Theater Legend David Rothenberg Does Some of His Best Work Offstage

80-Year-Old Producer Remains a Committed Activist

Fortunate Son: David Rothenberg (pictured here in an archival photo) is the founder of a society that helps ex-cons and also runs a discussion group for at-risk teenagers. He comes from a long line of Jewish artists and activists
Grace Harrington
Fortunate Son: David Rothenberg (pictured here in an archival photo) is the founder of a society that helps ex-cons and also runs a discussion group for at-risk teenagers. He comes from a long line of Jewish artists and activists

By Simi Horwitz

Published June 19, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

But Miller isn’t the only noteworthy member of Rothenberg’s mishpokhe: another Rothenberg cousin routinely helps ex-cons by employing them in his restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Rothenberg’s aging aunt and uncle, married 62 years, still open their homes to the formerly incarcerated who are now homeless.

“My great-great-aunt was Lillian Wald, who started the Henry Street Settlement,” Rothenberg commented. “My parents were not political or social activists, but their instincts and values were good. I remember people visiting the house when I was a kid, and someone said ‘nigger,’ and my mother said, ‘That word is not acceptable in this house.’”

As a youngster, Rothenberg identified with Jackie Robinson. “Maybe in the depths of my soul, I knew I was gay and an outsider and understood what ostracism felt like,” he said

One of the few Jewish kids in Ridgefield, N.J., Rothenberg was not unfamiliar with anti-Semitism. When his favorite uncle, Donny, was killed during World War II, a kid in class said, “One less Jew.”

“I went home crying,” Rothenberg remembered. “Donny was the closest thing to an older brother that I ever had. I was 9 and he was 19, and he’d take me to Teaneck to see the baseball games. I’d sit on his shoulders.”

Rothenberg’s family was made up of Reform Jews who belonged to a synagogue and celebrated all the major Jewish holidays. They also celebrated Christmas. Indeed, one of his grandmothers became a Christian Scientist. “In the ’20s many Jewish women converted,” Rothenberg said. “When I got sick I didn’t know whether to read Mary Baker Eddy or to have chicken soup.”

Rothenberg attended Jewish Sunday school, and to this day he loves the holidays, rituals and family gatherings, though he always challenged the mysticism. “I’m agnostic,” he said. Still, Rothenberg defines himself as a Jew, specifically “the part of Jewish tradition that is concerned with social issues, that is concerned that children are going to bed hungry.”

Jewish humor also played a major role in shaping Rothenberg’s worldview. From the outset he was an admirer of Smith & Dale, the Ritz Brothers and Milton Berle. “When ‘Exodus’ came out, Milton Berle said women were ‘so thrilled by it, they wanted their old noses back.’ To make jokes about Exodus, that’s what Jews do.”

He admits he was star struck, and that he still enjoys dishing about the artists he encountered during his life. No one, he says, was more colorful than Charles Laughton or Elsa Lanchester, both of whom liked to shock. Laughton made a pass at him, clutching Rothenberg’s thigh under the table, and shortly thereafter Lancaster flashed him, joyously lifting her skirts to reveal her wholly nude private parts.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.