Remembering my hero, teacher and grandfather, Philip Rothman

PopMy grandfather, Philip ‘Flip’ Rothman, died on October 6th, 2014, in his home, a few weeks before his 93rd birthday. My grandfather was a lifelong teacher, a source of wisdom and guidance and ethics to so many who knew him, and an amazing man. I want to write, even though it feels hard to know where to begin, and knowing that no piece of writing could encompass the magnitude of what I learned from my grandfather. I will share a few memories and thoughts, as an expression of both mourning at no longer having my grandfather to speak with, and of immense gratitude for the blessing of having had my grandfather as a role model, an inspiration and a constant presence in my life for my first twenty five years. And more than that: gratitude for the fact that through his teachings and his life path, through the family and community he built, through his jokes, his advice and his wisdom, he will remain a constant presence in my life until I too depart from this world.

Pop & Grandmom 

Philip Rothman -or Pop, as I and my siblings and cousins called him, or Flip, as he was called by many of his friends and family members, or Bob, as he was known in other parts of the family- was born in 1921 in Philadelphia, PA. He graduated high school early, and got his BA from Temple University before shipping off to the Phillipines during his service in the US Army’s Signal Corp in WWII. He was wounded during his service, and I remember the time he let my brother and I feel the piece of shrapnel still lodged in his arm- the doctors had decided it would cause more harm to try to extract it than to just leave it there. After finishing his time in the army, Pop returned to Philadelphia, and met my grandmother on the steps of the local library. He had planned to get started early on a paper, instead of writing it “last minute like always,” but then he saw Esther on the steps with her friend, they started talking. He had a car, and said he was driving their way anyway, and offered the two of them a ride home (which was actually completely out of his way). The way Pop told it, he and Esther basically went steady from then on. (The way my grandmother told it, they started talking on the phone, and at the end of each conversation, she would realize that Phil had barely said a word, because she’d been so excited to speak to him, and he’d been such a good listener). Seeing Pop and Grandmom together -and seeing the glow in his eyes as he told this story to me and Kayla this past summer (Kayla asked him what had happened with the paper, and he’d laughed, “I wrote it last minute, like always,”)- I know that their love for each other, and later for their wider family, was infinite and inspirational and immense. This love filled my childhood and our whole town and maybe also the whole world.

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Rejecting Racism

Pop wasn’t one for flowery declarations or emotional tales of transformation and struggle. When he believed something, he believed it, quietly, unshakably, with all of his heart, no questions asked. So when I was younger, and my grandfather told me stories about spending time with black friends in Philadelphia and efforts to protest racial segregation in the 1940s and 50s, it all sounded matter-of-fact. That was how it was.

Only: That wasn’t how it was for most in America in those days. It was an era of vicious segregation, separation, racism and bigotry. Thinking back on the same stories, I am blown away by the extent of my grandfather’s understated radicalism, and the simple, unshakable force with which he rejected discrimination and bigotry. His rejection was too quiet to be anything other than complete. Perhaps he had come to reject racism because of his own experiences with discrimination (he’d wanted to be an engineer, and he certainly had the mind to do so, but the university had already filled their Jew-quota), or perhaps he came to these positions because they were the right ones, or perhaps there is some other story. I don’t know- he never said, at least not to me, but what he did make clear was that no form of racism or segregation is ever acceptable or to be tolerated.

After moving to Yellow Springs in 1954 to take a job teaching at the cutting-edge Antioch University —where he taught education for four decades and to hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of students, many of whom went on to become teachers themselves— Pop was active in and chaired local chapters of the NAACP and the ACLU. In writing his obituary, my family members all agreed that this was an important part of my grandfather’s story:

“He was a strong proponent of abolishing segregation in the schools and in society. In addition to his teaching at Antioch, during the 1950s and 60s, he was commissioned by the National Conference of Jews and Christians to provide school integration workshops for teachers around the country. He wrote numerous articles about the negative impact of school segregation.”

