Saying Shema on the Rosary by
(353 Stories)

Prompted By The Great Beyond

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My maternal grandparents met, married and had their first two children in Bialystock, Russia at the turn of the 20th century. They survived the pogroms (race riots promulgated against Jews) in 1906, hidden by Christian neighbors and fled to the United States with their babies in 1906…yes, immigrants. My grandfather had been a prosperous watch maker, traveling to Warsaw to buy and sell his goods. My grandmother had a maid in the old country.

They made their way to Toledo, OH where my grandfather opened Stein Jewelers at 612 Adams St in downtown Toledo. They had two more children, my mother being the youngest, born in 1913 and the family prospered.

My mother was smothered by her older sisters, and lacked self-confidence. After trying to be a dancer in New York City in 1935, she came home and became the book keeper in her father’s store, the spinster daughter. World War II broke out and she went to Detroit, living with her oldest sister and worked for the USO. There she met and married my father shortly after the war. They had my brother two years later and me, five years after that, when both were 39 years old. I am the youngest grandchild by far and my grandparents doted on me.

My grandfather would play bingo to win me a stuffed animal. I still have “Spotty”, the favorite gift from the menagerie he gave me through the years. We would drive from Detroit to Toledo and play gin rummy. He would deliberately lose so he could give me the spare change from his pocket. He wrote the following note on paper from a score pad after one of our matches. It is one of the few relics I have from him.unnamed-1

Grandpa seemed old, even when I was born. He was always a little overweight, traditional Jewish cooking was laden with fat and exercise was certainly not part of my grandfather’s vocabulary.

It was the summer of 1964, my first summer at the National Music Camp in northern Michigan, when I received the letter from my mother telling me that my grandfather had passed, from a heart attack, at the age of 86. He had already been buried by the time the letter arrived. I was 11 years old and away from the support of my family. I had never lost anyone I loved before and didn’t know how to mourn or what to do. I turned to my camp family – the girls in my cabin.

That first summer, in Junior Girls, I was particularly close to Debby Bornstein and Glorianne Martz. Debby was a Conservative Jew, more religious than I. Glor was a Roman Catholic who attended parochial school. I have always been interested in comparative religions, so delighted when she showed me her beautiful missal and her silver and crystal rosary, a gift from the nuns. They were given special permission to sit up with me after Taps (the bugle call that signals “lights out”) and comfort me. Debby let me wear her gold Jewish star around my neck that night. Glor lent me her beautiful rosary. I only knew she held each bead and said a prayer on it.

I sat up all night saying the Shema on that rosary…”Hear oh Israel, the Lord, Our God, the Lord is One”. It is called the watch-word of the Jewish faith; it declares the “one-nes” of God, the basis of monotheism. A person is supposed to have it on their lips as they die. I somehow knew the Almighty would understand what I was doing and I drew comfort in saying this prayer on the beautiful crystal beads for my beloved grandfather.

As I grew older, my relationship with my religion became more complex, but my deep love and respect for my grandfather never faded. He came to this country to seek religious freedom and tolerance. I think of him every time I exercise my civic duty and vote. Many is the time, when I pull the curtain behind me in the voting booth, that I shed a few tears, thinking of the patriarch of my family, the immigrant who came to this promised land where he worked hard and found great opportunity. I always think of Zalman Stein, spared from the pogroms, who prospered in this melting pot. He was a Zionist, but loved this country too. I will weep again on this Election Day, to think about what has become of his American dream.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: pogroms, rosary, S'hema, voting
Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your grandfather. I love the ecumenism of saying the Sh’ma on one friend’s rosary while wearing another’s star of David, and the comfort your friends were able to give you.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, John. I always liked the ecumenism of it too. In fact, as I grew older, and thought about that night in a broader context, I thought the story should be told and used it as the basis for a sermon I gave at Sunday services at camp when I was on the National Alumni Board. I talked about lessons learned from inside the cabin…not in classes.

  2. Constance says:

    How awesome of those camp friends, little girls who really knew how to step in and be there for you in the best way they knew how, which turned out to be such a perfect way. Had to grab a tissue.

  3. Suzy says:

    Betsy, I love this story! What a wonderful tribute to your grandfather, and to the girls in your cabin at NMC. You inspired me to write my own story about my grandfather, also an immigrant from Russia/Poland at the turn of the century.

    I’m curious about your decision to provide definitions of “pogrom” and “Taps.” Have you found that people are unfamiliar with these two terms?

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Suzy, I always knew that I would post this story to Facebook. Not all my readers would be familiar with either term. I originally told this story as part of a larger sermon delivered as part of a Sunday morning service at camp more than 20 years ago when I was on the National Alumni Board for the Interlochen Center for the Arts. They all knew about Taps, but certainly not about pogroms.

  4. rosie says:

    I have read this story several times, as with some others that I have read, it still carries the weight and beauty of a time and place that I can identify with closely. Wonderful memories that you have of your family too.

  5. Patricia says:

    Beautiful story Betsy. You remind me that I still have my crystal rosary (maybe that was a thing then?). It was almost a piece of jewelry, and has lots of miles on it.

  6. I always look forward to your family history stories, Betsy. You have a great gift — and responsibility — for recounting your origins! I especially admire how you surround your family’s unique tales with the rich context of the immigrant experience. Write on!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Chas. During this period when immigrant-bashing is high sport for the Republican party, I feel it is important to remind as many people as I can about the reasons so many came to this country of immigrants and were productive and successful members of society.

  7. I read that into your story, embedded in the best way, not didactic but embedded seamlessly in your narrative. We’ll be needing to develop that skill as the civil war intensifies.

  8. I am learning so much more about you here in your essays than I ever knew in the almost 50 years of our friendship. You write beautifully, and tell beautiful stories of your life. I love this one particularly, Betsy. So moving. Your grandfather’s story reminds me of my grandfather Frumpkin’s story. I imagine you’ve shed more than a few tears for your grandfather since election day. I have, too. Didn’t know we had all this in common.

  9. I forgot to say, too, that I certainly see your grandfather in you!

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