08/30/2012 07:05 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

The Fabric of Friendship: Pursuit of Justice Weaves Bonds Between Two Cultures

This story was originally published in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's blog,

They were just two 20th century American families: one Jewish, the other Mexican. They lived in different states; knew nothing of one another's history, culture, class, religion or values. Their lives collided when the labor organizer Cesar Chavez sent farm worker Al Rojas from the Central Valley of California to Pittsburgh, where the middle class Trachtenberg family lived, to help organize the nationwide grape boycott that was key to the formation of the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. And despite their outward differences, Allen Trachtenberg and Al Rojas, their respective wives, Mitzi and Elena, and the nine children the two families had between them, found commonalities that were stronger and made them lifelong friends.

So when Allen Trachtenberg died in Berkeley this spring, at the age of 84, Albert -- though he was himself in delicate health -- would not have missed the memorial service for all the world.
"You can say one thing about Allen," Al said portentously at the opening of his remarks, as he lowered the microphone and the gathered crowd grew still. "He was as tall as I am."

The mourners laughed.

"The other thing was, we both cussed the same. He used this strange word: shmuck. So I finally asked him, 'Why do you always use that word?' and he said, 'Let me tell you what shmuck is.'
"From that point on, every once in a while I would say to someone: You shmuck!" Al recounted, in a convincingly Jewish intonation.

The mourners laughed until they cried, and then Al grew serious.

"Allen was a man who touched us all -- in his great way, he loved us all. He was a man who, with his wife Mitzi, made a beautiful family. You have to understand that the way we met, was almost like destiny."

And then he told their story.

Al was born in Visalia in 1938, the eldest of seven boys. His father was a laborer on a large peach ranch in Tulare where they paid the workers in wooden coins that could only be redeemed in the company store. His mother was born in New Mexico and eventually came to the San Joaquin Valley, where she met Al's dad. After peach season, the whole family helped pick cotton and followed other harvests, like many migrant workers. They all lived in a one bedroom house, and spoke Spanish at home; the kids learned English through comic books.

A bright and resourceful youngster who loved films, Al never wanted to be a farm laborer like his father -- he wanted to go to college -- but just months before his high school graduation, he discovered that the counselors had never put him on the college track, and that he had not taken the necessary courses. The final semester of his senior year, they put six periods of wood shop on his schedule.

He then aspired to join the Air Force, but when his father was seriously injured in a farm accident, it befell him, as the eldest child, to support the family. Al ended up in the fields after all, where a series of life events led to his encounter with the man who would undertake to organize American farm workers as a labor force with rights. Al Rojas, Cesar Chavez decided, would head east to Pittsburgh, a city whose own labor history made it a good bet to garner support for the farmworker's first big action: a nationwide boycott of non-union grapes. Al made his way east with his three children and wife Elena, who was pregnant with a fourth. He had little understanding of what a boycott was, never mind how to do it. Chavez told him: You're doing something that hasn't been done before.

Arriving at the upscale William Penn hotel where the UFW had its Pittsburgh headquarters -- a desk -- Al passed an open room where he saw piles of new clothing on display. Thinking it was some kind of store, he entered the room. Allen Trachtenberg, a wholesale clothing salesman, asked him, "You need something?"

Al said that he would need warm coats for his wife and children, for they had come all the way from California and didn't have the clothes for the cold climate.

Allen noticed the union boycott button on his jacket and asked, "You're with the Farm Workers?"
Al said he was.

"Well, give me their sizes and in two weeks come by again," Allen told him.

In a couple of weeks the two men met again in those same hotel corridors. Allen told Al that he had coats for the family and new shirts for him. He would not let him pay for the items. Then he told Al, "By the way, my wife Mitzi and my kids would like to meet you." He invited the Rojas' to come to their house for dinner. Somewhat tentatively, Al accepted.

The Rojas family in Pittsburgh, minus the youngest.

As Mitzi Trachtenberg would later recall, "They came with nothing. They had nothing. They came to do a job, and were dependent on the kindness of strangers."

"From the very moment that I met Allen I felt a strong pull from him, of closeness," Al recounted at that Memorial Service. "When I saw him and he saw me, it was like -- a deep feeling of sincerity, that he really wanted to become closer. And that's when he invited me and my family to meet his. I liked him. I liked his approach. He was a family guy."

From those very first encounters Al had to cross a few cultural frontiers.

Visit the JCC's website to read the rest of this story.