The Life of Jacob Rutstein of Tolochin, Belarus

By J.R. Rothstein
February, 2020

Table of Contents

  1. The Shtetl
  2. Yaakov Is Drafted Into Military Service
  3. Yaakov Decides to Leave His Homeland
  4. Yaakov Rutstein Forges A New Life In A New World, Marries & Raises A Family
  5. Jacob Makes A Living
  6. The Nominal Measurements Revolution & J.R.’s Career as a Real Estate Developer
  7. Jacob as Charity Worker & Lumber Magnate
  8. The Last Years

The Shtetl

Yaakov or “Yankel” or “Yankev” or “Jacob” or “J.R.” Rutstein was born on the 15th of April 1878 [1] to Dov Behr Rutstein and Riva Rothstein in Tolochin, in the guberniya of Mogilev, in what was then the region of White Russia of the Russian Empire and what is today known as Belarus. It is related that Yankel came from a materially and culturally poor family who eked out a living in the Tolochin countryside. [2]

The close proximity of the railway to the village of Tolochin made its mark on the economic life and occupation of people in the village, including the Rutstein family. The Tolochin markets and seasonal fairs were a defining feature of Yaakov’s childhood. At the age of six, Dov Behr, Yaakov’s father, took him to the farmers and commodities market and also to the seasonal fairs. Shprintsy (Sophia) Lvovna Rohkind (1903-2000) in her unpublished memoirs and Oleg Plaksitsky, in his “Our Talachynshchyna: The Grit of Time” (March 5, 2005) captures the scene which Yaakov would have experienced at the Tolochin market and its seasonal fairs at the dawn of the 20th Century. The following composite description provides that:

Tolochin’s fairs were held annually on May 9 - “Nikolaevskaya”, on July 20 - “Ilinskaya” and on September 8 - “Uspenskaya.” Peasants from the surrounding villages brought to market their products and services. Sellers and buyers came not only from the surrounding villages and towns, but also from Orsha and Mogilev.  They brought with them vegetables, hay, firewood, and wooden and linen products.  The peasants also brought pigs, piglets, and various birds for sale and sold them immediately, at the carts. They sold, in addition to agricultural goods, poultry, cows, sheep, goats, horses, cloth, cloth, dishes, harness, household goods, while many gypsies and visitors roamed around the horses.

At the fairs one could hear spoken Belarusian, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Gypsy, Lithuanian, Latvian, and German. Everybody understood each other perfectly.

For the peasants from the surrounding villages, the fairs were an opportunity to sell produce in the marketplace, and for artisans to sell their goods to the same peasants. Those who were richer, made wholesale purchases and then sold what they bought in other places, at other fairs and had their own cooks. People were waiting for the fair, as they would wait for a holiday, it was an opportunity to meet and talk.

At the fairs, the village girls came in elegant dresses, with ribbons in their hair. They walked about the bazaar and the streets with flowers in their hands. The guys played harmonies, drank from the monopoly and sellers of vodka and drinks. There were quite a lot of drunks. Sometimes there were fights, but never any serious carnage. Everything was under the undisturbed eye of the police in the person of a local officer and guard.  It was noisy and fun. There was a brisk trade. Everyone called customers to himself and touted his goods.  After a successful purchase or sale, people went to the tavern for a glass of wine or something stronger to consolidate a bargain.

At the markets, Yankel met diverse types of people who came to Tolochin to buy goods from other places. From early childhood, Yankel developed an expertise in furs, hides, bristles and hog hair. Yankel dealt with the Russian peasants buying various items such as horse hair (bristles), produce, furs and pelts. During Yankel’s school days he was engaged in many business activities and engaged in games such as waldsacher (an estimation of crops prior to harvest for trade). For example, Yankev could look at an apple farm or wheat, or anything grown and accurately forecast the amount of fruit or grain to be harvested.

Yankel anticipated with great excitement accompanying his father, Dov Behr, to market and the seasonal fairs. According to Milton Rothstein, Yankel was a child genius who even in early adolescence exceeded his father’s business prowess. By the time Yankel was twelve, he had developed such an acute business prowess that he would go to market, and the annual fairs, and return with more goods and money than his father, Dov Behr. It wasn’t unusual for Yaakov to go to the market and return with three times the amount of money than that of Dov Behr. According to Jay Rothstein, father and son competed with one another regarding who could make more money.

Yankel went to heder until the age of twelve but was otherwise self-educated. Yaakov employed his Jewish knowledge by serving as a hazan and shliach tzibur at the bima (altar) of the synagogue. Once Yankel was en route to synagogue for high holiday services and came across a blacksmith working. The work of the blacksmith so intrigued the young and curious Yaakov that he stood and watched the blacksmith in awe. As the hours passed, the high holiday services progressed, and Yankel did not attend synagogue. Dov Ber, upset that his son missed services, gave Yankel a lashing that left him with a permanent scar. Yankel vowed to himself that he would never hit his or any children—a vow he kept.

Like many of the Rutstein men, many of whom were chazzanim, Yaakov had an excellent voice and was musically inclined. As a child and young man, Yankel was known in town for his beautiful voice and he was asked to lead the prayers as a hazan in the synagogue. But at some point, in his youth, likely during his teenage years, Yankel damaged his vocal cords and voice by drinking vinegar (which had a similar intoxicating effect to alcohol). Yaakov continued to sing, but his voice was never the same.

Yaakov Is Drafted Into Military Service

Yaakov was drafted into the Russian army as a (young) teenager. [3] Milton Rothstein relates a story about Yankev which occurred to him as a young man after being drafted into the Russian army but prior to his departure. Milton writes:

My father’s grandmother was a psychic. She knew by a 6th sense or godly powers of what was going on 1,000 miles away. She knew when so and so had a child, or a loved one passed away. In this time period, 1850 – 1900 era, there were no TV, radio or newspapers in Russia. Jacob’s grandmother was worshipped by her family and especially my father, Jacob. Jacob tells a story of when he was leaving for the army, she told him thusly, “you are young to be in such a city and you will be on X street [which she described exactly] and two thugs will attempt to kill you. Now listen to my warning and remember this as it is going to save your life.” Sure enough when Jacob was in this town he was walking in a street and the place looked familiar [according to the description of his grandmother] he suddenly remembered his grandmother’s warning in time, for minutes later two muggers attempted to kill and rob J.R. but he was alert and strong and beat them off & escaped with his life.” [4]

According to Jay Rothstein, Yaakov learned to play the drums in the army and served as a barabanchick or “drummer boy.” He was praised by his comrades as being an excellent drummer.

After Yankel’s discharge from the army, Yaakov was hired by a German company to export seafood and lumber from Russia into Western Europe. By the age of eighteen years, he was appointed to serve as the General Manager of the company’s operations in the East. Yaakov may have spent several years during the 1890s in this position. Yaakov was very successful and managed to accumulate a small fortune which he deposited in London, United Kingdom, possibly in anticipation of future emigration. [5]

Yaakov Decides to Leave His Homeland

It appears that Yaakov began contemplating leaving Russia near the turn of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the century, a wave of pogroms swept the region including a minor pogrom in 1899 and/or 1900 within Tolochin which saw the destruction of Jewish life and property. Moreover, by 1902 tensions between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan began to increase over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. These conditions motivated Yaakov, and some of his relatives, to leave the land of their birth. According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, Yankel departed Tolochin together with Mendel Boyarin, his brother-in-law, and Mordechai Shmuel (Max) Paretzky and Yankov (Jacob) Poretzky, future brother-in- laws, in order to seek a better life in America.

