A young girl stood near her father on the quay of a Polish harbor, a steamer trunk at her feet. Out of her nine siblings, 12-year-old Rose was the child chosen to be sent to the "golden land," America. Life in Poland was hard, hunger a constant visitor in her home. After much scraping and pinching, her family had saved enough for a single one-way ticket to the United States. And Rose, the youngest of the nine, was the lucky one chosen to go.
Her father hoisted the trunk on his shoulder and walked silently, his coat tails flapping behind him. Rose could see the effort he was making, to keep his emotions in check. The weight of living was apparent on the lines of his face, in the burning sadness of his wise eyes, and in the gray in his beard. His back, however, was ramrod straight, in seeming defiance of his tribulations.
With an involuntary sigh, her father dropped the trunk on the deck and turned to his daughter. A gray head bent over an upturned innocent face, as the father gazed deep into his daughter's unclouded eyes. He felt an urge to scream, to protest the cruelty of fate. How he longed to snatch Rose back home, to hold her as he had held her when she was a mere infant. Instead, he laid a trembling hand on her cheek.
"Rosie, mein kind (my child), remember, God is watching over you every step of the way. Remember His laws and keep them well. Never forget that more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. It will be hard in the new land. Don't forget who you are. Keep the Sabbath -- no matter what sacrifice you must make."
"Tatte! Tatte!" (Father! Father!)
Rosie buried her face in the scratchiness of her father's coat, her slender arms wrapped tightly around him as if to anchor herself to all that was familiar in Poland. Tatte gave another heaving sigh. His straight shoulders bent over his daughter as his tears mingled with hers.
A blast from the ship tore the two apart. Tatte bent down and hugged Rose again, squeezing the breath out of her in a hug meant to last a lifetime. Then he turned and walked down the gangplank, a stooped man, finally defeated by life's hardships. As the ship steamed away from the shtetl life of Poland, a fresh sea wind blew on the passengers preparing to start life anew.
For Rose, the journey was crammed with questions and uncertainty. Would her relatives really extend a welcome to her, or was she to be all alone in the new land? How frightening was the thought of a new life without her loved ones. As the ship made entrance into New York Harbor, the passengers stood plastered against the railing, shouting and clapping as they saw the "new land." Rose stood aside, shy and unsure. Would the new land fulfill its promise of hope, freedom, and riches? Would her relatives meet her there -- or was she now homeless?
Rose did not have long to worry. Her relatives were waiting for her, solicitous of their "greenhorn" cousin. She was soon safely ensconced in their home. With her mature appearance and demeanor, it was not long before Rose found a job as a sewing machine operator.
Life in America was new and strange. Polish mannerisms were quickly shed -- along with religion. Modesty, keeping kosher, and Torah were abandoned, together with the outmoded clothing and accent. Rose's relatives insisted religion was "old-fashioned," an unnecessary accessory in America. Rose, however, never forgot her father's parting words. She put on the new clothes her relatives gave her, cut her hair to suit the fashion, but never gave up on the Sabbath.
Every week without fail, Rose devised a new excuse for her boss to explain why she did not come to work on Saturday. One week, she had a toothache, another week her stomach bothered her. After three weeks, the foreman grew wise. He called her over. "Rosie," he said in a tone that indicated he only had her welfare in mind, "I like your work, and I like you. But this Sabbath business has got to stop. Either you come in this Saturday, or you can look for a new job."
Upon hearing of this development, Rosie's relatives were adamant: Work on Sabbath, she must. They applied pressure; they cajoled, pleaded, and enticed. Rose felt like a leaf caught between heavy gusts of wind, pushed and pulled with no weight or life of its own. She was so young and vulnerable. She wanted to please her relatives. But her father's words kept echoing in her head. What should she do?
The week passed in a daze for Rose. Her emotions were in turmoil. "On the one hand, Tatte is not here to help me be strong. I so want to please my newfound friends. I want to fit into this new land," she reasoned. And then, just as quickly came another thought: "On the other hand, how can I forget Sabbath? How can I give up the beauty Tatte taught me?"
