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Wisdom at 105

Wisdom at 105

Life secrets from a woman who has lived more than a century

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Mrs. Miriam Pollack
Mrs. Miriam Pollack

The first thing I notice when I enter the room is her regal bearing. Quiet, poised, in control, she radiates tranquility. My mother has brought me here to Jerusalem’s Ramat Tamir retirement community to meet this incredible woman.

I feel awed as I gaze at her. It’s not every day that one is privileged to sit across from a woman whose life has spanned an entire century. At 105 years old, Mrs. Miriam Pollack is astonishingly attentive and aware. Unwittingly the question escapes my lips.

“What’s the secret of your long life?”

“I have no secret,” she tells me. “It’s His will. It’s His reason and His purpose. What's the secret? I don’t know.”

This reminds Charity, her caretaker, of a story.

Last year in August, right before her 104th birthday, Mrs. Pollack had to have serious abdominal surgery. In the operating room, right before injecting the anesthesia, the surgeon bent down to Mrs. Pollack. “Remember,” he said gently, “you might not get up from the operating table.”

Mrs. Pollack gazed at the doctor. “That’s His decision,” she said pointing her finger upward.

The doctor nodded gravely.

Mrs. Pollack inclined her head. “Doctor?”

“Yes?”

“Do I need this operation?”

The doctor nodded his head in the affirmative.

“Okay,” said Mrs. Pollack with the enthusiasm of someone who’s about to sign up for an exciting business deal. “Let’s do it.”

Mrs. Pollack looks at me, a hint of a smile playing at her lips.

“You have a close connection to G‑d,” I comment. “Do you talk to Him all day?”

“Day and night.”

“What do you ask for?”

Ales gut [everything good]. A refuah sheleimah [complete recovery] for everyone, nachas and simchah [joy] . . . Oh, 105 things . . .”

It’s a long journey, a life of a hundred and five years. And it wasn’t always easy for Miriam Pollack. “I worked hard my whole life,” she says.

Charity laughs. “She still does. Working hard is her pleasure. It’s a long walk to the lobby from here, and there’s a wheelchair right outside the room, but Mrs. Pollack won’t use it. She says, ‘If I use that, I will forget how to walk. I will walk as much as I can.’”

Mrs. Pollack, Her age is not an excuse for her to slacken from the self-discipline with which she has lived her entire life. says Charity, makes her bed every morning. She gets dressed by herself—she even ties her shoelaces! Her age is not an excuse for her to slacken one bit from the self-discipline with which she has lived her entire life.

It’s that same strength of mind that she employs in her conversations. Mrs. Pollack embodies the words of King Solomon, “He who spares his lips is wise.” Her wisdom is metaphoric, hinting at the splendor of a mountain—she’s majestic, silent and there.

The day begins to wane, the dusky shades of twilight filter through the window, but the room is suffused with a powerful love that glows brighter than the most luminous rays.

There’s a knock on the door; Mrs. Pollack's daughter Lilyan and her husband enter. Lilyan bends down to embrace and be embraced by her mother. The eighty-three-year-old daughter is still a mother’s child.

Lilyan shares with me the memories of her childhood. I listen, enraptured, as she unfolds before me an inspiring story of hardship and strength, challenges and faith.

Lilyan’s Childhood Memories

My father’s parents—Mrs. Pollack’s parents-in-law—were very poor at the beginning of the century. When they heard that gold and silver lie scattered over the streets in America, they embarked on the long journey to the goldene medina, the “Golden Land.” Much to their disappointment, they were quick to discover that there was neither gold nor jobs, especially for a Shabbat-observant Jew; that life was harsh for new immigrants in a foreign country. Their sojourn in America lasted two years. They packed their bags again and traveled back to their hometown in Hungary, bringing along with them two sons who were born in the interim.

My father was one of those sons. When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, several people approached my father, who was already married by then, with the desire to purchase his American citizenship. After the third person came to him with the same request, my father took a train to the embassy—a trip that took him all day—to find out what was happening.

The clerk at the embassy took one look at my father’s documents and cried, “With an American passport, what are you doing here? Get out of the country today!”

But Mama and the children needed a visa. It took her nine months to get it. Meanwhile Papa went ahead to America to find a job and prepare an apartment. By the time those visas arrived, Mama had given birth to another child! With four youngsters—I was a five-year-old, the twins were three, and the baby, five months—Mama traveled by boat to America, a trip that took three months.

