Looking 100 squarely in the eye

Dr. Bertha Offenbach Fineberg made aliya at the age of 99 and now she is celebrating her 100th birthday with the ladies of Hadassah Hadar in Netanya.

By SARAH HERSHENSON
December 24, 2008 15:36
Looking 100 squarely in the eye

Bertha Fineberg 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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You have to make an appointment well in advance to meet ophthalmologist Dr. Bertha Fineberg. Her weekly schedule is full of family events, concerts, lectures and happenings among Netanya's English speakers. Although formally retired since age 82 from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (connected to Massachusetts General Hospital), she still does "sidewalk consultations" when someone come up to her, pulls an eyelid down, and asks "what should I do?" "I look at their problem," she replies, "and if I think they need to be seen by an eye doctor in his clinic, I tell them to do so, while making them comfortable and assuring them that they can be treated." Fineberg knows how to make people comfortable. Pediatric ophthalmology is her specialty. In her 50 years at MEEI she became an expert at examining children. "I would put them in my lap and calm them down," she explains. She became a licensed practitioner of hypnosis after she saw the technique used at MEEI to calm children when they entered surgery, and uses the same technique herself when she faces uncomfortable situations, such as a two-hour dentist appointment she wished to undergo without anesthesia. "Hypnosis is a wonderful therapeutic tool," she explains. "If it is done properly, there's no danger. I myself use it every day, if I meet something unpleasant. I just sit back in my chair and hypnotize myself." Bertha Offenbach Fineberg is personable, witty, and moves with the force of "a real dynamo," as her late husband, Dr. Nathan Fineberg - a plastic surgeon - once described her to their young daughter, Maxine. Bertha fondly tells how her daughter promptly went over to her older brother Edward and informed him, in her best Boston accent, "Do you know what Daddy just called Mother? He called her a dinosaur ("dino-so.")" Fineberg prefers "dynamo" to "dinosaur" because she is far from extinct. In March 2008, at the age of 99 and 3 months, she arrived as a visitor to Israel and a few months later opened a new chapter in her life. After Rosh Hashana, she decided to trade in her tourist visa for an aliya application so she would be eligible for new immigrant benefits. "I have never recognized obstacles in my life," Fineberg says, "I just proceed as if they're not there." Her determination, intellectual curiosity and sense of humor - as well as the people in her life - strengthen her in her venture through Israeli bureaucracy. Earlier this month, Fineberg celebrated her 100th birthday at a party with the women of Hadassah Hadar chapter in Netanya. "I became a life member of Hadassah while I lived in the States," Fineberg says. "It just took me time to become a Zionist." "[Hadassah founder] Henrietta Szold made her first visit to a yishuv in Palestine in the year that I was born. I find it exciting to be here and bring my daughter-in-law and granddaughter as life members into an organization that attracts bright, Jewish women who are interested in scholarship, medicine and Israel." Scholarship has always played an important role in Fineberg's life. She graduated Harvard University's Radcliffe College in 1931 - financing her own education during the Great Depression. A firm believer that "there is always a way," she points out that there is a book available that lists organizations offering assistance and scholarships. "You can even find [it] on the Internet," she says with a humorous lilt in her voice (if you thought for a minute that she doesn't know about computers). "Some organization will listen to your story and help you. Just get out there and do it." Bertha Offenbach was born in 1908 in Braintree, Massachusetts, outside Boston, and grew up in the farming community of Bridgewater. Her father, Isaac Offenbach, was from Poland and met and married her mother, Sarah, in England. The couple then immigrated to the United States. When Offenbach left Europe, he left organized religion, Fineberg explains. The only form of Yiddishkeit he passed down was the belief in goodness of the individual. "My first Bible classes were in the Congregational Sunday school in the small farming community where I grew up. My mother, on the other hand, had two Jewish practices she kept: she lit candles on Friday night and we ate matza on Pessah." Despite her non-Orthodox upbringing, she points out, five of the six Offenbach children married Jews. After Bertha married Nathan Fineberg, while still in medical school, she continued lighting candles and added the Pessah seder, as well as keeping a kosher home. "I developed a hunger to learn about Judaism when I was in college… a friend from Radcliffe invited me to my first Pessah seder. After that, I was on a roll." Fineberg attended a primary school that had three grades in a class, which she calls a "mind-expanding experience," because she was constantly picking up information not intended for her grade. After school was music time. The Offenbachs arranged for a music teacher to come to the house and instruct the children on a variety of instruments. Fineberg's brother Jack excelled on the trumpet and became a band director in the US Navy. Fineberg played the piano and her facility for sight-reading prompted her father to encourage her to become a professional musician. Nevertheless, she had other plans, preferring to study medicine. In her parents' home, Fineberg had observed her mother, the community's natural healer, dispensing medicines made from ingredients in jars and bottles on a shelf in the kitchen. The young Bertha was fascinated, watching neighbors rely on her mother's expertise. Fineberg was accepted to Harvard's Radcliffe College. Although the Radcliffe women were taught by Harvard professors, the medical course were given at Harvard itself, which at the time did not admit women. Defying protocol and aided by faculty mentors, Fineberg was allowed to attend Harvard Medical School's basic eye course. Her faculty sponsor suggested, however, that she make herself as inconspicuous as possible and not call attention to her presence in class by asking questions. When Metro asks whether she complied, she replies, "There are some rules that are meant to be broken." She became MEEI's first Jewish woman ophthalmologist, joining the Infirmary staff in 1940, following three other women doctors who had worked at MEEI. "I remember one of my first patients, a man, who, after I diagnosed his problem and prescribed treatment, asked if he could see the doctor now. Therefore, I referred him to a male doctor, who diagnosed and prescribed the same treatment as I did. The man left the hospital satisfied with his double diagnosis." Fineberg describes as a feather in her professional cap an article she published in the medical journal Lancet on a disease that causes the eye to bulge, the cause of which she determined to be metabolic. Music and study have always been an integral part of her life. "I saw to it that my children had music lessons and, when I reached the age of 45, and a medical colleague was selling his cello, I bought the instrument, took lessons, and played in the local orchestra. Why not?" At the age of 75, Fineberg celebrated her bat mitzva. Everyone in her class was younger, she admits, but her goal kept her moving forward. "I believe that one should look at the possibilities in life and not at the obstacles. Everyone has obstacles in their lives - it's how you meet them that shapes you as a person," she says. When asked if she has any practical tips for getting old in a healthful and graceful manner, Fineberg smiles and advises people to be reasonable in their expectations. "I watch my diet; don't eat many prepared foods; and stay away from fried, greasy items. Earlier in my career, I wrote and published The Lady Doctor's Cookbook, in which I gave recipes for invalids, the elderly, and bedridden, including a chapter on how you can keep children busy and productive in the kitchen. I also included recipes that are sugar-free or have low sugar content because one of my daughters is a diabetic." "Staying healthy is easily attainable, but you mustn't be a fanatic. One has to give in a little to desires. You may find in doing so that they are, or perhaps are not, so important or pleasurable as you thought." "In addition to healthy living, it is my desire to live in Israel. This is where we belong." Does she have any special advice or a recipe for a youth-giving elixir? "Aha," she answers. "Keep breathing. You'll get there - there's so much to live for!"

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