Jesse Lehman ~ Died September 16, 2010   Leave a comment

My name is Julie Rothhouse and my mother was Betty Jacobs.  I am proudly representing the Jacobs side of the family with my unique perspective on my uncle Jesse. Although Jesse married into the Jacobs family, he did so 70 years ago.  I have never known a world without Jesse and neither have any of my cousins in the room here today.

We cousins on the Jacobs side never knew our grandfather Joe; in my case my uncles became my de facto grandfathers.  And boy, I really hit the trifecta with my uncles: Joe Liff, Alan Jacobs and of course Jesse. They all doted on my mother and that love and affection was magnified with my sister Jodie and me.

Jesse was an extremely generous and giving person. And we felt that generosity in so many ways.  He was always generous with resources.  My mother told me many times that when she was single and in a pinch, Jesse helped her out financially. She told me that he was not judgmental about the money nor did he ever ask for anything in return. When Jodie indicated an interest in graphic design, he gave her a summer job at the Georgian. The many kindnesses extended to our family could not possibly be enumerated here but he always gave with love and no strings attached.

Jesse was also generous with culture.  Starting from a very early age, Jesse and Dana used to take Jodie and me to cultural events in New York City. In 1969, they took us to see the play 1776.  I think that Dana realized that Jodie and I – while only 13 months apart in age – were developing different tastes.  So, the next year, they decided to take us on individual outings and we got to choose what we attended.  Dana and Jesse were shocked when I made my selection – as they assumed my tastes would be more sophisticated. To their complete horror, I chose the Ice Capades.  Now, Dana continued to rib me about this choice for many years, however, Jesse said nothing.  I will note that it was the end of the “free choice” era – and all cultural choices were henceforth determined by them.

Dana and Jesse’s cultural enrichment and generosity extended to Tanglewood, which they loved. I love it too.  I loved White Pines and I loved their friends and I loved being with them there. For years I went every summer with my parents.  Several summers I went by myself and after I met my husband Rob, we went together. It always amazed me when we arrived that Jesse would have planned out the entire weekend from a cultural and culinary perspective.  He knew which concerts to go to, which to avoid and which practice sessions were worth attending.  He knew which plays, readings or dance to go to. He orchestrated weekends as well as Seiji Ozawa orchestrated the concerts.

In 1995, Rob and I were there and Jesse knew how much Rob liked golf.  He took us to play golf at his club.  Jesse played with us.  It had to be the hottest day of the year and we played 9 holes and then met Dana for lunch.  Rob and I were ready to call it quits, because of the heat. But, Jesse insisted on playing the back nine after lunch.  And he was 80 years old!  He had a great round and we were thrilled to have played with him and he with us.

I was fortunate to live in New York City for many years and was able to spend quite a bit of time with Dana and Jesse at various events. Jesse and Dana took me to many more cultural events including concerts and of course their beloved Opera. Jesse introduced Rob to opera and really got a kick out of taking Rob to his first opera. And second opera too.

In April of 1990, I was invited to a concert at Carnegie Hall.  It was the last concert that the 98-year-old pianist Horszowski ever played at Carnegie Hall.  According to the New York Times review it was the toughest ticket to come by all season.  My friend and I had front row seats.  During the intermission I stayed in my seat and began coughing.  I could not stop coughing.  The woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and told me that the gentleman behind her had a cough drop for me.  I turned around and it was Jesse with Dana and Jonny!  I was as surprised to see them, as they were to see me.

I think that Jesse was delighted that my Ice Capades days were clearly behind me and impressed that I was able to get such a hot cultural ticket on my own!

Jesse was generous with sports too.  He could engage in detailed conversations about golf, football and his beloved Yankees to virtually the day he died.  When the Georgian had seats at Madison Square Garden he always gave us tickets to Knicks games that we particularly enjoyed. Those were the days when Hawthorne Wingo was on the bench.  In December of 1971, Jesse gave us hockey tickets.  No one in our family had ever been to a hockey game. Prior to the game in preparation, we asked Jesse to explain the game to us. My father asked Jesse what a hat trick was. Jesse of course explained the game and explained what a hat trick was and the tradition associated with it.  Imagine our surprise and delight when Ranger defenseman, Brad Park had a hat trick and the spectators actually threw hundreds of Styrofoam hats onto the rink.

I won’t lie; Jesse was generous with his critiques too.  He would tell you when he thought your dress wasn’t right, or your hair, but he was equally complimentary when he thought you got it right and looked good.  Jesse had high expectations and would often pose what felt to me to be a pop quiz at the dinner table.  I remember specifically being asked to derive the calculation for translating Fahrenheit to Celsius at one party at the Liff’s.  The reason I remember is that I worked on it – with some assistance from Jonny and others for a while – and ultimately could not provide the equation. I did not want to disappoint Jesse, but by then, he had moved on to other things.

Growing up, I associated specific holidays with specific aunts and uncles.  There was no doubt that Passover was a Lehman holiday.  I am old enough and lucky enough to remember when Saul and Esther hosted Passover – but my memories are far clearer of the Passover’s that Jesse hosted.  Dana of course did the flowers and the food, but Jesse was Passover to us.  I remember the thrill of learning how to read and being able to participate in the Seder.  And we have watched the successive generations do the same.  We have also watched as generations don reading glasses and ultimately come full circle and the oldest among us can no longer read.

Jesse presided over some raucous Passover Seders, heckling included, and withstood the many debates about the Haggadah’s.  Most notably whether God was a man or a woman and why the Haggadah is not more gender neutral. Jesse’s Seders were always open to family and friends, Jews and non-Jews and in fact there were years when I would swear the non-Jews outnumbered the Jews.  But it didn’t matter to Jesse, he was glad to have everyone.  As a child, I felt that it was redundant to let in Elijah as we had an open door policy for everyone.  Jesse’s generosity extended to Passover when he allowed us to hunt for the Afikomen well into our 30’s and paid us whether we found it or not.  A tradition Jonny has happily continued.

Jesse enjoyed a good laugh and one story he found particularly humorous involved my mother and Elliott on the tennis court.  At my mother’s memorial service, Jesse told me the story and asked me to relay it to the audience.  My mother and Elliott were playing in a doubles game and were on the same side.  The opponents lobbed the ball and Elliott told Betty to watch the ball.  And she did.  She never hit the ball but she definitely watched it.  Jesse thought this was very funny.

Jesse was a remarkable man in that he was capable of change. Jesse never stopped learning or growing. He was constantly exposed to new ideas and cultures from his voracious reading and extensive travels. He was a liberal in the truest sense of the word, using his intellect to influence and shape change in whatever way he could.   In my lifetime I witnessed Jesse morph from exacting to tolerant, from judgmental to sympathetic, or to use an imperfect musical metaphor – from staccato to adagio.  In Jonny, Ellen and Peggy – Jesse has left a legacy of generosity, a deep love of music, culture and travel and most of all an unsurpassed devotion to family.

If there is a life after death, there are an awful lot of people up there who are happy to see Jesse. And there is one helluva bridge game going on right now.  Jesse, we miss you and love you.

Posted March 17, 2011 by Julie Rothhouse

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