Rabbi, tzaddik, shaman: there may be something of all of these in David Rothenberg, who was celebrated Feb. 24 at an “Evening With David” on the roof of the Castle, a beautiful five-story neo-Gothic structure in Harlem at 140th Street and Riverside Drive that is run as a halfway house by the Fortune Society for 60 former prison inmates. The celebration marked the 50th year of Rothenberg’s founding of Fortune (which takes its name from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29), a New York-city-based reentry organization that helps thousands of ex-cons navigate the welfare system and find housing and work. The group, based in Harlem and in Long Island City, offers computer tutoring, substance-abuse treatment, cooking classes, job-readiness preparation, remedial education, father- and motherhood programs, mental-health services, and employment. The formerly incarcerated make up about 70 percent of its staff.
Fortune also offers large doses of unconditional love, Rothenberg-style. Rothenberg, a youthful 83 in baggy Bermuda shorts and loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt, is gentle and scrappy with an iron will. I was told by an ex-con that “David loves every person he comes into contact with.” Elizabeth Taylor, his client when he was a theatrical press agent, said of him, “David can lift the chains from your soul.” He worked with Bette Davis, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Joan Fontaine, John Gielgud, and Charles Laughton. He was also in the Army, a member of the New York-based City Human Relations Council appointed by Ed Koch, a gay-rights activist, and an observer in the yard at the Attica revolt in 1971 (he was invited by the inmates).
Rothenberg comes from a happy and normal Jewish childhood in Teaneck, New Jersey, where, he says, the most abusive words he ever heard from his family were “Finish your peas.” Walking down the hallways of the Castle or the huge Long Island office of Fortune and encountering scores of clients, he seems to channel the aunts and uncles of his hamishe family back in New Jersey. Greeting a shy young man with a painful family past who would even refuse to shake hands, he says, “Juan, anything less than a hug is not acceptable.” He gets a warm hug and what he considers even more significant, Juan’s “first smile.” Rothenberg is always looking for that “first smile.” New clients don’t know who he is and often ask, “How much time did that white dude do?”
On that February night, as stars peeked across the Hudson River, we waited for Rothenberg to speak, I looked around at the audience of middle-age and elderly progressives, some wealthy donors, others lifelong followers of Rothenberg who had listened to him for more than 40 years on his brilliant radio show, Any Saturdayon WBAI. A Christian minister, in a wheelchair, and his wife told me the pair met 40 years earlier, united in their love of Rothenberg’s radio program, and married in Central Park. This was a WBAI audience if there ever was one—mainly Jewish, some black—curious, intelligent, full of unchanging hope about the human condition no matter how despairing things seemed. New York-based WBAI, if you’re a native New Yorker, is a survivor of the counterculture of the 1960s and sometimes a snake pit of anti-Israel invective and various hard-left panaceas and conspiracy theories. (I have heard one program host insist on identifying North Korea each time he names it as “The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.”)
Rothenberg, who loves Israel, soars above all this, keeping the cause of criminal justice and prison reform at the center of every program.
I was curious as to what it was like to be Jewish and pro-Israel in this environment. His answer was remarkably akin to the answer Woody Allen gave me when I asked him a similar question while writing his biography. “My Jewishness is part of who I am,” Rothenberg replied. “It helps to define me. I can’t separate it from any other facet that defines me … being male, or a New Yorker. Being Jewish has shaped my social and political passions, my love of theater, film, and books, that humor that enriches me, and the recognition of unbridled bigotry and ignorance.
“My love of Israel,” he continued, “is mostly gained from Israeli friends. I treasure its historic role and concept of democracy. I reserve the right to be critical of some of its political leadership, just as I recognize my right to dissent about some American political officials. None of this lessens my love and respect for either country. My right to disagree is a part of the strength of each nation.”
At his ceremony, Rothenberg stood up from his seat and addressed the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “this is a democracy. Do you want me to talk to you while you’re still eating or do you want us to wait until you’ve had your last swallow?” He called for a vote, and it was in favor of his speaking.
