John Rothmann was attending a Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in the late 1980s when someone said to him, “You know who that guy is?” pointing to a man across the room.
“I approached him with awe, because he was a living legend in the broadcast business,” said Rothmann, a longtime Jewish community activist and host of a talk show on KGO Radio.
That man was Bruno Wassertheil, and Rothmann had actually “met” him, many years earlier, on the radio. “That voice was with me in my bedroom, in my car, and when I was in college,” said Rothmann.
Wassertheil, a renowned Israel-based correspondent for CBS Radio who retired to Palo Alto, died at home on Wednesday, March 3, of cancer. He was 68.
Wassertheil was born in Katowice, Poland, on March 9, 1935. His family was sailing to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. They never returned, settling in New York City.
Wassertheil graduated from New York’s City College in 1957, and then served in the United States Army Signal Corps for two years in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
His career in journalism began when he took a job as an assistant editor at a trade publication called Travel Weekly.
In 1963, he served as director of tourism for the Israeli city of Ashkelon, but his stint in public relations did not last long.
He took a position reporting for The Associated Press, and covered the Six-Day War. Soon after, he edited the first Fodor’s guide to Israel that included the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as a result of the 1967 war. While he began his radio career with United Press International for two years, it was with CBS Radio that he became best known. From 1970 to 1978, and from 1980 to 1986, Wassertheil was the chief radio correspondent in Israel for CBS Radio. His two-year break, from 1978 to 1980, was to serve as the Israel correspondent for the New York Daily News.
He won two Overseas Press Club awards for excellence in broadcasting.
Wassertheil’s 23-year marriage to Alicia Schoenberg ended in divorce.
In 1987, he moved to the Bay Area, settling in Palo Alto. In 1990, he co-founded with Harry Saal Dateline Jerusalem, a Bay Area-based dial-up service to obtain the latest news from Israel in both Hebrew and English.
He lectured periodically at U.C. Berkeley’s extension program, and was a frequent guest on local radio shows. In fact, Rothmann thinks he may have had him on his program more than any other guest.
He had interviewed David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. Wassertheil was considered such an expert on the region that those who were pro-Israel and those who were pro-Arab equally respected what he had to say, Rothmann said.
He was a “walking encyclopedia about the Middle East,” said Rothmann, which was why he was often invited to speak on panels about the region. During a panel discussion in 2000, he surmised that the true definition of a neutral reporter in the Middle East was a “Swiss atheist.”
He is survived by daughter Ilana and son Ariel, both of Jerusalem; two grandchildren; and his companion of 14 years, Estelle Macy of Palo Alto.
Wassertheil was buried in Jerusalem. A memorial service will be held 1 p.m. Sunday, March 21, at the Oak Room in the Oak Creek Club House, Oak Creek Apartments, 1600 Sand Hill Road, Palo Alto. Donations can be sent to: Pathway Hospice Foundation, 201 San Antonio Circle, Suite 104, Mountain View, CA 94040.