Tonight I’ll be observing my mother’s first yahrzeit. I’ve thought of her every day this past year: a complicated mix of gratitude and sadness I’ve never quite experienced before
If you’d like to learn a little bit more about my mom and her life, here’s the eulogy I gave at her memorial service one year ago.
The sweetness people saw in Ruthie Rosen was very real. It was honest, it was genuine, it was who she was. My mother was truly young at heart; she had that beautiful smile and that ready laugh for her entire life. Ruthie was also, for lack of a better word, a pure artist. She loved beauty and expressed that love through her music and her painting because she simply had to. She couldn’t not be an artist. My mother might well have been the most purely creative person I have ever known.
I have no doubt that all of these qualities were part of her soul from the very beginning of her life.
Ruth Rosen was born in 1933 in Los Angeles, to Simon Israel and Gertrude Ellenberg. Grandpa Simon was an immigrant from Romania, who made his way to the US through Canada and worked for most of his life as a printer. Grandma Gertie, a child of immigrants was born in New York City. Mom was the youngest of three sisters, something of an unexpected surprise; she was born nine years after her next older sister, Francie.
As the baby of the family, Ruthie was the adored one. She was particularly the apple of her father Simon’s eye who, she said, would give her big, loving hugs every day when he came home from work. By all accounts, my mom had a wonderful, idyllic childhood. The pre-war LA she described to us sounded like paradise: she told us great stories about taking the streetcar to the beach, going to the movies and the skating rink with her friends.
As a child, my mother took skating and ballet classes, as well as art and violin lessons. She also loved the movies – a love she would later bequeath to my me and brothers. She would tell us often about going to the big LA movie palaces with her friends and her parents. She particularly loved musicals and comedies. She must have seen “Singing in the Rain” close to a hundred times during the course of her life.
My mom attended Manual Arts High School, which she also described as a very special, happy time in her life. She played violin in the school orchestra, continued with her art and dance classes and was a cheerleader (yep, a cheerleader!) We have wonderful pictures from this period, of a smiling, laughing Ruthie, posing with groups of friends, clearly having the time of her life. She told us she would often be possessed by giggling fits that would invariably get her into trouble. In one now legendary story, she was playing in orchestra class and her bow caught on the toupee of her music teacher. Of course, she couldn’t stop laughing and of course, this got her immediately tossed from the room.
By comparison to High School, Ruth described UCLA as big and a bit overwhelming. Still, she made some good friends during these years, many of whom she kept for most of her life. She continued to pursue her dance and music studies, became an avid folk dancer and artist, drawing and painting landscapes in the rolling fields that surrounded Westwood in the 1950s.
Shortly after she graduated, she met Larry Rosen, who was home in LA after finishing up his medical studies at Northwestern. They met through their common friend, Eric Parkan. As the story goes, they were in a park with friends and my future dad saw my future mom having fun with her friends, laughing as they rolled down a grassy hill together. Larry asked Eric, who is that girl? When they were introduced, my mother’s first words to him were, reportedly, “aren’t you Marty Rosen’s brother?”
When they met, they were both at a crossroads in their lives. My mom had recently graduated from UCLA and my dad was about to enter the navy and set out to sea as a flight surgeon. They dated and became increasingly close that summer. One day, as they were driving up the California coast together, my mom said she wanted my dad to meet her cousin Phil and his wife Jackie. In response, he gave her a silver mezuzah on a chain and said, “I will if you marry me.” My mom responded with the now immortal words, “You’re kidding.” After they were engaged, my dad promptly set out to sea with the navy and my mom worked as a public-school teacher, teaching physical education and art to Junior High students.
Shortly before they were married in August 1957, my mother’s beloved father Simon tragically died, following complications from fairly straightforward surgery. Ruthie adored her father and she mourned this loss deeply for her entire life. At their wedding ceremony, everyone assumed she was crying from happiness but in fact, it was because she so wished it was her father walking her down the aisle.
