Abraham “Abe” Rothberg: Author, Professor, Friend

Two weeks ago, I lost a very important person in my life. For more than 25 years Abe Rothberg served as friend, mentor, surrogate father and personal curmudgeon. Over long lunches in diners or late afternoons in his study we’d discuss politics, history, literature, journalism and gossip about everyone we knew.

By the time I met Abe in the early 1980’s he had many achievements – a distinguished career as a journalist, university professor and author of thirteen novels, two books of history, a collection of short stories, two children’s books, and a volume of literary criticism. Abe was the most learned (and opinionated) person I ever knew. While I never saw Abe in the classroom, he was beloved or feared (or both) by legions of English literature students from his days teaching at Hofstra, Columbia and St. John Fisher.

For more on Abe’s accomplishments see the New York Times obituary
Abraham Rothberg, Who Wrote of Golem and Stalin, Dies at 89 

Following his retirement from teaching, I knew Abe hoped to devote more time to his writing. There were some successes – like an occasional journal piece,  but many of our lunches were punctuated by his growing disappointment that yet another book manuscript had been rejected. So beginning around 2000, I began to try to convince Abe that we could use new print-on-demand technology to by-pass the big publishing houses and do it ourselves. “I will never stoop to vanity press,” he’d bellow.

I pressed on and a few years later (did I say he was stubborn?)  I convinced him to let me publish The Holy Warriors a novel that had been rejected by a few publishers despite the fact that it had, in a way, anticipated 9/11. “OK Abe, let’s get this started – give me the Word doc of the book and I’ll get going on design.” Abe replied, “What’s a word doc?” (Did I mention that Abe refused to even LOOK into a computer screen?) So before beginning work on book design, step one was finding someone who was willing to scan / proof  his typewritten and heavily edited manuscript into OCR.

Eventually the book was finished and sent off to Lulu for publication. I’ll never forget bringing the finished paperback to Abe. He took the book in his thick hands and kept turning it over  – like a baker patting down dough. His face beamed as he asked,  “So when do we get started on the second book?”

Over the next six years we published another twelve books. (That’s right – all 12 started as typewritten manuscripts.) The scope was a remarkable testimony to the breadth of Abe’s interest and expertise – collections of  short fiction On A Darkling Plain, essays and literary criticism What Time Is It Now? novels set in Japan The Torii Gate and the Soviet eastern block The Former People. Subject ranged from a children’s story – Pinocchio’s Sister ~ A Feminist Fable  to an exploration of the justice system through the lens of a serial killer The Trials of Arthur John Shawcross.

In 2010, a group of his friends held a tribute to Abe  – the man and his writing – as part of a Jewish Book Festival. Here’s an excerpt of the reflection that Abe shared with us. (I learned he always liked the last word)

… Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Fiction can introduce you into the lies and truths of other people’s minds and hearts, to your own country and time, or strange, foreign places and other eras, into the most public forums and the most private scenes of human intimacy; it can make you see, hear, feel, love, hate, forgive, judge, understand, and yet not be bound by the consequences of all those activities, though you are there as a participant-observer in the most personal and informed ways. … And so, tonight, you will hear some of the lies I have written I take to be important truths, serious fictions about our lives and times. I thought my books might contribute to the cultural and political conversations and dilemmas of our epoch. If that has not taken place as I wished– and I am sorry to say it has not–it was not for the want of my trying.

To read more about Abe, download or order his books click here.

14 Replies to “Abraham “Abe” Rothberg: Author, Professor, Friend”

  1. Hi Margie,
    Yes, Abe was an original. 10 years after losing my dad he filled a great void in my life. He helped me through many rough times at the personal level and was my go-to guy for professional questions.

    The last time I saw him was about a week before he passed. We sat in his office and held hands while I read passages from his latest book. He wasn’t able to say much other than to motion for me to move where he could see me better. Sharing his writings and touch was a fitting final act.

