By Jimmy Roberts
The small town of Khmelnik in central Ukraine is a world away from the sophisticated precincts of Great Neck.
But on Nov. 25, 1913, Bessie Rabinowitz gave birth to a healthy baby who was destined to traverse half the globe, by wagon, train, and ship, to end up in Great Neck via Ellis Island and Brooklyn. It’s a familiar enough story among the Jews of Eastern Europe.
What is not common is that this “baby” just celebrated his 104th birthday last November.
His mother named him David, second of four children in a prosperous family.
Khmelnik and other towns were scenes of lawless violence in the chaotic years following the Russian Revolution.
His father, Jacob, searched for a way to avoid service in the Czar’s army — a certain death sentence.
A friend suggested that Jacob apply a special ointment to one of his eyes before his physical. It would induce temporary blindness.
He followed his friend’s instructions and was duly disqualified from military service. However, the blindness never abated, and for the rest of his life Jacob had one milky eye and one seeing eye.
Jacob, a “wheeler-dealer,” did well in Khmelnik, and David recalls an imposing white house with a ballroom, a cinema, “and twin statues of lions in front, just like the New York Public Library.” Jews had dwelled in this town since the 1600s, but now the threats and the violence were too great to ignore.
The family buried their valuable silverware on their property to retrieve when things blew over, placed their other belongings in a wagon, and, thanks to Jacob’s connections, were escorted out of the country by two Polish soldiers — who immediately deserted.
After a time in Warsaw, it became clear that the Rabinowitz family could never return to Khmelnik. In 1922 Jacob sent his two oldest sons, who were 9 and 11, to America, to Brooklyn, to live with an uncle. A year later the rest of the family followed.
Remarkably, Jacob’s talents for business remained intact and he soon established a metal stamping plant in Manhattan — making buttons and other metal products. David went to work for his father, meanwhile studying at a local Yeshiva.
When World War II broke out, David offered his pleasure craft, the Alameda, to the U.S. Coast Guard; they gladly accepted it, painted it grey, and allowed him to serve on it. Other wartime jobs included: assisting a Coast Guard dentist in Charleston, S.C., and training guard dogs on Chincoteague Island, Va. This pretty much kept him out of harm’s way — except for those nasty German Shepherds.
The war ended in September 1945, and by December, David had married Dorothy Rome, a well-known rabbi’s daughter.
The wedding, an elegant affair at the Essex House on Central Park South performed by Rabbi Rome, was captured on color film.
Watching the film today, one is reminded of the chic women’s fashions of that era, while some of the men were still in uniform.
The married couple eventually made the transition to Kings Point, near the tip of Great Neck, moving to a ranch-style house built on newly-cleared land on Kings Point Road.
They were not alone. Great Neck was burgeoning and its vaunted schools were packed with members of the baby boom generation. David and Dorothy had three children — Jimmy, Mitchell and Jody — who, like so many, came of age in the early sixties, rebelled in the late sixties, then found careers and lives of their own in the seventies and eighties.
Meanwhile David and his brothers, who by now had added lipstick cases to their product line, found it easier to get along with a more “American” name — and so Rabinowitz became “Roberts.”
The Roberts family attended Temple Israel and later Temple Emanuel, where they still worship.
In the community, Dave (as he is known to many) was also a fixture on the tennis courts. There are many people to this very day who recall playing doubles with Dave on Memorial Field. He was always there, always friendly, always looking to pick up a game.
The Roberts children exhibited an artistic bent. Jimmy, a pianist and composer, went on to write the second-longest-running Off Broadway musical, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”
Mitchell, now deceased, was a multi-talented drummer and songwriter, who also expanded the family cosmetic business. Jody married another talented Great Neck musician, David Schwartz, and now helps run a pre-school for the arts in the Los Angeles area.
With the approach of the “empty nest,” Dave and Dorothy, following the path of many, sold their Kings Point home and moved to upscale and comfortable North Shore Towers.
There, they contemplate with pride the accomplishments of their children — and now, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of whom continue in the arts — a new generation of filmmakers and songwriters.
However, one grandchild has kept the family business current, and Roberts Cosmetic Containers of Chatsworth, Calif., still thrives.
That’s quite a story to look back on at 104. And on Nov. 25, 2017, as 20 family members and close friends gathered at the Towers Restaurant, Rabbi Widom of Temple Emanuel blessed the day and the event.
But David Roberts’s smile that day said more than words could. He has seen much and done much over a life that began, unbelievably, in Czarist Russia.
He has been given the gift of longevity and, looking at the world out of century-old eyes, he emanates a deep sense of acceptance and love.