By Steve Rothman
November 12, 2012
Temple Sinai of Bergen County
My Father, Philip Rothman, was a serious man. While he could become interested in irony, and brought to smile by exaggeration, for him, his life was serious—and intensely focused: On taking care of himself and us, supporting the Jewish People, and his country. He rooted for every man, woman and child on earth, of every background, who was working hard, trying to improve his/her life or anyone who was an innocent victim.
In many ways, my Dad was an exceptionally complicated man, but, at his core, he was a very simple, though extraordinary one.
Philip Rothman was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in a tenement apartment. He was the fourth of five children born to Abraham and Gussie Rothman, two Polish immigrants who had met and married in America.
Phil’s parents, though completely uneducated, had taught him life’s essential lessons: of hard work, support of the family, a deep obligation to help the Jewish People, a responsibility to oppose injustice, and an abiding loyalty to and faith in the ideals of the United States of America.
Phil Rothman was a powerful presence, up until the very end: both physically and mentally. He was broad shouldered, lean, very muscular, narrow-waisted, movie star handsome street kid: a 6-foot-tall cross between Marlon Brando, James Garner (and for the younger generation here) a black haired Captain America. And he was a Jew.
Phil never had a formal education beyond high school. He was a self-taught silversmith and machinist. He was a self-taught tool and die maker, then a self-taught, expert builder of small homes, then of small factories. He taught himself architecture, engineering, construction law, tax law, building codes, and then he’d go into meetings with his respective counterparts, by himself, and conduct all of those endeavors, armed only with: what he had taught himself, the plans he had drawn up in the drafting room in our basement, and the raw power of his intellect. And he rarely came out without winning a good, but fair deal.
He was always a tough bargainer, but never took advantage of anyone. He made a point to tell us throughout our lives: Never to take advantage of ANYONE. It was simply wrong. Throughout my childhood and beyond, people of all backgrounds, in every field of business and labor, sought his advice and counsel. And they always told me: “Your father is the smartest man I know. Your father is a true gentleman. His word is gold…. He is a prince, your father.” I was always taken with the profound and positive effect he had so many.
He was a “rags to riches”, self-made man, in the construction business for over 50 years–WHO NEVER SUED ANYONE AND WAS NEVER SUED.
He was successful beyond his wildest imaginings, generous to a fault with his children and grandchildren, to charities and individuals throughout his life–from when he had almost nothing, to when he had his share of bounty.
My dad’s life was hard—but successful. And, in his words “lucky.” He used to talk about the role of “luck” in life. But then, with a glint in his eyes (and with his constant need to impart his street wisdom upon me, my sister and my brother) he would say: “But you know Steven, I’ve found…(Pause)…..that the harder I work…(Pause)..the luckier I get!” He’d say that with a straight face…. Till I smiled. Then he’d smile…a little bit……I NEVER FORGOT THAT LESSON!
Phil valued hard work and integrity. No matter what or whom the object of his observation was: from a highly educated professional, to the most unskilled person, if they were working hard and had integrity, they had my father’s respect and support. Being a celebrity or a person with a fancy tile or someone who held a powerful position, never impressed my father. It was only the character and work ethic of the person that mattered.
YET…., if he met someone who was working hard and had integrity, but that person was struggling financially and had no financial backup or mentor, my father found a way to help them; to take them under his wing, to advise them how to set their life in the right direction, provide fatherly encouragement, and yes material help. He saw his young STRUGGLING self— in every hard-working person trying to make it!
Phil Rothman despised Injustice. He lived through the era of the Holocaust. And, during the 1930’s in Astoria, Queens (where his dad had opened a small tailor shop) when Phil was about 15, he found in Phil’s words: that he was “living behind enemy lines.” You see, every day on his street corner in his Astoria neighborhood, there were American Nazi Bund Rallies. Mobs he had to face, going to AND from school, every day. Mobs he fought with, nearly every day of his growing up.
How did he survive those days? Well, as his friend John O’Toole, who has been my dad’s friend since they were twelve years old, just told me yesterday, “Your dad didn’t have it easy in our neighborhood, being a Jew. But he had a couple of things that really helped him: He was big (6 ft. tall), solid muscle, and he was one hell of a street-fighter.”
THOSE EXPERIENCES MADE HIM SERIOUS, CAUTIOUS AND TOUGH…..BUT THEY ALSO SHAPED HIS SENSE OF JUSTICE, HIS IDENTIFICATION WITH THE “LITTLE GUY,” THE NEED TO PROTECT THE RIGHTS OF THE UNPOPULAR, AND THE ABSOLUTE NECESSITY OF A STRONG DEFENSE!