Miriam Pollack and her 83-year-old daughter Lilyan
Miriam Pollack and her 83-year-old daughter Lilyan

In America, life wasn’t easy for my parents. In 1931 money was scarce because of the Depression. Papa worked as a ritual slaughterer, and unfortunately, in those days, perhaps due to the poverty, the standard of kosher meat left much to be desired. Papa was a scholar, well-versed in the laws of kashrut; he couldn’t handle the deceit that was going on in the store where he worked, and left the job. Papa wasn’t a union member, he was Shabbat observant, and he couldn’t find another job. So Mama took action.

She found a manufacturer who formed sponges into shapes of animals and she was able to bring home piecework. Mama and Papa worked all day. Even the children helped with the work. The glue had a terrible odor, so we kept the windows open. Then Mama decided that the strong smell wasn't healthy, and she went out to search for something else.

She was an immigrant, she didn’t speak the language well, but she didn’t get fazed. She scraped together some pennies and nickels and bought a sewing machine to sew neckties from home. Pushing her baby carriage, she went from store to store to get work. Old-fashioned and rickety, the sewing machine shook and vibrated and made so much noise, the neighbors downstairs despised us. When the neighbors couldn’t stand it anymore, they informed the authorities that we were working at home illegally. The police arrived at our home one day and confiscated the merchandise.

Undaunted, Mama took her baby carriage and once again took on the search for work. She found workers striking outside a store—they had been laid off for lack of work. Mama presented herself to the shopkeeper and offered to sew handmade ties for a very low price, to which he readily agreed. To avoid the wrath of the strikers, the shopkeeper came outside with Mama and surreptitiously placed the piecework into her baby carriage.

How Mama missed her family in Hungary! She dreamed of going home. But then news from Europe began to trickle in; Mama’s homesickness turned to fear. Sick with worry, she felt further away from her parents than ever before. Her family was sent to Auschwitz; most of them didn’t survive. Mama said the human brain cannot fathom G‑d’s ways, and in her stoic manner continued with her life.

Though Mama suffered from the pain of loss and the struggles of making a living, our home was always filled with happiness and love. The children were always involved. We worked together, Papa read to us from the newspaper, Mama always offering loving and encouraging words. And the delicious meals she cooked were always lovingly arranged on the table in the elegance that was her trademark.

A Mother’s Intuition

Sitting in this room, surrounded by this affectionate family, Lilyan’s words can be understood in a most tangible way. All around us, five generations of smiling babies, laughing adults and joyful faces stare out from hundreds of family photos lining the walls and decorating the shelves—many of them placed over expensive Chagall paintings.

Aside for Mrs. Pollack’s love for living, the whole Mama gave me life twice. Once when I was born and once when she listened to the small still voice inside her. atmosphere here is charged with a pervasive sense of love and caring. From Mrs. Pollack’s conversation via Skype with her eighty-year-old son Moshe and his wife, to the way Lilyan tends to her mother as one would finger a precious jewel. Indeed, Mrs. Pollack looks like a diamond, her family like the ring setting.

And then Lilyan shares with me a heartwarming tale of a mother’s love.

“I used to take Mama to the cardiologist every six months. He would examine her, talk about which drugs to use to strengthen her heart, which ones to cut down on, and then we would leave. Since Mama, thank G‑d, was always in good health, these doctor’s visits would be brief and to the point.

“During one visit, Mama suddenly turned to the doctor. ‘I want you to check my daughter,’ she said.

“Surprised, the doctor looked at me. ‘Are you feeling all right?’ he asked.

“‘Sure,’ I said, equally surprised. ‘I’m fine. I just returned from China. I was touring the country there from seven in the morning to ten at night for three weeks. I’m fine.’

“The doctor removed his glasses; there was a puzzled expression on his face. ‘She’s fine,’ he said to Mama.

“Since Mama was always wary of keeping the patients in the waiting room too long, I was bewildered at Mama’s insistence.

A clay art depicting the Western Wall that Mrs. Pollack crafted and presented a few years ago to her children, grandchildren and friends
A clay art depicting the Western Wall that Mrs. Pollack crafted and presented a few years ago to her children, grandchildren and friends

“‘Doctor, please.’ My mother’s tone was low, in that humble manner of hers. ‘Please, for my sake, doctor, examine my daughter.’

