Jewish Detroit’s Oldest Residents Tell All
by Lynne Meredith Golodner
Keep traditions. Education is essential. Be ethical. Tell the truth.
A smile goes a long way. Be nice. Be around people.
Appreciate what you have.
These sentiments abound among Detroit’s oldest Jewish residents. Although they may have lived through wars and seen hardship, what binds the oldest among us together is their undying resilience, earnest gratitude and affection for life.
This month, we meet three Jewish Senior Life residents from three of the seven JSL residences who have reached the century mark and are going strong. Here’s what they have to say.
Mary Cantor, blessed to be 102
Last summer, upon learning that Mary Cantor was 102 years of age, a woman at the grocery store grabbed Mary’s hand and exclaimed, “102! Give me your blessing.”
Mary blushed and shrugged. “Zay Gazunt popped into my head,” she says with a smile. “It means stay well. I told her and she said, ‘Thank you.’”
“I am a very, very lucky person in every way possible,” says Mary, a resident of Anna & Meyer Prentis Apartments, who says she is 102 “and more than a half.” People ask her all the time what her secret is, how she stays well and lives so long, but she simply shakes her head and says, “I don’t have any secrets. I live a normal life. I wash my face and brush my teeth and comb my hair.”
But there is something that keeps her going amid a zest for life that is contagious.
Born in Washington, D.C., one of eight children, Mary’s childhood moved around, to Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Kentucky. When she married Jerome at 18, Mary’s shoemaker father said, “I’m not losing a daughter,” and kept the couple with the family.
Before marriage, she worked in a shoe store and “loved it. We had shoes lined up from the ceiling on down, I’d get up on the ladder to find them,” she says.
When her first of three children was born, Mary stopped working, insisting “my place is home.” After they were grown, she went to work at a friend’s deli.
Through the years, Mary and Jerome stayed close to family. It was family, she says, that was always there to help or offer support. They first came to Detroit in 1935 and lived on Emerson Avenue. After four years, they moved to Huntington, West Virginia, where Jerome worked in Mary’s sister’s furniture store.
In Huntington, Mary was proud to take an active role in the local Jewish community. “Being in a Jewish community meant an awful lot to me,” she says.
When he was 67, Jerome died suddenly, two and a half weeks after their 49th anniversary. “When my husband died, I thought, if it was his time, I was thankful he went fast. I talk to God every night – I call him the man upstairs.”
While her parents were from Lithuania, Mary and her siblings were as American as apple pie. “I’ve learned too many good things,” says Mary, who had to quit school in seventh grade when her parents moved, but wished she could have continued.
And yet, she wears a permanent smile, praising every part of her life as wonderful.
“I had a blue box from the synagogue in Huntington, a pushka,” she says. “I filled it up and emptied it when it got full. I called the pushka my blessing box.”
Now, one of Mary’s granddaughter’s has her blessing box and is working on filling it up for future generations. Mary has nine grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren. They are sprinkled around the country.
“I am a very, very lucky person,” Mary says again and again.
Sam Borak going strong at 100
Sam Borak quit college midway through his education to earn income for his family. It’s the biggest regret the centenarian has.
But that hasn’t stopped him from succeeding in life.
Today, Sam resides at the Norma Jean & Edward Meer Apartments and lives by the mandate of smiling as much as possible to bring out the best in others.
“Be nice to people,” he says. “And always smile. It makes people happy.”
Born in Poland in 1912, Sam came to the United States with his family at the age of 5. His father was a kasha collector – gathering buckwheat from peasants – which led the family to amass quite a bit of wealth.
Their journey to America took six weeks by boat, through Ellis Island and eventually to Detroit to live with a relative. They decamped in Highland Park, and Sam’s father went to work for Henry Ford, earning $5 a day, quite a sum at the time.
“My father was a scholar at heart,” says Sam. “Yes, he worked for a living, but he loved learning more than anything. A childhood lesson for me was never underestimate the importance of education.”
There were others, too. Be ethical and honest, his parents told him. “If someone overpaid you and they lived 10 miles away, you walk the 10 miles to return their money to them,” he says.
Favorite childhood memories include going to Bob-lo Island and after, stopping for ice cream, and also sleeping outside under the stars on Belle Isle because the family did not have air conditioning. “It was safe then – lots of families did it,” he says.
Sam married the love of his life, Becky, and inherited four children. He never fought with his wife because he believed in the art of compromise. Sam worked in sales for Independent Biscuit for 30 years.
Now, he sits back and admires all the beautiful lessons of his life. “Have faith,” he says. “My faith has taught me to be patient and kind.”
Sonia Glaser, a great-great-grandmother at 105
Sonia Glaser says her early life was just like something out of Fiddler on the Roof: “My family was harassed by the Cossacks,” she says. “My home was burned down and my father was beaten.”
It’s a pretty grim memory of early life for the nearly 105-year-old resident of Lillian and Samuel Hechtman Apartments, who was born in Ukraine in 1907 and came to America by boat in 1924, first through Montreal and eventually to Detroit.
Still, Sonia has nothing but fond memories of a life well-lived.
She learned Hebrew with her father by firelight before she was old enough to start Russian school. Reading was essential in her family home. Her parents were ardent advocates for education. And her grandparents had a lot of clout in Ukraine; as wine distributors, they bribed many people to secure their family’s safe exit.
Their entry to America was sponsored by Tom Borman, a World War I vet who was connected distantly to Sonia’s family. Once here, her sister married Tom’s brother Al, of Farmer Jack grocery chain fame.
It was in Canada where Sonia met her husband Jacob, who was also from Ukraine. They were married for 39 years. “The secret to a long, happy marriage is communication between husband and wife and children,” says Sonia.
Sonia has three children, seven grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren to date.
Throughout their married life, Sonia and Jacob were very active in the Zionist movement. Her father was a leader of the Zionist Youth Organization and they had planned to move to Israel and make aliyah, but Sonia’s mother fell ill and they never went. Sonia continues to support Israel and has a great love for the Jewish state.
Sonia has lived at Jewish Senior Life for 20 years. She has been an active resident, starting an oneg Shabbat, bringing in speakers, authors and athletes. When she was younger, she walked everywhere, never took the elevator, even left the campus and walked all the way to Hiller’s grocery store and back.
“Every summer, I climbed mountains in Maine – until 10 years ago,” says Sonia. She never learned to drive.
One of Sonia’s most important life lessons is: “Keep your traditions. A favorite memory is having my children and their children over for Shabbat,” she says.
Sonia represents the quality of life that Jewish Senior Life offers its residents and the community.
ONE NUMBER TO CALL for information, referrals and access to all Jewish Senior Resources
Jewish Senior Life in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, JVS, Jewish Family Service and the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, works to connect Detroit’s older adults to Jewish community services and resources via ONE NUMBER: 248.661.1836.
Lynne Meredith Golodner is a writer and publicist and blogs at www.lynnegolodner.com.