*The reader will find the word G-d written with a dash to avoid defacement.
By Joshua Becker
In chess a pawn mostly moves one step at a time; only when a pawn reaches the other side can it be swapped—and transformed—to a higher level. In communism, on the other hand, the pawn has a different meaning. It’s a peon that is forced to serve the king, the bosses and government that pit workers against each other.
Bob Bruch is intimately familiar with both uses of the word. He’s the son of Bronx communists (of Prussian/Polish origin) who became the 1962 NYC city-wide chess champ at age 17. For Bruch’s parents, communism checkmated all other ideologies—including religion. “Feh!,” (ick!) one might say in Yiddish, a Jewish language his parents spoke almost exclusively but simultaneously denounced Judaism. “So I grew up with a very strange identity,” Bruch noted.
“Religion, Judaism, was the opium of the people. Religion separates people so they can’t unite to fight the oppressors.” Still, over time, Bruch yearned for something more—a connection to something beyond. “It’s hard to explain, but I was always a spiritual person. I wanted to treat people nicely. I never wanted to hurt anything.” It stirred a lifelong pursuit for meaning, subtle step-by-step moves like a pawn piece, from communism to the very religion his parents decried.
In high school, an aptitude test projected that he’d do well as a minister. Even though his parents were anti-religious, they heartily chuckled: “What kind of job is that for a Jewish kid!” Bruch reflected, “They didn’t get the point that I had a spiritual side.” Bruch felt tremendously cheated because he could only associate with other communists—not even with Jews who attended socialist summer camps.
Communism was prevalent but not always center stage. “It’s been said that most communists were so busy trying to change the world that they didn’t do much with their own children.” This was only slightly true of Bruch’s father who would eat alone but accompany Bruch to the Bronx Zoo. Bruch’s mother played cards with him and both parents were kind to their three children. Extended relatives were also a big part of his life, watching them play chess until Bruch realized as a child that he could beat them.
Yet politicking led to discontent. Heated verbal clashes broke out amongst extended family members about who was the better communist, Stalin, Lenin or Trotsky. Paranoia set in because Bruch’s father was employed by the post office during the era of McCarthyism. The family feared losing that job if its beliefs were discovered. Bruch’s mom would dispose of communist books into different garbage cans around town so they couldn’t be traced.
Up until Bruch’s early twenties his beliefs matched that of his father, save for one—his father’s admiration for Stalin even after mass murders were discovered. Bruch challenged his father on it. This may have contributed to his father’s depression and ultimately—suicide. Bruch was 26, father 66. Bruch blames himself for contesting his father.
The suicide forever haunts Bruch but also created an opening for spiritual growth. After the death, as an escape, Bruch traveled to Europe. “I was somehow drawn to Jewish sites,” including the house of Anne Frank, a teenage writer that perished in the Holocaust. His overseas travels were cut short; news came that his mother was dying. “My father’s death killed my mother, too. She lived 14 months after he died.”
Bruch wanted a new start and decided to head West. He stopped in Milwaukee to visit a friend and liked the city. Eventually Bruch returned to Milwaukee and met his future wife, Bonnie. He found a kindred spirit who was also on a journey towards more meaning. “I grew up Catholic,” Bonnie said, “but at age 16, I had fallen away. I went to the confessionals to challenge the priest, but I have always had a strong sense of G-d.” They were married in 1973 at a Unitarian church on Ogden Street in Milwaukee and afterwards moved to New York for five years.
Three years later Bonnie became pregnant. Bonnie wanted to raise children with a religious foundation, but which religion? “I asked Bob about Judaism but he didn’t know anything.” Bonnie began studying and converted, even though at first Bruch tried to dissuade her: “Who needs all those rules?!”
Still, Bonnie’s conversion impacted Bruch. He was concurrently attending classes for social work at a Jewish college, Yeshiva University; “It was a subconscious desire to be closer to my roots,” he later recollected. It was his entrée into Judaism. “For the first time in my life I was around Jews, especially religious Jews. They seemed to be like myself, gentle, a little passive, and kind, even though they may have been different politically and religiously.” Here he learned Jewish holidays, and Bruch and Bonnie were married again with a Jewish ceremony.
They returned to Milwaukee where Bruch’s earliest jobs lead to more spiritual growth. He facilitated programming for older adults at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) and at the Beth-Am Center for Seniors. At Beth Am, he met a beloved local rabbi, Bernard Reichman, thanks to whom Bruch had a Bar-Mitzvah at age 37 (a rite of passage typically in early adolescence). Bruch and his wife also transferred their children from a public school to Hillel Academy, a traditional Jewish school.
Bruch led a Shabbos (Sabbath) program with seniors at the JCC, where another cherished rabbi, Yosef Samuels, would tell stories. Rabbi Samuels would become friends of the Bruchs for close to 30 years and counting. “Rabbi Samuels was the right man for me,” Bruch explained, “because he has a more mystical, spiritual reason for everything, which was good for me because I would have rebelled if it was just rules.”
Rabbi Samuels led Bruch and Bonnie to Israel in 2003. They visited Rabbi Akiva’s gravesite, a sage who passed in 136 CE. The rabbi told a story about Akvia that would penetrate Bonnie deeply, a mirror image of Bonnie and Bruch’s journey together: Akiva fell in love with a woman, Rachael. She wanted a husband that would learn Torah (the foundational text of Judaism) but at age 40, Akiva didn’t even know the basics. They observed how drips of water formed a hole in a rock. Rachael thereby convinced Akiva that he too can form into a learner, gradually (pawn-piece by pawn-piece). They wed, Akiva left home to study, and they weren’t reunited for another 24 years.
“When I’m finished telling them the story,” Rabbi Samuels’ eyes enlarge, “Bonnie cries uncontrollably.” Bonnie imagined that every Shabbos, Rabbi Akiva’s wife would look across the table at an empty seat. Upon return, some religious leaders in Milwaukee questioned whether Bonnie was a reincarnation of Rachael. The good news is that for more than 40 years, Bruch is across the table every Shabbos.
Bruch’s steady presence reached beyond his family. For 25 years he served as a social worker mostly at Milwaukee’s VA Hospital, the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. He spent the last decade in outpatient mental health. Retirement has given pause for reflection. “A few weeks ago,” Bruch said, at age 75, “I was thinking about whether I had a happy life, and I really can’t say that because my father’s suicide was terribly devastating. I feel good about what I’ve done in life. I did the essential things, a good marriage, raise a family, have a spiritual life, have good friendships. I feel a close relationship to Judaism and to G-d.”
What stirred as a child is now revealed: “I lived life on my own terms, and I think I’ve reached the point that I feel in harmony in the world.”
Joshua Becker is a freelance writer/editor and a teacher for the Shorewood School District. His website is: www.joshuabeckerwriter.com.