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About Max Rosenberg
Meet Hillary Clinton's Grandmother, Della Rosenberg -- The Feisty Wife of a Yiddish-Speaking Jewish Immigrant
Family Secret's a Boost For Her Senate Chances
By SETH GITELL FORWARD STAFF
WASHINGTON -- As she embarks on her campaign to represent New York in the Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be able to tap a little-known aspect of her family background -- her maternal grandmother was married to a Russian-born Jew named Max Rosenberg, and Mrs. Clinton's half-aunt, Adeline Friedman, was a Jew who was interred at a Jewish mortuary.
While Mrs. Clinton has been the subject of at least three book-length biographies and numerous newspaper and magazine profiles, the colorful story of the first lady's grandmother, a feisty woman who carried the name Della Rosenberg, has until now been unknown even to many of Mrs. Clinton's closest friends. After the Forward asked about the matter this week, Mrs. Clinton said through a spokesman that she had "very fond memories" of Max Rosenberg. Two members of the Rosenberg family told the Forward this week that Mrs. Clinton remained in contact with her half-aunt Adeline until Adeline's death last year.
As Mrs. Clinton prepares to run for Senate in a state where Jewish voters are an important swing vote, the fact that the first lady had a grandmother named Rosenberg may provide a boost, some political analysts say. To be sure, Mrs. Clinton is herself a Methodist, and Jewish voters in New York have a record of paying more attention at the ballot booth to policy than to religion or cultural background. And no one is comparing Mrs. Clinton's story to that of Secretary of State Albright, whose parents hid their Jewish roots from their daughter. Still, the Rosenberg story opens a window into Mrs. Clinton's warm relations with the Jewish community and into the concern for family issues that have marked her involvement in public policy.
"Jews will now feel that she's almost one of their own. It will make it easier for Jews to connect with her," said a New York political consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, a Democrat. "People will feel that she's more like them and they'll be more likely to listen to what she has to say."
Mr. Sheinkopf cautioned that "the professional Hillary-haters will say, 'why didn't she tell us sooner,' but it won't matter. It will help her with the Jewish voters immensely. The overall impact will be favorable."
The director of New York University's Taub Urban Research Center, Mitchell Moss, said the news will have a positive effect on Mrs. Clinton's campaign. "I think it humanizes her. Hillary's family background is going to be both engaging and interesting to the voters of New York," said Mr. Moss, speaking from Jerusalem. "This new revelation humanizes Hillary and points out that she's not only a wife and a mother, but also a granddaughter."
Asked about Max Rosenberg, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton's Senate exploratory committee, Howard Wolfson, said the first lady "has very fond memories of him. They spent a fair amount of time together. He took her to a place called Kiddieland, which was an amusement park in Chicago." As for Max Rosenberg's religious background, Mr. Wolfson said, "her memories of him are not in a religious context. I did not ask her if she remembered seeing the Yiddish Forward around the house."
Mrs. Clinton's grandmother was born Della Murray in Aurora, Ill., on June 17, 1902, according to a copy of her birth certificate. Census records show her parents were of French Canadian descent. Della Murray and Edwin Howell were married by a Baptist minister in 1918 in Chicago, according to a copy of the Cook County marriage license. A year later, the couple's first child was born: Dorothy Emma Howell, Mrs. Clinton's mother. The record of that birth shows that Edwin Howell was working as a chauffeur, while Della Murray was a housewife. A second child, Isabelle, was born five years later. But the marriage did not last long. In 1926, Mr. Howell filed for divorce.
In her 1996 book, "It Takes a Village," Mrs. Clinton hints at the trouble within her own family's background that prompted her commitment to children's issues. "When my mother was only eight years old and her sister barely three, her father sent them alone by train to Los Angeles to live with his parents, who were immigrants from England," Mrs. Clinton writes. "When my mother first told me how she cared for her sister during the three-day journey, I was incredulous. After I became a mother myself, I was furious that any child, even in the safer 1920s, would be treated like that." In an interview with Talk magazine published earlier this week, Mrs. Clinton refers to the "terrible obstacles" her own mother, Dorothy, faced, and she says, "My mother...vowed that she would break the pattern of abandonment in her family and did."
The story, as detailed in Cook County Superior Court documents, is even darker than Mrs. Clinton suggests. In his divorce petition, Edwin Howell said that when he came home from work one day in January 1926, his wife "insisted on wanting to go out, which she had been doing right up to date for a period of five or six months ... I couldn't go. I worked most all the time. She became abusive and angry, and scratched and bit me, flared up at me." While claims of violence made in the context of divorce cases can be questionable, especially since at the time they were one of the only ways to win a divorce, the accusation was in this case corroborated by two witnesses. Della Murray's own sister, Frances Czeslawski, described Della Murray's "violent temper," and the confrontation on that day in January. "She wanted to go some place, and I guess Mr. Howell didn't have the circumstances to take her. She flew at him and scratched his face." An employer also testified on Edwin Howell's behalf. The divorce was finalized in 1927. Edwin Howell obtained custody of the two girls, whom he sent to live with his parents in California.
Enter Max Rosenberg. Born in 1901 in Russia, the son of Joseph and Mollie, by 1933 Max Rosenberg had made his way to Chicago, where he married Della Murray. A city court judge performed the ceremony, according to a copy of the marriage license. His mother, Mollie, was a member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Sisterhood of Agudas Achim North Shore congregation, according to a death notice published in The Chicago Tribune. Mollie was a subscriber to the Yiddish Forward, according to court records of her estate. (A Chicago attorney and genealogist, Charles Bernstein, assisted the Forward with the documentary research for this article.)