"Rosie, sweetheart, listen to us. It's for your own good..." On and on went her relatives, until Rose's determination wavered.
On Friday, Rose walked to work, lunch bag in hand and head stooped in thought. She sat at her machine throughout the day, listening to the humming of the other machines as she absentmindedly went about her job of mass-producing. Would it be so awful to do this tomorrow as well? Decision time was nearing.
Whirr. Bzzz. Whirr. Bzzz. The machine kept tune to Rose's troubled thoughts. What should she do -- or was the question, what could she do? As the sun slipped over the parapets of the Lower East Side, Rose knew there was really no question. She was Jewish, and she would keep the Sabbath.
Sabbath in America was not like the warm day Rose had known at home. This week was the worst yet. She lacked the courage to face her relatives and tell them of her resolve. Instead, she left the house in the morning, pretending to be headed for work. Back and forth through the streets of Manhattan she paced. Together with the city pigeons, she rested in Washington Square Park. "Tatte, this song is for you," she whispered. The pigeons ruffled their feathers. "Yonah matz'ah bo manoach -- the dove found a place to rest." There she sat among the pigeons, singing the traditional Sabbath songs, with tears in her eyes and sobs between the verses.
When three stars finally peeked out from the black sky announcing the end of Sabbath, the moon shone down on a weary girl and bathed her face in its glow. Rose had triumphed, but her victory would cost her dearly. She had no job and had alienated her family.
"She uttered Baruch HaMavdil," the blessing said upon the departure of the Sabbath. It was time to face the hardness of the world. Rose trudged homeward, dreading the nasty scene to come when her relatives learned that she hadn't been to work.
As she neared home, a shout broke into her reverie. "Rosie!? What... what... I mean, how are you here? Where were you?"
Rose looked up at her cousin Joe, her expression woebegone. "Joe, what will become of me? I kept Sabbath and lost my job. Now everyone will be angry and disappointed with me, and, oh, Joe, what will I do?" The words tumbled out together with her tears.
Joe looked at her strangely. "Rose, didn't you hear?" he asked gently.
"There was an awful fire in the factory. Nobody survived. There was no way out of the building. People even jumped to their deaths." Joe's voice was hushed, and he was crying openly. "Rosie, don't you see? Because you kept Sabbath, you are alive. Because of your Sabbath, you survived."
Out of all her new friends and co-workers, Rose Goldstein was the lone survivor. The historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911, claimed the lives of all 145 immigrant workers present. Because it had been Sabbath, Rose Goldstein was not there. As her father had said, more than the Jews keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps the Jews.
This is a true story. Rose Goldstein died peacefully at the age of 82.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire became the catalyst for new fire-safety rules. The factory building is still standing and is now owned by New York University.
Rose told me this story a long time ago when I was a young girl. It made an impression on me at the time, but I soon relegated it to the back recesses of my mind. In a way, I doubted it a little. It seemed too far-out, like a story from a book. Yeah, sure, the fire was on Sabbath.
A few years ago, I became friends with a singer who was engaged in rediscovering Torah Judaism. Most of her work was on Sabbath, and we argued back and forth about why she should not work on that day. She finally told me, "Goldy, I agree about the importance of Sabbath. But it's just too hard to keep."
I was silent, with no quick answer to her dilemma. The next day, I sat down with a newspaper and noticed the blaring headlines about the tragic Happy Land fire in the Bronx. Since this fire occurred on the anniversary of the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most newspapers did a side story on that long-ago fire. Still with a trace of skepticism, I double checked the date. As I corroborated Rose's story, its full impact hit me. The fire did occur on Sabbath, and, unfortunately, most of the victims were Jewish immigrant girls -- girls who could not stand up to the test of not working on Sabbath.
I picked up the phone to call my friend. I had the answer for her: "More than the Jews keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps the Jews."