January 7, 2004  
The Yiddish Theater in New York City, Part 6

This month I'm not finishing the story of Hard To Be A Jew. Instead, I'm going to write about my mother, Rochelle, who passed away just three weeks ago on December 10, 2003. 

She was ninety-two years old and outlived my father by twenty-one years. She was a major factor in his involvement with music and theater ever since I can remember. She was the reason he gave up being a professional musician in the first place way back in 1932. 

You see my grandfather, Elias Kritchmar, was a professional singer, a cantor to be exact. My mother was a professional pianist and her younger brother was a professional violinist. 

When Harry asked for Rochelle's hand in marriage the story goes that my grandfather told him that there were too many musicians in the family already and in order to get his blessings, Harry would have to have a "real" job. 

My father had no money but he had some friends who did and he somehow convinced them to invest in a lumber yard in New York City. A year later his friends decided that the work was too hard so they gave him the business with the promise that he would pay them back when he could. He married my mother and made a go of it in the lumber business. It was a good effort because he managed to pay them back. I suppose that she must have felt a little guilty about being the reason he had to give up music because she was always extremely supportive of his musical and theatrical friends and ventures. 

Before I go on about my recollections of "mom" or "mother", (she was never ever called "mommy" or "mama"), I'd like to share some of the things written about her by other family members. You'll get to know her a little bit better with some other viewpoints. 

First is the official obituary written by my younger brother, Allen; 

"Rothpearl, Rochelle. Age 92, musician, beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, died in her home on Wednesday, December 10, 2003, in Floral Park, NY. She was born on September 9, 1911 in Zaparosia, Ukraine/Russia, to the late Basia and Elias Kritchmar. She emigrated to USA with her parents and spent her early adult years as a featured pianist with Phil Spitalny's All Girl Orchestra, before marrying and having four children…" 

It goes on naming me and my siblings, all of our children and one great-grandchild. It's mostly correct but she didn't perform until she married and started a family. My older sister went to several performances while still in the womb. I understand that my mother would wait until intermission to relieve her "morning sickness" and then go back on stage and finish the performance. There's also an interesting story about the family's departure and arrival at Ellis Island. It seems that they departed from Odessa, Russia during the revolution with bombs and gunfire all around. They arrived at Ellis Island on July 4th   amidst the celebratory fireworks. They were afraid to get off the boat, thinking they had come to another revolution. I told this story to a friend of mine who informed me that his parents must have been on the same boat. 

Next is an excerpt of the eulogy written by my younger sister's husband, Alvin Epstein: 

"I fell for Rochelle 39 years ago in the summer of 1964 when I was 20 years old and a lifeguard at an orthodox hotel in Fallsburg, NY, near her summer home. At that time she had launched her new summer marketing campaign called 'Isn't my Susie cute'…

…Five years later, that marketing campaign brought me into the fold, or should I say into a lovely family with Rochelle as the hub of that wheel. She carried that radiant smile, that sweet nature, and a standard for family life that was a true blessing…

…Rochelle was fun. Who remembers her famous flying spoon toss into a glass of water?" 

I must add to this little tidbit the fact that she taught us this game which she said they played in Russia because they didn't really have toys. The fact that she taught it to us isn't that unique, but she taught it to us in restaurants, with other diners wondering what was going on? After a few vodkas, the spoons went flying and the water went splashing, yeah she was indeed fun! 

Lastly I'd like to give you some excerpts from my older sister Sandy's eulogy; 

"My mother was a woman who was beautiful both inside and out. She was a very talented musician, a wonderful mother, and a perfect wife. Can you imagine living with and sharing a kitchen with your mother-in-law for most of your married life? Well, Rochelle Rothpearl did just that and very rarely complained. 

The best way to get mom's attention when we were children was to hit a wrong note on the piano or to play the cello, violin or viola slightly out of tune while practicing. Boy, did she come running from whatever she was doing to tell us we were playing it wrong… I could talk all day about this wonderful, dignified woman, my mother." 

My mother had a very interesting way of getting her way. Many times she wouldn't just come out and say what she wanted. I remember a very special ploy of hers when the family went on various motor-trips during the summer. Harry would be driving and Rochelle decided she was hungry or needed a restroom. She'd never come out and say it though. We could be fast asleep in the back seat and we'd hear "Harry the children are hungry". To this day when my wife and I are on the road, (she does most of the driving because she says I play drums with the gas peddle), I'll turn to her and say "Harry, the children…" 

My mother is the reason that in over 54 years of playing music I always refused to touch a keyboard of any kind. Growing up with that talent at the piano was a competition that no kid wants to get involved with. Besides the classics, (and she could sight read anything), I remember two pieces that she would always floor an audience with. One was her own rendition of The Flight of The Bumble Bee coupled with something she called Bumble Boogie. The other was a fantastic arrangement of a song called Tico-Tico. I do a guitar version of the second song but have never even attempted a guitar rendition of the Bumble Bee thing. 

Yes, she shared a kitchen with Grandma Goldie and also with Grandma Bessie, (her mother), and sometimes her aunt Dora, (Bessie's sister and my great aunt). You see mom was always more comfortable behind a concert grand Steinway on a stage or recording studio than she was behind a stove. It's very likely that I became an accomplished chef and baker because of mom's cooking. 

One of the hardest things I've ever done in my life was cleaning out her refrigerator after Shiva. I threw out perfectly good food that nobody wanted. One of the major lessons my mother taught all of us was "don't ever waste food". She lost a baby sister to sickness and starvation while still in Russia. My grandmother would tell us horror stories of going to market climbing over dying and dead bodies to get some stale bread. 

My mother had a huge burn scar on her upper left arm. It seems that back in Russia you had to buy hot water. She was sent out with a bucket to buy the water and spilled some on herself while coming home. She was afraid to tell her parents that she'd spilled it so she kept her coat on which stuck to her skin and left her with that scar.

There are so many things about her that I could tell you but I'd be here writing for several days. 

There was a photograph of Rochelle in a white gown playing a white Steinway in front of the Phil Spitalny orchestra. I know that not only is she with the Lord, but that there was a white concert Steinway grand waiting for her to arrive. I'm sure that my father and all of his cronies were waiting as well. I don't know for sure, but I suppose that when I get there, there will most likely be a Yiddish theater production starring Maurice Schwartz, produced by Harry Rothpearl and accompanied by Rochelle.

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