In 1936, Della Rosenberg petitioned the Cook County Superior Court for custody of her two daughters, who had visited Chicago from their home in California two years earlier. Max Rosenberg, she contended, wanted to adopt the two girls. Della Rosenberg alleged that her ex-husband, Edwin Howell, "failed, neglected and refused to make suitable provision for herself and their two children." According to the documents, daughter Dorothy -- who would become Hillary Clinton's mother -- was working as a domestic in California at the age of 16. Della Rosenberg argued that she could now take better care of the daughters, and that she and her husband were "abundantly able to support, maintain and educate" the two children. Court papers filed on her behalf said, "she has remarried; that her husband with whom she is living ... in the city of Chicago is Max Rosenberg; and he is as much interested in the welfare of said children as if they were his own; and he is desirous if such a result could be legally consummated, to adopt them as his own." The attempt failed. The court ruled that the girls remain in custody of Edwin Howell.
Mrs. Clinton writes in her book that a family for whom her mother worked encouraged Dorothy Howell to finish high school. A year after the custody dispute, Dorothy, who would become Mrs. Clinton's mother, moved from California to Chicago and promptly met Hugh Rodham. They married in 1942, and Hillary was born five years later -- into what numerous accounts have described as a solidly middle class, Park Ridge, Ill., upbringing as the daughter of the owner of drapery company.
In the meantime, Max and Della Rosenberg and their daughter Adeline, who had been born in 1934, lived at 6341 North Campbell in Chicago until 1960. Sometime after then, Max Rosenberg moved his family to Los Angeles. Max Rosenberg died there in 1984 after a career in real estate.
Max Rosenberg's youngest sister, Revell Hoffberg, is still alive and living in a suburb of Chicago. Although reluctant to talk, she said she remembers the pairing between Max and Della. "I'm the last of the family," Mrs. Hoffberg said. "Della died a long time ago." She had heard that her niece Adeline had recently passed away. Asked if she had ever had any contact with the first lady, Mrs. Hoffberg said, "No, Adeline did." Della Rosenberg never converted to Judaism, Mrs. Hoffberg said.
Adeline Rosenberg's step-son, David Friedman, said that Adeline converted to Judaism, married Clarence Friedman and became a lawyer late in life. David Friedman, who works at Verisurf Software in Anaheim, Calif., said he and his children, who referred to Adeline Rosenberg as "Grandma Addie," spent secular and Jewish holidays at her house. He recalled that Adeline was in contact with both Mrs. Clinton and her mother, Dorothy Rodham.
Adeline "was quite a gal. She was constantly helping others," Mr. Friedman said. Mr. Friedman also recalled that Adeline served as a delegate to state political conventions. Adeline died in 1998 and was interred at Mount Sinai Mortuary.
The accounts of Mr. Friedman and Mrs. Hoffberg suggest that Mrs. Clinton is familiar with her family history. The backdrop of Max and Della Rosenberg's life puts some aspects of the first lady's relationship with Jews into a new light. Some of her oldest and closest friends and associates include Jewish women -- Sara Ehrman, Ann Lewis, Patty Kenner.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, an aide to Bill Clinton, Steve Rabinowitz, was known by the nickname "Rabbi." The use of that nickname stretched from Mr. Rabinowitz's work on the campaign into the White House. On one occasion, Mrs. Clinton began to follow the common practice and refer to Mr. Rabinowitz as "Rabbi," then stopped herself and called him Steve. Mrs. Clinton is the only person Mr. Rabinowitz can ever recall doing this. "I always assumed she didn't know if it was appropriate, ethnically pejorative or somehow not right. I always respected her for it, because she cared enough to wonder if it was right. I assumed it was somebody trying to do the right thing," Mr. Rabinowitz said.
Another interesting episode involves the first lady's involvement with the historic Breed Street Shul in Los Angeles. The Breed Street Shul is the last remaining synagogue in Los Angeles's Boyle Heights neighborhood. Mrs. Clinton designated the shul a "Save America's Treasures" site and visited the synagogue at the height of the impeachment struggle last December. The Los Angeles Jewish Federation and the Getty Trust have provided $30,000 to preserve the building.
The president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, Stephen Sass, said he was impressed by the first lady's knowledge at the ceremony. The Jewish Historical Society has been spearheading the effort to save the shul. "She was very much aware of the community and the Jewish history of the neighborhood. She seemed very much aware of it. I can't speak to how she got the information," Mr. Sass said. "She very much understood the significance of the shul and what it meant to the Jewish community."
Mrs. Clinton spoke with "really great empathy and connection and as someone who was undergoing great personal difficulties," Mr. Sass said. Following Mrs. Clinton's speech she was swarmed by a group of elderly members of Temple Beth Am, a Beverly Hills synagogue.
Speaking on a platform in front of the synagogue, Mrs. Clinton said, "We believe there must be continuity between generations. Boyle Heights immigrants can think back to those immigrants 60 to 70 years ago who did not speak English -- they spoke Yiddish." She added, "In honoring this particular building, we honor the past."
Little did the audience know that Mrs. Clinton's grandmother, Della Rosenberg, was married to one of those Yiddish-speaking immigrants.