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Rozi Wax grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and can trace her ancestry back to Portugal before the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions in the late 15th century. Her ancestors made great sacrifices to be able to live within the bounds of Jewish law. It wasn’t until she was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame that she came to appreciate the appeal of observant Judaism.
Rozi’s family originally came from Portugal, moved to Spain and back to Portugal during the inquisitions in the late 1490s. Along with other Sephardic families that moved to the western part of the Ottoman Empire, Selonika (now Greece), her Father’s family later on moved to Edirne and her Mother’s family settled in Bursa (both cities with significant Jewish presence at the time).
The Spanish expulsion occurred on Tisha B’Av of 1492, the same day that Christopher Columbus was supposed to embark on his journey to the New World, but he had to wait a day because there were so many Jews getting on boats and leaving!
Salonika was so Jewish that the port was closed on Shabbos, and everyone including the non-Jews had to speak Ladino to be able to conduct business.
The families lived relatively peacefully for several hundred years, until the 1930s-1940s, when pogroms, excessive taxes, and other restrictions caused untold devastation and reduced their financial resources to almost nothing. At that point the impoverished Jewish population started to move to Istanbul to try to eke out a living. Rozi states that this was also the time when the Alliance’s movement, wanting to modernize the Sephardic Jewry, severed many Sephardic communities from their strong ties to their Jewish traditions and observance. Being observant was seen as akin to being intellectually impoverished and backward. Rozi’s family was very much influenced by this movement, but somehow held to their Jewish identity.
Rozi and her siblings went to American and English high schools, and Rozi traveled to England for her undergraduate studies. She had always wanted to come to America, and since her brother and sister-in-law, Maryo and Nancy Pasarel, were living in South Bend by then, she decided to do her Masters in Psychology at Notre Dame.
When Rozi first came to South Bend, she saw for the first time observant traditional Jews who were highly intellectual and very well educated. Thus, began what she describes her second intellectual journey—not just learning about psychology, but observant Judaism as well! She began her Jewish studies with Rebetzen Gettinger. Rozi‘s religious journey was more of an intellectual one. The more she learned, the more she realized that the Jewish Laws could never have been man made because evidence-based research was only recently discovering the validity and the value of some the Jewish laws that were thousands of years old.
After she completed her graduate studies, Rozi moved to Brooklyn where she was able to connect with the larger Jewish world in America. About a year after getting married to her husband Alan Wax and having the first of 4 sons, Rozi returned to South Bend with her husband to raise her family in the Midwest.
Today, Rozi and her family have come full circle and reconnected with their roots. Her siblings and their families are all observant—even her parents became observant in their 70s when they moved to the US! She’s very grateful to the US for making it possible to live the life of a committed Jew and still have all the privileges available to all the other American citizens. Rozi hopes that just as she did, more American Jews will one day learn about and reconnect to their Jewish roots and practices their ancestors had fought so hard to preserve.
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