As my brothers will attest, even though we never knew our Grandpa Simon, we felt his presence because she talked to us about him all the time. She talked about his kindness and gentle spirit and how he doted on her for her entire life. She also told us how much she loved going to the movies with him: in addition to his boisterous laugh, he would shush people who talked or ate food too loudly. He himself would often laugh all the way through, then after it was over, say, “What a terrible movie.” I have personally inherited these movie-going habits from my Grandpa Simon – if you have any doubts about this, just ask my own kids.
By their own admission, Ruth and Larry really didn’t know each other all that well when they got married. But it’s not hard for me to understand why they fell in love with each other. I mean, just look at pictures of them from that period. Frankly, I would have fallen in love with them myself. In many ways, they were a classic example of how opposites attract. My dad always had something of, shall we say, a sharp edge. Anyone who knows them will attest that my mom was the one most responsible for softening up Larry Rosen and coaxing out his sensitive side. For his part, my dad gave my mom the stability and foundation she craved following the death of her father and the sometimes rocky relationship she had with her mother. Also, they both had great, silly senses of humor and clearly knew how to make each other laugh. This would be the case for the next 63 years of their marriage together.
Even if they were so different in so many ways, my parents’ marriage truly modeled how two people could learn to grow together. My dad shared my mother’s passions, even the ones that didn’t come so naturally to him. Though he wasn’t, uh, a born dancer, he gamely accompanied her to folk dancing outings for decades. He also took up the cello and played for many years at his own pace, inspired by my mother’s example. When he retired, he took up sculpting, sharing my mother’s studio space with her. My parents went everywhere together: to classical music concerts, to dancing and folk music weekends, and they took us all on family trips every summer. More than anything, Ruth and Larry showed us what a committed relationship could look like: how to live together, grow together, how to lovingly share the passions in your life with one another along the way.
After they were married, my folks moved into a small house in Los Feliz on Hazel Kirk Drive. David was born in 1960 and I came along in 1963. Shortly before Ian was born in 1966, we moved just around the corner to a bigger house on Tracy St. My mom would often comment on how she grew up surrounded by women, as one of three sisters, but went on to be the only female in a family with three sons. While it is true that there was much male energy in their house, by my recollection, my mom could hold her own as one of the boys. She had a bawdy sense of humor like the rest of us and certainly could give as good as she got when it came to the men in her house.
Ruthie was a loving, doting, involved mother. I remember sitting in her art studio, painting alongside her and as well, watching and listening to her practicing violin throughout the day. String music was, in fact, the almost constant background sound in the Rosen home. It was often just her solo violin, other times it was the chamber music that she played with friends in our living room. Mom’s love for music made it an indelible part of our family life. As soon as we could, David, Ian and I started piano lessons. Soon after, David started on cello and I took up violin. Like most kids, we hated practicing, but eventually the day would come that David started to actually enjoy it. Me, not so much. The rest, as they say, is history.
I have many lovely memories from our life in Los Feliz. My brothers and I shared a bedroom and mom would read to us every night before saying to us, “Pleasant dreams, no noise.” I remember her laughing while singing us the Oompa Loompa songs in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and crying at the end of “Charlotte’s Web.” And there were the countless days she spent taking us to our home away from home, the Hollywood-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center, where we attended gym class and nursery school.
Despite those wonderful years, however, there was one serious problem: the horrid smog that plagued LA in the late 1960s. My mom prevailed upon my dad to move to a part of the city with cleaner air, but my dad always resisted. That is, until that fateful day when we all went on a family bike ride in Griffith Park and all returned home literally wheezing in pain. And so, in 1971 we moved to Santa Monica to what would become the family homestead on 305 Alta Ave. This is where my brothers and I spent the rest of our childhood – and where my parents would live until they moved to the Carmel Valley Manor just a few years ago.