Events, however, transpired that would prevent the group from arriving in the United States at the same time. During his journey to the United States, Yaakov was stricken with rheumatic fever. [6] The medical condition (which was likely never fully medically treated), seriously damaged Yaakov’s heart and he would suffer for the remainder of his life. [7] Yaakov is reported to have checked into a hospital in London where he reportedly stayed, bedridden, for months—although he may at times have also worked as a tailor and presser of clothing in a local sweatshop. Yaakov’s stay in London was, according to Milton Rothstein, reported to have been extended, but at a minimum of many months. Yaakov is reported to have arrived in London with $800 in cash, the equivalent of $20,000 in 2015 money. The medical expenses associated with his illness depleted his life savings. [8] The whole experience, lacking access to affordable healthcare, alone, in a strange land, with his life savings depleted, was severely traumatic and would be one that Yaakov would never forget and in many ways come to shape the course of his life. With his savings depleted, Yaakov attempted to complete his immigration to the United States. However, upon arrival in the United states, the sickly Yaakov was deported back to London and eventually Russia. [9]

Upon his return to Russia, Yaakov encountered a society in chaos. A series of anti-Jewish pogroms was sweeping the Russian Empire, including within the Tolochin region, leaving thousands of dead Jews and many more wounded. The New York Times described a pogrom, which were typical of the era, and which occurred during Easter of 1903:

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

At the same time, tensions resulted in open conflict between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan between February 1904 and September 1905, a conflict that became known as the Russo-Sino (Japanese) war. Yaakov was drafted into the Russian army where he served as an instructor for new recruits in the army. [10] While in the army, Yankel experienced anti-Semitism from his peers and superiors. In one instance, another soldier [in one version, a senior officer] insulted Yaakov because he was Jewish [by calling him, among other things, a “zhid,” a derogatory term for a Jew, akin to “Jew Bastard” in English]. Yaakov slapped the man across the face [in one version, punched or slugged the man in the face]. At the subsequent military tribunal and court-martial, Yaakov was pardoned by the court because he was provoked and acted in a fit of religious passion and therefore was not at fault. The result surprised many as such an act was normally unforgivable in the czar’s army.

At the conclusion of the Russian-Japanese War, Yaakov encountered a new wave of regional pogroms that swept the greater Minsk region, including Tolochin and Orsha where over 40 Jewish people were killed. With no obvious future for himself, Yaakov departed the Russian Empire, and in 1905 arrived on the shores of Manhattan Island with, according to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, “only a rope to hold up his pants.” [11]

Yaakov Rutstein Forges A New Life In A New World, Marries & Raises A Family

Whatever the precise year of Yaakov’s emigration, and whatever his precise economic status upon arrival, Yaakov, in his mid-twenties began a new life in America. According to Alan Redstone and Milton Rothstein, upon Yankel’s immigration, he settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. From approximately 1905 to 1909 [12], Yankel pressed clothes in a sweatshop for sixteen hours a day earning just three dollars a week.

The capital of Jewish America at the turn of the century was New York’s Lower East Side. This densely packed district of tenements, factories, and docklands had long been a starting point for recent immigrants, and hundreds of thousands of the new Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe settled there on arrival. When Yankel first set foot on the Lower East Side, he stepped into a Jewish world. The earliest Eastern European Jews to settle there had quickly established synagogues, mutual-aid societies, libraries, and stores. Every major institution, from the bank to the grocery store to the social club to the neighborhood bookmaker, was Jewish-owned or Jewish-run, and everyone a Jewish immigrant might speak to in the course of daily business would likely be Jewish. Even the owners of the garment factories and department stores where many immigrants worked were Jewish. For Yankel, this immersion in a familiar world, around people who shared a common language, faith, and background, was profoundly reassuring. For all the comfort that this shared heritage brought, however, the Lower East Side was still a very difficult place to live—and a crowded one. By the year 1900, the district was packed with more than 700 people per acre, making it the most crowded neighborhood on the planet. The reformer Jacob Riis described a visit to a typical tenement building occupied by Eastern European Jewish families:

I have found in three rooms father, mother, twelve children, and six boarders. They sleep on the half-made clothing for beds. I found that several people slept in a subcellar four feet by six, on a pile of clothing that was being made. [13]

This congestion brought with it many hazards, along with many annoyances. Nearly half of the city’s deaths by fire took place on the Lower East Side. Disease was rampant, clean water was hard to come by, and privacy was unheard of. For many immigrant children, their education in American life was acquired in the city streets, where lovers strolled amid streams of raw sewage, vendors offered almost anything for sale, con artists and petty thieves worked the crowds, and horse carriages burdened with goods clogged the muddy roadways. The Lower East Side could certainly be frightening, dangerous, noisy, and cramped. However, it was still a place of relative safety compared to the virulently anti-Semitic Russian Empire. And, however chaotic it might be, as some observers at the time noted, it was still the greatest concentration of Jewish life in nearly two thousand years.

Most of the new Jewish immigrants faced unique challenges in their search for work. Yankel would have been no exception. In the Russian Empire, Jews had been barred by law from a wide range of jobs, including farming, and so brought a more limited set of skills with them than some immigrants did. At the same time, Jews had to overcome the prejudices of U.S. employers, where “gentlemen’s agreements” and open bigotry prevented them from entering the professions and many heavy industrial jobs. As Yankel learned the landscape of the Lower East Side, he adopted the American name Jacob or Jake, perhaps in part to more easily fit in to his new homeland. Jacob eventually became known affectionally as “J.R.” or Jay R.

Jewish immigrants like J.R. often had to find employment outside of the more established trades, as well as create opportunities for themselves between the cracks of the American economy. More than one-half of all Eastern European Jewish immigrants worked in manual occupations, predominantly in the garment industry. The Jewish neighborhoods of New York were home to countless tiny, airless sweatshop factories, where women, teenagers, and children worked long hours cutting, sewing, and finishing clothing for pennies per piece. A reporter for The Century visited some of the garment workers of New York and described the conditions which Jacob would have encountered at the turn of the century:

[The Jewish sweatshop workers] toil from six in the morning until eleven at night. Fifty cents is not an unusual compensation for these murderous hours. Trousers at 84 cents per dozen, 8 cents for a round coat, and 10 cents for a frock coat, are labor prices that explain the sudden affluence of heartless merchant manufacturers, and the biting poverty of miserable artisans. [14]

The precise impetus for Jay R. to leave the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, to find other types of work, is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it was J.R.’s anticipated marriage to Basha “Bessie” Poretzky in September 1908, perhaps it was the obvious need to escape the horrid conditions of the Lower East Side. Whatever his motivations, it was Jacob’s sense of curiosity and intuition, the same childlike awe that he expressed watching the blacksmith, which provided him with his next opportunity. According to Milton Rothstein:

On Sundays [J.R.] would travel around the city by foot [because] he didn’t want to spend a nickel for [the] trolley. And he would watch the wreckers of old homes and industrial sites. [And from this he] learned the basics of [what would become over time] his new career. [J.R.] saved up a few dollars [and] became a boss wrecker.

