Irving Rothman, a professor of English at the University of Houston, discusses Hurricane Harvey, the house he and his wife have lived in for over 51 years, which had never flooded until Hurricane Harvey, and the impact Harvey has on them. Rothman shares the loss of books, the loss of bookshelves made for him, and his car’s loss. The impact of Harvey is stilling being felt as he and his wife live in an apartment waiting for their house to be elevated and renovated to move back in. Rothman takes a distorted view on the loss of his car, sharing that he now takes Uber and feels like it works for him. Additionally, Rothman discusses the way the flood from Harvey has influenced his writing and research. Rothman also discusses the synagogues that were utterly flooded in Harvey and the handling of the Torah after being damaged.
Professor Irving Rothman Interview: Transcription
Williams: Today is March 29 2018, I’m James Williams and I’m here interviewing Professor Irving Rothman for the Neighborhood Narratives component of the Resilient Houston Oral History project in his office at the University of Houston.
Williams: Thank you for your time Professor Rothman. My first question is where are you from originally?
Rothman: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My family came from Russia in the 1920’s.
Williams: Which city in Russia?
Rothman: Otaci. It’s now on the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Williams: When did you come to Texas?
Rothman: 1967. I got an appointment at the University of Houston.
Williams: Did you originally move directly to Meyerland or did you live in another area?
Rothman: We found Meyerland very comfortable. It was not far from the university, it was also close to the synagogue we expected to be attending.
Williams: What changes over the years have you seen in Meyerland since then?
Rothman: Well, not too many. Good populations, good growth. There was a country club, The Meyerland Country Club. That was sold to the Jewish Community Center and became a teenage center, the Merfish Center. The only real problem… I mean we’ve been there 51 years. Never had a problem with flooding. Although some of the houses around us were flooded three times but we never did. Harvey, however, caused us a problem. In September, we were flooded about two and a half feet of water in the house. So we moved to an apartment and our house is still under renovation.
Williams: So this wasn’t the first flood you experienced, but it’s the first flood that impacted you directly.
Williams: Could you tell me a little bit about it.
Rothman: Well, usually when the waters got that heavy they would go halfway up our lawn. This time, the water went up the lawn into the house, and I had winter boots from Pittsburgh. But the water flowed into the boots so they weren’t any good. And we actually had a neighbor we didn’t know about who brought a boat to our door, and they transported us out of the area. And then we had friends, cousins who helped us find an apartment. We’re living at the Illusion Apartment at 3800 Bissonnet right now.
Williams: When your neighbor came with the boat was it on the second day?
Rothman: No, it was the first day. The flooding was the first day. We didn’t stay there any longer. You couldn’t sleep at night. How could you sleep?
Williams: So when you heard the news that Harvey was coming did you think it would blow over or be like the other floods?
Rothman: Oh, we thought we would be safe.
Williams: Can you kind of walk us through some of your feelings at the time?
Rothman: Well one of our concerns was saving of our books. I lost a couple hundred books. Which were on the lower level. Our rare books we saved. It was a matter of a… we had portraits on the wall. Paintings on the wall. Chagall paintings. They were saved. Then we moved out of the house. We obtained two storage closets and stored a lot of our furniture a lot of our clothing in storage, and then we took what we needed to this apartment. And we were lucky with our cousins who were able to find this apartment for us.
Williams: Did Harvey have any impact on your observance of the Jewish High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah?
Rothman: Oh yes, yes, the synagogue was entirely flooded.
Williams: Which synagogue was this?
Rothman: Beth Yeshurun. Congregation Beth Yeshurun at 4525 Beechnut. Fortunately, Joel Osteen at the Lakewood Church gave his facilities to us for those days. And we have about 3000 families and members at our congregation. We usually for Yom Kippur have two services. But because Joel Osteen’s place was so large, we were able to confine everything to one service. But he was very, very generous. No charge for our inhabiting Lakewood Church. It was outstanding.
Williams: Has the synagogue reopened since then?
Rothman: Uhm. Part of it has. The main congregation still has not, and we’re not sure what’s going to happen for the coming High Holidays. We hope it’ll be rebuilt with the main congregation with 3000 seating has not yet been refurbished. So we are meeting in the smaller chapel in the facility. There’s a school in the facility which has been restored. For the students who are going to school.
Williams: And, I guess moving forward you plan to move back to your house in Meyerland?
Rothman: Oh yes, yeah. We have lifted the house six feet. And my wife selected the stonework that was going to frame a six-foot level. And then next month or so we’re going to start reconstruction on the inside of the house so we expect to be back there by March or April. Oh, I’m sorry this is already March, by May or June.
