When my grandmother Rivi Rosenthal, a”h, passed away on the fourth night of Chanukah, just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday, it marked the passing of an entire generation. She was the last of the Klass siblings, whose family played a monumental role in shaping American Orthodoxy through the establishment of The Jewish Press, the first English-language Orthodox newspaper. As the long-time political cartoonist, Bubby herself played a frontline role in this effort. Week after week for decades, her cartoons gave perspective on current events, always proudly and unapologetically pro-Judaism and pro-Zionism.
For those who knew her well, it was an improbable role, to say the least. Bubby was sweet and gentle, refined and as mild-mannered as they came. She had the soul of an artist, not a political activist. Yet when her brother Rabbi Sholom Klass, z”l, asked her to fill this role, she stepped up to the plate, in collaboration with my Zaidy, Mr. Harry Rosenthal, z”l. It was a task she bore proudly, conscious of the impact her cartoons had on thousands of readers, Jews and non-Jews alike. (In fact, one of her cartoons, drawn upon the passing of President Harry Truman, is displayed in the Truman Presidential Library.)
At heart, she was a true artist. She used to love talking about her studies as a young woman in Pratt Art Institute, and she was always busy drawing or creating some work of art. Walking through her house was like visiting a museum gallery, all of her wall space filled with her paintings. (And all of her fridge door space with pictures of her grandchildren!) As a child, my favorite activity was to sit and draw “cut-outs” with Bubby. I’d tell her what kind of person to draw – what she looked like, what clothing I wanted her to wear – and Bubby would obligingly make my imagination come to life. Under her amazingly skillful hand, entire families were created, whom I would then color, cut out and play with. I had boxes full of these “cut-out” dolls in her house.
I remember asking Bubby to teach me how to draw. She’d try, patiently showing me how to outline the face and build the proportioned body, but somehow, I could never replicate the magic of her fingers.
Bubby was extremely devoted to her family. As the youngest of six siblings, she grew up with a warm, loving extended family that included her grandparents, aunts and cousins, all living under one roof. She loved telling stories from her childhood, including about some of the more colorful characters from the wider extended family who found their way to her parents’ home. She was extremely close to her older sister, and the most devastating event of her childhood was when her sister Gertie, a”h (whom I’m named after), passed away at the young age of 26.
Throughout her life, Bubby was close to her brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, considering them not just family but also close friends. Thanks to this, I grew up close to my second cousins as well, as we’d often spend summer Shabbosim together vacationing in the Homowack hotel.
This devotion to family led Bubby to bring her elderly parents into her own home, where she and Zaidy would go on to care for them for the next 25 years. I’ve often marveled at the strong sense of responsibility and family loyalty exhibited by that generation. To Bubby and Zaidy, caring for their parents was a matter of course; they did it without fanfare, because they didn’t believe they deserved any. That was simply what one did for family.
I would be remiss without mentioning here that their model of exceptional kibbud av v’aim was very much imbued in their son, my father, Mr. Joshua Rosenthal. Growing up with his grandparents in his home, my father learned what it was to care for parents and also understood what a special gift it is for grandchildren to have a close relationship with their grandparents. As an only child, my father has demonstrated extraordinary levels of kibbud av v’aim for his own parents, calling them every night, always being ready to take care of their needs, and doing everything to ensure that, when we were growing up, we would be close with our Bubby and Zaidy. May he be zocheh to the same arichus yamim and nachas from his descendants that my grandparents enjoyed.
We were indeed fortunate that Bubby and Zaidy were such a big part of our lives growing up. Though we didn’t live in the same home, or even in the same neighborhood, we would drive to Brooklyn every Sunday to visit them, and it was such a thrill each time we pulled into the driveway of their Flatbush home! Up the steps, ring the bell, and within seconds we’d be greeted with a huge smile and hug. As the only grandchildren, my brother, sister and I knew without a doubt that we were our grandparents’ biggest nachas and delight. We spent every Sukkos together in our parents’ house, every Pesach together in a hotel, and every Chanukah we got together for a family party.
