Soon-to-be 98-year-old Hits the Books

Ida Rothenberg and about 50 of the books she’s read during the pandemic. Photo by Karen Seltzer

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 Wynnewood 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,” she said. “I read all day. I never gave it a second thought. It’s just what I did.”

Her reading prowess first garnered some 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 she reads — “whichever one is on top of the pile” — but is a fan of, among others, Mary Higgins Clark, John Jakes, David Baldacci, 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.

A native of Philadelphia, Rothenberg grew up in Northern Liberties, graduating from now-defunct William Penn High School. 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 visited the motor pool and ended up getting a job 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 at 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, and Sobelman died in 1993. Rothenberg 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 another book sent to her — Richard Plinke’s “COVID-19 House Arrest” — next on her list.

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

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