My Father, Jacob M. Rothbart
by David Rothbart

Jacob M. Rothbart and Nechama Pearl Rothbart, July 1962, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

To his family and intimates he was called Meyer - his middle name. He was representative of certain genre of Gombin youth in the last 15 years of the 19th century and the first 6 years of the 20th. He was a Bundist activist, a leader of defending the town against threatening pogromists ad intent on deposing the Czar. Typically, he rebelled against formal, ritualized religion by age 12. By then his indoctrination was complete. He was thoroughly grounded in the Talmud, in the lore and emotions of shul and in Jewish holidays. His native tongue was Yiddish. Yet he was universalist in outlook. When he escaped Poland in 1906, just ahead of the police and came to America, among the few possessions he brought with him was a book of poems in Polish written by a Polish poetess. He left behind his father, mother and sister Rivka. In 1927, he brought over to Canada all who remained of the family after the typhoid fever plague of 1918, including his mother, sister Rivka together with her husband Shlomye Adler, their children Deena, Jack and Abe, and Deena's husband Isadore Eiley.

In America, Jacob settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1908 and in 1912 married Pearl Bloch who had immigrated from Lithuania in 1908. They had four children: Saul, David, Roselie and Deborah. The four children gave them to date 11 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and one recently born great-great-grandchild named Gabriel Rothbart.

Jacob was employed for 64 years as an agent for the New York Life Insurance Company. He regarded the profession as providing a life-sustaining service. For many of his working years there was no such thing as social security. When the main provider of the family died or became incapacitated, the only thing that kept the family from becoming destitute was life and disability income insurance. Yet insurance was a tough sell, an intangible that few people ever bought. It had to be sold; a piece of paper to be put away yet paid for periodically during times when it was a struggle for the worker just to pay the rent and put food on the table. But when the need came, his clients regarded him as their saint and savior.

At the same time, he remained a passionate idealist, the kind who worked almost as hard to advance the things he believed in as at making a living. Jewish culture was foremost in his thoughts. He was an ardent Yiddishist. He was among a handful in the country who concentrated on supporting authors of fine ethnic literature, music, art and gifted lecturers. In addition, he spent much of his precious time in raising money for the United States Jewish Appeal and similar causes. For many years he was a nurturing Board of Directors member of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research after it moved from Vilna to New York in 1940.

In all his 94 years, until he departed in 1979 to rejoin his wife Pearl in a better world, Jacob maintained contact with his friends from Gombin, many of whom had moved to America in the early years of the 20th century. His memoirs dwell expansively on his experiences with them and his recollections of their characteristics and personalities. He always expressed a warm nostalgia for Gombin where he was born and raised in a typical small East European shtetl where Jews constitute about a two-thirds of the population.

 

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