When history is in your house

When history is in your house

Family members can trace their yichus with pride

Rabbi Elias Solomon and his wife Libby at their summer place in the Catskills.
Rabbi Elias Solomon and his wife Libby at their summer place in the Catskills.

What must it feel like to open a history book and read about your grandfather? Or to take out a book on Jewish history from the library and realize that it was written by your uncle?

Longtime Teaneck resident Bernard Rous can tell us what it feels like. His grandfather, Rabbi Elias Louis Solomon, was an early leader of the Conservative movement — he was ordained by Solomon Schechter at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1904 — as well as a co-founder of United Synagogue. His Uncle Sol, Rabbi Solomon Grayzel, headed the Jewish Publication Society and was deemed an authority in the field of Jewish history.

Mr. Rous, an accomplished Torah reader at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, said he doesn’t know if Jewish knowledge is genetic or not, “but I think if there are kohanim or levi’im or rabbis in your family tree, it will show up somewhere.”

In addition to yichus, Rous has stories — and at least one souvenir. He owns a filigreed silver quill pen that was presented to Solomon Schechter by Dr. Yaakov Nacht on behalf of the Zionist Faction. Exactly what the Zionist Faction is remains a mystery, but that is what was engraved on one side of a little knife screwed into the top of the pen, presumably to sharpen the quill. The other side of the quill sharpener reads “‘lo b’chail, v’lo b’co’ach, kee eem b’ruach’ — Ot zicaron l’ven erainu, gebor ha-ayt, chacham, v’sofer” — “‘Not by might and not by power but by spirit’ — A sign of remembrance to a son of our city, a hero of the pen, a sage, and a writer.”

“I don’t know if the Zionist Faction deliberately left the yud off ‘b’ruchi (my spirit)’ in the quote from Zecharia above, but it is definitely missing,” Mr. Rous said.

Mathilde Schechter presented the pen to Elias Solomon when her husband died in 1915. “Mathilde gave it to my grandfather because [Solomon Schechter] wanted him to have it,” Mr. Rous said. He is proud of his grandfather, and he calls the pen — and all that it represents — “priceless.” He said he recently visited a silversmith to have a yad inserted into the end of the pen, which used to hold the quill. “Now I can use it to read Torah,” he said.

Ms. Rous said that his grandfather’s cemetery plot is adjacent to — possibly at the foot of — Schechter’s plot at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens. “The positioning was deliberate,” he said. “He did it out of affection.” Indeed, Rabbi Solomon, who remained devoted to his mentor, delivered Schechter’s eulogy when his mentor died.

Bernard Rous

Rabbi Elias Solomon was born in Vilna as Eliahu Eliezer ben Shlomo. He immigrated to the United States in 1888 after sojourns in England, Cyprus, and Palestine. Before he was ordained at JTS, he earned a bachelor’s degree from City College in New York. After ordination, he headed the Barnert Memorial Hebrew School in Paterson, was the religious leader of Congregations Beth Mordechai in Perth Amboy and Kehillath Israel in the Bronx, was associate rabbi of Kehillath Jeshurun in Manhattan, and finally because rabbi of Sha’arei Zedek on New York’s Upper West Side, where he remained until his death. (The boundaries between the newly established Conservative movement and the Orthodox world were porous then, so he was able to move between them with ease.)

He was an early president of the United Synagogue; during his tenure the Women’s League and the Young People’s League were established, the United Synagogue Recorder was launched, and plans were made to build the Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem. He remained the organization’s honorary lifetime president. In addition, he served as president of the JTS Alumni Association, the predecessor of the Rabbinical Assembly.

He also held many roles on the national Jewish stage, including leadership roles with the America Pro-Falasha Committee, the American Biblical Encyclopedia, and the Jewish Braille Society of America.

