A Suitcase Full of Mitzvahs

Israeli Activist/Author
Susan Roth

Forty years are far enough away in space and time to separate the old Yiddish theaters on Manhattan's Second Avenue from the Lubavitcher main synagogue and world headquarters in Brooklyn.

Yet one woman, Susan Roth, made the long short trek to see the Rebbe, not across the Williamsburg Bridge, up Lee-Nostrand Avenue, turning left on the side road of Eastern Parkway and coming to a halt shortly before Kingston Avenue, at an address that reads 770 Eastern Parkway; but through a journey that took Susan (Zisel Yochevet), her father Paul (Pesach Burstein), her mother Lillian (Leah Lux), her twin brother Mike (Mordechai Leib), and her show-business dummy Jerry Mahoney all over the world, through "The Four Bursteins," her family's Yiddish theatrical company. On the road, starring on stage, TV, films and various radio programs and recordings throughout Europe, North, South and Central Americas, South Africa and Israel, they did Yiddish comedy theater and dramatic routines that gave many a person a laugh, a cry or both; and finally landed Susan, through a series of powerful efforts on behalf of Israel, face to face with the man she was destined to meet--the Rebbe. The Rebbe also blessed her to fulfill "her work," which inspired her to write a best-selling book called Moses in the Twentieth Century.

Along the way, unbeknownst to her until recent years, she carried inside her the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and the Alter Rebbe, all from whom she has descended through physical bloodlines. And for many years, when she was much younger and traveling with her parents all over the world, she also was borne along by the loving, caring troupe of Yiddish actors and actresses, whom she respectfully called aunts and uncles. It took her fifty years, but she is all the better for her exposure to Yiddishkeit along the way.

In 1920, Susan's father came alone to the shores of America; he left most of his family back in Warsaw, all of whom later perished in the Holocaust. The family of Susan's mother was more fortunate; they got out of Russia before World War I and emigrated to America. In New York City, Susan's parents met, married and raised their twin son and daughter. "In fact," Susan points out, "from 1945 to 1950, I spent the first five years of my life in the building right over the Second Avenue Deli."

In the fifties, Yiddish theater troupes went on the road, to wherever surviving Jews of the Holocaust resettled themselves. In establishing her own identity in the Yiddish theater, Susan became the youngest ventriloquist in the world and spoke six languages. Into her act she introduced her own version of an already famous dummy, calling it by its namesake, Jerry Mahoney, the dummy with the Irish name who spoke a mouthful of Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, English, and a few chosen words from other languages. For the most part, her parents' Yiddish troupe consisted of dramas and musicals. So the youngsters Susan and her brother Mike got their feet wet dancing, singing and acting bit parts, and Susan also had fun kibbitzing with her dummy for twelve years.

When she was sixteen years old, her parents' Yiddish troupe arrived in the holy mystical city of Tzfas, Israel, and it was there that she became exposed to the deeper meanings of Torah, through the Kabbalah.

Two years later, she met her husband Michael (Menachem Mendel) in New York, a Holocaust survivor, and, when she was nineteen, she married and retired from the theater, and the two joined the Orthodox Jewish community of Holocaust survivors in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Although the Roths lived in nearby Westfield, they raised two children, Dianne (Devorah Rachel) and David (David Pinchas), through the yeshiva system in Elizabeth.

As it's written, "Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret-fastness of the heart." In Susan's words, after she married Menachem Mendel, who had always been close to Chasidism through his family's ties to the Vorker, Gerrer and Kotzker Rebbes, he introduced her to the secret-fastness world of Chasidus.

"It was those wonderful stories he told me," said Susan. "They quickly fanned my pintele Yid into a flame."

