November 11, 2019

Learning Never Stops

Photo courtesy of Lisa Rothstein Goldberg.

For many years, my grandfather had a secret. He was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather. He worked unusual hours, so it was easy for him to keep this secret. It was unique, to be sure. But unlike any other type of family secret, this one is amazingly special.

I always knew my grandfather’s name was Dr. Sidney D. Rothstein. I saw it written on his stationery, bookplates, etc. He had a PhD in marketing from University of Maryland and it was displayed proudly on the wall in his home office. He lived his entire life in Philadelphia, so I am not really sure why I never thought to ask about when or how he obtained that degree. It was way before the day of online learning. It never came up until a conversation with my dad a few years ago.   

In his early 50s, with a wife, two grown children—one of whom was finishing up law school—without telling anyone, my grandfather, “Poppy” enrolled in and completed his PhD. Before the days of online learning platforms, there were “correspondence courses.” Mail from the University was sent to his office, so my grandmother never saw it. “Nanny” confirmed to me that she never knew he was doing this until it was a done deal. My dad thinks he did it this way because like just about every other PhD student, he wanted to avoid the endless questions about his progress in the program. 

While getting a PhD in secret is impressive in itself, what makes it even more special was that he did not need to do it. He had a successful career as an advertising executive and it was for one reason alone–the love of the learning. He later shared that love with hundreds of students, as an adjunct professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the Fox School of Business at Temple University, and several other colleges in the Philadelphia area.

Mishna says “Do not say, ‘When I have leisure, I will study.’ Perhaps you never will have that leisure.” Poppy was an empty nester. He lived in a major urban area with a lot to do. He could have done any number of “leisure” activities with this time, but he did not. He set a goal and finished it. 

It is no accident that Jews are known as the “People of the Book.” We love to read. There are thousands of pages of Jewish texts. Bible stories, commentaries, codes, stories, modern day interpretations, the list goes on and on. Jewish parents have an obligation to educate their children (Talmud Kiddushin 29a). Throughout the history of the Jewish people, as we were exiled from place to place, the one constant was our knowledge. It was portable and permanent. Rabbi Meir tells us that one who engages in (Torah) study for its own sake becomes “great and exalted above all of creation” (Pirkei Avot 6). 

I write this as so many head back to school. After fifteen years, I am doing the same. Although not following the secretive legacy of my grandfather, I am inspired by the notion that you can go back at any age. I will soon be taking a class (via Zoom—Poppy would have done the same if he could have!) in Jewish leadership. Although I am admittedly nervous about this new endeavor, I will think about Poppy and the incredible legacy he left me. Learning is ageless and timeless.

Poppy would have been 98 this year. In his memory, I gave my daughter the middle name Shoshana. And at her naming, my father shared some memories of him. Jewish tradition teaches us that when we name our children in loving memory of someone, we are hoping to pass down the characteristics of that person. In addition to his sense of humor and love of travel, I hope my daughter will inherit his love of lifelong learning. I do not expect her to secretly complete a PhD (!!!), but I hope she will continue her love of books, her curiosity about the world, and the smiles and love she shows everyone. All things that Poppy had. Zichrono livracha. May his memory be forever a blessing.

Lisa Rothstein Goldberg is a social worker and Jewish educator. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and their two young daughters.