On Incentives

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Writings & Speeches

Gene Rotberg
June 2020
"Boyhood," Part II

This biographical note is written to provide a sense of balance - a leitmotif - which informed my boyhood. The events and conditions I describe were with me virtually every day during my youth. This note supplements my bio “Boyhood,” previously sent to all of you.


My earliest recollection of my mother is her lying on the floor in our kitchen with my father leaning over her saying, “Blanche, Blanche, Blanche, wake up.” She was unconscious. Soon an ambulance came. That scene was repeated dozens of times over many years. Rheumatic fever, pneumonia, strokes, heart attacks, paralysis, cancer, double mastectomy, macular degeneration. No week went by when there was not a health crisis involving my mother. I remember constantly visiting her in the hospital. Sometimes she was completely covered by a plastic tent to help her breathe. To this day, I do not know which of her attacks were psychological, which were purely physical. She often had them at or immediately before a celebration like a birthday or graduation.

My aunt Vivian, my mother’s sister, took me to kindergarten on my first day of school because my mother had a heart attack the day before. We did not tell my mother the date of Pam and Mike’s forthcoming marriage for fear she would have a debilitating attack the day before.

She was in bed for many months at a time, covered only by a sheet, because the pain was so excruciating that she could not even have a blanket. She was immobile for months at a time. Ambulances were a frequent occurrence at our house. I cannot forget my father always trying to revive her with aromatic salts saying “Blanche, Blanche, Blanche, wake up.” When we built our current house on Brickyard Road, my father was concerned because our driveway was only about 10 to 12 feet wide and he was worried an ambulance would be unable to come to our house. My dad told me that my mother had been hospitalized over 60 times.

The good news: My mother formed close bonds with young girls and loved being their mentor, their confidant, and their advisor in the ways of the world. She tried with Iris. Unsuccessfully. Later in her life, in between attacks, she loved giving parties, great Passover dinners, dressing up, and acting like a prima donna.


Although my father was a lawyer, he had few clients or cases – mostly poor, Black, working-class people who tripped on a sidewalk or were suing for workman’s compensation.

Every evening I met my dad at the street corner when he came home from his office on the bus and walked to our house with him. He always had a political job either at the state level in Harrisburg or at City Hall in Philadelphia. He got these jobs as political patronage for being able to control the 800 votes in our precinct, Republican or Democrat, depending on which side offered him the best job if they won the election.

You might ask what occupied his time and energy. Mainly the Jewish War Veterans (JWV). He founded one of the oldest JWV posts in the United States. He was highly instrumental in forming JWV posts throughout the country. These were designed to show the public an organized group of Jewish men who had served in the military in support of the United States. They would hold rallies, tell stories about their exploits, march, but mostly show their loyalty to the United States. My dad’s primary interest was to emphasize the Jewish contributions and loyalty to the United States. He was quite concerned that Jews would be labeled Communists because of their liberal views and the role of Jews in Communist movements in Germany, Russia, France, etc. in the first part of the century.

He was also very upset about the growing Nazi movement, which had become quite influential in the United States. I have some of their anti-Semitic literature from the 1930s/1940s. The JWV provided a vehicle to rebut Nazi propaganda. These matters were a constant subject of conversation at our house. He rose in the ranks of the Jewish War Veterans until he became State Commander. He later became National Vice Commander for the entire country and still later its National Judge Advocate. He would make speeches in churches, synagogues, schools, and at street corners, about the Jewish military contribution, democracy, freedom, persecution, bigotry, peace, violence against the poor and how it was important to fight for a better society. Virtually no day went by he wasn’t making a public speech. I remember him sitting at his desk typing them out. I have copies of about 20 of the speeches given over many decades attacking the German American Bund and the Nazis in the 1930s and, later, after the Second World War, talking about the hope for peace in the world. But, I remember one speech that I have, in which he opposed Roosevelt because of his delay in declaring war against Hitler. My father was concerned that Roosevelt did not want to be accused of getting the U.S. into a war “just” to save the Jews - a Jewish war.

These speeches are in the old style, flamboyant, rhetorical, dramatic, showing the influence of Greek and Roman orators that he had studied at Central High School (1913 – 1917) – the high school I later went to.

The Jewish War Veterans had a national convention every year that my father attended. I often went with him to those thousand-person conventions. I looked forward to it all year.

The Moshe Zakenian (the Old-Aged Home)

Every Saturday I would visit my grandfather and grandmother, my father‘s parents, at their run-down home in downtown Philadelphia. It was one block away from something called the Moshe Zakenian (the Old-Aged Home) that my grandfather had founded in the early 1900s. The Moshe Zakenian was the final home for old, sick, lonely, starving, forgotten Jewish men and women who had no health care, money, or food. About 50 lived in a smelly, horrible old building. I went to visit them every Saturday for at least 10 years with my father to bring them soup and simply try to give them some support. I hated it. I found it very scary. Some were almost dead. They were lying in carts and cribs, crying for relief from pain. My dad would spend many nights preparing a brochure with photos of these men and women. He would send out the brochure asking for contributions to maintain the Home. I remember dad would paste the photos on a sheet of paper and embellish the page with the designs of flowers because he loved to draw. That took up every Saturday morning.

The Home still exists but now, after many changes in ownership, it is an extremely elegant nursing home and assisted living facility (Roosevelt Rehabilitation and Health Care Center) in the suburbs of Philadelphia, very posh, prestigious, and expensive – all started by its founding father, your great, great grandfather, my grandfather, Phillip Rotberg.

In the afternoon, my dad, mother and I would take a bus (never had a car) and visit my Uncle Sam, my father’s brother, my Aunt Sadie, and their children. Sam was a pharmacist. As you know, I had to eat those awful tuna fish and onion sandwiches. That whole experience was my Saturday for 10 years. Later, I sold women’s shoes at Al Block’s Cancellation Shoe Store part time from ages 14 to 20.