While my dad was raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, he practiced his Judaism in his commitment to ethical ACTION. HE ALWAYS SPOKE OF THE “DOERS” vs. THE “TALKERS”. HE HAD NO REGARD WHATSOEVER FOR THOSE WHO ONLY “TALKED ABOUT DOING GOOD DEEDS”. IT WAS WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID, THAT MATTERED TO HIM! The Ethical teachings of Judaism: the 10 Commandments and the Golden Rule, PUT INTO ACTION–INVOLVING PERSONAL SWEAT, PERSONAL EFFORT AND PERSONAL RISK. That was what guided his life and affected me profoundly.
HIS MORAL CODE WAS UNSHAKEABLE AND NEVER CHANGED, NEVER. NO EXCEPTIONS. HE WAS INCORRUPTIBLE.
He used to say all the time, especially in my early adulthood: “Steven, BE UNBUYABLE, BE A PERSON WITH A GOOD NAME. PROTECT THE JEWISH PEOPLE BUT MAKE THE WHOLE WORLD A BETTER PLACE FOR EVERYONE. Justice for everyone was His Life’s Credo.”
If you read my Dad’s bio in the program or in one of the newspaper obituaries, you will learn about his life of solid citizenship and philanthropy. So I won’t repeat that stuff.
What I wanted to leave you with today was not only a sense of who Philip Rothman was (and perhaps how he got to be that way), but the ENORMOUS sense of pride, honor and gratitude I will always feel, at having had the privilege of being one of his children.
My Dad was Phil Rothman!
How lucky was I?
He was my greatest teacher: amongst all of my life’s other mentors, friends, colleagues, professors, Presidents, Kings, Queens, Prime Ministers, 4 Star Generals. NO ONE comes close to my father’s overall wisdom, intellectual clarity, and moral clarity that he imparted to me, the insights and virtues he tried to instill in me, and the humanism he wanted me to possess. No one. Not even close.
Just a couple of other thoughts:
My Father’s GREATEST pride, of course, was in his family: his marriage to Muriel for 67 years, and their work together raising 3 children—-Susan, Arthur and Myself. AND HELPING US, ADVISING US, SUPPORTING US AND DEFENDING US ALWAYS. HE ADORED ALL OF US: HIS children, HIS 7 grandchildren, 2 great grandchildren, brothers, sisters, in-laws, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and cousins.
As for his marriage to my mother, theirs was a young marriage of two gorgeous, movie star looking kids, that grew into a 67-year long partnership and love affair. While they had, to say it mildly, somewhat differing views on some aspects of life, they were drawn to each other–and stayed faithful and devoted to each other for all those 67 years.
I know my Dad taught my Mom a lot. And I know my Mom taught HIM a lot—as much as he would let her. I know she will miss him terribly. My mother has always been a good and wonderful wife to my father. He genuinely appreciated all that she did for him, and especially all that she did for me, my brother and sister, and our entire family.
SECOND, I know that all his family and friends will never forget him and what he meant to them. In the last years, I’ve had more than a dozen grown men tell me that my father was like a second father to them. I KNOW that there are many more who feel the same way about him.
FINALLY, as for myself, my brother and sister —and our children and grandchildren: Ours is a debt TO HIM that we can never fully repay! You see, we always had the gift of knowing that Phil Rothman would always be there for us….
As the years went on, once the burdens of securing our family’s future were set, this very serious, practical man, was able to talk about his love for each of us, in such heartfelt and meaningful ways. And to relax a little bit, and to enjoy his children and grandchildren.
Philip Rothman was my role model in so many areas. He was my backstop, my rock, the foundation upon which I built my own character, ethics and morality.
I will miss him always, but I have the good fortune to know—-that he loved me deeply. And he knew that I loved and adored him deeply. In the last 30 years of his life, we made sure to tell each other that. And I made sure to end literally every single conversation with “I love you Dad. Thank you for everything!” And he would always say, “NO STEVEN. THANKYOU FOR EVERYTHING!”
One last and important thing about Philip Rothman: this big, powerful, serious, self-made, confident, street-smart man. With the brute physical and intellectual force of at least THREE powerful and brilliant men……was ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ….TENDER ….with me.
God bless you Favel. May the Lord give you an eternal life filled with peace, happiness and contentment. May He hold you in the palm of his hands. And may He give you the satisfaction in knowing, that you did so much for so many, that your sacrifices, struggles, hard work, generosity and goodness were truly appreciated, AND THAT YOU LEFT THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE— BECAUSE OF YOU and ALL THAT YOU DID!
YOUR MEMORY WILL LIVE ON FOREVER–AS YOU WILL LIVE INSIDE MY HEART AND SOUL, AND THE HEARTS AND SOULS OF MY CHILDREN, AND EVERYONE WHO HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE TO MEET YOU, FOREVER!
I LOVE YOU DAD! THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING!
I HOPE TO SEE YOU AGAIN.