In the early part of the 20th Century, a young girl stood near her father on the dock of a Polish harbor, a steamer trunk at her feet. Out of her nine siblings, 12-year-old Rose was the child chosen to be sent to the “golden land,” America. Life in Poland was hard, hunger a constant visitor in her home. After much scraping and pinching, her family saved enough for a single one-way ticket to the United States. And Rose, the youngest of the nine, was the lucky one chosen to go.
Her father stood there, holding back his emotions. “Rose, my child, remember: Hashem is watching over you every step of the way. Remember His laws and keep them well. More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews. It will be hard in the new land. Don’t forget who you are. Keep the Shabbos – no matter what sacrifice you must make.”
For Rose, the journey was full of questions and uncertainly. Would her relatives really extend a welcome to her, or was she to be all alone in the new land? How frightening was the thought of a new life without her loved ones? Rose did not have long to worry. Her relatives were waiting for her, solicitous of their “greenhorn” cousin. She was soon safely ensconced in their home.
Life in America was new and strange. Polish mannerisms were quickly shed – along with religion. Modesty, keeping kosher, and Torah were abandoned, together with the outmoded clothing and accent. Rose’s relatives insisted religion was “old-fashioned” – an unnecessary accessory in America. Rose, however, never forgot her father’s parting words. She put on the new clothes her relatives gave her, cut her hair to suit the fashion, but never gave up on Shabbos. With her mature appearance and demeanor, it was not long before Rose found a job as a sewing machine operator. But what would she do about Shabbos?
Every week without fail, Rose devised a new excuse for her boss to explain why she did not come to work on Saturday. One week she had a toothache, another week her stomach bothered her. After three weeks, the foreman grew wise. He called her over. “Rose,” he said in a tone that indicated he had only her welfare in mind. “I like your work, and I like you. But this Shabbos business has got to stop. Either you come in this Saturday, or you can look for a new job.”
The week passed in a daze for Rose. Her emotions were in turmoil. “On the one hand, Tatte is not here to help me be strong. I do want to please my new friends. I want to fit into this new land,” she reasoned. And then, just as quickly, came another thought: “How can I forget the day of Shabbos? How can I give up the beauty Tatte worked so hard to teach me?”
On Friday, Rose walked to work, lunch bag in hand, head stooped in thought. She sat at her machine throughout the day. The machine kept tune to Rose’s troubled thoughts. What should she do; what could she do? As the sun slipped over the parapets of the Lower East Side, Rose knew there was really no question. She was Jewish, and she would keep the Shabbos.
Early the next morning, she left the house, pretending to be headed for work. Back and forth through the streets of Manhattan she paced. Later in the day, she rested in Tompkins Square Park, together with the city pigeons. “Yonah matz’ah vo manoach” (“On Shabbos the dove found rest.”). There she sat among the pigeons, singing the traditional Shabbos songs, with tears in her eyes and sobs between the verses. When three stars finally peeked out from the black sky announcing the end of Shabbos, the moon shone down on a weary girl and bathed her face in its glow. Rose had triumphed, but her victory would cost her dearly. She had no job and had most certainly alienated her family. Rose trudged homeward, dreading the nasty scene to come when her relatives learned that she hadn’t been at work. “Rose!” A shout broke into her reverie. It was her cousin Joe. “What...I mean, how are you here? Where were you all day?” Rose looked at her cousin Joe, her expression woebegone.
Rose did not know what to say. Joe looked at her strangely. “Rose, didn’t you hear?” he asked gently. “There was an awful fire in the factory. Only 40 people survived. There was no way out of the building. People even jumped to their deaths.”
Joe’s voice was hushed. “Rosie, don’t you see? Because you kept Shabbos, you are alive. Because of Shabbos, you survived.” Out of 190 workers, Rose Goldstein was among the few who survived. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911, claimed the lives of 146 immigrant workers present. Because it had been Shabbos, Rose Goldstein was not there. As her father had said, more than the Jews keep the Shabbos, the Shabbos keeps the Jews.