Rozanne seems to have led the life of a veritable Forrest Gump of American social services. She was born and bred in Chicago, living on the west side. After college at the University of Illinois (English composition) she began her “interesting odyssey” with VISTA, serving in Cloquet, Minnesota (working with the Fon Du Lac tribe), after which she moved on to Braham, Minnesota (then Head Start, now Lakes and Pines Community Action Council in Mora), and from there to Cleveland (the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, and then Karamu, an African American cultural arts center), before moving on to Columbus (working in communications for the Ohio Department of Liquor Control), briefly to Detroit, and finally, the Twin Cities (consulting and beyond).
Along the way, she gathered a master’s degree in Urban Studies while in Cleveland. But working always in the mode of social services, non-profit management, and administration – and writing.
We met recently outside a Bruegger’s, over coffee and bagels.
Let’s begin with your parents.
My father was Alex and he was born in Lithuania, and he came here when he was twelve, so the story goes. But what I’m discovering, is that the dates are wrong, there was misinformation, and a lot of interesting things to untangle. We do know that he had a twin, Anne, though she died before my parents met. They were married 20 years before he told my mother that his sister had been a twin sister. And when his family had immigrated, they presented the children as being of two different ages, for reasons we will never understand.
It’s interesting, that my younger brother still lives in Illinois. And his wife’s father was one of twins. And my brother now has three children, including a pair of twins as well.
And my mother was born in Chicago, but her mother and her father’s family were from Latvia.
My parents met in Chicago, at the “JPI” – the Jewish People’s Institute, in Douglas Park. Which at the time was a very posh area. And the JPI was huge, it looked almost like a large, old style elementary school. But it was like a JCC, and they met at a public affairs forum, and were married seven months later.
My father did not graduate elementary school, and my mother didn’t graduate high school, so it seems that their entire lives were devoted to making sure that my brother and I both went to college. Every nickel that we got for gifts, for whatever, went into a “college fund”. We did not have a savings account, we had a college fund.
We lived in an apartment over Merkin’s Hardware on the corner of 16th and Trumbull in Chicago, until I was nine, when we moved to the Garfield Park area. Our homes were always described by the park they were near.
What were your activities in high school?
I started at Marshall, but graduated from Austin High School. I lived and breathed the newspaper, the Austin Times. I won a journalism contest by the Chicago Daily News, and for a long time I thought I might go into journalism. But by the time I got to college, at the University of Illinois, Champaign, I decided to major in English comp. If I was going to go away to school, that’s where I was going to go. Instate tuition was very inexpensive at the time.
I was there four years, and after that I went into VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). My experience at that time, in the poverty program was very interesting. I was in school when the civil rights movement was starting to gain steam, and voting rights. In fact, all the major legislation was passed before I graduated, and so when I got out of school, the poverty program was in its earliest stage.
What was your Jewish path at this time?
We were “reform” from the very beginning.
All the synagogues I went to, in the course of our being there, were closed or sold. The Jewish communities were gone from those areas. The first temple we attended was Temple Judea, and after that temple was sold, the members took all the Torahs and we had services every Friday night in the basement of a home, of one of the remaining members.
But my parents wanted us to have a Jewish education, so they took us to the original B’nei Jehoshua, at 20th and Ashland. That had also been a very large, very important synagogue in its day. But by that time, there were maybe a hundred families left, maybe fewer. There was not a full time rabbi. The rabbis tended to be PhD students going to University of Chicago.
In college I went to Hillel, but I wasn’t active. At Illinois, the fraternities and sororities really dominated the scene. But I do remember that Rabbi Hirsch Cohen hooked me from the very first week. There were a zillion of us that went to an orientation meeting when I first began at Illinois. And a week or two later, as I was going back to my dorm, Rabbi Hirsch saw me on the street and said “oh, hello Rozanne”. And I just about dropped my books.