After earlier failed marriage negotiations, Yaakov and Basha Poretzky opened marriage discussions. Basha Poretzky had been the daughter of a respected rabbi in Tolochin and her brothers had been friends to Jacob. It is reported that Jacob Rutstein and Basha knew one another while both lived in Tolochin. However, according to Milton Rothstien, they only became involved with one another in the United States. The couple married September 17, 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, however, while the marriage was not formalized in Tolochin, it was in Tolochin where discussions of their marriage first were conceptualized.

Evidence suggests that Jacob had relocated from the Lower East Side to Brownsville, Brooklyn as early as 1909, perhaps out of a desire to provide a softer and safer environment for his new wife. According to Milton Rothstein, Jacob had been in the United States for sometime [15] when Basha, who was nine or ten years [16] his junior, arrived. According, to Milton Rothstein, the “romance was short and they were married in Brownsville where my brother [and] two sisters were born.” According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, the marriage between Yaakov and Basha “was not a love marriage” and it “must have been arranged.” Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz was given the impression that, at the time of the marriage, there was a sense among the Paretzky family that Bessie could have done better than Jacob—his being both culturally and financially her inferior. Basha was the daughter of a Rabbi who was refined and elegant—and according to Helaine Blumenfeld (Bertha Becker’s daughter), stemmed from a long line of Talmudic scholars. According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, Jacob had been perceived in Europe as a “prust” person (e.g. like a villager) and had in the New World sought to make himself more refined. This “prust” persona was true in contrast to his wife Bessie who carried herself like she was a queen and was elegant and wore very nice clothing. According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, Jacob Rutstein’s vast ambitions were motivated, in part, to prove to his in-laws, and Bessie’s family, that he was a good match.

Bessie Poretzky and Jacob Rutstein. Brooklyn, New York. Circa 1907-1910.

Upon moving to Brownsville, Jacob and Bessie started a family. Their first child, Bertha Rutstein, was born on July 28, 1909 in Brooklyn, New York. Nathan (Nachum) Rothstein was born on April 13, 1911, in Brooklyn, New York. Dora (Dvora) Rothstein was born on September 10, 1913.

Jacob Makes A Living

Few facts exist about Jacob between 1911 and 1925. However, it was during this time period in which Jacob accumulated his fortune that would one day reach into the millions of dollars.

On March 25, 1912, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire occurred, Nearly half of the 146 workers killed were Jewish teenage girls, one of whom was Emma Rootstein (no known relation). This event would be a pivotal moment in the history of the labor movement and no doubt played a role in Jay R.’s psyche—perhaps confirming to Jacob that his career working in a sweatshop was over. On April 4, 1911, Nisson Rutstein and Israel Rutstein immigrated to the United States on a ship named the Kursk, both sponsored by Jacob Rutstein. The listed contact in their country of origin was Berka Rutstein, Jacob’s father. Their point of contact in New York was Jacob Rutstein then living at 744 Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

By 1912, historical records reference in the American Lumberman, a national trade magazine, the formation of the Brownsville Housewrecking Corporation. Its purpose, in addition to house demolition, was to deal in lumber. The authorized capital for the company was $1,200 which is approximately $30,000 in 2019 dollars. Jacob’s co-partners were listed as Max Poretzky, his brother in-law, and Aaron Entee. According to Milton Rothstein, Jacob’s “great business acumen made him successful from his first job.” Nevertheless, Jacob did much to develop his skillset. According to Milton Rothstein, Jacob learned the wrecking business from careful observation of work sites on the weekends. Jacob also took jobs outside of his comfort zone. He took one job in Spencer Frank Park in Saratoga Springs, New York and this made him a few thousand dollars.

This created opportunity and some luck. According to Milton Rothstein, in one demolition job, Jacob’s workers uncovered a small cache of money which at the time was a fortune of seven or eight hundred dollars. [17] He gave each worker a small reward for their honesty in not keeping the money. Jacob invested the money back into his businesses.

According to Alan Redstone, in addition to becoming a wrecker of buildings, Jacob also opened up a second-hand lumber business with the old lumber he salvaged from the demolition sites. According to Milton Rothstein, Jacob “watched every detail [of the business].” “J.R’s interest to make money was well founded. Number one, to save pennies meant eventually to save dollars. When he had the second hand lumber yard, he instructed the men to save the rusty nails which when accumulated brought in a few dollars.” Jacob “prospered and soon he started selling new lumber” in a new company.

As Jacob’s wealth accumulated, Jacob become slowly involved in buying and selling real estate and then in property development. According to Milton Rothstein, “he was a cracker-jack builder just from observing the apartment house operations by our customers.” During this time period, he also brought property on Rockaway Avenue between Jerome and Riverdale, a big house at Twenty-Seven Tapscott Street near the Eastern Parkway section of Brownsville, and other properties. At the same time, Jacob began acquiring real estate throughout Brooklyn.

This period shows two photographs of Jacob with his brother in-laws, likely taken during a visit to America by his father-in-law, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Poretzky(n).

From Left to Right: Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Poretzky(n), Max Poretzk), Jacob Poret, Jacob Rutstein, Nathan Poretzky. Brooklyn, New York. Circa 1912.

From top Left to Right standing: Anna and Max Poretsky, Nathan Poretzky, Anna Poret, Bessie Poretzky Rutstein. Middle row from left to right, sitting: Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Poretzky(n), Jacob Poret with infant son Frank Poret, Jacob Rutstein. Row of children from left to right: unknown, unknown, Sidney Poretzky?, unknown (likely Dora Rutstein), unknown (likely Bertha Rutstein). Brooklyn, New York, circa 1913.

In April 1914, Jacob became a founding member of Adas Israel of Brownsville, a local charitable and Zionist organization. The 1915 New York City census lists Jacob living with his mother, wife, and children. His occupation is listed as a plumber. In 1916, Jacob learned that the New York Telephone company wanted land which he owned. When the phone company approached Jacob to purchase the land, he refused to sell it to them. The company approached him several more times, each time increasing their offer until they offered several times what the land was worth. Jacob’s second son, Morris Milton Rothstein, was born on July 28, 1916 in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.

In or around 1917, Jacob was stricken with tuberculosis and he was forced to retire to a sanitarium in upstate New York where he spent a period of ten months recuperating. The three Yiddish letters, annexed to this document below, between Bessie and Jacob date from this period.

