“It’s My Language, It’s My People. It’s Just Me.”
Retired military systems engineer Janice Rittenburg Rossbach has led a fascinating life, to say the least. Born in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, she dreamed from an early age of becoming an engineer like her father, who encouraged her in this pursuit even though there were few female engineers at the time. After receiving her BS in mathematics from UMass Amherst, Janice completed her master’s degree in mathematics at MIT and eventually pursued a PhD at Brown. She spent much of her long career at GTE, where she worked on large projects, such as command and control of the Minuteman and MX missile systems. She also served as technical director for the navy’s Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) project, which provides a way to communicate with submerged submarines. Although Janice began working with submarine systems as early as the 1950s, as a woman she was prohibited from actually setting foot on a sub until the 1970s.
If Janice’s own story is a study in perseverance, her family history is one of equal tenacity. Both her grandmothers were from Lithuania, while her maternal grandfather grew up in Odessa (Ukraine), the son of a maggid (an itinerant Jewish preacher) who traveled from place to place telling religious stories. After deserting the czar’s army in the Caucasus Mountains, her grandfather became a master boot maker, eventually settling in New Jersey with Janice’s grandmother in the early part of the twentieth century. He made bootleg whiskey in the family bathtub, and he had his own little shoe repair shop with a cryptic sign in the window that read “After the Depression.”
Though Janice didn’t speak the language herself, she could understand it, and she remembers spending evenings listening to her grandfather read the Yiddish Forverts aloud. “I just loved Yiddish,” Janice recalls. “It was what I grew up with.”
It was in fact—and perhaps ironically—the Great Depression that influenced Janice’s affection for Yiddish. During those years, her family lived with her mother’s parents, and her mother and grandmother would speak to one another in their native Yiddish. Though Janice didn’t speak the language herself, she could understand it, and she remembers spending evenings listening to her grandfather read the Yiddish Forverts aloud. “I just loved Yiddish,” Janice recalls. “It was what I grew up with.”
Her passion for Yiddish was reignited years later when she heard Aaron Lansky speak at UMass about a computer scientist living in the French Pyrenees who had offered his help developing Yiddish optical character recognition (OCR), a revolutionary technology that enables text search of scanned books. This story, which Janice says she’ll never forget, led to her first visit to the Center and a donation of a rare Yiddish-English cookbook that had belonged to her mother. She has continued to support the Center ever since. “It’s a place I love. It’s a mission I love . . . With the expansions into translation and education, it’s brought Yiddish to life and made it a current thing,” she explains. “I like that Yiddish is getting more exposure and interesting more people to learn about history.”
Throughout her life, Janice’s commitment to her sense of Jewish and Yiddish heritage and identity has remained strong. “It’s my language, it’s my people. It’s just me. That’s all . . . That’s why I support the Yiddish Book Center, because it’s just who I am, and it’s inside.” Though she may not have grown up speaking Yiddish, Janice now attends regular Yiddish classes (on the afternoon of our interview she planned to attend one via Zoom). For this self-proclaimed “Jewish Boston girl” who turned 90 in May, the learning—like the Yiddish—never ends.
For information on how you can support the Yiddish Book Center, please contact Zvi Jankelowitz at [email protected], or 413-256-4900, ext. 117.
From Kvel, the development newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (forthcoming Fall 2020)