It was clear that Donald Trump was on his mind. He told of the despair he’d felt watching a new movie, From Nowhere, about two high-school students, very gifted, who were undocumented. “These are the kinds of kids that are the future of America if we’re to be a great nation. It ends sadly; the boy runs away and the girl gets sent back to Peru. And I came out of the theater so sad, so depressed. Is this what’s happening to our country?” But he said that as he walked down the street after the movie, “There were two guys by Webster Hall lifting furniture. And as I walked by, the younger guy said ‘David Rothenberg! Fortune Society!’ And I said, ‘Yes, who are you?’ ‘I’m Joseph and I came through your program. And I’m here because of you guys. Thank you.’ And I went from such total despair from the movie to the reality of this kid. And I thought, ‘This is what we have to do. We have to find amidst everything that’s happening in our country, we have to do things and find things that matter. Not only give us gratification but make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Rothenberg introduced several alumni of Fortune. Mikell Greengrand recalled that “in my own cell at Sing Sing I had David on the radio as an expression. And I can tell you, when you’re upstate, you need to have an outlet. You need to have hope. You need to have a friendly voice, and that’s what I had with him. During my time away, you lose family, you lose your mothers, fathers, sisters. When you come home there’s nothing. Where do you go? Where do you start from? So when I came home, I had death in the family, nowhere to stay. I had a friend who sent me to Fortune. I came to the Castle on a Thursday afternoon. I will never forget, they had my room ready. I went downstairs. And out came this little Jewish guy. He walks up to me and he says to me, ‘Hi, I’m David Rothenberg.’ I don’t know who he is yet. I didn’t associate my friend on the radio with him. They were two separate people. So he goes he’s David Rothenberg. I go, ‘From the radio show?’ ‘You heard of me?’ I said, ‘Of course, I listen to you!’ ” Greengrand’s voice broke. He walked back to his seat.
Cazimiro Torres is a handsome 50-year-old man with an Italian aura and a Puerto Rican-Irish background. He is a counselor at Fortune and a major figure there. “Nineteen-sixty-seven was the summer of love,” he said. “David created Fortune. I was born that year. I came here, I wouldn’t say destroyed, but kind of wrecked. My life was a wreck. When I was home, my house was full of people who were OD’ing, drinking. It was cold and we were hungry. I used to get my food when somebody on heroin would nod out. I first drank alcohol probably when I was 4 years old. By the time I was 10 I was smoking weed. And then cocaine, hard drugs. With that came prison and a lengthy rap sheet. I have 67 arrests and 11 violent felonies alone.” Torres paused and said, “You know, people are who they need to be in prison. You’re either predator or prey. You can’t let one person get an inch because you’re doomed if you do. All I have been searching for all my life was a place that I can be that I didn’t have to be tough. I spent my life being tough. I spent my life fighting and stuff like that. To be perfectly honest, I’m sick of it. I’d rather be around people that say ‘Good morning,’ ‘How are you?’ I was never around that.
“When I came to Fortune,” Torres continued, “I didn’t immediately let my guard down. When I saw David, I thought he had committed a crime. At his age, I said to myself, he must have been in a long time. It turned out he wasn’t. So I came to Fortune and started meeting people that were very nice people, very good people, people that I didn’t have to be tough with. … After a year in the Castle, I moved out. I could have moved in with my wife and children anytime. But I wanted to move out and I wanted them to move in with me. I wanted to re-establish myself and really have responsibilities.”
Selwyn Raab, former New York Times crime reporter and author of the seminal book on the Mafia, Five Families, was also present at the event. “David is responsible for the formation and the whole concept of Fortune,” he told me. “When I first met him, I sometimes thought he looked like he was a little bit of a naïve reformer. Great idea, but can you really do anything for ex-cons? On a low budget, with no real support? But then I got to know him a lot. When I was in TV or working for the Times, anytime I wanted to get any real insight about what was going on in the prisons or what was going on in the streets, I’d go to Fortune. David had some really sharp people there. He was very helpful when I was both in TV and in newspapers. In finding people, essentially what was really going on in prisons, problems, the real life, behind-the-scene stuff, not just the Correction Department viewpoint. Also covering criminal justice, narcotics, and other factors. His main people had recently come out and they were close to people; they knew what was going on in the streets and what was influencing kids or adults. They knew more about it than the police!”
Rothenberg’s own transformation began in 1967 when he read Fortune and Men’s Eyes, the John Herbert play about homosexuality and sexual slavery in prison. Rothenberg was stunned by the play and tried to find a producer for it. Failing that, he finally produced it himself. He raised the money and took out his savings. The play changed the direction of his life.
When the play had run a few weeks, a professor at St John’s University told Rothenberg he was bringing a group of students from his criminology class and asked if they could have a discussion after the play with the actors. This was exactly Rothenberg’s vision of theater as an agent for social change. He invited the entire audience to stay. They questioned him and the actors about the play, and one man challenged the authenticity of it.
From the back of the house a man stood up and said, “If my 20 years in the joint counts for anything, you people couldn’t watch a better description of what happens to us.” The man who spoke up was Pat McGarry, who would become one of the founders of Fortune. He joined the actors on stage and that began a weekly forum in which other formerly incarcerated people joined the cast after the show.
Rothenberg found himself, every Tuesday night, in a theater filled with ex-cons. “I realized,” he told me, “as I got to know many of them, that almost everyone of them was in A.A. And that their ability to stop drinking, their sobriety, kept them out of prison. But I also began to understand that they had never dealt with their rage about what happened to them in prison.” At the end of one performance, the host announced that Rothenberg was forming a new organization that was dedicated to helping ex-cons and gave the address of Rothenberg’s theatrical press office.
