Preparing to light the Shabbat candles, in front of me stand two 10” tall shiny brass candlesticks positioned behind two smaller ones, barely four inches tall and dull in finish. You might think them less important, but just the opposite. These two were created with a destiny, a mission. The wax melts down their molded metal sides as if melting away the years and the miles from which they came.
Their journey began in the late summer of 1903 in Sulita, a village in the County of Botosani, Moldavia, Romania, fourteen miles south of Botosani, the capital of the county and 270 miles north of Bucharest, the capital of Romania, when Ruchel, twenty years old and part of a pious family of nine siblings, was preparing for her journey to America. Her mother, dressed in a modest long dark skirt and blouse, wisps of gray hair sprouting from beneath her fringed head scarf, tucked two small brass candlesticks into an old worn suitcase between layers of clothing. One, Ruchel had been kindling herself from the time she was able to recite the blessing. The other would complete the pair when she married.
From the time her ancestors, escaping danger, emigrated to Botosani, her Jewish community, a population of 1830 according to an 1899 census, lived a relatively peaceful, fulfilling life, having played an important part in the industrialization and urbanization of Romania at the time. However, with a new regime, the political climate and religious persecution of Jews during Ruchel’s early teens to adulthood, became stressful. They were no longer permitted to live in major urban areas or attend public schools. Private education was prohibitive and feeding Ruchel’s large family became a hardship.
Arrangements for her journey were made through one of the shipping companies that offered ticket packages to America, transporting immigrants by train to the steamship, La Champagne, in Le Havre, France. The landscapes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and France rushed by the train’s windows during the 1500 mile trip from Botosani to the seaport, where she was detained for a thorough physical examination, antiseptic bath and fumigation of her belongings, including the candlesticks. Each steerage passenger was assigned a metal berth, a canvas mattress stuffed with hay, a life preserver which doubled as a pillow, a tin pail and utensils for meals.
Ruchel with her candlesticks celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, aboard the iron steamship. On Tuesday, September 29, 1903, the evening before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, after a 10-day 3000 mile sea voyage, the ship navigated through the gateway to the Hudson River, greeted by the Lady of Liberty, as it slipped into New York harbor and Ruchel into the arms of her older sister Yetta, already married, settled in New York City and running a boarding house on Allen Street on the lower East Side. Ruchel Gottesman, #29 on the Ship’s Manifest, had arrived with $2.00 in her pocket to begin a new life in an unknown land. Ruchel, eventually Americanized to Rose, whispered her Shabbat prayers over a single kindled light in New York City and the Bronx, where in 1906, with her marriage to Philip, Americanized from Pinchus, she added the second candlestick. The two larger candlesticks joined the original pair as their family grew. They eventually moved to Cypress Hills where they raised three children and then to East Flatbush, Brooklyn where I was born and lived with her the rest of her life.
The four candlesticks eventually passed on to her oldest daughter, my mother, who nostalgically displayed them in her living room but never lit them. Now I am the guardian of our family heirloom. When I light the four candles, I close my eyes and I return to 1945. I’m pressed up against my Bubby Rose’s soft warm body watching her lift her arms to place a shawl over her head, then draw the kindled light to her tear-filled eyes, concealing them behind her cupped palms as she whispers a prayer. Why the tears? In the next moment, my mind drifts back to a time more than a century ago to a land more than an ocean away. The place is Sulita, the village in the County of Botosani, Moldavia, Romania where Bubby left her family never to see them again.
In a loving, spiritual relay my great grandmother, Tauba, passed two small candlesticks, wrapped in ancestral values and memories, to her daughter who would pass them to the next generation and to many future generations. Did they know a mother’s strength and courage could be wrapped in two small candlesticks that would take a journey far beyond their destination? Did they know their sacrifices would be saving those future generations?
From 1886, when Ruchel was four years old, until 1954 when she passed away, she lit her candles on more than 3500 Shabbats. If the candlesticks could have spoken in 1903, they would have said, “Remember your family, remember your community, remember your Jewish tradition, and always remember who you are.” Today, they would add, “Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors whose strength, courage and determination made our lives possible.”
Faith, love and hope. Darkness to light.
By: Marilyn Levine
Date: October 16, 2020