Al Rosen loved people. When he passed away, his family received letters and condolences from all over the world, a testament to the impact of his life. Al was not rich or famous or superhuman. He was a man from Milwaukee, husband, father, door-to-door salesman, and Jewish man of faith whose mother had cultivated the deeply Jewish values of tikkun olam and “caring for the stranger” within him. Al was an ordinary man with a capacious heart. He was a mensch.
On a cold late December evening in 1969, Al Rosen came home from work, unable to shake a thought that weighed heavily on his mind. That day, Al met a man who mentioned he would be working on Christmas Eve. “I really feel bad,” his son Jeff Rosen recalls him saying, “he is going to miss Christmas Eve with his family because he has to work.” Al’s wife Sylvia responded, “What will you do about it, Al?”
Al called local radio personality Charlie Hanson at WISN-AM and asked him to announce that a Jewish man was offering to work for a Christian on Christmas. There were no responses. Undeterred, Al put the word out months earlier the next year, starting a 28-year tradition that only ended with his death in 1998.
In 1970, Al did his first Christmas mitzvah at Sardino’s South on Farwell Avenue, taking over for bartender John Volpe, Jr. As a non-drinker, Al knew nothing about mixing cocktails, so he trained for several days at the bar before serving a crowd on Christmas Eve.
In the years to come, he would work as a radio DJ, bellman at The Pfister Hotel, switchboard operator, St. Luke’s Hospital orderly, waiter, cook, TV reporter, store clerk, parking lot attendant and more. He spent one frigid double-digits-below-zero Christmas Eve pumping gas at a Clark Station on Capitol Drive. The son of a master carpenter and machinist at Globe Union (now Johnson Controls), Al “did not inherit any of those potential skills. He was unable to hammer a nail into a wall properly,” his son Jeff chuckles, “but one year he was somehow a troubleshooter for the gas company.”
In the last few years of Al Rosen’s life, macular degeneration deteriorated his eyesight until he was legally blind. Unstoppable in his mission to serve others at Christmas, he took on the role of greeter at the Badger Home for the Blind.
Jeff and his brother Jerry learned from their father that “any work is dignified if you do it with honesty and sincerity,” Jeff remembers. Al did not seek out glamorous or high-profile jobs. He did the work of the everyday person, “All the folks easy to dismiss in a world that mistakes wealth for worth.” So goes a line from a new picture book based on Al’s yearly good deeds, “The Christmas Mitzvah,” by Jeff Gottesfeld, a Jewish writer who learned of Al while visiting Milwaukee in 1997. He was producing “Zink the Zebra,” a play commissioned by First Stage Children’s Theater.
In 1999, Gottesfeld returned to Cream City for a dinner reception at the JCC of Milwaukee, celebrating a theatrical production of “Anne Frank and Me,” which he co-wrote with Cherie Bennett. A Shoah Foundation grant winner, the show had a month-long run, for hundreds of local students and the community. As a senior at Nicolet High School in 1999, I was honored to be cast in the lead role of Nicole Burns, a teen who learns essential lessons about the Holocaust by traveling back in time to bear witness as a peer of the now-famous teenage diarist. Being a teen at the time, the role resonated deeply with me. Being a Jewish teen, the experience reverberated through my DNA, awakening familiar stories that echo back through the generations. L’dor v’dor, our cellular inheritance. Growing up in the heart of Milwaukee (and later Glendale), my family belonged to Congregation Shalom where I attended Sunday and Hebrew Schools, sang in the youth choir, and ran through the halls in search of the afikomen each Pesach. Rabbi Ron Shapiro officiated my Consecration, Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, Auf Ruf, and interfaith marriage.
Gottesfeld and I met at that evening reception, a one-time encounter between strangers, he as the playwright, me as an actress. So, it was a shock when we bumped into each other in the comments section of a mutual friend’s Facebook post 20 years later. Call it bashert or a coincidence, but we found ourselves reconnected and in many of the same Jewish children’s literature spaces, he as an author, and me as an educator and book reviewer. Recently, he asked me to be a sensitivity reader for his book “The Christmas Mitzvah.” As a Jewish Milwaukeean, like Al Rosen himself, I emphatically accepted.
“The Christmas Mitzvah” is a story inspired by Al Rosen’s compassionate acts of kindness each Christmas. With warm, humorous, hopeful illustrations by first time picture book illustrator Michelle Laurentia Agatha, and storytelling at the intersection of Jewish values, Christmas and Chanukah celebrations, and Al’s mitzvot, it is a book to share with readers of all backgrounds, identities and faiths.
Al is “the epitome of a reminder that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, which means we can all act in a godly way. We can’t all be great athletes, math geniuses or master carpenters, but we can all be good,” says Gottesfeld. That is the lesson that both he and Jeff Rosen hope folks take away from the book and Al’s story.
“In Judaism, it’s not just Jews that are important, it’s everybody else. If you can do something nice or kind for somebody, it doesn’t matter if they are Christian or Muslim,” Rosen says of his father’s teachings. Showing up, in the name of neighborly love, is what matters most.
The world does not need more heroes. We need more ordinary folks doing ordinary acts that make an extraordinary impact on others.
“…all of us — every single person, no matter who we are, where we live, who our parents were, or the things that happen to us — have the capacity for goodness,” says Gottesfeld. “Al showed us one way to be just that.”
Writer Aliza Werner is a Glendale-River Hills School District teacher. She is also a book reviewer and local film community volunteer.