My brothers and I were so blessed to have grown up in Santa Monica in the 1970s, which was its own little city inside big sprawling Los Angeles. In those days it was a sleepy beach town, nothing like the over-affluent McMansion-land that it is today. It was truly a wonderful place to come of age. We lived within walking or biking distance of our friends, whose parents were often good friends with our parents. Our house was just a half a block east of Ocean Avenue, where a trail snaked down the bluff to the beach. Santa Monica was our world – and the house on Alta was our home in every sense of the word.
My mother infused our house inside and out with her own unique spirit. In front of the big, concrete front porch, she planted a long garden filled with orange poppies and later, with big, twisty succulents. She planted a jacaranda tree in the front lawn that eventually grew quite tall, budding purple blossoms every year that would carpet the grass in front of our house. Behind the house was a large backyard with a sprawling lawn. On one side was a brick patio that my folks put in shortly after we moved in; at the other end was a huge avocado and persimmon tree. Mom planted gardens throughout our backyard, which she tended with great love and care throughout the years.
Like the impressionist artists she idolized, Ruthie painted countless oil and watercolor paintings of her garden. Her gardening, her art and her music were singular passions for her. She even painted a series of paintings that combined all three, with musicians playing in her garden, whimsical pieces that sometimes included violinists flying, Chagall-like, through the air. Her art studio was located in a sun room adjacent to their bedroom and later expanded to our converted garage. Her paintings hung on almost every wall in our house.
My mom was blessed, and sometimes she might say cursed, to be both a born artist and a born musician, and she bounced back between these two art forms for her entire life. She was never satisfied, always immersing herself and driving herself to be better in each. When she heard a violin concerto, she was in bliss, but sometimes she’d also feel a pang and say out loud, why bother practicing all the time when I’ll never be able to play like this? When she immersed herself in her music, she would sometimes agonize that she was neglecting her art – and vice versa. My mom was a creative person to her very soul, experiencing all the joys and frustrations that come with it.
Later in her life she transitioned from classical music to traditional folk music. Not to do anything halfway, she eventually joined a group called the Upstairs String Band with her niece Dodi and played in concerts and festivals all over the state. Even though David and Ian and I had already left the house and we no longer needed our family station wagon, my mom bought a minivan that would carry her band’s musical equipment and when necessary, serve as a place for her to sleep during their touring. (On one such tour, she was sleeping in her van and woke up to it shaking in the middle of the night. She told us she was terrified because she thought she was being attacked by a bear. When she realized it was an earthquake, she said “oh, thank God” and went back to sleep.)
When Ruthie played folk music, you could just see in her face how immersed she was in the music every moment. In addition to her folk band, she also became a mainstay of the band at our synagogue Beth Shir Shalom for many years that played contemporary and klezmer music. Mom would sometimes say she was sure she had gypsy in her blood – most likely from her Romanian father – because of her abiding love for folk dancing and music-making with her roving band. But again, she never fully left classical music behind. She would follow her own creative muse, using whatever art form she needed to unlock her spirit at any given time in her life.
Don’t get me wrong: Ruthie wasn’t joy and music all the time. When we were kids, my cousin Dirk once asked my brothers and me, “Is your mother always this sweet and nice?” As my brothers and my father will attest, my mom could indeed lose her temper with us. And in addition to her creative struggles, she struggled with her sense of self-worth, wondering if it wasn’t just a luxury to live a comfortable life as an artist, supported by her husband when there was so much need in the world. She also had a complicated relationship with her mother Gertrude, who was a very loving, but strong-willed woman who loomed large in her life. It was particularly hard on my mom when my grandmother contracted Alzheimer’s – and this woman who was so dominant in her life became increasingly dependent upon her to be her caretaker. As such a deeply feeling person, my mother was too hard on herself, always feeling that she wasn’t doing enough for mother even as she was such a devoted, compassionate daughter to my grandmother at the end of her life.
Ruth was aIso a passionate political activist for most of her adult life. I don’t know any other way to say it than that when she felt anger at injustice in the world, she took it personally. (This is something I believe I almost certainly inherited from her.) When she experienced something as unjust, she couldn’t not do something, for her own sanity. During our Los Feliz days, she became very involved working for the first ballot referendums to mandate smog control guidelines. (When I was in the second or third grade, her efforts inspired me to write an op-ed for our elementary school magazine, where I wrote passionately that I didn’t feel it was right to “vote for smog.”)
