Remembering Rav Rodal, of the Chabad of Milan - opinion

Thank you, Rav Rodal, for your work, your dedication, your love and all that you have taught me. It will stay with me and all of your “children” all over the world forever.

 FOR US ‘children of Rav Rodal,’ life became one big song: With son Yossi at his wedding. (photo credit: Yossi Percia)
FOR US ‘children of Rav Rodal,’ life became one big song: With son Yossi at his wedding.
(photo credit: Yossi Percia)

We were dropped off at the house, I and my younger siblings. I must have been around 10.

My parents had to go out that evening, and our nanny couldn’t stay with us that night, so in an emergency we were sent to the Rodal family.

I was in shock when I stepped into the apartment. We had to literally walk over objects on the floor, the kitchen was upside down, the floor was covered with all sorts of things. The apartment was way too small for a family of 10 kids, at the time (they were to have 17 children).

We felt lost, and my little brother started crying because he wanted Mami. I picked him up, while I also was holding back tears, for I missed my home, too. Rav Rodal came toward us with his strong voice, “Why are you standing there? Come to the salon, kids, and make yourselves comfortable.” He called his children over, and to the daughter who was in my class, he said, “Zeldiiiiiiii, Hadassah is here...” Out of nowhere, Zeldi came toward me with her warm smile and took us to the dining room. There were books and things all over the table. A thin wall separated the salon from the bedroom, and I could hear the rest of the kids chatting in the other room.

“Tonight is movie night. We are getting ready. Mami is making popcorn, come sit down... if you can find a chair.” She smiled at us and literally pushed us down into small chairs.

Chabad emissaries (shluchim) attending their annual international conference at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn in November 2019. (credit: MENDEL GROSSBAUM/CHABAD.ORG)Chabad emissaries (shluchim) attending their annual international conference at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn in November 2019. (credit: MENDEL GROSSBAUM/CHABAD.ORG)

They rolled out a TV out of nowhere, like magic. The salon, where they had dined a few hours before and ate a big Shabbat meal, turned into a movie theater. Lights off and curtains closed, one of the sisters took out a VHS tape with the movie chosen for the night.

Cuore (Heart).

I didn’t know that this movie would remain forever in my mind. It’s a famous Italian film about the First World War and two Italian friends who meet while reflecting on the absurdity of war. I cried throughout the movie. We all did. The popcorn was barely eaten as the lights went back on and we all looked at each other with tears in our eyes, and then started laughing. “We usually choose a funny movie for motzei Shabbat, but Chanale was in charge of choosing tonight.” 

The Rodal family is one in a million. The father, Rav Rodal, originally from Montreal, came to Italy as a newlywed with his wife, Devorah, to serve as Chabad emissaries in Milan under the guidance of Rav Garelik, where he would be teaching in school. 

Very quickly Rav Rodal became the emblem of the Chabad school in Milan. A short man, a little chubby, with a red beard, a strong voice, a big smile and sharp eyes that looked straight into your soul.

I remember sitting in the first row during his classes and studying every detail of this tiny gigantic man who could make us tremble with fear and scream with laughter, too.

All I remember of my first introduction to Jewish lessons, Torah, Hebrew – was all about him.

Vayomer, and he said, Moshe, Moshe, el Hashem, to Hashem... We all sang Torah verses the whole day, every day. There was a song or a rhyme for everything – when we came to class, when we waited for him to check our homework, when we waited in line to leave for lunch, when we got on our buses. 

Life became for us, “children of Rav Rodal,” one big song, and so much more fun.

I remember when he would come to the classroom, his shirt always a little tight on his belly, his shirt pocket exploding with pens and papers all squeezed inside. He would walk into the classroom with a small espresso in his hands, and when he finished, he would play with the stirring stick in his mouth for the rest of the hour. He had short legs and he would put his feet under his desk up on the side of the table. I could always see a hole in his shoes.

He already had a big family, they had 10 kids and no signs of stopping. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment not far from my house.