To this day Susan remains convinced the Belzer Rebbe played a role in her getting married. Here's how that happened: When she first came to Tzfas, she met, in the old-age home there, a little old man called the Zeide of Tzfas. "He was everyone's favorite zeide," Susan said. "He always attended our Yiddish shows, yet how surprised I was, one day in 1964, probably the hottest day of the year, to hear a knock on my door in Tel Aviv. When I opened my door (and mind you, we lived in Afeca, a little suburb in Tel Aviv, off the Tel Aviv-Haifa Highway, quite a distance from the old age home in Tzfas) there was Zeide on my doorstep."

"What are you doing here, Zeide?" Susan asked him.

"Zisele, Zisele," he called her by her Hebrew name.

Taken by his sweet words, Susan asked him in.

After the Zeide of Tzfas took a seat to catch his breath, he opened up a handkerchief and said, "Zisele, Zisele, here is a piece of challah from the wedding of the Belzer Rebbe. He also gave Susan a photograph he carried of the Belzer Rebbe--a young lad with his friends around him.

And the zeide said to Susan, "This is for you, Zisele. Tonight, put the challah under your pillow. Sleep on it, and eat it in the morning. It will help you find your mate."

Susan carried out the old man's instructions.

Sure enough, the following week, "The Four Bursteins" sailed off to New York. Then, through a series of very unusual coincidences, Susan met her husband. "One of these days I hope to meet the Belzer Rebbe and thank him for my basherter through his blessing."

But the strongest chasidic connection she feels she has is with the Lubavitcher Rebbe--as strong as her lifelong ties to Eretz Yisrael.

At first the connection was thready. For many years, she had unsuccessfully sought a personal meeting with the Rebbe. It seemed it was not to be. Still, she never gave up. In 1984, once more Susan Roth returned from a trip to Israel, and a friend told her about a women's convention to be held in Crown Heights. "So," said Susan, "I wrote the Rebbe a letter, sent him some things I had written, and mailed it to Rabbi Binyomin Klein [one of the five secretaries to the Rebbe]."

On the Friday before the Lubavitch Women's Organization's convention, Rabbi Klein told Susan that the Rebbe had received her writings and was reading them. The rabbi also encouraged Susan to attend the convention, held on the following Sunday. She did and it was there she beheld the Rebbe in person for the first time. On the dollars line, the Rebbe gave Susan two dollars--one for her and one for her daughter. (The first two dollars Susan Roth ever received from the Rebbe were given her in 1974 by Rebbetzin Hadassah Carlebach, at the J.E.C. Elizabeth Yeshiva, for Susan's daughter Diane to heed the Rebbe's call for young girls to light Shabbos candles alongside their mothers.)

Then, in 1989, her relationship with the Rebbe took on deeper meaning. She began to travel back and forth between Israel and the States, on several trips blessed by the Rebbe. One of them came through a phone call from two Lubavitcher women in Florida who were very close to Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, a Lubavitcher emissary in Yerushalayim. The women told her that Rabbi Sheinberger requested that three women come to Yerushalayim and light Chanukah candles under the Temple Mount.

Honored, yet surprised, Susan asked the other two women, "Why are you contacting me?"

The two women told Susan that they had been asked to go to Israel and that Susan had been asked to be the third women. Who asked for her? The Rebbe? "I didn't ask the women any other questions, but in my heart I felt it had to be the Rebbe who made the request," she said. "So, although scared since it was right before the Gulf War, I went because the Rebbe had proclaimed that Israel was the safest place in the world. I'm so glad I did: it turned out to be one of the most extraordinary times in my life, living in an express lane for Jewish causes."

Back home in New Jersey, almost before she could catch her breath, she was on another plane, this time on behalf of the Jewish Federation, to serve as part of a "solidarity group" with Israel. There, she spent six days working with the incoming Russian immigrants. However, before she embarked on the trip, she met with the Rebbe again on January 6, 1991. This time, the Rebbe gave her a handful of dollars and told her to give them to people in Israel.

