Brian Rodrigue comes from a long line of blacksmiths. His great-grandfather constructed tracks for hauling logs through the swamps of Louisiana. His grandfather and great-uncle opened a metalsmithing and machine shop near Florence, S.C. And his father, Mike, ran an ornamental metalworking business in Fredericksburg. In some ways, Rodrigue followed in his family’s footsteps. But when it came to religion, Rodrigue chose his own path.
Rodrigue, 48, comes from Cajun ancestry. When he was 11, his family moved from South Carolina to Fredericksburg, where he still lives. At 18, he began working with his two brothers at their father’s Virginia Architectural Metals, making handrails, fences, gates and other metalwork.
It wasn’t optional, he said.
“There’s nobody who was able to get out of working in the shop,” Rodrigue said. “When the work had to get done, you couldn’t hide.”
The work was hard and everyone was covered in a layer of metal dust by the end of the day. Rodrigue said people laughed about how it was possible to tell the type of metal they worked on that day by the color of their ears. Aluminum turned them a grayish color. Steel tinted them black, while copper and bronze turned them green.
On several occasions, the company worked on gates at the White House, which were so big and heavy that people often closed them too hard, shattering the locks. Rodrigue’s family also did work for the Library of Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. Naval Academy. Rodrigue estimates there are at least 100 restaurants and hotels around Washington that bear his family’s fingerprints.
“I love it,” Rodrigue said of metalworking. “I like the fact that at the end of it, you have something that you’ve built. You have a sense of pride and ownership in what you’ve done. The stuff that we built at the White House, I think it’ll be there for 200 more years. It’s nice to know that the things that you create can outlast you, if you do a good job on them.”
Rodrigue and his wife, Tiina, are members of Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg. Rodrigue converted to Judaism after they met.
“I believed in God. I didn’t believe in necessarily the Christ version of things,” Rodrigue said of his earlier years. “But there was no question in my life that God was out there. So, as I went through and started to understand about Judaism, the idea that ‘You may be right, I may be right, but let’s heal the world how we can and spend our time understanding God better’ made a lot of sense. It felt very inclusive.”
Rodrigue said he was drawn to Judaism, but growing up in a rural area, he didn’t have any Jewish role models to learn from.
“So it wasn’t until later in life that I started to find people who could help me in the path. And then, once Tiina and I started to get together, I decided I was going to convert.”
While supportive, Rodrigue’s father had little knowledge of the Jewish experience. Rodrigue began to find “Judaism for Dummies” and other books in his father’s bathroom. Flipping through the books he saw where his dad marked certain pages and sections to focus on.
Rodrigue stopped metalworking as a professional about 10 years ago. Nowadays IT work pays the bills. But he still does odd jobs here and there. He likes crafting ornamental pieces, “because it still makes me think about my dad.” Mike Rodrigue died in January.
But you can’t take the blacksmith out of the forge. Rodrigue was able to keep a few tools when the family business was sold, including his father’s 1850 anvil. He and his wife are constructing a barn, which he plans to put a forge in.
Rodrigue would like to pass the craft onto his 10-year-old son, Michael. The two like to watch “Forged in Fire,” a metaling competition TV series.
“So hopefully, we get an opportunity to make it five generations who are interested in metalworking,” Rodrigue said. “But we’ll have to see if it sticks.”