Chava Rivka (Evelyn) Kozak, reported to have been the oldest Jew in the world, passed away on June 11 at the age of 113, with her family attributing her longevity to a blessing by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.
“I know G‑d is with me,” Kozak said to The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh on her 110th birthday, referring to what she called miraculous events in her life. “He has saved me many times.”
Kozak was born in New York on Aug. 14, 1899, which also made her the world’s seventh-oldest person, according to the Gerontology Research Group, an organization of physicians, scientists and engineers who validate supercentenarians—people who are 110 or older.
Her parents, Isaac and Katie Jacobson, were Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim and struggled to maintain an observant home for their nine children. At the time, with no Jewish schools or even a semblance of the infrastructure of Jewish life that exists today, that was a real challenge.
Particularly difficult for observant Jews, said Kozak, was keeping Shabbat. At the turn of the 20th century in America, everyone worked long hours, even on Saturdays. Those who could not or did not often lost their jobs. Many Jews, like Kozak’s father, chose self-employment. Isaac Jacobson worked as a peddler, and later opened a factory that constructed cardboard boxes to hold hats.
Her father also established the Chabad Zemach Zedek Nusach Hoari synagogue in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Around 1907 the family moved to the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. At the time, Jews were not so welcome in Kozak’s particular neighborhood.
“Yet there was one neighbor,” she recalled, “who liked us and would bring over food. The food—which, of course, was not kosher and we could not eat—we would have to figure out how to dispose of it without insulting the neighbor.”
She also said that although it was an anomaly to have a telephone back then, they had one, and she remembered her father once calling a rabbi with a question he had about Jewish law.
He also purchased two Torah scrolls and established a synagogue at home.
Kozak did not complete her education past the eighth grade, yet she was an avid reader, and her parents could always find her in the attic with a book. She remembered numerous historic events, included the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the Great Depression of the 1930s and when the Brooklyn Bridge was called "one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”
Kozak said that one of the miracles in her life was surviving the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. “When you left for work,” she said in an interview to WQED on the occasion of her 110th birthday, “you did not know who was going to be at home when you got home; almost every house had a death. I had [the flu], and my parents thought I was a goner and they would pray to G‑d . . . I survived, while strong men—soldiers—were dying.”
With one of her many grandchildren (Photo: Alex Gorokhov)
She said her father had the greatest influence on her. “I learned everything from my father—to be strictly honest and truthful, and to help others. His whole life was devoted to helping those who needed help.”
Kozak married in 1921 and eventually had five children. In 1929 she again became ill. At that time, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe had arrived on the shores of America to encourage Jewish observance, raise funds for Jews under Soviet rule and determine if the United States was was a suitable place for Lubavitch world headquarters.
The elder Jacobson was part of a select group of people who escorted the Rebbe from the boat, and he gave his car to transport the Rebbe to a residence in New York.
It was during that trip that Kozak’s father asked the Rebbe for a blessing for his sick daughter, and he was said to have blessed her with health and longevity. That is why, said her granddaughter Brucha Weisberger, “we always credited that blessing with her long life.”
‘Always So Grateful’
In the late 1940s, Kozak moved to Miami, Fla., with her second husband, Mo, and together they managed a large home that was made into a boarding house. He passed away in 1957, when she was 58.
At the boarding home she looked after the older residents, making sure they had enough to eat and remained in good health. “When she was almost 90 years old,” said Weisberger, “she was cooking and cleaning for the elderly, although it was not her responsibility.”
“She didn’t like speaking badly about people,” added Weisberger. “She only liked when you spoke good about people.”
Kozak was an avid Scrabble player and had a rich vocabulary of the English language.
In her 90s she moved to Pittsburgh, Pa., where she lived independently in an assisted-living center until the age of 104, and then moved into a nursing home and rehabilitation center. She later moved closer to her grandchildren in Brooklyn.
There she was able to keep Jewish observances that she could not perform in the nursing home, even adding more of them to her routine. “She was so grateful,” said Weisberger, “that she lived in a vibrant Jewish atmosphere, surrounded for the last three years of her life by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
“I didn’t strive just to keep living,” Kozak told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “but I guess I lived the right kind of life, [where] I was never jealous or envious. Money was never a big part of my life.”
“She didn’t believe in complaining; she was always so grateful,” said Weisberger, whose grandmother lived with her during the last years of her life. “She was always thanking everyone and was so happy to be with others.”
Kozak died on the third day of the Jewish month of Tammuz—the anniversary of the passing of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. “It is extremely significant for the family,” Weisberger said, “that she passed away on that day. It feels like it was all from Heaven.”
One of her requests was that she be buried in the same Chabad section of the Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn as her parents and grandparents. When looking at maps of the old plot—where no one had been buried in decades—only one spot was found between her parents and grandparents.
“Love surpasses everything,” said Kozak. “Without that, really, you could have beautiful cars, furs, everything, but if you don’t have that, you really don’t have much.”