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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.