By Susan B. Master
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn is a microcosm of the world. This was evident and elevated to an artform at one of the most fascinating Chanukah parties in the borough. The petite powerhouse behind this multicultural lighting of menorahs is Florence Rosenwein, a Bergen Beach retiree. This year, Florence hosted over 125 friends and colleagues of all races and religions to join her family in their annual celebration of miracles and religious freedom.
The buffet luncheon, which included the traditional brisket and potato latkes and applesauce, was catered by the glatt kosher Signature Caterers by Roz and Alan Zachter in Mill Basin’s Temple Sholom. Those sampling the fare were of backgrounds from China, Italy, Haiti, Israel, Argentina, South Carolina, Guatemala, India, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Brooklyn. Chanukah tunes played in the background as the DJ organized karaoke singers who were ready to perform.
Florence’s daughter, Sari Rosenwein, explained the genesis of the unique soiree. Sari and her husband, Andrew Warshaw, practice dentistry together at Park Slope Family Dentistry. Thirty-eight years ago, the party started with 18 family members in her parents’ home in Sheepshead Bay. It then moved to Sari’s Bergen Beach home and added friends into the mix. About 10 years ago, the party moved into the Sisterhood Room of the synagogue, and Florence and Sari began inviting their colleagues.
Florence has worked as the principal’s secretary and payroll administrator at P.S. 41 in Brownsville. Colleagues and students started enjoying Florence’s hospitality, as she showered them with specially wrapped gifts for the children and boundless door prizes. No one went home empty-handed. Over the years, the party grew to inhabit a catering hall room, and this year, it filled the synagogue’s main ballroom. Sari explained, “As the room gets bigger, the party gets more inclusive, and she invites more colleagues.”
Kids who might never have seen a menorah are now lighting their own. Sari’s cousin and Master of Ceremonies, Howard Fishbein, recites the blessings over the Chanukah menorah, as adults help the children light a candle on one of at least 30 menorahs set up. Fishbein also assigns the reading parts of a presentation written by Florence, which retells the story of courage in religious conviction, as Judah Maccabee and his family defended their desire to live as Jews.
Satwinder Kaur, a P.S. 41 sixth grade teacher of Indian descent, was called on to read about Chanukah poems, reciting that they are about “ideas that everyone can understand and feelings that everyone has felt; about freedom and a people’s struggle to achieve it.” Afterwards, Satwinder’s husband, P.S 41 grade 8 math teacher, Vincente Maysonet, of Puerto Rican descent, sang a karaoke song.
This was the first year that Hin Vallinoto, P.S. 41 business manager and teaching coordinator, of Chinese descent, and her husband, Pat Vallinoto, P.S. 41 first grade teacher, of Italian descent, attended Florence’s Chanukah party, with three of their children. Vallinoto stated, “I absolutely love it. It’s wonderful to see people of all of these cultures coming out together to celebrate,” adding, “She’s like this at work, too.” Vallinoto remembered the time when Florence met Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and she got him to sign a football to give to Hin’s son. “She always goes above and beyond,” she said.
Florence is pleased to announce that next year, the party will be even more special, as she plans to shoot a documentary about it throughout the year, and send it off to the Library of Congress. “I want to show that multiculturalism is alive and well in Brooklyn, and in our synagogue,” says Florence.
Dafna Alma, P.S. 41 second grade teacher, of Israeli, Tunisian and Argentine descent, hopes to film that documentary. She is currently working with Hal Eisenberg of Windows of Opportunity, Inc., a non-profit which will create a documentary of their volunteers rebuilding a hurricane-damaged church and school in Haiti.
The party also offered an arts and crafts table for children, dreidel game instructions and dreidels on every table, Chanukah balloons and decorations, a raffle with half the proceeds going to the scholastic charity of Florence’s choice, the traditional jelly doughnuts and even a birthday cake for those celebrating birthdays.
Florence didn’t even want to be interviewed, and instead, she shifted her focus onto how a parent felt when seeing her child singing a karaoke song. She spent the entire party trying to make everyone feel welcome. She just couldn’t do enough and give enough. This was a beautiful and meaningful start to the holiday season, with a heart and soul that has Brooklyn written all over it!