Nonagenarian tackles lengthy reading list

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Ida Rothenberg with books
Ida Rothenberg and about 50 of the books she’s read during
the pandemic (Karen Seltzer)

By Andy Gotlieb

Ida Rothenberg didn’t have time to read when she was raising her two daughters, volunteering and working at Saks Fifth Avenue.


But the soon-to-be 98-year-old woman is making up for lost time during the pandemic, reading about 90 books in the last 13 months.

“It’s like a drug. I’ll only read two chapters, look up and it’s lunch,” said Rothenberg, who lives in Wynnewood, Pa. “I read all day. I never gave it a second thought. It’s just what I did.”

Her reading prowess first garnered some internet recognition when daughter Karen Seltzer posted to a Facebook book group a picture of her mother standing by a pile of books she had read. Group members and a few authors began sending books her way, feeding the habit.

“She was never a get-in-bed-and-relax type of person, but now she props herself up in bed and has a stack of books with her,” Seltzer said.

Rothenberg isn’t picky about what reads — “whichever one is on top of the pile”— but is a fan of, among others, Mary Higgins Clark, John Jakes, David Balducci, Harlan Coben and Lisa Scottoline. At the moment, she’s reading an autographed copy of the latter’s new offering “Eternal.”

“I can’t put it down,” she said. “It’s different than anything she’s done before.”

Rothenberg can’t cite a favorite pandemic book, but she did praise Rabbi Lynnda Targan’s “Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Rabbi: A Memoir of Unorthodox Transformation,” which Targan sent her.

“I thought that was a fantastic life she had and was having,” Rothenberg said.

Rothenberg grew up in Philadelphia. After marrying at 18, she followed her husband, Mickey Sobelman, during World War II to military bases in North Carolina and Texas. At Laredo Army Airfield, she went down to the motor pool and ended up driving a transport bus with a tricky clutch.

After the war, the couple moved back to West Philadelphia and raised a family. Rothenberg worked at Saks for 25 years and volunteered extensively at Deborah Heart and Lung Center.

Mickey Sobelman’s mother, Sonia, was active in Deborah’s early days as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, and Rothenberg formed and was the first president of a Deborah chapter in the 1950s, Seltzer said. Other family members have been active with Deborah over the years.

The couple moved to Florida in 1982, with Sobelman dying in 1993. Rothenberg latter remarried, returning to Philadelphia a decade ago after her second husband, Harold, died.

Over time, Rothenberg has gotten more and more into reading.

And with the end of the pandemic in sight, Rothenberg, who is vaccinated, looks forward to resuming another of her favorite pastimes — mahjong.

“I hope I remember how to play,” she said.

In the meantime, she’ll keep reading, with Richard Plinke’s “COVID-19 House Arrest” next on her list.

“I’m just overwhelmed and happy people are thinking of me,” she said.

Andy Gotlieb is the managing editor of the Jewish Exponent.

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