And in 1965, Pop testified in the US District court as part of an NAACP lawsuit concerning the negative impact of racial discrimination on education. In the tribute to my grandfather posted on Antioch College’s website after his death, they explained that it was a “de facto segregation suit filed against the Cincinnati School Board by the parents of 45 African-American children. Rothman testified that, based on his professional  opinion as an educator, the Cincinnati schools ‘are racially segregated.’” That sounds exactly like my grandfather, and my hero in terms of struggling to do what is right and fair and decent in the world, wherever one stands: Pop would observe an injustice embedded in reality, and declare it wrong in the simplest terms possible.

Running

A few years ago, I began running pretty seriously. Only then did my grandfather tell me that he had run three miles almost every day from the time he was in his mid-40s until he was 75. This also wasn’t normal (people in America didn’t really run for the sake of running in early 1960s— He was one of the first joggers in Yellow Springs) but to hear him tell it, it was. He just ran. Every time I’ve run since he died, I think of him, and I think that it will be that way for the decades in which I continue to run, God willing.

Pop, Grandmom and my aunts Carol and Bonnie, after moving to Ohio
Pop (in his running gear!) with Grandmom and my aunts Carol and Bonnie

Laughter 

Sunday brunches at Pop and Grandmom’s house were always a highlight of my weekends growing up. Over bagels and orange juice and coffee, our family would talk and talk about politics and about school and about our lives and about books, but the real highlight of these brunches were Pop’s jokes. I think that these jokes told such a story of who he was: serious, sometimes stern, but filled with love and laughter brimming in his brown eyes that would crinkle with amusement and even tear-up with laughter far before he would arrive at the punchline. I think that I will retell one of those jokes here:

So. There is this band of cowboys, riding along the desert, and they haven’t had anything to eat or drink for a long time, and they are lost. They come to a fork in the road, where they see an old Jewish peddler, selling little chachkes. They look down at him, and demand that he tell them which way to turn, left or right.

The old man thinks.

“Vell,” he says, “Vatever you do, don’t turn to ze right.”

“Why shouldn’t we turn right?” One of the cowboys asks.

“Because on ze right, zere is a… a… Bacon Tree.”

“A Bacon Tree?!” The cowboys ask.

“Yes, yes, a Bacon Tree.”

The cowboys consult with one another. “A Bacon Tree?” they scoff. “There’s no such thing as a Bacon Tree.” Another one jumps in: “Maybe there is such thing as a Bacon Tree, and the old man just doesn’t want us to find it, because bacon’s not kosher.” Ah, yeah, yes, they all agree, and disregarding to old man’s cries of protest, they kick their spurs into the horses sides, and ride off to the right.

They are attacked by a band of robbers, and all but one of them are killed.

This one manages to scramble back to the old peddler standing at the fork in the road, and he yells to him:

“What happened? You said their was a Bacon Tree! All of my comrades were attacked and killed!”

The old man puts a palm to his forehead and sighs:

“Oy vey. Did I say “Bacon Tree?” I meant to say: Ham Bush.”

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(Say the last line out loud, for those who still didn’t get it).

Love

My grandfather taught me so much. This is not and cannot be a summary of all that I learned from him, but rather just a snippet, and a tribute, and a declaration of love. This past summer, I got married to the love of my life, and we celebrated our marriage both in Tavor, in the Galilee, and in Yellow Springs. I cannot express how grateful I am that my grandfather was able to come celebrate with us in Yellow Springs. This is a video of what he said at the wedding:

“I want to follow up on the gracious remarks here [by Steve Zecher, my father in law]. My mother was one of 11 children, and we were used to having a lot of family around. And I have become aware, in just a few years, that the whole family has disappeared, and only I am left. And I felt very bad about that, but lo and behold, I have a whole new family. I am grateful to all of you for sharing this. I felt that I was losing everything, but instead I have found two jewels [referring to Kayla and to my brother Jesse’s partner, Chloe] to be part of my family. [Turning to Kayla and me:] I love you both.”

We love you, too, Pop. So much.

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