Another thing (ostensibly of the utmost importance) the Rebbe told Susan and her husband at that meeting was: "Don't forget, when you go to Eretz Yisrael, tell people the safest place to be is in Yerushalayim. And, in Yerushalayim, the safest place is the Temple Mount, because that is where the presence of Hashem, the Shechinah, dwells."

Susan promised the Rebbe to carry his words everywhere she went.

Then the Rebbe turned to her husband Menachem Mendel and said, in Yiddish, "And you will help your wife..."

"Of course," Menachem Mendel nodded. "I shall tell everyone." So once again, Susan "Have Suitcase, Will Travel" Roth, took her little suitcase of mitzvahs, not even yet unpacked, and flew off to Israel for six days.

"Once there, I gave the Rebbe's dollars--truly blessings in disguise--to friends of mine--women who could not have children, and they all wound up having children," said Susan.

"And" then, she added, "at the same time I even bought an apartment there. I think I was the only person rash enough to sign for and buy an apartment outside Yerushalayim, on January 15, 1991. That's how strongly I believed in the Rebbe's 'Israel is the safest place in the world' statement."

Like millions of others, the Roths, out of harm's way, in New Jersey, watched the whole Gulf War take place on CNN, during which "I spoke often with my friends and relatives in Israel," Susan said. For Susan, those days were hard enough; to make it worse, her husband had a heart attack. "Thank G-d, he survived, and is very well."

After that, Susan and Michael returned to Eretz Yisrael for Pesach 1991. Then, she returned again in July of that year, but first went to the Rebbe for a blessing.

"I knew that I had to write my book in Yerushalayim," she said. "For three months I sat at a typewriter in Yerushalayim, and then, in ten days' time, a book poured out of me."

What emerged out of her writings, including what she added in Yerushalayim, was her master's thesis of perennial philosophy through Kabbalah, one of the most unusual books you'll ever read. Entitled, Moses in the Twentieth Century: A Universal Primer, the book was blessed by the Rebbe at different times while she was researching and writing it. When it was published, in early 1994, Susan sent the first copy of the book to the Rebbe.

For Susan Roth, the most indescribable experience in her life took place in February of 1994, when Rabbi Moshe Herson, the Dean of the Rabbinical College of America, on behalf of the Rebbe, asked Susan Roth to address the closing session of the Lubavitch Women's Organization Convention, to be held in "770." As Susan Roth was addressing the women, the Rebbe suddenly appeared on his balcony to greet the women. The appearance of the long-awaited Rebbe filled the hearts and souls of every participant, and there wasn't a dry eye in the synagogue.

Nowadays, Susan Roth does much of her legwork helping Israel, through a publishing company--SJR Associates--she founded in New Jersey. Yet, when Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem recently was in danger of being taken over by the Palestinians, Susan Roth success-fully spearheaded a movement to save the tomb and keep it in Jewish hands.

She is a member of the World Future Society, the Noetic Society, is active in the International Peace Center located at King David's Tomb on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, and, most recently, helped David Bedeine establish the Institute for Peace Education Limited, also in Israel.

When Israel Expo '95 was held in the New York Armory last year, Susan Roth, in addition to her own SJR booth display, sponsored the "770 Lubavitch" booth. At the Expo, besides seeing Chasidim put tefillin on men who passed by the booth, her fondest memory of that time was gazing at the Rebbe's painting that seemed to dominate and affect the whole Expo.

"Perhaps it wasn't what the Israeli Consul and the UJA wanted as the dominant symbol of the Expo," Susan said, "yet there was no denying it: the Rebbe's painting seemed to embrace everyone at the Expo. It was, by far, for that entire week, the most watched object at the Expo."

Our tannaic Sage, Eleazer ben Ahaba, tells us that "G-d spoke to Moses...only for the sake of Israel."

It can also be said, with a sense of certainty and gratitude, that "the Rebbe spoke to Susan Roth...only for the sake of Israel."

And oh what nachus Susan Roth has had traveling that road ever since!

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