"The doctor acquiesced and I went onto the table. When the doctor spent twice as much time with me as he did with Mama, I began to worry. He sent me to do an echocardiogram and some tests. A few days later, when the results came in, the doctor phoned me and ordered me to go to the hospital without delay.

“The doctor met me at Shaarei Zedek hospital and sat me down. ‘What you have is very serious,’ he said. ‘It’s a myxoma. Did you ever hear of people collapsing on the street without warning? A myxoma can cause that. It’s a small growth in the atrium of the heart. You need to have it removed immediately.’

“At my six-week postoperative appointment the doctor expressed his amazement. ‘You had no symptoms, no complications. Why did your mother persist that I see you? Ask her.’

“I came home and put the doctor’s question to my mother.

“‘G‑d pushed me,’ was her simple reply.

“Mama gave me life twice. Once when I was born and once when she listened to the small still voice inside her.”

I gather my belongings. It’s time for me to go.

“Mama, give her your blessing,” says Lilyan.

I leave with the blessings of a 105-year-old woman and a poignant reminder of the power of love.

Mirish Kiszner is a teacher, counselor and lecturer living in Jerusalem. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications. Her latest book is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary People (Artscroll), a collection of true stories about real people. She is also a regular contributor to our Help! I’ve Got Kids . . . parenting blog.
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Brian I. Hauser honolulu, hawaii April 16, 2013

I remember many visits to aunt Miriam house in Brooklyn Aunt Miriam was married to my grandfather Benjamin pollack's brother uncle Yizchak. the story that you write about how the two brothers were born in america is very famous in our family for the obvious reasons regarding their exodus from Hungry. Only that part of the story is missing regarding how their parents my great grandparents were able to afford to return to hungry after working in the US for just two years. they were working as domestics for a rich relative and after an great aunt who lived in the house passed away they found a small fortune she had stashed away in her room. Being the honest people they were they turned over the money to the homeowners. They were asked them what they wanted as a reward & they replied that they would like to return to Hungry. The homeowners reward them with the money they found and they return to Europe with their two little boys Uncle Yitzchak and my Granfather Bejiman Pollack. Aunt Mirim was always very kind and wonderful anytime we visited. Reply

goldie Omaha, USA February 24, 2011

An Amazing Woman Thank you for sharing this story about a woman whose beauty and love of G_d was a shining star for her family. She has lived a long and worthy life. Too bad there are not more like her. I can't get over her godliness and beauty, even her hair which is only streaked with silver, but mostly still dark. What an inspiration she is for all of us. Reply

miriam Rodriguez Sarasota, fl. February 22, 2011

mothers mothers knows best, and I too had the most wonderful mother whom at the time when my only boy was diagnosed with WILSON's disease at the of 18, I did not know what will the future be like for him. The assurance of my mom kept me going to not worry and trust only in Hashem . It was very hard going through the strugle, but today Thank G-d He is marry and happy. Reply

Karen Great Neck, NY February 22, 2011

beautiful Thank you for sharing such a lovely story about an amazing woman! Reply

Erik Shapiro Valley Village, CA United States February 21, 2011

Miriam Pollak ZT'L Mrs. Pollak, or "Bobbi" as we called her was my wife's grandmother. There is no justice the written word could give to the feeling one got while actually in her presence. She was a holy woman who had such Yeras Shemayim (fair of G-d) and ahavas Hashem (love of G-d) the likes of which I have never seen. Thanks very much to the author for this wonderful piece and may Bobbi 's neshama (soul) have an aliyah (ascent)! Reply

chani horowitz aventura, fl via chabadsib.org May 16, 2009

wow! what a blessing for mother and daughter, The mother is blessed because she is able to live long enough to see her daughter grow old and meet not only her grandchildren,but her great grandchildren and maybe even great great grandchildren. The daughter is lucky to be able to grow old with her mom by her side. I hope my mother lives that long. Thank you for the inspiring story. Reply

Keren USA May 14, 2009

Role Model We have all been touched by Mrs. Pollack's presence. Thank you for writing this piece! Reply

Inge Reisinger May 11, 2009

Thank you for telling your wonderful story.
A mother always knows about her parents as well about her own children's health.
I wish you many wonderful hours with your family. Reply

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