  2. I was a student of Abe’s during both my junior and senior years at St. John Fisher College from 1979 – 1981. He was everything you said he was. I recall at first being put off by his demanding style in the classroom, but after a few weeks, and not being able to take any more (so to speak), I went to his office and confronted him. What I learned in that short meeting was a lesson I will never forget. He was genuinely distressed that he was unable to get more out of me. He saw potential in me, and thought i was lazy and had gotten by on raw talent for too long. He was the first person who had ever put it to me that way, and his sincere comments changed me.

    I just saw today that we lost Dr. Rothberg. I had been invited several years ago to a dinner in his honor, and while I was so happy he remembered me enough to have me on his invitation list, family obligations kept me home. I am now very sad that I didn’t follow-up with this man who made such a great impression on me, and had such a great influence on my life.

  3. Dan,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your remembrance of Abe. He demanded a great deal, but at the same time was able to help his students discover so much more about themselves. I’ll pass along your comments to his family. I’m sure they’ll be pleased to read your kind words.
    best ~ Peter

  4. Peter, I am slightly expanding the little tribute I sent after he died, and I may quote from some of your pages. You will be credited of course. I still miss him.

  5. Peter, I think I met you once many years ago when you and Abe were lunching at the Golden Fox Restaurant on Culver Road. He and I had lunch occasionally, and he spoke very highly of you.
    I’ve struggled with my own writing for years and earlier this week re-read part of “Coming to Terms.”
    There’s a scene towards the end of the book where he confronts a writer/colleague in the same way he confronted me more than once: in essence, stop whining, grow up, and write. It was Abe speaking to me from beyond the grave, and all these years later, I hear him.
    Thanks for all you did to support his work. I wish you well.

    Georgia Whitney
    Jamestown, NY

    1. Georgia, thanks for sending along the thoughtful comment. It was likely The Golden Fox or the Country Club Diner. Two of our favorite lunch haunts. I still think of Abe – his birthday is coming up. Abe still guides me – with his rather direct observations. Fun fact: Coming to Terms was loosely based on the dissolution of my second marriage. You find Abe and I in there.

      Hope you writing is back in the groove. As Abe might say – “Sit in the chair and write, already.” With a few Yiddish phrases in there that he would translate for you.

      1. Thanks, Peter. I am reading a biography of Philip Roth and it led me to thinking about Jewish writers, New York/New Jersey and then Abe.

        1. Abe was part of that storied generation. While he was a rising star in the early ’60s (and even dubbed the “the Jewish Graham Greene”) he never achieved the fame his talents deserved. I still miss him

  6. Dear Peter – today I came across a post from an English Literature page I follow .. Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ I shared the poem, saying it had been one of my favorites since my days as a shy 18 year old at St. John Fisher College in Rochester NY had found myself in the classroom of Abraham Rothberg.
    I went on further to say, quite certainly unknown to him, HE was MY, “Captain, Oh Captain!” While perhaps he would balk at the comparison…. I think you get the point.
    Even as a painfully shy young girl, I sensed his massive knowledge of literature, his passion, such passion, for all the works we piled through. I also sensed boredom and languishing dread among so many of my classmates . How could they, I thought? WHY did they seem so disinterested?
    And I wondered if Dr. Rothberg could see in my eyes that I was not among them…. I was engaged with every word – of his and the authors, the poets we were studying.
    All the great works I’ve ever read, studied, go back to Dr. R …. I’ve never forgotten him, nor his passionate pursuit to get thru to us the importance of the works …. sometimes loudly and directly, but always with a hint of sincere care and compassion .
    I’m glad I took to Google now and found your writing here. At 89 years … a good long run …. I think he did not ‘go gentle into that good night,” until it was absolutely his time to go …. Thank you, Peter xo

    1. Nan, thank you so much for sharing your feelings about Abe. He had that effect on so many people. What a gift that you got to know him and hold him dear for a lifetime. Best to you.

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