Both of my parents died while I was in college. My mother was just 50, and my father was 62. Just 16 months apart. But with Rabbi Hirsch, and Rabbi Mark Shapiro, who was the last rabbi at B’nei Jehoshua, I was able to get through it.
And your Jewish path beyond college, in VISTA and beyond?
There was this drought, a dry spell after the University. In most of the places that I’ve lived and worked I was the only Jew, so I’ve never really connected to the communities. Even in Ohio. My story, about moving around, and not being particularly welcome in Jewish institutions, especially synagogues, was not unique. And that was a real issue. The clannishness. I could go to a service – as I did – and would go to the oneg afterwards, and nobody would talk to me. Absolutely nobody. And after a while you say the heck with it.
And you find things are different at Mount Zion?
Oh yeah! Well you were the first person I encountered at my first Shabbat, at the front door, and you sat me down right next to Renae.
(An unpaid, unprompted testimonial to the role of our Greeters. Though if the truth be told, I could see it coming.)
When I first came to Minnesota, the JCC had a program, Shalom Minnesota, and I got a letter for one of the first Open Houses, at Mount Zion. So I went to that, and came to services for about two years before I actually joined.
So what roles have you played at temple?
I’m often Shamash.
And I was Board secretary for two years, something I would have never agreed to do, except (past President) Betsy (Rest) asked me, and she went to the University of Illinois too, and she’s from Skokie. We Chicagoans have to stick together.
And I love to go to Torah study on Saturday mornings.
And recently I’ve been part of the Tzedek Committee. I’m interested in the poverty program, and the whole issue of civil rights, and the horrible situation with incarceration in this country.
So lets skip around a bit. Do you have any favorite trophies, or in my case, it would be – any trophies?
I won a short story writing contest when I was in Columbus, which is the childhood home of James Thurber. They held the first resident writer program in the US, and they have a short story competition every year. And I won twice! It was open to anybody. The big win is nonmonetary, but you get to read it. And I have a pencil! I have a James Thurber pencil.
There are no real requirements, but the stories had to be humorous. One was about my grandmother’s cooking, which was absolutely ghastly. And the other was a cultural issue. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood with friends – and teachers – that were Puerto Rican and African American.
What about your grandmother’s cooking?
It was horrible! We lived with her, and I know that cooking is love, but her matzo balls – when you would chase them across the chicken soup, it would displace it. They were hockey pucks, is what they were!
She came from Latvia as small child, and she was 34 when she met my grandfather, and he was 22 when they got married. Can you imagine that? And this was in the early part of the 20th century.
Oh, here comes Rob (Lebowitz). (shouting) Hi, I’m being interviewed! You want my autograph?
She was an awful cook, and she passed down her lack of skills to both her daughters. My mother and my aunt. They were both ghastly cooks.
My brother and I both learned to cook in self-defense. My brother’s first merit badge was for cooking. I would describe myself as a good, basic cook. I enjoy cooking.
What was your father like?
My father lived in fear that the Russians were going to be able to get him back. We knew very little about his background, in fact, almost nothing. And he never talked about it. He came here in 1912, so he must have had some memories, but he never spoke about anything.
He just thought he was not really ever safe here. He never left Chicago without his naturalization papers. He would work in the Chicago area, and that was fine. But if we went on vacation somewhere, he always had his naturalization papers with him.
I buried him with those papers. Because that was the only way he was going to know peace.
And your mother?
My mother was the exact opposite, she was effusive, she enjoyed people, and conversations. If she wasn’t reading on the bus, she made a new friend. Which is what her father was like. My grandmother would pack two sandwiches for my grandfather – one for him and one for whoever he meets. That’s the way my mother was.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope to finally do the writing that I have always said I was going to do. A couple of books are possible, beginning with the short stories that I wrote for Thurber, if I can ever find them. Though they would definitely need to be edited. Then some stories about growing up in Chicago. Funny stories, about the kinds of things kids don’t get to do these days.