Williams: So I guess it’s very important that you remain close to Meyerland?
Rothman: Yes. We’re happy with the neighborhood; right now, however, there isn’t a single member of our… None of the houses on our street are inhabited at this point. And we are right on the bayou. The bayou usually protects us, and it takes water and drains it off but Harvey was too furious.
Williams: I remember earlier when we spoke you mentioned that you lost your car. What’s that adjustment been like?
Rothman: Laughs A little…Somewhat inconvenient but I have chosen to use Uber instead. So I generally wait about eight minutes. The longest I’ve ever waited for Uber was about eight minutes. It usually comes in about five or four minutes. So it’s really quite convenient.
And the cost from September to December the cost of Uber for me was about $1,300. Over a year that would add up to about $3,900. Which is still less than buying a new car, doing repairs. Tires alone on a new car cost about $1,200. So in the long run… fortunately my wife’s car was saved. It was in the garage, and it wasn’t affected. So she has a car. And if I need to go someplace special I have no problem getting there.
Williams: What’s your family’s response been? Your children and grandchildren correct?
Rothman: I have a daughter. Two daughters living in Houston. And my daughter Marcy is a lawyer. And she’s taken care of all our bookwork, all our paperwork. She’s been extremely efficient and has worked so hard we ourselves have had no headaches. She does it all.
Williams: Any outside family members… family still in Pennsylvania or other places in the country.
Rothman: Well, we have another daughter and her husband who live in Dallas. The husband Bob Stoler is a interventional cardiologist and my daughter, Andrea is a prosthodontist and teaches dental students in Dallas.
Williams: But they haven’t been worried or concerned about the next flood or what might happen in the future if you continue to live there?
Rothman: Well they are concerned, but we are making every effort we can to make sure we don’t suffer flooding again. Lifting the house six feet is a good answer. I don’t think the flooding would ever get that high.
Williams: Have other neighbors also lifted their houses as well?
Rothman: Not yet. No.
Williams: Has anyone moved away? Or decided…
Rothman: I don’t know. We know one neighbor, his house is completely gone. But he’s going to rebuild on the same property. Uhm. Another neighbor had no flood insurance but he’s rebuilding his house but he’s living with his son at another place right now. But we expect all the families to move back.
Williams: And how were you able to use this flood as an exercise for your students?
Rothman: laughs I wasn’t. That would be an annoyance for me to complain to my students about it. Fortunately, Uber gets me to school every day, and Uber takes me back, so it hasn’t at all affected my teaching.
Williams: As a professor of English, did it maybe inspire you to write something?
Rothman: Oh yes, I’ve written quite a bit. My specialty was Daniel Defoe and I wrote an edited edition of Defoe’s Family Instructor. Which was a very, very good book. And then I’ve become interested in barber literature. I have a book called The Barber in Modern Jewish Culture, I’ve got about sixty items about barbers that deal with deal with Jewish subjects. And I have another one A Barber Anthology, which has twenty-eight articles. Coughs It has 2800 annotations about 2800 articles about barbers… quite varied and this was an additional supplement I added to it a subject supplement.
Williams: When did you add the supplement? This past year? Was this before or after Harvey?
Rothman: No after the book was printed. I did the supplement. After Harvey. And by the way you may have that. Hands book over
Williams: What would you say you’re most thankful for? Is there any organization or device you had available to you during the storm?
Rothman: Oh my daughter, Marcy. She handled all our problems and took care of the movement. And then we had cousins who let us stay at their house for a week. And helped us find the apartment where we’re at right now. The cousins were in Bellaire.
Williams: Would you say for the most part… You had flood insurance?
Rothman: Oh yes. We were lucky. Definitely had flood insurance.
Williams: So that’s pretty much taken care of…
Rothman: Taken care of about half of the expenses, since we’ve lifted the house. Runs into a couple hundred thousand dollars. Insurance probably covers half of that.
Williams: Was there anything in particular? You mentioned your rare books… Is there a book in particular that you just were absolutely in love with that you’d hate to see ruined or lost?
Rothman: Well I’ve got some editions of Robinson Crusoe. An old edition of Robinson Crusoe that I wouldn’t want anything to happen to. And then I have a complete set of early American newspapers. I’ve got about a year’s collection of The Portfolio, an early American magazine. And those weren’t flooded. I have them for research. I don’t think I brought them in here with me. But I must still have them…
These are boxes with the barber information… I collected them but I’ll throw them out eventually… but the main details are in the books.
Williams: Are you planning on writing anything new since Harvey?