Ms. Rous knows all this. But this also was his grandfather, the man who headed the Shabbat dinners and seders at his New York home for the extended family and who — with Mr. Rous’ uncles, aunts, and parents — “bought a place in the Catskills in Tannersville, New York” (which he called “the other side of the Borscht Belt”). “Every summer, when school was out, from June until the fall, I spent summers with my grandfather and uncle.”

His uncle — that’s historian Solomon Grayzel — “took a shine to me, and on Shabbat afternoon, after attending shul, we would study and he would teach me.” They learned Pirke Avot, and Uncle Sol also taught his young nephew to “read and write a bit. It’s where I got inspired.”

His uncle, as it happened, “had a reputation for being irascible and short-tempered, but with me he was the most patient person in the world. Because of that, when I became bar mitzvah, it stuck with me. I learned how to read Torah and I still do.” Later, working with Cantor Kurt Silberman at Temple Emanu-El in Englewood, he learned even more. His family moved to Englewood when he was 2, and he was raised there. His father, Arthur Rous, was “totally secular. He rarely stepped into shul.”

But his mother, the rabbi’s daughter, was another story.

The silver pen with a yad inserted at the tip was presented to Solomon Schechter.

Dr. Grayzel, who was married to Sophie, Mr. Rous’ mother’s sister, also was a JTS graduate. He was born in Minsk, the youngest of 13 children. “By the time he was born, he was already an uncle,” Mr. Rous said, adding that according to one story, his nieces and nephew dangled their baby uncle on their knees.

“He was a rabbi for a short time in New Jersey,” Mr. Rous continued. “He was not a patient man and pastoral activities didn’t suit his character. He was a scholar and a historian. In addition to his well-known textbook ‘A History of the Jews,’, he wrote a very interesting volume called ‘The Church and the Jews in the 13th Century.’”

The book, dealing in large part with papal pronouncements that critically altered Christian-Jewish relationships, required research in the Vatican. “He was the first Jew allowed into the Vatican Library to study papal bulls,” Mr. Rous said. “They were all in Latin.” His mother, Vivian, who had gotten her master’s in Latin at Hunter College and lived until the age of 102, was able to help him with some of his research.

Mr. Rous said that  his family’s published bios don’t always match the stories he heard over the years. He remembers his grandfather — he was 11 when the rabbi died, in 1956. For example, the Virtual Jewish Library reports that Rabbi Solomon was born in 1879, but Mr. Rous thought it was 1878. In addition, “they say he immigrated to the U.S. with his family. I believe he came alone as a young boy to meet his older brothers or uncles.” At any rate, none of those hardcopy versions record the more personal family stories.

For example, Mr. Rous said, “When he came on a boat from Palestine to New York, someone gave him a banana. He didn’t know what it was. So he ate it — with the skin.” Another story presaged his grandfather’s move away from Orthodoxy. “He must have known he wasn’t going to be so Orthodox,” Mr. Rous said. “When he arrived at Ellis Island, just coming off the boat, he cut off his payes.” And he wasn’t old-fashioned. “He had two daughters, my mother and my aunt. Both had college educations.”

What else does Mr. Rous remember? He recalls that his grandfather always said “Guten Shabbes” twice in a row; that “Grandma Libby,” his grandfather Rabbi Elias Solomon’s wife, was very short, warm, and jolly. Despite her autocratic tendencies, we really loved her.”

Mr. Rous, now retired from his position as director of publications for the Association of Computing Machinery, has much to occupy him, in addition to Torah reading. He and his wife, Sue Grand, maintain a large and lovely garden. “Sue is a psychologist,” he said. “Her office faces the garden. She said it’s part of her clients’ therapy.” A self-taught artist, he also has a studio in his backyard and is filling up its walls with his drawings and paintings.

Reflecting once more on his pen, Mr. Rous said it is priceless not only because it is elegant and old, but also because “It’s like a piece of history. It connects my grandfather to Solomon Schechter and the Zionist Faction and the early years of the Conservative movement. It’s an entire period of history.”

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