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My Side of the Mountain

Rachel Ginsberg

She grew up in California with a father who ministered a parish of Christian Sabbath observers, married a Bible scholar who brought her to the Appalachian Mountains where they lived among destitute hillbillies for two decades, then journeyed with her ten children to a life of Torah in Israel. After years in obscurity, Tzirel Rus Berger is finally putting her life down on paper.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Tzirel Rus Massey-Berger has a few theories as to why she and her ten children — a one-time family of rifle-toting, Bible-thumping, barefoot mountain folk living deep in the woods of theAppalachians — became Torah-observant, black-hatted Jews.

“For years I’ve been asking myself, Who lit the candles? Who gave the zchus to this family? Mother’s sister once told me, ‘Grandpa Dugger always said we were Jews from Spain.’ Maybe it was a great-great grandmother who fled from Europe. Or could be I’m a gilgul of some ancestor who ‘went off the derech.’ Rebbetzin Carol Weinberger a”h told me, ‘Your family was submerged in Christianity for generations. Hashem chose you to bring them out.’”

Either way, more than two decades after the Masseys discovered their Jewish core, the days and years on the mountain are but a vague memory for the younger ones, a wholesome foundation of survival for the older ones. Yet for Tzirel Rus, it was those years of loneliness and isolation, living out of nature’s hand and developing a resourcefulness in conditions she couldn’t have dreamed of, that shaped her spiritual sensitivity and honed her ability to uncover existential truths.


Story of My Life

“How goodly are your tents, o Jacob!” Tzirel Rus exclaimed, surveying the modestly dressed women in the lecture hall of her new community on the outskirts ofJerusalemthe year after her conversion.

That was 16 years ago. She still hadn’t mastered the Hebrew text, but as someone who’d been quoting Scriptures by heart since she was a child, her knowledge of the Bible would put many FFBs to shame. The women were captivated by her unusual life story: growing up in California with a father who ministered a parish of Christian Sabbath observers; marrying a Georgia mountaineer and finding herself in the primitive backwoods for over 20 years (no indoor plumbing, shooting deer for meat); homeschooling her kids so they wouldn’t wind up illiterates like so many other mountain folk; journeying with her first husband on a spiritual path that led to Torah and then separating ways; watching her boys transform into yeshivah bochurim, and finally her own embrace of Judaism. She rarely spoke about her journey, but after that talk, her new neighbors begged her, “You must write a book!”

That’s the same thing her first rebbetzin, Toby (Bulman) Katz, said to her back in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But there was no book — not even a newspaper article or a magazine profile. Some of her children were in shidduchim, others were trying to integrate into a new school system. They cringed at the idea of publicity. But as the years passed and her children married, the narrative began to write itself. Eleven years ago Tzirel Rus married again —this time to a Boyaner chassid (he passed away last year) — and it was the Boyaner Rebbe who said it was time to tell the story. Tzirel Rus’s book, Mountain Family (Mesorah Publications), is due to be published in the coming weeks, and now, she says, the full story can finally be told.

“Anyway,” says her daughter Shira, “at this point, I don’t think we have to feel, ‘Oh, no, people are going to find out about us.’ I think everyone knows already.”


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