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Fritz Alexander Rothschild: A Portrait Part One—The Years in Germany

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 65, Number 3, Spring 2014
pp. 35-52 | 10.1353/coj.2014.0000

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Fritz Alexander Rothschild (b. October 4, 1919; d. March 7, 2009) was the Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Professor of Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He was the author of Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism, the first and still definitive introduction to the thought and writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rothschild’s essays on the teaching of biblical themes have been highly influential in American Jewish education. He also edited, toward the end of his life, a groundbreaking work in interfaith dialogue, Jewish Perspectives on Christianity.

Rothschild was born in Bad Homburg, Germany, a town about ten miles from Frankfurt, and fled to Rhodesia with his father in 1938. In 1948 he came to New York and matriculated at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained in 1955 and received his Doctor of Hebrew Letters under the tutelage of Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1968. He joined the Seminary faculty in 1960 as an associate professor of Jewish Philosophy in the Teachers Institute, and was named to the Abbell chair in 1987. In 1990 he received the title of Professor Emeritus.

Fritz Rothschild was born on a Yom Kippur which fell on Shabbat. Telling of his birth on the confluence of Judaism’s most sacred days, he would quip: “That you have to know, in order to understand my holiness.” His advent was proclaimed when his older sister, Edith, then six years old, interrupted Yom Kippur services by shouting into the men’s synagogue, “We have a little boy just born!” Two years later the family was blessed with a younger daughter and sister, Ellen.

When Fritz was born, the town of Bad Homburg numbered around 17,000 inhabitants. His father, Zecharias, who was called “Richard,” was the proprietor of a shoe store, which, at its largest, had employed six people. Richard’s father-in-law had founded the store in 1879. Richard had grown up in a little town called Alsfeld. Richard’s parents were religious and ran a shop where they sold bicycles and sewing machines. Fritz recalled that Alsfeld had been so overtly anti-Semitic that the Jews had to leave early in the Nazi regime and, ironically, as a result, most of them had survived.

Richard/Zecharias was not a very good businessman. He relied on his wife to tend the cash register. Often, Fritz’s father sent him and his older sister to deliver shoes. Because his mother worked, Fritz was raised by the Catholic maid. His maternal grandfather had taught him to recite the bedtime prayers, the Shema and Ha-Malakh Ha-go·eil, every night. After his grandfather died, the Catholic maid had him repeat those prayers after her.

Fritz’s mother, Bella Strauss, had attended a boarding school, but as a day student. There were students there from England and France. Her father, Jakob Strauss, had grown up in the Taunus Mountains, where his father, Alexander, had been a glazier and cattle dealer. Jakob attributed his great physical strength to his having carried calves over his shoulders as a child. He was observant, wore t’fillin every day, and maintained a kosher home. When he started the family shoe store in Bad Homburg, he reluctantly had to keep it open on Shabbat. The town’s workers were paid on Saturdays and the store had to be open when its customers had money for shopping. Neighbors remembered that the first Saturday that he opened the grilles for the store, tears rolled down his cheeks.

Bella knew English and French well. She would complain that when Fritz learned English in high school the teacher provided the American pronunciation, rather than the British one. In Bad Homburg everyone attended the same school for the first four years; the best students then went on to a special high school, while the rest continued at the base school. When Bella saw that Fritz’s classmate, Georg Wolfner, was promoted to the high school after only three years, she asked why the teacher hadn’t done the same with Fritz, and the high school teacher said that Fritz was not that talented. The high school had two departments, one for...

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