Letter From Bessie To Jacob – August 23, 1917
Respected and beloved, the wonderfully dear Yaakov Rothstein, live well, and be lucky. I and the children find ourselves, thank God, healthy. It was good to hear from you, Yaakov. I can’t understand your position because you do not write here, it is better every word. When I would know that you were fully healthy, it would not bother me. I know that a shklapin has no worth and the same goes for the children [and myself]. Yaakov, write to me all that is happening with you and how you are feeling in your health. Here, there is no news. הארשענצענדער ענד ליבען דער טאייערער געוואהל. יעקב ראטשטיין לעב וואוהל גליקלעך איך דיא קינדער גיפונען זיך לייב גאט גיזונדט גיבייען פון דיר גוטעס צוהערין יעקב איך קען נישט פארשטיין דיין פאליטיג ווארום דו שרייבסט נישט דא. בעסער איז אלעס ווארט... ווען איך ווייס אז דו גיפינסט זיך פאלקאמען גיזונד וואלט מיר ניט גיארט איך ווייס אז א שיי קאלאפין האט ניט קיין ווערדע ענד דיא קינדער אויך דיא זעלבע. יעקב שרייב מיר פון אלעס וואס טוט זיך מיט דיר ענד וויא פילסטע אין גיזונד. דא איז קיינע נייס.
I do not go to the Yad and do not want to know of him. The first letter with the check I brought to the Yad. אין יאד גיי איך ניט ענד וויל ניט וויסין פון אים. דעם ערשטין לעטער מיט דעם צעק האב איך גיבראכט אין יאד
And Entin gave me a check of 35 dollars and no more. I am thinking to pay to paint the house, and the house is not good in the winter. האט מיר ענטין גיגעבין א צעק 35 דאלער ענד מער ניט איך דיינק אזוי צאל דיא הויז פייטון ענד דיא הויז אין ווינטער איז ניט גוט.
The children send their friendly regards. They want to see their Papa. Moshe Michel looks out the window and cries out for his Papa. דיא קינדער לאזון דיר גריסין פריינדלאך זיי ווילין זעהען דעם פאפין מיישע מיריל וועמען ער דערזעט אין ווינדע שרייט ער פאפא.
Please write from everything. I have written to you in a letter that I do not feel good, and it still remains the same. To a doctor, I do not go, and that is how it remains. What do I have to lose? ביטע צו שרייבען פון אלעס איך האב דיר געשרייבען אין א לעטער דאס איך פיל ניט גוט יעצט דיא זעלבע צו קיין דאקטער גיי איך ניט ענד אזוי בלייבט דאס וואס האב איך צו פערלירין...
Stay well and spend your time free and with good luck. פערבלייב גיזונד ענד פערבריינג פריי ענד גליקליך
Basha Basha
Letter From Bessie To Jacob – August 27, 1917
Monday, Aug. 27 מאנטאג , August 27th
My dear and beloved Yaakov Rothstein, live and be well. הארגעשעצטער ענד פיל געליבטער געוואהל, יעקב ראטשטיין לעב וואהל.
I, the children find ourselves, thank God healthy. It was nice to hear from you. Yaakov, you ask me permission to travel in the mountains? Yes, you can travel, I am not your knower. And you don’t need to ask where you can to travel. Spend well the time and be healthy that you should be able to find your living and then go after it. About your thoughts, don’t worry! Everything will alone fall into place. איך די קינדער געפינען זיך לייב גאט גיזונד גיבען פון דיר גוטעס צוהערן. יעקב פרעקס צו פארין אין דיא מאנטעס יע דו קענסט פארון איך בין ניט דיין דאייע. ענד דו דארפסט ניט פרעגין דאס וואס דו מוסט פארענד פארבריינג גוט דיא צייט ענד ווער געזונד אז דו זאלסט נאך קענען גיפונען דיין לעבענס באגלייטערין נאך דאיינע געדאיינקען זורג ניט אלעס וועט אליין קומען
There is no news here. Boruchin is already out free from the army. Nissin and his beloved wife arrived. Your whole family is well. Your beloved Misha, in laws, and families still did not arrive. עס איס קיינע נייס. שיים באראכין איז ארויס פריי פון מיליטער. ניסין זיין געליבטער פרוי איז גיקומען. דיין גאנצע מישפאכא איז גיזונד דאיינע ליבע מישע שוועגערינס ענד פאמיליעס זיינען נאך ניט גיקומען
Stay well and travel to the mountains. If you lack money then write to us and we will send. I have no money collected from Entin so no money should be lacking from the bank. Only today, I will have to go after some funds because we need to paint the house. פארבלייב גיזונד ענד פאר אין דיא מאנטיס אויב דיר פעלט געלט שרייב וועט מען דיר שיקין איך האב בא ענטענן קיין געלט ניט גינומען האט גידארפט קיין געלט אין דיא בענק ניט פעלין נאר האיינט וועל איך צוגיין נאך געלט ווייל מדארף. דיא הויז פייטין. שרייב דיא אדרעס ווען דו וועסט קומען אין קאנטרע דו זאלט ניט וואגין קומען יעצט האיים וואס גוט
Write the address when you will arrive in the country. You should not weigh returning home, what worth [will there be] for you [if] have nothing to lose [from] your golden dealings which your hand creates. Now you can recall Bashes words. Goodbye and answer right away. Your kids send their friendly regards - Braina, Nachum, Dora, Moshe Michkel -- he [now] walks on his own! May it be in an auspicious time! דו האסט שיים ניט וואס צו פארלירין דאיינע גאלדענע געשעפטין וואס דיין ענטין מאכט. יעצט קאנסטע דערמאנען באשעס רייד. אדיא ענד ענטפער גלייך דאיינע קינדער גיריסין דיר פריינדלאך בריינע נאכום דארע מיישע מירעלע ער גייט שיים אליין אין גוטע שאה
Basha Basha
P.S. I will no longer send letters if it is not special. איך וועל דיר מער קיין לעטערס ניט שרייבען אהער אייך נא איז שפעסיל
Letter From Bessie To Jacob – August 27, 1917
August 27 August 27th
Dear Yaakov, Live well and with good luck. I, and the children, find ourselves, thank God, healthy. It was good to hear from you. Yaakov, your letter I just now received and I answer it immediately. If you are interested in my thoughts! טרייער יעקב לעב וואהל גליקלעך איך דיא קינדער גיפונען זיך לייב גאט גיזונד גיבען פון דיר גוטעס צו הערין יעקב דיין לעטער יעצט ערהאלטין ענד איר ענטפער דיר גלייך אויב דיר איז אינטערעסינע אין מיין ראט!
Travel to the mountains for the time that you need, the 2-3 weeks. That you lost money in [making] money, I don’t care. This that you have lost your health, and took mine away, this is possibly worthwhile. And this you will not easily be able to repay. I would give my advice that we remain no more from afar. This would be better for us and better for God… פאר אין דיא מאנטעס אויף דער צייט וואס דו דארפסט 2-3 וואכין דאס וואס דו האסט פערלארין אין געלט קער איך ניט דאס וואס דו האסט דיין גיזונד פערלארין ענד מיינער צו גענומען דאס איז אפשר ווערט ענד
Now you are making me search for servants when there is none (funds) and for what to waste. Your good times were lacking from all enjoyments now when you are sick and afar and yet you still do not to write! צוריק דאס וועסטו פילאייכט ניט אומקערן שיים איך וואלט דיר א ראטין אז מיר זאלן אוממער זיין פון דער ווייטען וואל גיווען בעסער פאר אונז ענד בעסער פאר גאט... יעצט הייסטע מיר זוכען דינסטין ווען עס איז ניטא ענד פאר וואס צונעמען דאיינע גוטע צייטין איז
I have much to say but it is excessive. Travel and spend the time well, and get well. Leave your blinded thoughts on the high mountains… I can write to you that Moshe Michel walks already, alone, thank G-d. In good time he should be healthy and strong. Everyone sends regards Braina, Nachum, Dora. Be well and travel healthy and return healthy this is now your entire purpose. To get well and return your good character. גיווען פארמאכט פון אלע פארגענוגענס יעצט ווען דו ביסט קראנק ענד פון דערווייטין מיינסטע אויך ניט וואס צו שרייבין וועל ריידון א פולע איז איבעריג פאר און פערבריינג גוט דיא צייט ענד ווער גיזונד לאז איבער דאיינע בליענדע גידיינקען אויף דיא הויכע בערג... איך קען דיר שרייבען אז מיישע מירעלע גייט שיים אליין גיב גאט אין גוטע צייט ער זאל זיין גיזונד ענד שייטארק. אלע גיריסין דיר בריינע נאכום דארע. זאיי גיזונד ענד פאר גיזונד ענד קום גיזונד דאס איז יעצט דיין גאנצער אידיאל. צו ווערין גיזונד ענד דערזען דיין גוטין כאראקטאר איך האב אויף גירופין
I’ve called Baruch’n. He was released free from the military. There is no other news. I will paint the house. שעם באראכין ער איז ארויס פריי פון מיליטער קיינע באזונדערע נייס דיא הויז וועל איך פענטין
Dick Paretskin wants to send his painter. I will see today to go into Yad maybe the painters will do what is right for what you deserve. I have seen for you one check and no more. I would go to the Yad only I like your partner and your beloved brother, the boss. דייק פארעצקין וויל מיר שיקין זיין פענטער איך וויל זעהען האיינט צו גיין אין יאד עפשער וועלין דיא פענטערס מאכין אויף רייט דיא וואס קומען דיר. איך האב דיר גיזעהען איין צעק. ענד מער ניט איך וואלט צוגיין אין יאד נאר איך האב ליב דיין פארטנער ענד דיין ליבון ברודער דעם באס.
Forgive me for writing too much but we must write sooner than later. I must clarify myself well before you travel home to a wife that you do not like, and you have her the day that you were tied with her. ענד שולדיג פאר מיין צופיל שרייבען באט מ'מוז שרייבען פריער איידער שפעטער. באדיינג זיך גוט איידער דו פארסט אהיים צו א פרוי וואס דו גלייכסט ניט ענד דו האסט איר דעם טאג וואס דו האסט זיך
I have found it now important to write before you blacken my face when you arrive and begin to draw my blood. I will then not be able to let for my head is very weak and will not be able to calm down. So it is better to worry earlier. מיט איר פערבונדען. איך האב דאס יעצט גיפונען פארנייטיג צו שרייבען איידער דו שייווארצין מיין פאנים ווען דו קומט ענד פאיינגס אן צו צאפין מיין בלוט איך וועל שיים מער ניט קענען לאזון וויא וואהל מיין קאפ איז זייער שייוואך איך קען זיך ניט פארויגין איז גלייכער פריער צו פארזארגין

