S.F. writer reclaims his birthright

Tom Rosenberg removed his shoes, propped his feet up on a table and talked about the anti-Semitism of his youth.

"Growing up in New York during the '40s, I was very conscious of anti-Semitism because I had two strikes against me," he said during an interview Monday. "I was a German immigrant who was Jewish. Not only that, but the kids knew I was hiding something."

That something was his birth name. For the past 60 years, Tom Rosenberg was Tom Ross.

But in a ceremony at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel earlier this year, the former political consultant returned to his birth name more than six decades after fleeing Nazi Germany with his parents and infant sister in 1938.

Rosenberg's name change, and the reasons behind it, formed the crux of a "My Turn" article the San Francisco resident penned for the July 17 Newsweek magazine.

"One woman called me and told me her rabbi in New Jersey was using it as a sermon," he said, rapping his knuckles on the table to emphasize the point.

If Rosenberg freely talks about his Jewish roots now, it wasn't always that way.

"In my old neighborhood, you got called names like 'sheenie' and 'kike' all the time," said Rosenberg, 68. "People knew I was from Germany — but also knew that I had an Irish name.

"It was really just playground crap that was settled by knocking each other around a bit."

Sipping a cup of tea, he said that his parents, who had a successful advertising business in Berlin, arrived in Depression-era America with little to their name. He lost both sets of grandparents to the Shoah.

"The Holocaust had a very traumatic effect on my family," he said. "My family came over to this country with a lot of guilt, which may have been part of the reason we lived in a Irish-Italian neighborhood instead of a Jewish area like the South Bronx."

The family's Jewish background also caused some strife in his family. His mother remained firmly rooted in her Judaism while his father chose to consider himself "unaffiliated."

Denial and assimilation were the tenor of the times, he said, and his father inculcated his ambivalence toward Judaism in his son.

Rosenberg joined what he called a predominately "Christian" fraternity at the University of Pittsburgh, and enrolled for a three-year stint in the Marines, at a time when many of his contemporaries avoided military service.

"It was a little cuckoo to join the Marines when the Korean War was going on but I wanted to serve my country. Plus, I wanted to go back to the old neighborhood and show them that this sheenie had some guts."

Rosenberg reclined in his chair and took another sip of tea, laughing at the memory.

"When I got back to the my old New York neighborhood, I realized that I really didn't give a damn what they thought about me anymore."

Ironically, the nascent stirrings of Rosenberg's Jewish roots occurred when he married his first wife — a Methodist. His ex-wife strongly encouraged him to explore his connections to his faith.

Rosenberg occasionally took his two daughters and son to synagogue on the High Holy Days but that was the extent of their Jewish upbringing, he said.

"I figured the majesty of the Sierras was a spiritual enough experience," he said, adding that his main concern was that his children receive a strong secular education.

Now married to a Jewish woman, Rosenberg said it wasn't until the past couple of years that he fully came to grips with his roots, prompted by a trio of factors.

One is his close relationship to Martin Weiner, senior rabbi at Sherith Israel.

The second factor was the recent publication of his first novel, "Phantom on His Wheels," which looks at the seemingly disparate worlds of journalism, environmentalism and back-room political maneuverings.

The third factor was California's recent political climate.

"I was a Nixon Republican who eventually came to his senses," he said laughing. Among his proudest accomplishments during almost three decades as a political consultant were spearheading the Tahoe Bond Act of 1984 (a clean-water initiative) and the American River Bike Way project in Sacramento.

But perhaps the biggest factor in his return to Judaism was the "repeated attacks on immigrants over the past 10 years," he said.

"All the anti-welfare legislation, anti-bilingual and anti-immigrant initiatives really drove the point home that I came to this country with nothing, too."

When asked if his friends and family supported him in his decision to take on his birth name, Rosenberg clasped his hands and shrugged his shoulders.

"Well, I had a few friends who asked me why I was doing all this," Rosenberg said. 'They said I had money, an education, great kids, the whole nine yards."

Rosenberg removed his feet from the table and drank the remnants of his tea.

"My father was buried by a rented rabbi," he said, slowly tracing his fingers around the ring of moisture left on the table by his tea cup. "But I have great relationship with my rabbi, which is very important to me"

The former Marine bit his lower lip and measured his words carefully.

"You know, I'll tell you another reason why this is so important to me. I recognize now that I'm part of a tradition that survived for 4,000 years, and I want my grandchildren to know about that…I want to lead by example."

Rosenberg paused and looked at the floor.

"Like all of us, when I'm gone, I want to be remembered for who I was, and what I did — and I want to be remembered as a Jew."

He looked up briefly and started to cry.

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