Rothman: Uh, no I haven’t. Just let me check one thing here.
Bob Dylan is the latest Nobel Prize winner. And he’s a songwriter. And it’s unusual for a Nobel Prize of literature to go to a songwriter. So I had three students, I got a grant from the Houston Foundation which is the University of Houston’s English department-based organization, and I hired three students each look at thirty-three of Dylan’s poetry. They did a rhetorical analysis of the poetry, and I expect to turn this into a book describing why it is that a songwriter gets the Nobel Prize.
See this is one of Dylan’s lyrics.
Williams: Got quite a few of his lyrics here.
Rothman: Well he wrote a 101… I think a 101 songs. And then we had our students–each got a thousand dollars for helping. You’ve got the song. You’ve got the rhyme scheme. You’ve got certain phrases and the phrases are described rhetorically and we understand what the author… the poet, is trying to do with these phrases. So these are detailed phrases, and I think the Bob Dylan book may be another thing to work on.
Williams: Looks like that’s a lot of research.
Rothman: Well the students did a lot of work. Really, very, very good work. Really praise their effort.
Williams: Going back to the flood…
Rothman: There was Joshua Connolly, Hannah Bonner, and Ty Petterson. Were the three people who worked on the project. I said, Josh Connolly, Hannah Bonner, and Ty Petterson.
Williams: And those are graduate students?
Rothman: Undergraduates. And they did a good job. They did a good job. It’s just a matter of my taking this material now and interpreting what they had done.
Here’s a example. Here’s a song by Bob Dylan called “10,000 Men” And the Ten thousand men on a hill, Some of ‘m goin’ down, some of ‘m gonna get killed. Down and killed are prophecies of evil and rhetorical items that discuss something unpleasant.
Ten thousand men dressed in oxford blue. This is a refrain, this is clarifying certain issues… Drumming in the morning in the evening they’ll be coming for you… that again is a prophecy of evil for the techniques that will be analyzed and studied in this particular orbit.
Williams: That’s very technical for undergraduate work.
Rothman: Yes. But it’s the elevation of the study of literature to its technical proportions. And they understand it.
Williams: Very impressive.
Rothman: No problem with bright students at the University of Houston. That’s one thing, I’ve never had a problem with.
Williams: Your students?
Rothman: Students. Right.
Williams: Maybe it’s a reflection of your teaching abilities.
Actually, I have a quick question about the flood. So when you were taken out on a boat, do you remember from your house where you were taken?
Rothman: We were taken up to Bellaire Boulevard. Up to Bellaire. Where there was not so much water. And we had one family that took us in overnight. And then our cousin took us for a week. Actually, we had a constable by the name of Carl Shaw. A friend of ours who had gotten a helicopter if we had needed it. So there was actually a helicopter flying over our house as the boat pulled up. If there had not have been a boat there we would have gotten out and the helicopter would have lowered a cable and lifted us up.
Williams: Did you see anyone else taken up by helicopter?
Rothman: Well we really didn’t see anyone but we knew it was happening. Yeah, Carl Shaw was the constable and did a good job.
Williams: And was your area one of the first places people responded to since it flooded first?
Rothman: I don’t know. I wouldn’t have any idea. I know that there were a lot of boats with police in them.. moving about…whether they were picking up people or watching to make sure homes were not being ransacked … is another question.
Williams: How long did it take for the water to go down?
Rothman: Oh it went down pretty fast. I think the next day. But of course, because of mold and everything you had to rip out all the sheetrock. Actually, I had a former professor at the university, a friend who had built our shelves for us at our house. And all those shelves are gone.
Williams: When did you go back? Did you go back the day after? Or how long was it between the time you left your house before you returned?
Rothman: Well I think it was after we left, we had to wait for the waters to recede. And I think it took maybe a week for the waters to recede. And then we went back to look at the house to see how much damage had been done. But we have Schultz constructors… a friend of ours… and as soon as the flooding occurred, Howard Schultz called us and said he would take care of the house, so we had that assurance. And then there is an architectural firm, Arkitektura, lifting homes in the area. And a large number of homes have been lifted. Where do you live?
Williams: I live here in Third Ward.
Rothman: Oh but you didn’t lose anything.
Williams: At the time I was living further north in The Woodlands.
Rothman: But the Third Ward wasn’t affected.
Williams: I don’t think so no.
Rothman: I know that the University of Houston, our building had some water coming in from the doorway leading toward the UH center. Some water got in. Some water got in the windows of a couple of rooms and flooded. So for several days I was teaching with large fans blowing in the room.
