Rebbitzen Ruchoma Shain, who passed away last year at the age of 99, was a woman who carried many titles – wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, English teacher and author. While all five of her books were best sellers (All for the Boss, Dearest Children, Reaching the Stars, All for the Best and Shining Lights), it was her first book, All for the Boss – first published in 1984 and revised and expanded in 2001 – for which she is best known.
It was in this book that she vividly describes the life and exploits of her extraordinary father and his commitment to mitzvah observance in America in the early 1900’s. In detailing his life she paints a picture of Orthodox Jewish life in that historical period as well.
Mrs. Shain was born Ruchoma Herman in 1914 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The youngest of five siblings – she had three sisters and one brother – she grew up in a staunchly Orthodox home during a period of time when most American Jews believed that the institution of Shabbos was no more than a relic of the past. Her father, Yaakov Yosef Herman, had immigrated to America from Russia with his parents in 1888. After five years of struggling to make ends meet while still maintaining high religious standards, the elder Mr. Herman concluded it wasn’t possible to do both and made plans to return to Europe. He could not afford the boat fare for 13-year-old Yaakov Yosef, however, so he left him in America with relatives until he could find the funds to bring home. Ironically, it was the young Yaakov Yosef who saved up his money and brought his family back to America and supported them.
One Erev Shabbos, soon after his parents had returned to Europe, the relatives Yaakov Yosef was living with raised his rent. It was not money he could afford to pay and feeling very betrayed by their actions, he left their house. As he had nowhere to go, he spent that Shabbos on a park bench. It was then that he vowed that when he married and had a home of his own, he would never sit down at the Shabbos table without guests – even if it meant he had to search for them on park benches.
And that’s the way it was. The week in the Herman household revolved around the Shabbos guests. Mr. Herman would often comment that he had “cornered the market” on the mitzvah of hachnossas orchim. His wife and children were his enthusiastic partners in this mitzvah, with his wife doing all the cooking and cleaning. Mr. Herman was never particular about guests, whether they were homeless, mentally ill or distinguished rabbanim visiting from Europe, he treated them all with love and deference. Indeed, this was one of the few homes the visiting European rabbanim would eat at – knowing they could trust his kashrus standards.
In an attempt to gain a greater understanding of what it was like growing up strictly observant almost 100 years ago in New York, I spoke with one of Rebbitzen Shain’s granddaughters. She acknowledges that it wasn’t easy growing up Orthodox in America during that period of time, but she asserts that her grandmother never viewed her life as containing hardships. In fact, she believes that her grandmother wouldn’t have even appreciated the question. Being religious was never a burden to her.