Although I can’t pretend that I’d always gotten along with my late father (z’l), I certainly learned some powerful life lessons from him. As a lot of people knew, my dad, Abe Roth, maintained a strong presence with an impeccable work ethic that remains unmatched to this day. Abe Roth, the master plumber and owner of “A Roth Plumbing and Heating,” was a larger than life personality and a brand unto himself. Until this day, people tell me stories about their broken hot water heaters, busted pipes, and countless bathroom renovations that he repaired, rearranged, and resurrected for them, while balancing a cigar and a wrench. All their touching stories end with the same sentiment: “Your dad was the greatest and most honest plumber. We miss him.”
As his daughter and only child, I did learn extensively about craftsmanship and creativity, as my father was meticulous about connectivity between shape, form, and color. This probably jump-started my own path into the creative process of fashion and design. Yet, I have an unbelievably timely and unexpected story to share that is as relevant today as the day it happened.
My grandparents, Mechel and Tova Roth, left Poland and immigrated to the United States in the early 1920s, arriving as a newly-married couple with hopes of thriving in the “goldene Medina.” As children were born to the young couple, leaving many mouths to feed and bills to pay, the US economy literally crashed, making life insufferable for the new immigrants. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought desperation and grave hardships to all its citizens. Endless bread lines were the standard method of getting food through government assistance. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century.
My Zaidy (grandfather) Roth and his family traveled to wherever there was work for his profession as a carpenter. Of all the unlikely places, they moved to Mobile, Alabama, in the “Deep South.” My father was about 10 years old at the time, and my uncle Chaim Roth (z’l) was 8. They had five or six other siblings as well, which included my aunts Cynthia Rabinowitz (z’l) and Bella Rabinowitz (z’l).
The stories my father told me of his adventures there were of their makeshift yeshiva, where he taught his younger siblings Chumash in an abandoned treehouse. He delivered all these stories with a thick southern accent in order to create the correct tone, and I would laugh each and every time I heard them. As a child, I always imagined how wonderful it must have been to have such freedom, without teachers or real classrooms.
One day, when I was about 10 years old, I participated in a terrible childish stunt with some friends from my block in Kew Gardens Hills. It was orchestrated by the neighborhood bully against an innocent black lady. As she elegantly strolled down our block of 76th Road, we started to make fun of her, like little monsters. She ran away from us as she approached Main Street. My father saw this encounter from the screen door and stormed out to grab me by my dress and drag me back home with an expression of anger that I will never forget. He forced me to sit down on the living room couch and proceeded to teach me a lesson that changed my life. He screamed “Toba Leah, let me tell you the rest of the story about living in Mobile, Alabama... where there were signs everywhere that read ‘No Negros, No Jews and No Dogs!’” He continued to tell me about the lynchings and beatings he witnessed in the segregated Deep South. The white culture there hated Blacks and Jews alike, and treated them no better than common animals. Jews could not even use the same bathrooms as white people. There were multiple times he and his brothers were beaten up because they were Jewish. Then came the punchline that I’ll never forget: “So, Toba Leah, you think you are any better than that lady you frightened today? Do not forget who you are!” My actions that day were met with such scorn and punishment from my father; I felt his grave disappointment in me. Yet, he knew that I would never view Blacks in the same light for the rest of my life.
It’s not every day that an orthodox Jewish woman receives a lesson like this about racism and anti-Semitism in the US. In our communities, it’s a more common life lesson for anti-Semitism to be Holocaust-related.
At a time of great unrest in our country between races, colors, politics, and power, I pick my slogan: Fathers Matter. It’s what they teach you to respect that matters. It’s what they teach you to love that matters. It’s what they teach you to do that matters.
I’m proud to say that my father taught me very well. I’ve shared my life’s joyful and sorrowful events with brilliant and faithful black men and women. I’ve developed businesses, shared Shabbosim, cried, laughed, danced, cooked, created, and traveled with the best crew of people I have known for many, many years.
Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is smart? One who learns from others.” I, the plumber’s daughter, have learned from my Dad what really matters. Happy Father’s Day.
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.