Crown Heights

Jay R. cumulative successes led him to eventually become a multi-millionaire. The Rutsteins moved in Brooklyn from Brownsville to the wealthy Crown Heights. The Rutsteins lived in a mansion on 1388 President Street which was known as “millionaires’ row.” According to Milton Rothstein:

Ninety percent of the people from Kingston to New York Ave. [in Crown Heights] were enormously rich and were the elite of the era. There was such as Samuel Barnet, President of the Municipal Bank, David Issa, a premier apartments house builder, Samuel Rotenberg originator of Wool Co. and President of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. There was also Nathan D. Shapiro, lawyer and republican candidate for governor who was narrowly beaten by F.D. Roosevelt; Henry Gold, millionaire builder, as was B.J. Kline – also the owner of J. Kurtz furniture store owner. Next store was the Horowitz family who owned many properties including Long Beach’s foremost hotel and the Treibity family, the owner of Treibity shoes and father of Dorothy Tree, number one communist actress in Hollywood. Nearby was also Irwin Steingart, democrat leader son, leader of the House of New York State, Stanley Steingart, and many others since forgotten.

Milton Rothstein was the first child to come of age in Jacob and Bessie’s new home. According to Marty Poretskin, the Rutsteins, due to Jacob’s success in the lumber business, had a chauffeur, and a maid. Helaine Blumenfeld, however, presents a different view, that the Rutsteins were wealthy yet humble and simple. [18] Phyllis Birnbaum recalls, “I remember going [to visit Jacob Rutstein and his family] as a little girl and they all spoke in Yiddish [in their home] and I couldn’t understand a word they said.”

Milton Rothstein. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. Circa 1919.

The Nominal Measurements Revolution & J.R.’s Career as a Real Estate Developer

The growth in the economy at the dawn of the roaring 1920s and the increased demand for lumber led Rutstein to acquire the raw source of timber. During the early 1920s, Rutstein began to acquire lumber fields throughout the United States and as far away as Oregon. By owning the source of lumber, Jay R. was able to sell cheap lumber at reduced rates and undercut his competition throughout New York City. This success evolved into the formation, in 1922, of the Brownsville Lumber Company. Jacob took his experience in the lumber industry, developed in Tolochin—which was known for its lumber industry—and used that while operating his latest businesses. [19] As Principal of Brownsville Lumber, Rutstein began to supply lumber to New York’s leading real estate families and began to experiment with doing his own real-estate building and development. It was during these years, that Rutstein was able to undertake building campaigns throughout Brooklyn and especially in Brownsville, Brooklyn and Crown Heights, small at first but increasingly larger over time. The New York Times would eventually describe Rutstein as “a pioneer builder in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn.”

Milton Rothstein described Jacob’s business ethic that led to this success. Milton observed, Jacob “was the toughest businessman, never giving an inch. He would try to buy at zero and sell for a million… Whatever he did he was fabulously energetic despite the aftereffects of a rheumatic heart.” “If he owned something it was worth a “million.” If he wanted to buy something it was worth zero. He tried to get the last penny in selling and tried to buy as cheaply as possible.” “He was heartless in his dealing with customers at times. He loaned vast numbers of small loans to building [owners] [and] in this way he always got the lumber sale.”

Nominal Measurements

Since 1918, J.R. had been experimenting with cutting lumber logs along new nominal lumber measurements. Rutstein innovated an 11/4 wood plank (2 ¾”) whereby the price of lumber was reduced 1/12 or about eight percent. At the time, most panels were a ‘2 by 4,’ a beam of 2” x 4” that J.R. reduced to 2” x 3 ¾.” [20] Rutstein, who was influential over large lumber fields and mills, was over a period of a decade able to convince others in the industry to instead cut the beams 2 ¾’ or 11/4 inches thick saving the ¼” thereby increasing efficiency by eight percent. According to Milton Rothstein:

[Jacob] innovated an 11/4 plank whereby the price of lumber was reduced 1/12 or about 8%.... Most floor beams were three tenth by 8/4th dressed four sides after going through a planer and the 8” or 10” wood 7 5/8 or 9 5/8” in width. J.R. got the mills to cut it 2 ¾’ or 11/4 inches thick saving the ¼”. This led to a savings by increasing the yield of each cut on the log by an approximate 8%. It was hard to institute something new in an industry [with practices established and accepted over a period] of hundreds of years. Jacob persisted and finally this [innovation] was [adopted] [] on the West Coast and was called “Jew-Plank.” … But J.R.’s innovation of “Jew-Plank” is still [] [used today] and [has been] a major [method used in the lumber industry] from 1918 on[wards.]