Williams: Do you remember any particular themes or sayings at the synagogue after the flood?
Rothman: No the synagogues were completely wiped out. I mean it was just… everything was flooded. The most valuable item in the synagogue is the torah with the Five Books of Moses in scrolls. And members of our congregation went in waist deep and carried them out in plastic bags and took them to their homes. So there were people who worked very, very hard to make sure that nothing happened to these scrolls. But there are thousands of thousands of books… you’re not allowed to burn Jewish books, so there’s a large large, you might say grave dug outside of the synagogue in an earthen work and all the books that were flooded were thrown in there and buried. Because a book is like a live thing. You don’t burn it you bury it.
Williams: Of course.
Rothman: And then there’s special prayers for burying books as well.
Williams: Do you know any of the payers?
Williams: Do you think there could have been anything done to make sure that you were better prepared?
Rothman: No. As I said, we were there 51 years and never had a problem. So we assume that whatever waters come we won’t ever have a problem again. We knew we had a problem when the water went into my boots.
Williams: If you could give your 30-year-old self some advice as it relates to the flood or otherwise, what would you tell him?
Rothman: Give what?
Williams: Give your 30-year-old self advice as it relates to the flood or otherwise what would you tell him?
Rothman: Well you would have to buy a house that’s already been lifted. Because you don’t want to risk paying money and then losing it. You shouldn’t buy a house anymore that’s not lifted in areas that have been flooded before. I mean we had some families that had been flooded three times. And we have, in fact, the rabbis all lived around the synagogue because on the Sabbath you’re not allowed to ride if you’re really observant. And all their homes were flooded.
Williams: They’re not allowed to ride in a car?
Rothman: In anything, on the Sabbath. You have to walk back and forth. But their homes were flooded. Most of the rabbis now are living in apartments. I know two are not moving back to their houses. They’re just going tear down their house, sell the property, and stay in the apartment.
Williams Are the apartments still in Meyerland?
Rothman: Behind the synagogue there were large number of apartments built. But the numbers of people wanting to get into those apartments is so heavy that they filled up, so we couldn’t get any apartments there.
We were very lucky to get where we are near the Illusion.
Williams: Well Bissonnet isn’t too far away…
Rothman: It’s about seven miles.
Opens phone to look at Uber App
Today, because there was heavy traffic, it cost me $30 to get to the university. Which was outrageous. But yesterday to go from the congregation from my house it was $8.64. And normally, the cost to go to the university is $14 in the morning when there’s a lot of traffic and then $12 to come home at three in the afternoon when there isn’t too much traffic. But these are all my… Yeah this is outrageous $30…
And actually there wasn’t that much traffic it’s based on the amount of traffic the Uber conceives is occurring. And there was a great deal of traffic along but I took the HOV lane, so I missed it, but this is based on other drivers. Here’s to the congregation. Let’s see what happens. On March 24… it cost me $31 to get to school another day. One day went to school and it costs $10.60. And then coming back home… Yeah it was $31.44 to come to the university and $40 to go back home in the afternoon.
Williams: So it seems a little complicated… have you considered getting a new car?
Rothman: No. My wife has the car. So if I want to get some place we can do it.
Williams: But this system works for you?
Rothman: It’s fine, yeah. The costs are as I say, when you compare them to the cost of a car, I’m not paying for car repairs, I’m not paying for tires, I’m not paying car insurance, I’m not paying a lot of costs. In some ways it’s just a substitute. When I leave here, I’ll call for my Uber and it will be here within five minutes.
Williams: So would you say that’s been the biggest change other than the apartment?
Rothman: It is a big change.
Williams: Did you use Uber before?
Rothman: No. I’ve been using it since September. And I’ll tell you, what’s convenient now is if I have to stop some place for a few moments, the Uber will wait for me. So I can go in the store and buy something. Or I can go to a bank and get something, and the Uber will wait for me and the additional cost is minimal.
Williams: So it’s like your own chauffeur.
Rothman: It’s what it is. And Uber drivers are rather interesting. I had two nurses who drive me, that is they make extra money driving Uber. I’ve had a pharmacist, I’ve had people who work for a living who do Uber as extra. I’ve had a law student at the University of Houston who Ubers. And I’ve had three people who are graduates at the University of Houston who Uber. It’s a way to make a living. If you see what the charges are, and they get a certain percentage of it.
Williams: Well, if there’s anything more you’d like to add…
Rothman: Do you have a card?
Williams: A card? I do not.
Rothman: I would like to have your name.
Rothman: Mr. Williams, right?
I give him my contact information. Interview wraps up.