R.I.P. Rom

Rom Rosenblum was my dear friend Howie Katz’s best friend. Howie, a man with an irrepressible sense of humor, was never known to have said a bad word about anyone. Howie died the gentle, early death of a person beloved of God, he was stopped at a red light, his foot on the brake, and his life winked out like a candle flame extinguished by a whisper, his passenger unaware until the light changed and he said “Howie, Howie…”

Rom went to the airport to pick up Howie’s daughter for the funeral. “I’m the adult,” he told me, “her father’s best friend, who held her as a baby, I’m like her uncle, I’m supposed to be comforting her, but as soon as I saw her I just started crying, and she’s trying to comfort me. I couldn’t stop crying.” They both no doubt bawled together on that ride back to the city.

Rom was a beautiful soul, kind, funny, a great musician. I used the past tense because I got a text, out of the blue, that Rom died of pancreatitis a few days ago. I wish I’d known he was sick, I certainly would have called him. We might even have had a laugh. No matter how dark the situation, I think Rom could find a way to laugh about it.

Rom was about five years older than me. We met when I was seven or eight. Rather, he performed for my little sister and me when I was that age. It’s a story I can now never confirm with anyone, my father, who knew Rom well, was an appreciator of Rom’s quick, irreverent wit, and who Rom thought highly of, is gone. Now Rom is gone too. My first encounter with him was at a weekend convention of teenagers my father was supervising, held at a big hotel in Hampton Bays, Long Island, either November 1963, starting the day JFK was murdered, or perhaps the following spring. My father, a high school social studies teacher, had a second job as the director of the Nassau-Suffolk region of a Zionist youth movement for teenagers called Young Judaea. If my math is right, Rom was probably about the youngest of the high school-aged Young Judaeans at that convention.

He was walking with a cane, having injured himself, I always assumed, playing ice hockey, a game he loved. To my sister and me he looked a bit like a young John Lennon, which puts this convention the year after the JFK assassination, since no American kids our age had ever yet heard of John, let alone knew what looked like in November 1963. I recall the tall, skinny kid with the glasses and the attitude, slouching on a couch outside the dining room, where everybody else was still occupied. When he saw my younger sister (she was five or six) and me he went into a performance, pretending he was drunk (or maybe not pretending? he kept slurring the ad line “sure didn’t taste like tomato juice…”) and using the cane as a hockey stick to reenact the action on the ice, as he called out the exciting play by play of a sport I never understood “Giacomin with the save, wait, slap shot, SCORE!” and so forth. Eddie Giacomin, I confirmed years later, was a goaltender for the NY Rangers, the only NYC hockey team at the time.

My sister and I found the young Rom delightful, entertaining, as clever and hilarious as Peter Sellers, who he also slightly resembled. Here’s what he looked like in more recent years:

Our paths crossed over the years, as my father continued his involvement with the youth group and eventually became director of their summer camp in Barryville, NY. It was at this camp. in the summer of 1969, that I ran into Bruce Rosenblum, the guy who’d entertained my younger sister and me with his madcap improvisations years earlier. By then he was going by the name of Peanuts — on his way to Rom. His was riding in the back of a small, open, flatbed truck with a large group of other high school seniors at the camp, the overloaded truck negotiating a twisting road, when the truck flipped over, flinging its occupants, causing numerous injuries. Peanuts spent some time in the hosptial, I recall and came back from the hospital on crutches. He was no less stylish and cool, clomping around the camp on crutches than he had been with his cane.

A few years later he was in Israel, a new immigrant, serving time in the Israeli army with his buddy Howie Katz. Howie was part of a tank crew that wound up in a firefight in the Sinai desert during the Yom Kippur War. I believe Rom was in the same crew. So was Don Tocker, the guy who’d go on to be the first director of the new kibbutz they were all founding members of. Suddenly, seeing something, Don yelled “jump!” and they all leapt off the tank. The tank blew up after a direct hit from an Egyptian artillery shell. The entire crew miraculously escaped unharmed. I met Howie shortly afterwards on that brand new kibbutz in the Aravah desert, in the valley across from the mountains of Jordan. Howie was my kibbutz father, and nobody ever had a better father than Howie. We became lifelong friends.

Howie eventually became disillusioned with life on the kibbutz, a small town where people gave him a hard time, among other things, for walking around everywhere naked. I don’t know much about Rom’s reasons, but after a year, or maybe more, he too left the kibbutz, and eventually returned to the US. They both settled in the Bay Area, Howie in San Francisco (where he and his wife raised two children in the heart of the Castro, the gay district of SF, during the AIDS epidemic, a time of great human rights battles over the “right to be gay”) and Rom settled across the bay, in East Bay, near Berkeley.

Over the years I maintained some contact with Rom. Any time I was in California I made a point of getting together with him. We played music together a few times, the first being at a Halloween party where, as part of an impromptu band, all in costume, Rom (a brilliant keyboard player) played an excellent harmonica and sang, and I played a borrowed electric guitar behind him. I can’t overstate what a great musician he was. He was also a recording engineer. I visited him in East Bay once, we played a bit, and then Howie came by in his truck to take me back to San Francisco. Howie requested “All Along the Watchtower” and Rom, in about a minute, put together a great loop of that simple vamp. We played variations on the theme for a couple of minutes, Howie beaming at us the whole time.

After Howie died suddenly, Rom, who was in agony, comforted me on the phone when I called to express anguish about inadverently alerting a difficult former friend of Howie’s who’d angrily written Howie off, who was now heading to Howie’s funeral and might upset Howie’s widow. I asked Rom for his help. “Don’t worry about it, it won’t be a problem. It’s not your fault you that talked to his mother, it will be fine,” said Rom, “There’s nothing you did, or can do, nothing I need to do, everything will be fine. Don’t worry, we’re all adults, it will be fine.” And it was.

A couple of years later Howie’s daughter asked a friend and me to do the music for her wedding. We were honored, it was a thrill, and very hard work leading up to the wedding, particularly for me, the entire rhythm section, in real-time, on one guitar. The guy I played with was very nervous, unsure if I was up to the task he’d set of me holding down the entire accompaniment for him. I had to arrange and learn each tune perfectly, the bass, embellishments, each chord, perfectly in time and at the right place. Otherwise we’d be embarrassed as his melodies crashed over an unsteady one man backing band.

I was not worried, but I knew I had to keep working my ass off to get ready. A few days before the wedding I spoke to Rom, who was officiating at the wedding with his wife Debby, both of them duly empowered by the State of California. As always, Rom urged me not to worry. He’d bring his keyboard and back us up, he would need no rehearsal could easily play off the cuff whatever we’d taken days to learn. It was a great relief that he’d round out the band, it instantly took a lot of weight off my shoulders. The plan was quickly nixed, it was deemed improper for the rabbi to be in the band. Taking Rom’s lead, I did not protest. I played 8-10 hours a day in the days before the wedding and mastered playing all the parts. The music came off without a hitch.

Rom and Debby performed a beautiful wedding ceremony. There was something otherwordly, and at the same time so fundamentally sane and perfect, in two great humanists, a married couple, ushering a young couple into marriage. Very joyous. Rom’s face, as he lovingly hugged everybody at the wedding, stays in my memory. It was the second to last time I ever saw him.

In this troubled world, people who seem slightly above it, more sensitive, more aware, gentler, more generous, more understanding and amused, readier to amuse, than most people, give the rest of us hope. The human is capable of this, and we have examples living among us. They inspire us to be better. Rom was one of the best of us.

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