By 1930, Jacob was able to convince mills on the West Coast to adopt the standard and it was called colloquially “Jew Plank.” According to Jim Denison, in his history of the lumber industry, Jacob “wanted this low-grade lumber to use for shoring, for five stories of basement, for parking lots, and a lot of those skyscrapers. So [people in the industry] called this Jew Plank that they cut, and it was a three-inch thickness, a rough cut, and put on ships. There was Calmar Lines that came into Newport from the Suez Canal route, getting out to the West Coast. They brought steel out from the East Coast and delivered steel, and took lumber back to the East Coast again.” This innovation would change the lumber industry and permanently adjust the structure of the lumber industry to J.R.’s nominal measurements into modern times. It also made Jacob millions.

Jacob as Charity Worker & Lumber Magnate

According to Helaine Blumenfeld, as soon as Jacob made any money, he began to give it away – first at home and then later in philanthropy. Jacob’s lumber business and real estate holdings not only supported just his wife and children. Jacob also employed his brothers, nephews, nieces, their spouses, cousins and other individuals from Tolochin. Bessie Boyarin worked for Jacob Rutstein as a bookkeeper. Phyllis Birnbaum recalls that Jacob Rutstein’s lumberyard owned many horses. The horses were used to deliver the lumber to building sites in the early days of the company. One day, when the horse driver didn’t show up for work, Bessie Boyarin mounted the horses herself, directed the loading of the wagon, and drove the horses out of the lumber yard and delivered the lumber herself. It was while working for Jacob that Bessie met Mayer Markowitz, her future husband. Jacob gave a vast amount of small monetary gifts, grants, and interest free loans to his relatives, all of which helped jump start the success of his larger ‘tribe’ in America.

By the 1920s, history records the first major references to Jacob Rutstein as a philanthropist. Recalling the trauma surrounding his health and immigration to the United States, Jacob did what he could to ensure that other people would be able to receive affordable healthcare. On Sunday, July 19, 1925, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that for “the first time in Brownsville community work, $60,000 has been raised by 20 men especially for Brownsville and East New York Hospital to be used for the Nurses Home and Training School.” The article reports that the Chairman of the Building Committee, Jacob Rutstein, donated $5,000 [this is the equivalent of $75,000 in 2020 dollars]. Over the next few decades, according to Milton Rothstein, Jacob would every Sunday devote “his day to the hospital for years going to meetings there.” During the work week, when he finished his work during, “he was there directing the contractor on the technical ends of the building operations.

On July 13, 1927, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the opening of a nurses training school. The article states, “Jacob Rutstein, chairman of the building committee, announced a $90,000 deficit was borne by the directors.” The article continues that a “gold key to the building was auctioned to Jacob Rutstein for $7,000.”

On December 10, 1928, Rita “Ricky” Rutstein, Jacob and Bessie’s last child, was born in Brooklyn, New York. On June 26, 1932, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had an article on “Brides of Interest.” Among those discussed was Mrs. Abraham Becker. The article states that before her marriage, Mrs. Becker was Mrs. Bertha Rutstein, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Rutstein of 1388 President’s Ave. They are on a trip to Albany.” The wedding was extravagant.

Prior to the depression, Jacob was reported to have been among the wealthiest Jews in Brooklyn. Even after the advent of the Great Depression, he remained a multi-millionaire and continued his charitable work uninterrupted.

While increasing his philanthropic activities, in 1930, Jacob formed the Prudential Lumber Corporation. Despite the collapse of the global economy, demand for cheaper lumber increased not only in New York but nationally. Prudential Lumber Company was one of the most successful lumber companies in New York during the 1930s and 1940s. The company did business with Fred Trump, the father of President Donald Trump, and his family, as well as with the LeFrak family, also a major holder of New York State real estate. Jacob’s daughter, Bertha, and her family would one day come to live on the same block as Fred Trump and his son, future President, Donald Trump. The families’ children played together.

On February 23, 1933, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced that Jacob Rutstein was named to a committee at Beth El Hospital, formally known as Brownsville and East New York Hospital. On November 12, 1933, an article appears which contains a picture of Jacob Rutstein. The caption provides, “Jacob Rutstein, prominent charitable worker and treasurer of the Beth-El Hospital, is active in obtaining subscription reservations for the hospital’s 10th annual dinner to be held at the Waldorf Astoria on Sunday evening, December 3. This annual dinner attracts an attendance of 1,200 and the proceeds go to the annual deficit.”

A similar article and picture appear on December 13, 1934. On December 15, 1934, another article appears describing the opening of the Beth-El Hospital bazar and states that Jacob Rutstein was chairman of the bazaar committee and had helped procure $50,000 worth of merchandise which will go towards the deficit of the hospital. A similar article regarding Beth El appears on November 1, 1937. Another article about an upcoming Beth El hospital dinner appears on May 5, 1940 representing every profession. The article cites Jacob Rutstein and states that Samuel Strausberg, acting president of the hospital, at a meeting of the dinner committee held last night, praised Mr. Rutstein for his untiring efforts in helping to make the dinner a huge success.” Mr. Strausberg added that from “early morning until late at night, Mr. Rutstein and his committee are giving up their own businesses in an effort to obtain subscriptions for the dinner.” [21]

During the Second World War, President Roosevelt asked Jacob Rutstein to sit on the War Standards Board for the commodification of lumber.

The last years of Jacob’s life were spent nearly entirely on philanthropy. Bessie was, according to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, a driving force behind Jacob’s charitable giving. Jacob and Bessie separated themselves socially at times as they had something else to do – like charity functions and gala dinners. Helaine Blumenfeld relates that Jacob respected her charity work and often consulted her on matters of public service.

Milton Rothstein further describes some of Jacob’s charitable work:

[Jacob] named [and founded] Pride of Judea, Brooklyn Jewish Center [22], Temple Petah Tikveh, The United Lubavitcher, where he devoted an enormous amount of work. Where there was a need for an executive, he was there. But much more he schnored people in the streets for contributions (when he was in Miami he solicited strangers and when he passed away had 45 checks in his pocket book) for Beth-El [later Brookdale Hospital] and Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. In his later years, I would drive him to meeting after meeting every night except Friday and Saturday.

In or around 1940, Jacob was instrumental in bringing Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, to the United States. Schneersohn, who was fleeing Nazi persecution, needed refuge in the United States. Jacob worked with other leaders of the Jewish community to help bring Rabbi Schneersohn to the United States. Once in the United States, Jacob is reported to have provided the initial infrastructure to Rabbi Schneersohn to launch Lubavitch in America. In addition to being a founder of the United Lubavitch Yeshivas, Jacob Rutstein helped Lubavitch locate and purchase the building which would become its headquarters in 770 Eastern Parkway. Jacob’s son, Nathan Rothstein, an attorney, represented Lubavitch and did the closing of legal documents on the building. A picture of Jacob Rutstein hung in the Lubavitcher headquarters until the first half of the 1950’s. According to Milton Rothstein, “when I was married I had 200 or more Rabbis, including the son-in-law Rabbi Gourary of the Lubavitcher Rabbi Schneersohn” at my wedding.

Jacob Rutstein. Brooklyn, New York, circa 1930s.

On July 24, 1941, an article appeared announcing that “Miss Helene Jacobs is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harry M. Jacobs … and the fiancé of Nathan Rothstein of 1388 President’s Avenue.” According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, Bessie had facilitated the introduction between her son and Ms. Jacobs. Bessie and the mother of Helene made the match after the two had met at a charity function. According to Marjorie Rothstein and Helaine Blumenfeld, Nathan was a great Talmudic scholar and was going to be a Rabbi. He was the pride and joy of Jacob who was very happy when his children studied Talmud and engaged with the Jewish tradition. Nathan, however, changed his mind about being a Rabbi after going to Cornell University and Cornell Law School and became secular.

