The author with Rosenberg at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Photo courtesy of Emily Jane Goodman
A lot can happen in a century and what Alex Rosenberg has accomplished so far in this one precious lifetime was celebrated on May 25, exactly 100 years from his birth in 1919.
The rare occasion of a 100th birthday filled the West Side’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue where Rosenberg was a bar mitzvah boy at the age of 73. Despite the Memorial Day holiday, a traditional get-out-of-town weekend, the music-accompanied service and luncheon were attended by more than 200 friends, family and comrades who passed through security guards and magnetometers.
The guest of honor, sporting silver hair that reached his collar, was on his feet (with a little support) whenever the congregation was asked to rise. Throughout the day, he accepted praise and recognition in the presence of his wife, two siblings and four generations of family.
Having a room full of fans is not the image of, well, old age. But Rosenberg collected people along the way, as a leader in local and national Democratic politics, a civil rights, civil liberties and anti-war activist, a prominent art dealer, a bon vivant and man about town, the ultimate New Yorker. Born in Brooklyn, he has spent most of his post WWII Air Force life in Manhattan on the West Side with his first wife, Dorothy and their sons Lawrence and Andrew, on the east side with Carole, his wife of 42 years, his 57th Street art gallery and at home in Water Mill on Long Island. The rest of the time he might be found in Mexico, Europe, Israel, or Cuba where he received a Doctorate in Fine Arts. This, a glowing Carole Rosenberg, 82, emphasized, “was not just an ‘honorary’ degree”.
Rosenberg’s early background in socialism, Judaism and his passion for progressive social action and justice, set his path. Looking back at all he has done, he says, “Maybe I could have contributed more, but I won’t get a second chance.”
After rejecting the family pillowcase business, Rosenberg bought a telephone answering service but sold it at a good profit before it was made obsolete by answering machines, voice mail, IM, email, cellphones, texting and tweeting. What mattered to him was change and challenge in and out of electoral politics. He was out front early for Eugene McCarthy for President, and Bella Abzug for everything: Congress, Senate, Mayor. Also the American Labor Party, the West Side Democratic political club where he was District Leader, but that he later left because “they lost their way” and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Especially important to Rosenberg was NECLC (National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee), which in a faux wedding ceremony where Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame was “best man,” merged with the Center for Constitutional Rights that he long served as a board member and financial advisor.
While enjoying French Champagne, salmon and strawberries, guests also enjoyed thanks-for-the-memories from Rosenberg’s sons and others.
Sam Rosenberg, poet and medieval scholar, described his older brother as always thinking of, “how he could make the world move in a sounder direction.” Great-grandson Jacob Halsband, 7, standing on a chair to reach the mic, faced “Grandpa Alex,” and delivered the speech that spoke for everyone. “That you are 100 is ... WOW!”
NY State Assembly member Richard Gottfried, speaking for himself and Congress Member Jerry Nadler who had been expected but had taken ill the day before, said that it was Rosenberg plus a cadre of “adults” who nurtured their group of high school boys, “The Kids,” as they broke into West Side politics in the sixties.
“Alex helped move Jerry and me several notches to the left, both in our careers and our principles,” said Gottfried. Further to the left was Cuba’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Ana Silvia Rodriguez Abascal, who attended with a delegation from the Cuban mission to thank Rosenberg for decades of friendship that started with the struggle to prove that art and culture fit into the definition of “informational material” that were exceptions to the United States embargo.
Decades before, the former art student had found the art of commerce and the commerce of art. The Alex Rosenberg Gallery, doing business as TransWorld Art, has specialized in graphics, publishing lithographs, silkscreens, posters and representing leading artists of the post-World War II art world. His artists and their art, like him, are decidedly left wing. His list includes Elaine DeKooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder, Romare Bearden, Gordon Parks, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Larry Rivers. As a dealer, consultant, appraiser, expert witness, Rosenberg still works every day and has no retirement plans.
Always there is the beloved synagogue that Rosenberg had announced more than a year ago would be the venue for his memorial service whether or not he made it to this birthday and the party. “Save the date either way,” he told friends. According to Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Rosenberg describes himself as “agnostic on the subject of God.” Rosenberg says, “What’s important is being Jewish living the values of charity, justice, education, progressive Judaism.” During his luncheon remarks, referring to the history of atrocities against Jews and the current rise of anti-Semitism, Rosenberg, choked with emotion, cried briefly.
But tears soon turned to bittersweet laughter when thanking his wife Carole for all she has done for him, Rosenberg added, “Maybe if I ate gluten-free I’d keep going. But at my age, there is only today. Tomorrow is forever. You can’t look forward.”
Still, at the end of the day, 100-year-old Alex Rosenberg, an unrepentant flirt, asked this reporter, “What are you doing tonight?”