland, and her memoir begins in a Polish town called Staszow, where the Raja family (now Ray) were lumber and leather merchants. There is a very detailed family tree, as we are introduced to her many forebears, and throughout the book we meet many more relatives – as her memoir covers almost 70 years.
The title Cherry on the Top stems from Karzen’s belief that all of life’s activities flow from faith in the Almighty, and comparing life to an ice-cream sundae, she maintains that it rises higher and higher with acts of goodness and charity. In this way, the cherry on top represents the achievement of becoming a mensch.
The author lived with various family members throughout her childhood. Her mother died when she was two, and sadly she has no memory of her. Her father then married her mother’s younger sister, who also died, and there was a third marriage. Yet Karzen never seems unhappy with her childhood, so it must have been a close, warm family.
The memoir is not in chronological order, so it is difficult to follow all the changes in her life. Eventually, Karzen went back to live in the dwelling of her father’s grocery store with her sisters, apparently contented with her life in Chicago.
In 1954 she met her husband, who was already establishing a reputation as a young cantor, at a Bnei Akiva camp in Indiana; she tells of their romance and wedding in 1956, and her close ties with his family.
Their life together as a pulpit rabbi and rebbetzin is very colorful and interesting.
There was not a lot of money, and in their mid-20s they spent years in several Jewish communities that today no longer exist. One was Ottumwa, Iowa, their first congregation, where their daughter Tamar was born in 1959, and later their son, Uri. One problem was that there was no usable mikve and Karzen, as probably the only fully observant Orthodox woman in the community, had to travel 90 miles every month to the city of Des Moines to use its ritual bath.
The couple’s motto is TEAM – together each accomplishes more; they evidently have always had a very compatible marriage.
Their first trip to Israel was very exciting, heralding their desire to make aliya. First, however, they moved to Des Plaines, Illinois, a new community in its raw, early stages with young congregants.
Karzen returned to school to study interior design, later working in real estate in Chicago for several years before becoming administrator of Hillel Torah Day School in Skokie for eight years.
After her two children made aliya, the couple took frequent trips to Israel. Besides private excursions, the Karzens began to lead groups, and came on 28 such trips before their move here. They left behind two lucrative jobs, the rabbi having served a large Chicago congregation and Karzen her position at the large day school.
The author doesn’t hesitate to share some of her gaffes in Hebrew.
When she wanted her son to get leave from the IDF to have his wedding in America, she wrote to IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan. She thought she was writing to a rabbi, not knowing that Eitan’s title of rav-aluf meant he was a general, with nothing to do with the rabbinate.
Nevertheless, her request was granted. Another hilarious mistake was when she tried to buy a wedding gown for her daughter and requested a simla im rakevet (a dress with a railway train!).
There are also some interesting anecdotes about how Rabbi Jay started a bar mitzva service at the Western Wall to enable overseas tourists to have a meaningful event, called Rituals Unlimited.
The most interesting part of the memoir is about the Karzens’ secret trip to Russia in 1987. They were recruited to go for three weeks, to bring back names and addresses of Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel.
Traveling as rich Americans, they brought luxury items like jeans, sport shoes and tape recorders, which could be sold by the refuseniks on the black market, as well as Judaica like tefillin and tallitot. Secrecy was of the utmost importance, as they knew their hotel room was bugged and their suitcases searched every day. It was a highlight of their life, and possibly the most engaging part of the book Karzen also shares many events from her years as national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), while also working as an interior designer. She and her husband spent decades as part of AACI – Rabbi Jay as the cemetery/bereavement chairman, while Karzen was deeply involved in their move to the new center in Talpiot.
Cherry on the Top was written as a memoir and an ethical will for the Karzens’ children and descendants.
If you like Jewish geography, you will come across many familiar names.
The book is not – nor does it purport to be – a great work of literature.
But if you enjoy sitting down for a few hours with an accomplished, entertaining lady and sharing her life experiences, this memoir will give you a lot of pleasure.