Israel might have grabbed headlines earlier this year when it controversially beat out Lebanon for making the largest serving of humous, but even the six-meter-diameter satellite dish filled with 4,090 kilograms of the chickpea dip is nothing compared to the achievements of Rosemary Levine, who last September made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest quadriplegic.
“It’s more funny than anything else,” smiles the Zichron Ya’acov resident, who has been confined to a wheelchair for the past 50 years, as she begins to retell the story of how she broke that record.
“About this time last year I suddenly thought to myself, ‘Wow I am celebrating, or rather commiserating, 50 years of being a quadriplegic’ and just for fun I decided to send a letter to Guinness,” says the silver-haired grandmother of six. “I thought for sure that they had even heard of a quadriplegic, let alone have a whole section in the book on that, but to my astonishment, a few weeks later, I got a reply asking me to send all my details.
“I sent them everything I had and the next thing I knew I had received a letter to say that ‘as of this moment I am the oldest living quadriplegic in the world.’”
Proudly pointing to the framed certificate that now hangs centerpiece on her wall, Levine adds: “It’s been a great source of amusement and pleasure to the children and me.”
But for Levine, whose smart appearance and sharp observations of life belie her 79 years, the special award is more of a bittersweet achievement after suffering a complete spinal lesion in a motor car accident on June 5, 1959.
“I was 28 years old when I broke my neck,” Levine says in a blunt voice that indicates she has told this story many times. “The old medical insurance records I have state that I will not be here by the time I am 40, but that was already 40 years ago.”
“You never get used to being a quadriplegic, and quite frankly every day is a battle,” admits Levine, who lived in Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, with her gold-mining husband Norman and two small daughters, at the time of the accident. “But I was married to the most wonderful man who was with me all the way until sadly he died three years ago.”
Although the accident completely changed the course of her life, Levine – who had been a ballet dancer and was left without movement of her four limbs – has an incredible positive aura about her that makes it easy to understand how she managed to pull through such a tragic and life-altering experience.
“When you have no choices, you must proceed through each day and get your act together because you have to, you just have to,” she philosophizes. “Each day is only 24 hours and that is all you have to live really.”
LEVINE GREW up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it was only a chance trip to Rhodesia in 1953 that enabled her to meet her husband and stay.
“It was the country’s centenary exhibition and I was there for only nine days,” she says. “The atmosphere was very festive and on the very first day I was in a book shop and started talking to a woman who ended up becoming my mother-in-law. She must have liked me immediately because she called her son and told him to come and meet me.”
It was love at first sight, remembers Levine of her initial meeting with Norman, and on her last day in Rhodesia he asked her to stay and marry him. She agreed immediately.
“I can’t explain that decision,” she smiles coyly. “Only that I had the sense of feeling so safe with this man and that feeling never left me until he died. He protected me and I protected him. We were a good pair.”
Nine months after their initial meeting, Levine returned to Rhodesia and the two started their married life in “a little mud cottage in the bush.”
“We started off as impoverished and struggling gold miners,” she continues. “We had to make the bricks for our mud-brick house ourselves but living in the African bush was a wonderful life and a wonderful way for the children to grow up. There was no sense of danger, there was no conflict, only the odd snake that one kept your eye open for.”
But within six years of arriving in Rhodesia, marrying her sweetheart and becoming a mother to two little girls, Levine’s life changed beyond recognition.
“Not a second goes by without me thinking about the accident,” says Levine, who was seven months pregnant with her youngest daughter at the time. “We had strip roads in the countryside, with sandbanks on either side. The idea was that when someone wanted to pass, you had to move to the side and let them, but an impatient driver came up from behind and decided not to wait for us. As he overtook us, he lost control of his car right in front of us; we swerved and landed upside down on the hood.”
Levine says that her spine was broken immediately but miraculously, her husband, the two girls and her unborn daughter were all fine.
“As we were waiting for the ambulance to come and take us away, my hands were up in the air, which happens when you break your neck, and I said my husband: ‘I think I might have broken both my arms,’” she remembers. “I could not move them and the pain was appalling.”
She was operated on immediately and bedridden until the baby was born at full term two months later. Then Levine was transferred to a hospital in Johannesburg and later to rehabilitation in the UK.
“I only returned home 16 months later; my baby was already growing up without me,” says Levine, adding that the other two daughters, both in their 50s now, still remember the trauma of suddenly not having their mother around. “Sally, my middle daughter, called for me day in and day out... my husband had to farm the girls out to whoever would look after them.”
Almost to herself, Levine adds: “It’s such a strange story, I know, but along the way, all the time, wonderful things were happening.”
Asked how she can look back on her life with such positiveness and continue to embrace life, Levine explains: “There is only one decision a person in a situation like that can really take and that is whether to be a cause of sorrow for her family or to try, at least, to pull your weight as bearable citizen and human being, a wife and mother.”
TRYING TO live a full a life as possible is clearly the path chosen by Levine, who made aliya three years ago, fulfilling her and her husband’s long-time dream.
As we sit together in her pristine Zichron Ya’acov home, artfully decorated with the works of her middle daughter, who lives nearby, and adorned with rocks and other trinket reminders of Africa, Levine points to the cover of her self-published memoirs, a collection of poetry and prolific prose.
“I painted the cover; it’s of me in my garden in Rhodesia,” she says proudly, adding that she spent years learning how to bring her two hands together in order to hold instruments such as pens and paintbrushes.
“I don’t think people realize quite how disabled I really am, but a quadriplegic like me simply cannot look after themselves,” she says sadly. “I have a terrible dependency on other people, it is my greatest problem but I really can’t do anything, can’t do up a button, can’t do my hair, although I can put on my lipstick and my eyeliner but I must use two hands together, it’s a joke.”
Despite her obvious frustration – Levine admits she thinks about giving up on life for a “second or two every day” – she says life, on the whole, has been good.
“I have been a very fortunate quadriplegic,” she admits. “I had a good life in Zimbabwe and, thanks to my husband, was fortunate enough to travel.”
The two had always planned to move to Israel, she says, as soon as they were retired, but after working together with the community Israeli emissary in Cape Town, Norman died in 2007.
“We’d been coming to Israel for our holidays for the past 30 years,” says Levine. “My daughter was already living here and we had a home in Netanya. When Norman died, I decided to come here on my own.”
Although satisfied with her new life, Levine is still ambivalent about the move.
“I am still not sure,” she says, explaining that her entire existence depends on two nursing assistants that moved here with her from South Africa. Unable to become citizens or obtain regular work permits, the women might not be allowed to stay with her due to strict migrant worker laws.
“I looked into getting help here, but the Filipinos [the majority
of caregivers are from the Philippines] are simply not strong enough to
lift me up,” says Levine. “Besides, such a big change in routine is
very frightening for a quadriplegic. It’s so difficult for us to deal
with our daily ablutions, let alone trying to take on any new
But Levine does seem adept at new adventures. Her
move notwithstanding, even as she approaches her 80th birthday the
Guinness record holder is still keeping herself busy with work on two
new books – another novel and a book of poetry – and continually
experimenting with computerized artwork.
“I am always on the
computer, it’s amazing,” she says happily. “And I am always writing, I
did not try too hard to publish my memoir but everyone who has read it
says that I have a strong story to tell and that I should not hold back
from telling it.”