I’ve always felt particularly close to Bubby; I related to so much of her personality, including her creative, artistic spirit and her gentle, peaceful, positive way of looking at the world. Back when I was a teenager, I was personally zocheh to spend a very special summer with Bubby and Zaidy. My grandparents were world-class travelers, and must have visited over a hundred countries over the years. (My siblings and I used to love playing with the trinkets displayed in their home, souvenirs of their exotic travels.) The summer I was sixteen, I finally got my turn; when Bubby and Zaidy asked me if I’d like to accompany them on a trip to Europe, I jumped. That trip ended up becoming one of our most cherished experiences and, I believe, Bubby and Zaidy’s favorite of all their travels. We toured Switzerland, France, Holland and England, and had our share of adventures, including getting our passports stolen in Zurich. But above all we had so much fun together, and not every teenager can say that about her grandparents!
Bubby and Zaidy were my model of what the perfect marriage should be. For nearly 66 years, they were an inseparable unit, caring for each other, anticipating the other’s needs, enjoying each other’s company. They traveled the world together, yet, to me, there was nothing that so poignantly expressed their closeness as when they sat together at their kitchen table late at night, each reading his or her own book, no conversation necessary, yet wanting to share even the individual experience of reading, because every activity was so naturally done together. They were so close that we often wondered what would happen to Bubby once Zaidy passed away, and how she would manage to go on without him.
Yet she found the inner strength to continue living for nearly another decade – and that strength came from an unexpected source. All her life, my grandmother had lived with the emunah peshuta, the simple, pure faith that she’d inherited from her illustrious ancestors – and it was this faith that kept her Orthodox at a time that most of her generation was throwing religion by the wayside, and that made her determined to only marry a man who was Shabbos observant. Yet she’d never had the benefit of a Torah education herself. (She used to relate how, as a girl, she’d been jealous of certain female cousins who were enrolled in a yeshiva, while she’d attended public school since her parents could only afford to send her brothers to yeshiva. Ironically, Bubby would add, those cousins ended up leaving religion, while she merited grandchildren and great-grandchildren who all learn and observe Torah.)
In what would serve as an inspiration for us all, at the age of 90, Bubby began to delve into the world of Torah study. She started by going through the Chumash with the help of The Midrash Says; on Zaidy’s second yahrzeit, she made a siyum on all Five Books. She also loved learning Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on the Torah (she was proud of the family connection, as Zaidy’s sister Helen had married Rabbi Hirsch’s great-grandson, Shimshon Levy), and would also learn Pirkei Avos, Shemiras HaLashon, Megillas Esther and more. My yeshiva sons used to joke that Bubby Rivi learned more than they did!
And she didn’t just learn it; the Torah became a part of her. I remember how each time she’d reach the end of the Chumash, she’d tell me how sorry she feels for Moshe Rabbeinu. “He worked so hard his whole life to serve Hashem, and now all he wants is to enter the Land of Israel, but he’s not allowed to.” She’d relate how she’d cry for his pain, even though she knew he was getting his vast reward in the Next World.
Bubby, how appropriate that you were niftar on Chanukah, the holiday that celebrates the light of Torah learning – a light which imbued your pure soul and which, at the end of your life, was what you most yearned for. Now you, too, are in the Next World, enjoying your reward after a lifetime of work. The consummate artist, you bring with you your greatest masterpiece of all – your life’s accomplishments, and, especially, the generations that you’ve built: your children Josh and Mindy Rosenthal; your grandchildren Gila and Rabbi Meir Arnold, Rabbi Elimelech and Chaya Rosenthal, and Tali and Yosef Friedman; and your 20 great-grandchildren, ka”h.
May Rivka bas Moshe Feivel, a”h, be a meilitz yosher for us all.