As a progressive through and through, I recall my mom talking to me about the civil rights movement from a very early age. I also remember her railing against Reagan when he was governor and how he caused California’s homeless population to skyrocket when he closed state mental health facilities. She railed against Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush for pretty much everything.
My mother was also a passionate advocate and activist for gun control for many, many years. Whenever she would hear the news of shootings, whether it be local street violence or a mass shooting, she would become visibly emotional and angry, particularly at the gun culture that is so endemic to our country and the blood money profits made by gun manufacturers. I cannot begin to count the number of letters to the editor she wrote and petitions she distributed. She also became an active leader in the Million Mom March movement in the late 1990s.
In addition to her passion for social justice, I was also bequeathed a strong Jewish identity from both of my parents. Our family was very involved in our local Temple, Beth Shalom and went regularly to retreats at Brandeis Camp Institute. Every Friday evening, we’d have a family Shabbat dinner together around the big table in our dining room. On Hanukkah and Pesach, we gathered around that table with extended family and friends for holiday celebrations.
My mother talked to us often and very naturally about being Jewish. Her stories about growing up during the Holocaust had a particularly powerful effect on me. She told me about how having the last name Israel made her visibly Jewish as a child, about being called “dirty Jew” in the schoolyard. She also told me one particular story that I will never, ever forget: as a young girl she went to the movies and saw newsreel footage of the death camps being liberated, with images of the dead bodies stacked up. She ran out of the theater crying hysterically and asked her parents was this going to happen to them too? She said she remembered looking up at the sun in the sky and thinking to herself “How can the same sun and sky look out over another part of the world that could know such horrors?”
From my mother, I learned that being Jewish was not just something you were – it was something you felt to your core. She also modeled for me in a very organic way that being Jewish meant to have a passion for justice – and to act on that passion. When I told my parents of my decision to be a rabbi, I know both of my parents were proud, if also a little bewildered, considering what an unwilling student I’d been in Hebrew school. But deep down, I know that my own Jewish and activist paths were an inevitable product of being Ruth Rosen’s son.
As our family grew, my mother’s love extended farther and wider. When I met and married Hallie, Ruthie loved her like the daughter she never had. When our kids came along, she just adored Gabe and Jonah and she lived for our visits together. It was an indescribable feeling for me to see them respond to her love the way I did when I was their age: reading to them the way she did for me and my brothers, setting up little easels for them to paint on in her art studio, taking them to the movies and museums and concerts, with the same kind of pure love that she bestowed upon us.
There’s so much more I want to say about my mother. I really want people who didn’t know her to have the chance to learn about her, even just a little bit. I know it’s a cliche to say, but it is absolutely true: everyone who knew her, truly loved her. I don’t think there was a person alive who disliked Ruth Rosen. She just embodied a pure kind of sweetness that was real and honest.
You can see her innate radiance in almost every picture ever taken of her. Ruthie was just the kind of person that you wanted to know and have in your life. Since she died, I’ve heard from a number of her friends who were so upset and distraught when they heard the news – even those who had not spoken to her in many years. I know they’re feeling so bereft because of the joy she brought into their lives. We’re all struggling to understand how such a beautiful person could no longer be in this world.
But of course, that’s not true. So many people are telling me that they have her paintings hanging in their homes, and how lucky that makes them feel. That means in a very real way, Ruth Rosen’s beauty is all around us. It literally lives on all over the country – and it always will.
In the end, when I hear stories about how many people loved Ruth Rosen, I can’t help but think: how lucky am I? How lucky are my brothers and I that we got Ruth Rosen as our mother? How lucky is my dad, that he got to be her husband? What did we possibly do to deserve having such a beautiful, loving person in our lives?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I promise I will never take them for granted. Ruthie’s beauty will live on through all of us. And her memory will always be a blessing.