Jacob and his son Milton conflicted with one another over their different worldviews. Milton was very liberal, a ‘fellow traveler’ with socialist instincts. This contrasted with Jacob who was very conservative, a capitalist, and a Republican. According to Jay Rothstein, the roots of these differences began in childhood. Jacob was always working and was away for extended periods which Milton resented and thus acted out as a child.

Jacob believed that Jews should follow tradition and that all Jews should have a formal Jewish education which is why he supported Jewish schools. Towards that end, Jacob was a founder of the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in the United States where is son Nathan would eventually attend. An article on March 16, 1942 states that “$2,000 was raised in outside gifts by Jacob Rutstein who recently returned from Florida.” On December 11, 1944, an article appears in which it states that, “Yesivah Rabbi Chaim Berlin, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish institutions of learning in the country, is dedicating its new seven-story building at Stone and Pitkin Aves. at ceremonies which will take place throughout the week. The opening ceremonies were attended by more than 3000 persons. Jacob Rutstein, chairman of the dedication committee, announced that $25,000 had been donated by those present towards the new $1,000,000 building.”

Another article appears about Jacob and his work on December 29, 1944 stating the following:

“Our congratulations to Jacob Rutstein for his constant activity on organizing activities for the advancement of orthodox Jewish secular and religious education. Outstanding in his philanthropic activities is his recent purchase of the seven-story $1,000,000 building at 350 Stone Ave. for the Mesivtah and Yeshivah Rabbi Chaim Berlin in the hearts of Brownsville. Already the institution has been recognized by the State Board of Regents through the granting of a charter and 800 students are now enrolled. Of this number 150 are studying for the rabbinate. Also 200 of its students have come from all parts of this country and 62 are refugees driven from their homelands by Hitler. This has been a truly humanitarian endeavor on the part of Mr. Rutstein.”

On September 30, 1945, another article appeared with a photograph of Jacob Rutstein and a rabbi and local politician. The caption reads that “Jacob Rutstein, standing, will be honored at a dinner of the Brooklyn Talmudical School and Yeshivah Rabbi Mayer Berlin in the Hotel St. George on November 25 for his help to the institution.”

On November 26, 1945, an article appeared announcing a $350,000 expansion drive of the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva which commenced after the honoring of Jacob Rutstein “who helped purchase the school’s $1,000,000 building.” The drive was motivated, says the article, in part by the destruction of the leading schools of Jewish studies in Europe and the obligation of American Jewry to perpetuate the Yeshiva as the fortress of traditional Jewish religious education based on the Torah.

The Last Years

During his last years of life, Jacob spent time in Spring Valley, New York. He owned a large home on Passaic Road which was then situated in the country side. His children and grandchildren would come to visit him and Bessie at the home in the summers. There he would sing old Jewish songs and sit in the shade as young cousins would play with one another. Helaine Blumenfeld recalls that Jacob would quiz her on subjects and that then reward her for the correct answers—something that triggered her inquisitive spirit. Jacob would also sing her Hebrew songs. Milton often recalled Jacob saying, “good swimmers drown, poor swimmers seldom ever” and that, “an ounce of honey can influence an enemy more than nine six-shooters.”

Jacob Rutstein died on February 27, 1946 in Miami, Florida. The next day the following obituary appeared in the New York Times:


Miami Fla., Feb 27—Jacob Rutstein, 67, a pioneer builder in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn and an outstanding philanthropist worker died of a heart attack here early today. With him when he died was his wife, Mrs. Bessie Rutstein.

Mr. Rutstein, who lives at 1388 President St. Brooklyn was in Miami in the interest of the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, for which a $1,000,000 seven story building on 350 Stone Ave. in that borough was recently purchased by him as chairman of the institution’s building committee. While here he had interest a number of persons in giving substantial gifts to carry on its work.

He was one of the founders of Beth-El Hospital, Brooklyn and a former treasurer of that institution. In his home borough, too, he was one of the founders of Temple Petah-Tikvah and the Crown Heights Yeshiva. He also was a member of the board of governors of the Brooklyn Jewish Center and took a vital interest in the activities of the Brooklyn Hebrew Home, the Home for the Aged, the Pride of Judea Home and the Home for Incurables.

For many years Mr. Rutstein was President of the Prudential Lumber Company, Brooklyn and many years ago took a leading part in the erection of apartments and other dwellings in Brownsville. Recently he devoted particularly his entire time to philanthropic activities.

Surviving besides his wife are three daughters, Mrs. Bertha R. Becker, Mrs. Dora R. Bloom, and Rita Rutstein; a son Nathan and five grandchildren.

Funeral service will be held Friday at the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, with a number of leading Brooklyn rabbis participating.

A similar obituary was published in other newspapers, including the Brooklyn Eagle. Jacob’s name continued to appear in the newspaper through 1950, the last being the announcement of the marriage of his daughter Rita on April 9, 1950. Jacob was also written about in an encyclopedia of entrepreneurs as follows:

Rutstein, Jacob, lumber merchant, philanthropist, Pres., founder, Prudential Lumber Corp., Brooklyn, N.Y. One of founders of Beth-El Hosp., Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Brown Heights Yeshiva, United Lubavitcher Yeshiva, Dir.: Brooklyn Home of the Aged, Home for Incurables, Pride of Judea Orphans Home, Crown Heights Yeshiva, Jewish Theological Seminary, Brooklyn Jewish Center, Stone Ave. Talmud Torah Mem. Temple Petach Tikvah for more than 30 yrs. Contributor to most of the Yeshivas in U.S., Palestine and other countries. Veteran Zionist and long-time member of Mizrachi and other religious, philanthropic and national organizations. Mem. Miami Beach Jewish Center. Hobby, collecting funds for charitable institutions.

b. Tolochin, Russia, Apr. 1878, s. of Dov Ber and Rebecca: arr. in us., 1902; m. Bessie Poretzky; ch. Bertha (Mrs. Abraham Becker); Nathan, Dorah (Wife of Dr. Joseph Bloom); Milton, Rita; res. 1388 President St., Brooklyn, N.Y.; off. 769 Rockaway Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.

Advertisements for his funeral were found in numerous newspapers such as these below:

At his funeral, the police closed off the streets. All kinds of people, from all kind of backgrounds–black, white, Jew, Christian, came out to pay their respects.

A letter written by a famous Rabbi, Nosson Telushkin, father of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, memorializes Jacob as follows:

March 13, 1947

To the Wife and Children of the late beloved Mr. Jacob Rutstein:

I, who have had ample opportunity to witness the devoted efforts of your great husband and father for our Torah, for Judaism and for the welfare of our people, sick or well, wished to commemorate his wonderful work. I, therefore, wrote a few words in Hebrew with his initials forming the first letters of the lines, wherein I described his wonderful work for our people and Torah.

I wrote of his being one of the chief founders of Beth-El Hospital where tens of thousands of sick Jews have found their cure, of his great work for the cause of Torah in acquiring and building the Mesifta of Rabbi Chaim Berlin, to which cause he devoted his very heart and soul, and also of the whole-hearted cooperation he gave to the famous Rabbi of Lubawitz in erecting his great Torah institutions, United Lubovitcher Yeshivoth.

