By Harriet P. Gross
When you first meet him, you’ll probably say, “What a nice, quiet man.” He’ll be sitting at the back or on the fringe of a group, listening intently to whomever is speaking, not saying much himself. But if you’re curious, you’ll approach him. And if you’re lucky, he’ll open up, exchange a few words and even eventually tell you he has some pictures you might like to see.
So, you get to visit his comfortable apartment and you are astounded by the “pictures” he’s mentioned, framed photographs of many places around the world as well as some local sites, stunning in their beauty and impact.
“Who took these?” you ask. And he answers: “Me.”
This is Jack Rothenberg, a single man of 93 who, after a quarter-century in a Dallas townhouse, has exchanged it for residence at The Legacy Preston Hollow. I met him during my six-week broken-leg rehabilitation there, but it wasn’t until the day before I was discharged that I visited his cozy new home, only to be amazed by his photos.
Jack was never a professional photographer. He was, however, first a professional musician followed by a traveling salesman, like many other young men who migrated to the Southwest looking for better post-World War II opportunities than were available in the east.
He was a woodwind player in his native Manhattan, but when money is tight, “the first thing people do is cut out entertainment,” he said. So he headed for what he hoped would be greener pastures here, expecting to find a cowboy standing out in front of Neiman-Marcus.
Instead, “I met a guy who had a New York accent. I introduced myself, and he sent me to Jewish Family Service for help with housing and job opportunities. They did both.”
Soon, he was on the road five days a week until retirement in 1986, first cold-calling city-to-city in five different states to establish stable clientele for manufacturers of women’s and children’s wear.
Along the way he married, which is why Temple Emanu-El Associate Rabbi Debra Robbins can claim Rothenberg as her father-in-law.
At The Legacy Preston Hollow, Jack chose assisted living because of balance difficulties. “The kids [son Larry and wife Rabbi Robbins] planned, measured and set up this apartment, so it wasn’t a strange environment,” he says. When he moved into the Legacy about a year ago, they’d already filled the walls with his own glorious photos of favorite places, both overseas and close to home.
“The apparel business is very seasonal,” says Jack. “In my time off, I always liked traveling.” On cruises and tours, he captured the handsome vistas of Nice, Monaco, Spain and Italy that share space with artfully composed shots of Dallas and Fort Worth.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that none of this came naturally. “I was confused with apertures and shutters,” Jack recalls. “But on some off time back in Dallas, I took a course at Brookhaven College, and the instructor demystified things for me. That was David Newman, and he’s still there.”
Learning to adjust and adapt to the digital age, Jack also mastered black-and-white as well as color techniques. In fact, one of his most striking wall-mounted photos is a monochrome emphasizing the varied but similar triangular designs within several downtown Dallas buildings.
Jack is now more than a decade past his second bar mitzvah at age 83, inspired by that of actor Kirk Douglas, and he’s a regular presence at Emanu-El, where he continues to sing in the choir. Much Judaic art highlights his apartment, among it his own photo of the onion-domed old synagogue in Corsicana. But he hasn’t taken many pictures yet of his new home area. Since he still drives, he says he is looking around for subjects both outside and inside the Legacy to photograph.
So go. Meet him. Maybe, if you’re very lucky, Jack Rothenberg will pull out his camera and focus on you.