Rose Saperstein 88 248.
(photo credit: Jerrin K. Zumberg)
At 92, Rose Saperstein still prepares her famous spice cakes and vegetable liver for her family each Shabbat and reads an average four books a week. She lives simply in a fifth-floor apartment on the edge of western Jerusalem in a row of matching stone apartment buildings. A dozen plants and well-used furniture decorate the sitting room where she sits with dancing crystal blue eyes as she awaits to tell stories from a near century of life experience.
Born in Manhattan in 1917, Saperstein grew up on the Lower East Side in a neighborhood bustling with Orthodox Jewish life.
"We aren't only Orthodox, but fervent believers in the Almighty," she says.
By the time she was married to a young businessman and World War II had come and gone, she was already deep into her life's work: volunteering.
For 26 years before retiring here, she volunteered at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, helped her husband on the side and managed to make time for important volunteer work among the influx of poor Jews immigrating from Europe after the war. She had two sons with her late husband.
The voyage that landed Saperstein here began early, when her father moved the family to the country for a year in the late 1920s in an attempt to resettle.
"My father very much wanted to live [in Israel], but simply couldn't make a living," she explains. The family went back only to find themselves a part of a near tragic shipwreck in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
"It never left me, the sound of the scrape as the boat went up on a reef, leaving three holes in it," she says. For a week they slept on the deck in life jackets until they were saved.
The accident didn't stop Saperstein's father from returning the family to Israel again when she was a teenager for another go at life here.
"My father still tried, but it didn't help," she says. The tough economic times worldwide marked their departure yet again and ended her father's efforts to live here. He would cross the sea again only after he died - to be buried in Jerusalem.
But the seed for living in the Holy Land had been sown in the family. Saperstein's mother, followed by her eldest son, immigrated in the 1960s. Her son subsequently lost an arm in the Yom Kippur War. Rose and her husband put off their move until 1980 for retirement.
For the first six weeks, Saperstein and her husband lived in an absorption center for new immigrants in Jerusalem.
"We got out of there as fast as we could," she says with a look of torment on her face. They immediately moved into an apartment in Jerusalem's Bayit Vagan neighborhood and eventually on to her current place in Har Nof.
Soon after arriving, Saperstein had already returned to her old ways, giving her time to help others. "When I got to this country, right away someone picked me out to volunteer. How they smelled that I was a volunteer, I'll never know," she says.
Saperstein has been knitting for a half century. So well in fact that it brought her accolades from former prime minister Menachem Begin. Saperstein first met him when he was visiting New York in the early 1970s at a time when his political survival was in question. The brief handshake between the two in a line of visitors was enough to inspire her to knit twin sweater jackets for Begin and his wife, Aliza.
"I felt such compassion for him that I said I'm going to do something for him," Saperstein says. She followed up the sweaters with an intricate knitted afghan. Aliza wrote in a letter of thanks that the afghan could have only been "a work of love."
Some time after the Sapersteins made aliya, the Begins invited them to dinner.
"As a recipient, mother of recipients, and grandmother of recipients - nobody knits like Bubby," her daughter-in-law Sarah says.
Saperstein never did a formal ulpan or studied much modern Hebrew.
"All my volunteer work was my ulpan," she says. "What I need to know I know, and what I don't, I don't. It's too late at this stage to know more."
REST OF THE STORY
While Saperstein's husband buried his nose in the Talmud for the couple's retirement years, she kept busy volunteering. For 17 years she painted tanks, prepared and cleaned weapons for soldiers and tidied army bases. "I was past 80 and I was still in the army," she says proudly.
She also spent her days volunteering with the blind and for 17 years worked in the geriatrics ward and hospice at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem.
While Saperstein volunteered, her two sons, who by then were both married and living here, began to proliferate. "After 30 great-grandchildren, we stopped counting," she says.
Until recently, as age has weakened her eyesight and ability to walk easily, she would iron, cook, mend and baby-sit the growing clan.
"Probably her most difficult volunteer job was going to Beit Shemesh to look after the grandchildren," Sarah jokes.
A deeply religious woman, she relies on her faith to explain not only the purpose of her life, but all her actions.
"I'm a very religious person in the sense that I don't make a move without feeling the Almighty is with me. One hundred times a day I find reasons to thank Him. I feel His presence and that is what keeps me going. I would say that is the essence of my life. I am His best customer."