The next morning, Rothenberg arrived at work to find a line of ex-cons on the stairway stretching from the sixth floor to the street, waiting to see what the Fortune Society could do for them. He was dumbfounded. A tall white man with a toothpick dangling from his mouth approached him and said, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing, do you?”
Rothenberg replied, “I don’t have a clue.”
The man told Rothenberg to move over, sat down next to him and began talking to the men about life after prison. His name was Kenny Jackson, and he immediately became Fortune’s first counselor. Soon he and Rothenberg were joined by Mel Rivers, who had served three-and-a-half years of a 10-year sentence for assault and battery before his 1962 release. “I had gone up there out of curiosity,” Rivers told me, “and within minutes David and Kenny told me to sit down and get to work counseling the men. I never left. I didn’t realize people could care about other people that way.”
Rothenberg continued to wear two hats until the day a woman called him after hearing about Fortune. She said her husband was in prison and she could not work because she had two children as well as a physical disability. Her welfare check hadn’t arrived and she had no money for food. Then a second phone rang, and he put her on hold. On the other line, an agent was telling him that she had a Hollywood star coming into the city and that she must have five tickets on Saturday night for the musical Hair. “I returned to the first caller,” Rothenberg wrote in his memoir, Fortune In My Eyes, “and said I would call her back because I had an ‘emergency’ on the other phone. After I hung up, I looked at the phone and said out loud, ‘What did you just say to that woman? Are you out of your mind?’ Right then the choice had been made for me. I had to devote full time to the Fortune Society.”
Rothenberg also ran for City Council in 1985 and received the third-largest number of votes of any candidate in the city’s 38 council races, garnering nearly 45 percent of the votes. The most moving thing he recalls about the campaign was that he got to meet civil rights legend Bayard Rustin, who answered the door at Penn South when he rang, and that Rustin said he knew who he was and would vote for him.
Each of Rothenberg’s two-hour programs on WBAI are tightly organized. He combines social and political commentary, comedy, reminiscences, and free association with theater, book and film reviews, and engrossing interviews like the one in which he recently spent two hours with John Lahr in a discussion of Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams. His program is the one surviving jewel at the station.
A lover of music and sports, while growing up in New Jersey, he identified with Jackie Robinson. He ascribes his identification with Robinson to his status as an outsider, being a gay person. He was also greatly affected by the war against Nazism. An early memory of anti-Semitism haunts him. His favorite uncle, Donny, was killed during World War II, and a student in class said, “One less Jew.” Rothenberg went home crying. He remembers that “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 see the baseball games. I’d sit on his shoulders.”
He begins every radio show with Jimmy Durante singing “You’ve Gotta Start Off Each Day With a Song,” and decompresses during the program’s music, occasionally waving his hands in the air to Judy Garland, Lou Rawls, Nancy Lamott, Sinatra, Odetta, and Dinah Washington. He conjures up comic routines from Bob and Ray, Woody Allen, Nancy Walker, and Lou Jacobi. His press-agent skills are important in his endeavor. Rothenberg knows that the route to his listeners’ hearts is through entertainment, not instruction, and Any Saturday sometimes hearkens back to radio of the 1940s and ’50s. His patter is rich in New York memories, such as a recent on-air recollection about when he first came back to New York from Denver University and lived in a maid’s room in a three-room apartment two floors beneath Norman Mailer and his wife Adele Morales. Mailer had just stabbed his wife. “I would see Adele walking down the street, holding her side,” Rothenberg said.
“A long time ago,” he told me, “I decided I could attract more listeners to do the things I’m about if I played music and did joke stuff and could then throw in my little bubbameisters about criminal justice along the way. It proved to be right because I got a much larger audience. And I attracted people who had never thought about people who had been incarcerated.”
When he was 40, six years after forming the Fortune Society, Rothenberg came out on the issue-focused David Susskind talk show in 1973. He was at a crossroads. He felt that if his sexuality slipped out in rumors, it could have a negative impact. If he choreographed it, he would be making a positive statement. He told six Fortune staff members in advance, apprehensive about how they would react. “I had been the classic closeted person,” he told me. “I had never had a relationship because a relationship meant being known as gay. I got a call from a friend who said the National Gay Task Force was starting and announcing it on a panel on the Susskind show. They were forming a national board and were trying to get people from all areas of life. My name had come up. I had spent the last six years of my life guiding people about being honest about their lives. But the social, sexual and political environment at that time had held me back about myself. My fear was that if I were to come out, it could kill Fortune. Because those were the times.
