There is probably an Uncle Chaim in just about every Jewish family, especially in Ashkenazi families. He could be pictured in so many different assortments of characters and physical images: short, tall, fat, smart, funny, assertive, aggressive, and loving. This week, my article is solely devoted to my own Uncle Chaim Roth z”l, who was niftar this past Thursday, 14 Av.
Yes, you certainly recognize the name, because he is (was) the founder of H Roth Adjusters, an insurance claims company that services Queens and the rest of the five boroughs of New York City. It’s a constant source of amusement to me how it seems that my entire family services, repairs, builds, maintains and fixes homes and property for Jewish communities, especially in Queens. I entertain myself as I count the trucks and sprinters with company logos from my various cousins.
My Uncle Chaim passed away this week. With that being said, so did an entire generation of the Roth Family. The Roth Family is a story of a real American Jewish family, possibly as real as apple pie and the good old flag.
Tobi and Mechel Roth left Poland in the early 1900s for promises of the “Goldene Medina” of America. Jointly, they departed from the apparent signs of excessive anti-Semitism that plagued Europe, especially Poland. Although it was before the World Wars, Jewish life was not great, it was merely tolerable. They arrived only to realize that finding a means to make a living was difficult. Trying to feed their ever-growing family, they found prospects of parnasah in Galveston, Texas.
The Galveston Movement, also known as the Galveston Plan, was a US immigration assistance program operated by several Jewish organizations between 1907 and 1914. Its mission was to divert Jewish immigrants, fleeing Russia and Eastern Europe, away from East Coast cities, particularly New York, which was already crowded with these poverty-stricken immigrants. During its operation, about ten thousand Jewish immigrants passed through the port of Galveston, Texas. It accomplished its mission and Tobi and Mechel Roth built a thriving Jewish community for years, after which they moved the continuously growing family to Mobile, Alabama. My father and uncle were just young boys who built their own little yeshivah in an abandoned schoolhouse on the wrong side of town. Deep in the South, neither Blacks nor Jews were welcome anywhere. Both boys witnessed many gruesome mistreatments of the segregated South that haunted them for years to come.
Somewhere during those years, the family grew to 12 children, but some were victims of diseases, crib death, and car accidents. My grandmother passed away while baking cheese apple strudel for Shavuos at the young age of 46, leaving her three youngest sons and two older married daughters (only five out of 13 survived). Perhaps she died of a broken heart after losing so many children, or perhaps life was too hard to manage during those years.
Mechel Roth, my Zeidy, had three little boys to raise and a drive to get things done. The next episode brings everyone to East New York, Brooklyn, a bustling Jewish community. My dad and his two younger brothers attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. My Zeidy started a shtiebel in the vicinity of Pitkin Avenue.
When I was born, at the end of the 1950s, life seemed to settle in. I lived at 492 Logan Street with my parents, upstairs in a two-family house. Downstairs is where my Zeidy and two favorite, funny, and entertaining uncles (the oldest one was my Uncle Chaim) could be found by me. My favorite and one of the first memories is stealing his chocolate malted balls that he hid under his bed every Erev Shabbos. The house was filled with music of chazanus and Mario Lanza. There were Motza’ei Shabbos card games with the gabbai, handball tournaments, and snowball fights. There were family Shabbos tables full of food and Sunday cousins days. There was M Slavin and Sons Fish Market and Heime Meltzer’s Candy Store. There was the family dog (who was really a wolf) that snacked on cholent bones and chicken fricassee.
When I was born at the end of the 1950s, life seemed to settle in.
At around my fifth birthday, my parents moved us to Kew Gardens Hills, a young and growing neighborhood resting between two emerging Young Israels. Uncle Chaim and his beautiful Midwestern bride, Sandra, moved there as well. To my little girl eyes, they were the perfect cool, hip, and chic couple that traveled the world. Together, we spent many Shabbasos and yamim tovim. My devoted uncle rescued me from several holiday disasters of broken esrog pitum and shattered glass in the charoses, thus gallantly and constantly defending me against any oncoming punishment from either of my parents. Life was simple and fun, or so I thought. My Uncle Chaim and Aunt Sandy stepped into big shoes when my parents got divorced. As an only child at 17, I leaned on them to vent, mourn, scream, and rearrange my life. They didn’t allow me to disrupt my religious life, even when the trauma was overwhelming.
Through marriages and children, the bond went through a lot of trials and tribulations, but always remained a level-headed sounding board for me. Their only son married, and his children became mine, as well, and we grew to be a very solid family force.
Thankfully, my Uncle Chaim thrived in his permanent home of Boro Park, amongst the Bobov community, which gave me a second home off of New Utrecht Avenue. Our families grew larger with every Purim s’udah.
When my father passed away four years ago, I sat shiv’ah with my Uncle Chaim at his home. What struck me most during that tragedy was his need to make me comfortable in my time of mourning, although he was noticeably entertained by all my assorted friends and acquaintances throughout the week. It was a frozen piece of time that we caught up on the missing pieces of stories, and reminisced the days of East New York.
With a tear rolling down my left cheek, I’m trying to finish this paragraph. My Uncle Chaim Dov ben Mechel HaKohen passed away last week. He was the last of the generation of the Roth family – the generation that taught me a very valuable lesson: You can adjust to the American culture, but never assimilate into it. The Roths lived in the real world of life in the USA with the Great Depression, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Civil Rights, and Vietnam, but never compromised a Shabbos, thus proving that you can successfully balance the world out there and the world of Torah. This message seems to be ingrained in my soul.
In the colorful language of my uncle Chaim: “Don’t mess this up, Toba Leah. I’m watching you!”
May his neshamah have an aliyah to G-d’s arms, along with his 12 siblings and parents.
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.