“I’ve got something for you,” my grandfather says.
Now, I’ve heard this time and time again over the years from him, usually followed by a generous gift or words of wisdom. But this time, things are a little different.
This time it’s not an expensive watch, not an envelope with a check inside, not a lengthy discussion about my future, but rather, a manila envelope that simply says “Paul Rothman” on the outside.
If you haven’t figured it out, that’s my grandfather’s name. And I’m Michael Rothman, nice to meet you.
So, here we sit – myself, Paul and his girlfriend of 25 years, Geraldine Rosen – in the kitchen of their New York City apartment, a place packed with memories — a place I used to come and stay long before I moved to the city five years ago.
It’s the same kitchen where he’s sat me down time and again, while asking me to think bigger and start planning my future.
I thought I’d seen every inch of this place, every picture on the wall, heard every story. I was wrong. Paul was cleaning out the guest room last week and found something he felt compelled to show me.
“I just never threw this out,” he says, handing me the envelope.
The first item I grab from inside is a scroll. It’s yellowed and delicate and the wood handle falls right off when you unravel it, but on the inside of this scroll is an 80-year-old picture of Paul, with the words, “Confirmation Reception and Dinner for Master Paul Rothman.” It’s his Bar Mitzvah invitation from Dec. 22, 1935.
The Hatikvoh and the Star Spangled Banner are printed on the scroll, right next to a picture of Paul at just 13 years old, dressed to the nines, Tallit over his shoulders.
It’s a picture I’ve never seen before, but it’s reminiscent of one hanging in his bedroom, where Paul has the Tefillin wrapped around his arm. We’ve never really spoken about that picture, his faith, or what it means to him.
The menu is also attached, and amid fancy language I’ve never heard like 'noix salee,' I see items I do recognize, including filet, martini and petit fours (though not necessarily in that order.)
The meal is catered by Kotimsky & Tuchman, an establishment which, according to Yelp, is shockingly still around today.
Also around today is the venue – The Hotel St. George, although this Brooklyn landmark is now public housing for college students and not the swanky hotel it once was.
A Little Backstory to Fill You In
Growing up, I was never intensely religious. I also never understood the meaning of family until my grandfather and I became close. My father was relatively absent, and my mother has a closer relationship with my sister, but she always tried her best with me and worked hard as a single mom.
It was Paul who I was able to connect with in high school, through college and still, all these years later, with whom I remain close.
His stories of traveling the globe, not only for the Army in WWII, but for his business in textiles that brought him to the ends of the earth, captivate me and have always taught me about hard work and leaving your mark.
And Paul has this special gift of making his adventures relatable no matter what business you're in–even journalism. I’m an entertainment reporter for ABC News and though Paul is a businessman at heart, he still has lessons that are boundless.
“You interviewed Oprah?” he would ask about my work. “That’s good, now follow up with her and build a relationship. She can really help you out.”
It's simple idea, but something I would never think to do in this socially disconnected, yet totally inter-connected internet era.
It’s brilliant and classic 'Paul.'
As I’m looking through this treasure trove of documents and artifacts from a lifetime ago, I know a lesson or a story is coming.
The surprisingly intact meal receipt reads $13 per couple for the lavish dinner at the Hotel St. George, the note cards from Paul’s speech have words like “holy” and “rejoicing” underlined for emphasis, and the pictures tell a story of a roaring good time.
The conversation with Paul quickly turns to faith and family–something I hate to admit I still know very little about.
“Religion was very important to my family,” Paul says, adding that his grandfather on his mother’s side, Abraham, was actually president of his temple in Brooklyn when he was a kid.
Paul describes the procession near Prospect Park that took place when his grandfather died. The neighborhood actually stopped to pay homage to this man. I never had any idea of such a familial legacy.
I'm having an awakening that I didn’t know this 93-year-old hero of mine could still create in me.
A war hero, an ingenious businessman who built an empire out of nothing, and now he's a spiritual advisor?
I’m not going to lie and say this will have an immediate effect on me or that I will now become a religious man and have kids as soon as humanly possible so I can teach them faith, but he is, and has been, the absolute guiding force in shaping who I am today. He's always the first person I call for advice or to tell good news. I’ll never be half the man he is, but I can sure try.
Lesson Not Learned, But I’m Getting There
What I learned about my family and its history really sinks in on June 10, the day the world said goodbye to Muhammad Ali.
Covering the procession and later the funeral for ABC News, I was taken aback by the thousands who gathered in Louisville, Kentucky, and followed his hearse for miles, hoping to just put a hand on the vehicle carrying the champ’s body.
I couldn’t help but think of my great, great grandfather and of course, Paul.
I may not have realized the importance of what Paul was telling me at the time, just days prior, but it became crystal clear on that Friday.
No one really knows exactly what life is all about, but what these men – Ali, Paul, and a distant relative I never knew – did was touch and affect people in positive ways. So positive, that they will be remembered long after they are gone.
That’s the lesson here. I just hope to influence others in a fraction of the way my grandfather has influenced me. The man has been a hero to so many people over his lifetime, just like his ancestors before him.
That’s the goal. That’s the bigger picture he always lectures me about. I don’t know what the future holds 10, 20, 30 years down the road. I just hope I can help people in a way similar to him.
And it may not be a fancy watch or a check, but I hope this column is me telling my grandfather, “Paul, I’ve got something for you.”
Happy Father’s Day.