“So I called the six cadre together,” he told me, “all formerly incarcerated people. We had a staff of about 25, but these were the six who were with me from the start, people that made the determination on whatever issues came up. I said I had three things to say to them. One of them was that I was gay; two, was that I’m going on a national television show to help form the National Gay Task Force, and three, that I had written a letter of resignation. At which point, one of them, Kenny Jackson, said, ‘What are you going to wear on television?’ Not the question I was expecting. He said, ‘Look how you’re dressed. You embarrass us sometimes; you need to be nice and clean.” And another, Mel Rivers, said, ‘Why would you resign?’ I said ‘Because this might hurt the credibility of Fortune.’ Mel Rivers said, ‘You stood by us for six years telling us to be candid about our lives. Give us the opportunity to stand by you.’ I probably cried because it was such an emotional release.”
JoAnne Page, Fortune’s brilliant executive director and CEO, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who have been volunteering as counselors at Fortune for more than 30 years. She herself volunteered at Fortune when she was 16. She recalled that she had replaced Rothenberg as president when he retired in 1986 but that he soon wanted to come back as a volunteer. “So when David wanted to come back, we had one of many concrete conversations about what his role would be. I don’t know of another organization where the founder matters so much that he works as a volunteer. And doesn’t threaten the executive director by doing it. What David does is a great benefit to all of us. Every once in a while he’ll call me up and say, ‘You have to do all the hard stuff. Let me tell you a story.’ And he’ll tell me a story about somebody who we watched struggle and he’s just seen something happen: you know, the first smile.”
Page reinforced my feeling that like so many social-justice organizations, Fortune at heart is a Jewish-inspired enterprise, with the Holocaust always looming in the shadows. “I think the key to my work is that I’m the child of Holocaust survivors,” she explained. “My dad was first in the ghetto and then in Dachau for a brief period. He was a prisoner of war for the Russians first, and then ended up in the ghetto in Lithuania. In Dachau, he was separated from his mother and never saw her again.”
Erich, Page’s father, was a volunteer counselor at Fortune and Sing Sing until he died last year. Her mother, Hedy, an artist who witnessed the Nazis capturing her father, has been a Fortune volunteer for 30 years. Erich and Hedy Page spoke before Fortune clients about the Holocaust many times.
Page visited Germany with her parents. “The Germans disappointed me when I met them. They were like everybody else. They are us. We are them. I mean the good people who tended their roses while kids were being put into the ovens. I wish we were different. Between my family experience and my work in prisons, I believe that every human being has the worst that people are capable of and the best that people are capable of inside them.
“My parents were committed to social justice,” she continued. “My father wanted his kids to be able to live in the world. A lot of his friends, Holocaust survivors, were scared of the world and had turned inward and bitter. His attitude was that in that case, the Nazis had won. He was going to go anywhere and deal with anybody and do whatever he wanted to do. And he wanted us to be that way.
“When I started doing prison work, it all shifted right into focus. Because that was the world I’d seen out of the corner of my eye all my life. So in my work, I recognized it immediately because it was in the men I was working with. When I was 18, I was teaching classes at Greenhaven, a maximum-security state prison in Stormhill, New York. There was a prisoner at a conference there I wanted to speak to. I took him home from prison overnight and he slept in the living room. My parents were very frightened but they weren’t going to stop me. They just refused to be victims.”
As we walked down Riverside Drive that night, Cazimiro Torres told me that when he came to Fortune, “David was that key person for me. Not only was he genuine and accessible, but he sought me out to see what was going on in my life. David is—what was that animal called, half horse and half zebra? He’s like one of them. Very, very rare. And for the most part extinct. Other than him.”
After coming to know him, Torres wrote a letter to Rothenberg:
I have often wondered who my father was and what he looked like. He left when I was 2 years old, and as hard as I may try, I cannot remember what he looked like. Sometimes I looked in the mirror and wondered … do I look like him? Have you ever heard someone say, “You’re going to be tall just like your father” or “You have your father’s eyes?” Well, nobody has ever said that to me.
After all the years I spent in prison and doing bad things, I sometimes couldn’t help but think that maybe I did get something from my father. These types of thoughts would always come to me either in a prison cell or a crack house or maybe during those cold nights I spent on the subway.
It wasn’t until I was 38 years old that I finally met my father. Of course, I had no idea he was my father at the time. Even so, there was something about him that drew me to him right away. I began to observe him, listen to him, and more importantly, talk to him. There is something about him that speaks of kindness, a noble heart, and not just a willingness, but a determination to fight for others. Secretly this is how I have always wanted others to see me and always who I wanted to be.
My father is not tall like me, nor do I have “his eyes.” My father is a little old Jewish man who wears glasses and funny shirts. He has taught me many things. He taught me that I am not the worst thing I have ever done. He has told me that I am a good man, a kind man, and even noble at times.
I am just like my father.
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David Evanier is the author of Woody: The Biography; All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett, The One-Star Jew, The Great Kisser and six other books. A former senior editor of The Paris Review, he received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and has appeared in Best American Short Stories. He is working on a book about the Fortune Society.