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My Proto-Hippie Jewish Family

By most measures, my great-uncle Lawrence was a hippie. He ate vegetarian, grew his hair long, preached pacifism, fasted in the woods to find his purpose in life, and eked out his living as a painter. But, Lawrence lived during … Read More

By / March 12, 2007

By most measures, my great-uncle Lawrence was a hippie. He ate vegetarian, grew his hair long, preached pacifism, fasted in the woods to find his purpose in life, and eked out his living as a painter. But, Lawrence lived during the 1930’s and 40’s. So, when he explained his anti-violence to the draft board, they didn’t peg him as a tie-die wearing follower of Abby Hoffman. They just thought he was nuts.

My whole family falls along this vein. Take my great grandfather, Sam Rothbort, recently mentioned in the Guardian as “an amateur artist” in Jules Olitski’s obituary. In fact, he was anything but. His work hangs in the Smithsonian. Booted from Russia in 1905 for being involved in the proto-communist Bunde, Sam made the unwise financial decision to open up a no-kill chicken farm during the Depression. He later opened up the Rothbort Home Museum of Direct Art, a rather gorgeous display of his neo-impressionist paintings that became a stop for class fieldtrips for years. He was convinced that it competed with the MOMA. Sam hated war, was a committed vegetarian, and strongly believed that his letter to Eisenhower halted the conflict with Korea. Other family members were similarly bohemian, like the Stanislovsky-trained Ethel (who posed for a series of photos dressed as a tree), or my great-aunt Vivian, who followed the Baba. My great-uncle Jack walked across America on a diet of nuts and berries. Legend has it that when he reached New York Mayor LaGuardia presented him with the key to the city, but that he kept walking to Boston before his feet would let him stop. Though, given the chronology, I think this might just be my aunt Ida embroidering. They were all clearly Jewish, but not the least bit orthodox, believing instead in notions like the “group soul” and “summerland” (genuine quote from a theosophist cousin’s letter.) Sam, towards the end of his life, painted hundreds of watercolors of his schtetl childhood. The Jews they show are observant but earthy. He was just as likely to paint a child being wormed as a glorious synagogue ceiling. So, when people ask me if my family disapproves of my naked-posing, scandalous drawing, day job shunning existence, I can say no. In the Rothbort history, I scarcely stand out. In fact, I feel like I’m joining the family business.

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