I also mentioned his devotion as husband and father, as friend, and his immense love for mankind. I spoke of the great love people had for him and of the esteem in which he was held.

I intended to write this or part thereof on his monument, but since this was not possible, I gave it to a scribe who wrote it on parchment. I then had it framed.

May his memory be blessed.

Sincerely yours, [signed] Nosson Telushkin

Image of Original Document

According to Milton Rothstein, Jacob was a staunch republican and was anti-liberal. Jacob held out against the unions to the very end, fighting change, and reflection his ragged individualism. He would rather pay more to the men then have them gain the unions. According to Milton Rothstein:

[Jacob] never lavished or treated himself as a millionaire in later years. He shined his shoes nightly and bragged he could wear them ten years. In reverse, his suits seemed to last forever. He sported a walking cane and spat on his shoes. He meticulously hung his clothing on a hanger prior to going to bed. He would be clean shaved every day and with his blondish mustache looked the appearance of a well-dressed upper-class gentleman.

Reflecting upon Jacob’s life, Phyllis Birnbaum, a great niece of Jacob, remarked, “Jacob Rutstein was the American dream. That’s how we came to America, because he was here. We always talked about him as the rich relative and he made it big in the Rutstein lumber yard.” [23] In his family history, Milton’s conclusion ring’s true today, “I gave you insights to a man of distinction, a maven in the business world, a hero of the meek and oppressed, a defender of his faith, a Torah lover, and a genius for making money… There are few of us left who remember and recall his greatness. Perhaps you, with your gift of writing, will someday see fit to write of his blessed memory. Something will remain of one great person who has gone to the happy hunting ground of his ancient ancestors.”

1. Different dates of birth are found in different records. Alternative dates are 1876 and 1877.

2. This is related by Ruth Paretzky Hershkowitz. Her view must be stated that it was in comparison to the Paretzky family into which Yaakov would eventually marry. It should be further noted that Jacob’s grandfather, Nachum, had been a wealthy man.

3. Elsewhere Milton writes:

[Yankel’s] grandmother was a psychic [] [whereby she would predict] many events happening long distances away such as births and deaths reported on the day it happened. Weeks later official confirmation by letter followed. [Yankel] recalls that before he went into the army she warned him about a street in a city where he was going to be, and that he would be attacked by two goslonim [thugs]. She described every detail of the attack and the surroundings. He said this occurred [exactly how she said] and because of his grandmother’s warning he was able to protect himself [and] save his life.

Jay Rothstein, Milton’s son, tells nearly an identical story about Yankel but identifies not Yankel’s grandmother as the psychic but rather Yankel’s mother. According to Jay Rothstein, Yankel was set to travel from town to town and Riva had a dream that he would be attacked or killed in a specific town and in a specific place. Before Yankel left on his journey, she warned him of this upcoming attack. It happened that Yankel had to travel through this town and place that his mother described. When he found himself in the location his mother had warned him about, the attack came, and he was able to defend himself and he wasn't hurt or killed.

4. Or pre-teen.

5. According to Rita Rutstein Kaplan, during this time period, and prior to his immigration to the United States, Yaakov had failed ‘marriage discussions’ regarding someone in Russia. It is likely that the Soloveitchik Shadchan Letter dates to this period.

6. Another account states that Yaakov also/alternatively had an eye infection.

7. Milton Rothstein, however, observed, that although Jacob suffered throughout his life, “I never heard him even mention it once. He was a real man and a soldier to the end.”

8. In one account, all that remained was a few small diamonds.

9. Jay Rothstein disagrees with this narrative. “I was not aware of his having had rheumatic heart or being sent back to Russia. All I recall hearing from my father O”H was that it was a disorder of his eyes, was treated successfully, and he continued on to NY, though penniless. The $800 is the savings I recall as well, attributed to his savings from his work as the General Manager for Forest Products for the German trading company.”

10. Jay Rothstein disagrees with this sequence of events. He writes, “What I recall from my father O”H, is that Grandpa Jacob escaped from Russia before being drafted a second time to avoid such draft.” [emphasis mine] It’s possible that he initially arrived in 1902, was deported back to London (and Russia) and then to avoid the draft immigrated in 1904. Two census reports place his emigration in 1904. This needs further research.

11. There are inconsistent narratives regarding whether Jacob was drafted once or twice into the Russian army, whether he saw service in the Russian-Japanese war and what year he immigrated to the United States. It does appear, in the opinion of the author, that Yankel was drafted twice into the Russian army but the oral history in this regard is inconsistent and ambiguous and it is possible he was only drafted once. Further, it’s unclear whether the first time Yankel was drafted as a child or rather as a teenager--although one version of the story makes it appear as if this occurred when he was a child, perhaps as a teenager of twelve or thirteen. It is also possible that he was drafted as an adult. It’s also unclear whether Yaakov actually saw service in the Russo-Japanese war or left prior to its commencement, during the war or after the war. According to Milton Rothstein, Yaakov left Russia during the war. According to different census reports, Yaakov immigrated either in 1904 or 1905 which confirm Milton’s account. One journalistic account, however, places his emigration before the war in 1902 and another oral history account after the war in 1906. A review of ship records is inconclusive with two entries for a Jacob Rothstein, possibly the same person, in 1906 and one entry for a Jacob Rothstein in 1902. According to one story that supports the 1902 account, Yaakov sensed that he was to be drafted into the army, and having served once, he preemptively avoided the draft by attempting to emigrate to the United States. In reconciling the 1902 and 1906 immigration dates, the author posits that Yaakov may have been deported back to London (and/or Russia) after a 1902 arrival and then immigrated a second time in 1906. According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, Yaakov came to America penniless with only a “rope to hold up his pants.” According to another report, however, Yaakov came to the United States with a couple of diamonds representing the remainder of whatever wealth he had accumulated in Europe. The current above-the-line section is the author’s attempt to reconcile the apparently conflicting narratives.

12. Possibly as early as 1902 depending on which version of the story is adopted.

13. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 21; Volume 43, edited by Josiah Gilbert Holland, Richard Watson Gilder, p. 327.

14. Id.

15. Milton provides that Jay R. had been in the United States for eight years when Basha arrived and married Jacob. This is a reference which supports the account of a 1902 immigration, not a 1906 migration. Either way, this number cannot be accurate.

16. Other records suggest that there was only a four- or five-year age gap between them.

17. According to Jay Rothstein, it was closer to $2,000.

18. This is at least in contrast to the family in which Nathan Rothstein, Jacob’s son, eventually married into.

19. Other Rothsteins relatives in the United States were also in the lumber business. It may have been a profession of the family in Europe.

20. Milton also spoke about innovations regarding “3/10 x 8/4 dressed four sides after going through a planer and the 8" or 10" wood 7 5/8 or 9 5/8" in width.”

21. Another article for the same recurring annual Beth El event appears with Jacob’s picture on May 21, 1940, May 7, 1941, April 21, 1942, May 30, 1943.

22. Jacob was a founder of the Brooklyn Jewish Center and a friend of the cantor, Richard Tucker.

23. She went on to say, “My father and my mother both worked for him; my father was the foreman and my mother was the bookkeeper and he helped take care of our family.”