From that famous evening when we stayed for a few hours and watched a video, the Rodals’ home became a place for me to hang out when I could. When my parents came to pick us up that night, my siblings were crying to go home; I ached to stay a little longer in that tiny messy apartment. There was magic there. There was no luxury or comfort, there was barely what was needed for a large family to live. But there was an incredible atmosphere. 

As we grew older, my visits to the Rodals’ home changed – from movie night, it became homework day, to chatting through the night. We would talk about our dreams, I and the girls. I would tell them stories that I was so good at already, and they would all sit around me listening and not wanting to miss a word. I was a giant next to them – they were all short and small. Then we would all sleep together in the girls’ room, where there were three bunk beds. 

At school, there was a Rodal child in every class, so we all had a Rodal as a friend in my family. I still don’t understand how out of that small messy apartment the kids came to school perfectly in order with all that they needed, never missing a book, a pencil or homework. Usually, every Rodal child was the best student in that class. My “Rodal child” was Zeldi. She was clever in school and had the most stunning handwriting. She excelled in every subject. Zeldi and I went to London together for high school and became amazing friends. We would walk down the road of the school in London and people would just laugh – I at 178 cm. and Zeldi at 145 cm., walking together in the same uniform chatting in Italian.

I remember once asking Zeldi what it was like to be Rav Rodal’s daughter, since he had become such a myth for us children. She looked at me with loving eyes, and said, “It’s the best thing a child could wish for. He is amazing.”

I envied her. Sometimes I wished to be part of that clan, all those siblings. It was like a small school at home, so much fun, so much laughter with the Rodals.

When I went to language school when I was older, my classes were held in a very fancy area in the center of Milan. Looking out the windows, you could see Rav Rodal’s small synagogue, where he gave classes to adults. His Italian was perfect, even if spoken with a Canadian accent. He charmed everyone. He would make you feel like the prettiest woman in the room, and he would make men feel like the smartest. When you needed to be straightened out, he would look you straight in the eye and tell you the truth to your face. There was no hiding from Rav Rodal. He was a rabbi, yet you could talk to him about anything – love, fashion, movies, sports. He knew it all. He always had a smart answer.

The Rodal family would travel to the south of Italy every August, as Rav Rodal was one of the rabbis in charge of picking the etrogim in the Calabria region, known for its lemon fields. He was an expert and would spend hours under the scorching sun making sure that the etrogim he picked were the best and had no blemishes. The etrogim from Italy became known worldwide, and soon all the Jews were paying more money to buy the special etrogim from Calabria. They were the best.

Rav Rodal did not have an easy life. He lost a daughter, Raizy, to cancer when she was 12, and they always struggled financially. They had a big family, yet they behaved as if they had grown up in a palace. They were smart, adventurous, funny, and their home always had guests, food and laughter. 

They were so rich.

Rav Rodal passed away in Italy on the last day of Sukkot, after having suffered an ictus a few months before while in the south of Italy doing his work of picking etrogim for the world.

He left us while we still enjoyed his etrogim and blessed them in all parts of the world. He was for sure a tzaddik.

Rav Rodal left so many orphans, 16 children of his own and so many students all over the world who all cried bitter tears at the sad news of his passing away. He was only 77.

He was a true soldier of the Rebbe and never stopped believing, talking, teaching about Moshiach to all. He loved Jews and non-Jews, who adored him in Milan. Everyone knew Rav Rodal. His laughter, his voice, his jokes and his knowledge.

I have no doubt that he has already shaken up the heavens, and the angels are laughing with him as they are finally getting ready to send Moshiach. 

You don’t say no to Rav Rodal.

Thank you, Rav Rodal, for your work, your dedication, your love and all that you have taught me. It will stay with me and all of your “children” all over the world forever.

We love you,

Hadassah Chen and all your students around the world 

Rav Shmuel Rodal passed away over Sukkot at the age of 77.

The writer is from Italy, lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four children and heads HadassahChen Productions. She also hosts a talk show on Arutz 7, Real Talk with Hadassah Chen.