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On Their Shoulders

I never dreamed that for me, a frum woman, working on Shabbos and Yom Tov would become a real issue as well — in 2019

Growing up in the spiritually privileged environment of late-20th century America, I never gave much thought to the challenges my European-born grandparents and great-grandparents must have faced in their quest to preserve Yiddishkeit after reaching the shores of this country. By the time I was born, in the late 1970s, the ability to live in America as a religious Jew and send your children to yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs was practically a given.

I knew that my great-grandfather had immigrated to the US from Poland in 1919 and had waited eight long years to bring over his wife and children, including my grandfather. But it wasn’t until my grandfather’s passing in 2005 that I discovered that he, and certainly his father, had been among the ranks of those who regularly lost their jobs for their refusal to work on Shabbos and Yom Tov. At his levayah, I learned that even after the US government enshrined the five-day workweek into law, circa 1940, religious rights in the workplace were far from guaranteed. Even if employees were no longer routinely expected to work on Shabbos in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, legally they did not have the right to leave work early on Friday afternoon or take off for Yom Tov.

Both my great-grandfather and my grandfather had worked in the garment industry as cutters. My grandfather’s brother started off as a cutter as well, but he later rose through the ranks in the garment workers’ union and became a union leader. Although he, like so many others in his generation, did not remain religious, he did help his brother, my grandfather, to find new jobs each time he was laid off for refusing to work on Yom Tov.

Appropriately, the section of the cemetery in which my grandfather was laid to rest was called Shomrei Shabbos, after the shul that had originally bought the plots in that area of the cemetery. My grandfather had not davened in that shul, but its name was a fitting tribute to him. Although he did not have the opportunity to learn in yeshivah, he sent his children to yeshivah and Bais Yaakov, and his sons went on to learn in kollel and become mechanchim. He merited to see all of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren be shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, and his burial in the Shomrei Shabbos section was, to us, a testimony to his perseverance in holding tight to the mesorah even when it was difficult to do so.

Two generations removed from the challenges of my grandfather’s generation, I never dreamed that for me, a frum woman, working on Shabbos and Yom Tov would become a real issue as well — in 2019.

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 782)

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