Rose Suttner Barlow grew up a Jewish girl in Apartheid South Africa, a minority within a minority within a minority. Her minority status as a Jew within the white population in overwhelmingly black Africa was obvious. Her minority status within the Jewish community was a result not of demographics, but of the traditionally limited role of women in Jewish life at that time and place. Years later, as the Apartheid system was dismantled in her homeland, Rose learned of a more diverse, inclusive Judaism and gained equal rights as a Jewish woman thousands of miles away in her adopted country, the United States.
Rose’s Jewish journey has been a lifelong one, and it has paralleled her physical travels away from her childhood home in a tightly knit Jewish neighborhood in Johannesburg to Cape Town,the DeBeers diamond mines, England, Scotland, and finally to Marin County north of San Francisco, where she has settled to raise her family. As Rose increasingly engaged in the wider, non-Jewish world and encountered diversity that was heretofore unknown to her, she shed many of the communal and ritual aspects of Judaism that had never fully or satisfyingly been incorporated into her identity. It was only once she became a mother and came to live in the liberal, diverse and tolerant Bay Area Jewish community that she found that there was a way back into Jewish life that provided her meaning and purpose.
In many ways, Rose has reinvented herself Jewishly, but she believes she had done so on the basis of a strong cultural foundation. “Even though I was alienated from Jewish communal life [for many years], I was never alienated from my Jewish self,” she says. Rose’s parents became baalei teshuvah when she was in her 20’s and her mother became ill with cancer (she died not long afterwards in 1986), but this was many years after Rose’s experiences growing up with parents who were at the time ethnically and culturally Jewish, rather than shul-going shomrei mitzvot.
Rose was born in Johannesburg in 1960 to a mother whose intellectually inclined family immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania and Russia during WWI, and a father who came from a more business oriented family that had been in the country for three generations. Her father was a member of the first generation in his family to go to college, becoming an electrical engineer and going into the family business manufacturing car radios (founded by his father who had had no higher education). Rose’s mother, whose own mother had been accepted to medical school and father was a lawyer, studied social work.
As a school girl, Rose attended a whites-only public school with a large Jewish student population owing to the fact that the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. Her parents did not send her to a cheder or afternoon Jewish studies program, leaving her formal Jewish education to the once a week session in which Jewish children were separated from the other students into their own class (for religious instruction) and given workbooks on Jewish topics from which to teach themselves. The Jewish Board of Deputies had worked out this arrangement with the public school authorities, apparently leaving teachers to instruct the children out of the plan.
Although Rose’s father’s parents went to synagogue regularly (a Modern Orthodox one, which was the normative form of Judaism at the time in this particular community), her parents did not. They did not keep kosher or regularly light the Shabbat candles, but Rose and her younger brother were kept home from school on every Jewish holiday and her brother officially marked his becoming bar mitzvah.
She did participate in the Habonim Zionist youth group for a short time, though she did not attend its summer camp. Nonetheless, Rose developed a strong attachment to Israel from her first visit at the age of thirteen and from her knowledge of her mother’s close relationship with a cousin and good friend who lived there. Her self-education on the Holocaust through reading works on the bookshelves at home also helped shape her identity.
The message Rose received from her family and her community was that she was expected to succeed in secular life, but that advancement as an adult Jew was not an option. She recalls sitting at the foot of the very long Pesach seder table year after year, unable to hear anything but the mumbling of the older men at the head. The most she could have hoped for would be her eventual move to the middle of the table, to the women’s section, once she was a mother. She characterizes her Jewish upbringing and identity formation as overall positive. “I learned by osmosis by having been placed in my formative years in settings where I was surrounded by Jews.” But she adds, “The gender message remained problematic.”
By the time Rose was in late elementary school and high school, she was aware of the political situation in South Africa and that among those standing up against Apartheid were many Jews, most of whom were very secular and on the extreme left (In fact, a distant cousin on her father’s side was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela). Many of Roses’s teachers were Jewish and exposed their students to the situation more than was done in other schools. Roses’s classes took field trips and was twinned with a school in Soweto. Rose herself, when she was an older high school student and in college, was personally acquainted with fellow young Jews who were members of the National Union of Student Leaders fighting against Apartheid, some of whom were conscientious objectors against the military draft.
“You could not sit on the fence,” Rose says about Apartheid. “Either you were for it or against it.” Against it, Rose chose contribute to the cause through her profession. She studied at the University of Witswatersrand for two years and transferred to the University of Cape Town to finish her Bachelors degree in psychology and industrial sociology. Upon graduation, she went to work in industrial relations in the mining industry for five years in the mid-1980’s. Rose was a member of a team that worked as change agents at De Beers, making significant strides toward eliminating the culture of (white) managerial violence against (black) mine workers through the implementation and enforcement of newly developed policies.
Proud of the impact she had made, Rose chose to leave South Africa with her fiance (now her husband) so that he could return to his native England to pursue an advanced degree. Although the couple left for personal-educational reasons, it is evident that the question of the quality of their future life in Apartheid South Africa was lurking in the background. Unbeknownst to them, secret talks that would lead to the dismantling of Apartheid were already underway as the two of them were packing up and departing for London.
Rose and her husband, who is not Jewish and has not converted, were married soon after they arrived in England. They remained in the UK for seven years, living in both England and Scotland, where Rose worked in human resources in the oil industry. Rose claims that although she was not associating herself with the Jewish community during those years, she “never lost touch with [her] internal Jewish clock.” When a holiday came around, it was if she had “an atavistic impulse to get off the merry-go-round to contemplate or celebrate.” In 1994, while living in Aberdeen which was devoid of Jews save for Rose, she suddenly had the desire to have a Pesach seder – just for her and her husband. So, she travelled all the way to Glasgow to buy the required pesadik supplies.
In 1996, Rose, her husband and their baby daughter left the UK to start the next chapter in their lives in California. Here, they had a second daughter, and both girls are receiving a solid Jewish education in day schools,synagogue programs, Jewish camps and youth groups. Her older daughter has already become bat mitzvah and her younger one is preparing for hers next year. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) nursery school in their town was the gateway to an active Jewish life involving not only education for the girls, but also plenty of adult Jewish educational programming and a variety of volunteer, philanthropic and lay leadership roles in the Bay Area Jewish community for Rose.
Rose always had the Jewish proclivity for analysis and debate, and she has applied this to her recent study of Jewish texts. She finds that her increased Jewish and Hebrew literacy has allowed her to really grow in her Judaism. Rose describes it as “a virtuous cycle. The increased literacy promotes increased engagement, which in turn leads me to yet more learning.”
Rose is very grateful to now live in a community where Jewish pluralism is celebrated. When she was a girl in South Africa, she had no inkling that the Jewish community could include anyone other than Lithuanian and Polish Jews. Similarly, she had not had the opportunity to establish close connections with people of different ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds until she went out into the challenging world of the mining industry to try to make a difference. It has been through her discovery of the other that she has been able to rediscover and re-imagine her Jewish self.
It is not uncommon for Jewish women of Rose’s generation to reconnect with their Judaism and the Jewish community through their children. It is an especially pointed experience for a woman who felt Jewishly disenfranchised as girl to be able to empower her daughters. Few women, however, have travelled as far as Rose has in order to come home.
© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.