The only major extracurricular activity I can recall was to take private elocution lessons when I was eight or nine years old. I think my parents assumed I would

become an actor. Therefore, I learned dialects in Italian, Spanish, Scottish, English, Yiddish, Chinese, etc. I also learned to recite and compose poetry. In my public school I would speak at school assemblies from the first grade to the eighth grade. I would recite poetry or recite speeches of famous people or poems that I (my father) had written. One of the poems that my father wrote I remember to this day.

“A poem I tried to write.
I tried and tried with all my might,
Honest teacher.
The order of the day.
I tried hard to obey but alas and alack, Only dismay.
Honest teacher.
I thought of roses red, of a babbling brook,
But Joe DiMaggio at bat was the only idea that took.
Honest teacher.
Oh – a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, I may be.
But a poet – never – ah me.
Honest teacher.”

I also would give speeches at school assemblies on Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and other occasions. When I graduated eighth grade, I got an award as the “class orator.” Strange for a 13-year-old,

My father wrote both my Bar Mitzvah speech and my high school graduation speech, where I was also selected the “class orator.” He said after I concluded my high school graduation speech, “great speech, terrible delivery.” Speechifying and reciting poems took up a major part of my time. No organized sports - my parents thought they were too dangerous.

I played stickball, sometimes touch football in the street in front of our house. I must have been very shy with girls since I never went on a date throughout my years in high school, an all boys’ school. I did not go to my prom. I remember my classmates outside of my bedroom window on prom night chanting, “Eugene is a sissy; Eugene is a sissy,” That’s what comes from reciting poetry. About once a week, I had very bad headaches alleviated only by sleep for a couple of hours. I was told that I had a “sugar” deficiency! I made up for that in later years. I took dance lessons from “Arthur Murray” for about a year in between modeling gigs for department stores, magazines, Coca-Cola, etc.

My brother, Jay, was the real athlete in the family. Great basketball player. Lots of friends. He became a special education professor, and later a sculptor.

Unfortunately, he was often treated as a “second-class citizen” and did not get the attention he deserved from our parents. But it was Jay who took care of my father, who lived with Jay and his wife, Keren, during the last years of my father’s life.

My best friend was Sheldon Rappaport. In the fifth grade Sheldon was stricken with scarlet fever that left him with a badly damaged rheumatic heart. He was bed ridden for three years. Virtually everyday I brought him his homework until he went back to school in the eighth grade. Then we both went to Central High School, Temple University, Penn Law School, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank. I introduced him to his wife, Barbie, and was the best man at their wedding. He died in 2006. I could write a whole book just about our relationship. I miss him.


My grandparents, the Rotbergs on my father’s side, spoke not a word of English, only Yiddish. My earliest recollection of being Jewish was a very old Jewish teacher with a long gray beard who came to our house when I was seven or eight years old to teach me Hebrew. He taught me the alphabet, pronunciation, and the words of the prayers. Baruch, atah, adonai, Elohaino, etc. He spoke no English. Therefore, he never told me what the Hebrew meant in English. It was as if the only point was to acknowledge there is a God to pray to. Who cares what is being said. As long as it was in Hebrew – God’s language!

I went to synagogue once or twice a year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My father fasted all day on Yom Kippur. From the time I was 10 years old until 13 I went to Hebrew school two or three times a week after public school. I learned the Hebrew alphabet but not a word of translation into English. It was weird. I was learning Hebrew at the Hebrew school and didn’t understand a word and recited English 18th Century poetry in public school – also not understanding a word.

My neighborhood was 90% Jewish. My friends in elementary school – virtually all Jewish, as were my friends in high school. There were very few Christian families in my neighborhood. The butcher, the grocer, the barber, the fishmonger, the dentist, the doctor, the fruit man, the junk man – all Jewish. No shrimp or ham in our home. We never went out to eat. We had four sets of dishes, milk and meat, for 50 weeks of the year, and then separate milk and meat dishes brought up from our cellar every year for Passover. The whole Rotberg family would meet at our grandfather and grandmother’s house with all of my aunts, uncles and cousins, a family event with a huge dinner and service – mostly all in Yiddish! Except, of course, we kids recited four Kashas with no sense of their historical significance. After dinner all of the cousins would listen to 78 rpm records of comedians and Caruso! Chanakah also was a big deal. After my Bar Mitzvah for one year I wrapped my head and my arms with leather straps – the tefillin. I had no idea the meaning of the incantations. My grandparents on my mother’s side, the Levicks (the ones with the candy store), were totally secular and non observant. All our grandparents were born in Russia or Ukraine.

I was always aware of a quota system that restricted the number of Jews who could go to college, particularly Penn. That was virtually completely gone by the 1960s. The Jewish community in Philadelphia was not particularly preoccupied with civil rights except for Jewish persecution in Germany and, of course, the Holocaust. That was a constant subject of conversation in our house.

I was brought up with the view that the country was run by white, rich, anti- Semitic capitalists who took advantage of the laboring people and who were prejudiced against Jews, Blacks, and Catholics. But, I found little in traditional Judaism or rituals that would explain my political views. These may have come from simply being a member of a minority that had been persecuted and discriminated against for centuries. Perhaps that created an identity with the oppressed rather than the ruling elite. There is something uplifting to being an underdog. Or perhaps it was just the decades of arguing about policy and politics with Sheldon. Of course, things have changed substantially for the better for everyone. But much work still has to be done. Look around. Compare 1900, 1950, and now – particularly since the civil rights movements in the 1960s.

Note: My professional life at the SEC and the World Bank can be accessed through my website, www.generotberg.com