An encounter with Edith Lieberman

‘My father was a Revisionist Zionist, and I started going to Betar meetings at age six.

Laniado Medical Center (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Laniado Medical Center
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I really have no idea what to expect as I wait to meet Edith Lieberman in the emergency room reception area of Laniado Medical Center in Netanya, aside from what I’ve been told: She is 92 years old, has been married for 70 years, and still works at the hospital every day.
She shows up in the lobby, barely five feet tall, even with the large religious woman’s hat she is wearing.
By way of greeting, Mrs. Lieberman scolds me for waiting for her in the lobby and not out at the gate, as she had instructed me to do. She then tells me to follow her to her office.
Convalescing from a recent fall, she moves with a walker, charging ahead through a maze of corridors, and I have difficulty keeping up with her. We arrive at her office, where a small pile of messages wait to be answered and several minor issues need to be resolved.
“I had hoped that at this point there would be less work for me to do, but it seems to become more every day,” she grumbles under her breath. We sit down, she offers me two different kinds of cookies and a choice between seltzer and a diet soda. I pour myself a plastic cup of seltzer, grab a cookie, and Lieberman begins to tell the story of her extraordinary life.
Born Edith Bochner in Berlin on Yom Kippur, October 8, 1924, she has traveled a very long, winding and colorful path to get where she is today.
“My parents came from Galicia. My father was a soldier in World War I for the Emperor Franz Joseph. He was caught by the Russians and sent to Siberia.”
When the war was over, her father made his way to Germany and prospered there, manufacturing men’s clothing.
“This is how he saved us when the Nazis came to power. When my father came to Germany, he came with knowledge to be an excellent tailor. His father and uncles were all tailors in men’s clothing.
“My father established very, very quickly a place to make clothing. He had a lot of people working for him. But my father made a pledge. He had been a prisoner of the Russians in Siberia.
“He pledged that nobody would ever catch him again. And that whenever anything came up that might be bad, he would pick up and leave. My father always believed that life is more important than money and riches. So this is why, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he took the advice of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who said to leave Germany as fast as you can.
“My father was a member of the Revisionist Party under Jabotinsky. In 1934 we fled Germany. When my father left he left everything, including the material on the table, so nobody should ever think that they were still there. We left just with suitcases we could carry with us.”
The family, however, was not yet finished with Europe. “We moved to Yugoslavia. And in Yugoslavia my uncle already had a manufacturing place for men’s clothing, and my father went to work with him. And he did very well with my uncle in the business here, opening up 15 stores.
“In 1937 the Nazis came to the border of Yugoslavia. My father said, ‘Let’s leave. There’s no future for us here.’ But my sister was born in 1936 and we could get into the quota for her to come to America, so we had to wait until 1938. In 1938 we moved to America, to Cleveland, Ohio.”
Safely ensconced in America’s Midwest, her parents opened a clothing store called Elegant Clothes, which she says was the first Shabbat-observant men’s clothing store in Cleveland.
“And when the Telz Yeshiva came to Cleveland, they were able to buy shatnez- free [strictly Orthodox] clothing from my father.” The family moved to New York in 1944, and opened Edith Hosiery Shop on 13th Avenue in Boro Park, Brooklyn, the first nylon stocking shop in Brooklyn, where Lieberman sold nylons.
Lieberman meanwhile breezed through high school and was accepted to Case Western Reserve University with a scholarship and the desire to one day become a surgeon. “I don’t know why,” she says, laughing. “I always wanted to be a doctor.”
But when the United States entered World War II and her brother had to help their mother in the clothing store, Lieberman had to leave school to take care of their youngest sister. She became a first-aid instructor, a swimming teacher, and sold US War Bonds.
Due to rising crime in the neighborhood, her father sold the store in 1944, left Cleveland, and moved to the Jewish enclave of Boro Park in Brooklyn, New York. Predictably, Lieberman’s father opened yet another men’s clothing store, while she developed and began to act on a strong political awareness which, she says, had begun years earlier.
“My father was a Revisionist Zionist, and I started going to Betar meetings at the age of six. I met Ze’ev Jabotinsky in Berlin and later in Yugoslavia. Already in Yugoslavia, I was regularly attending Betar meetings, going out to our backyard and learning how to shoot with a BB gun.
“When we moved to Cleveland, I became more active in the Betar movement, and when we finally moved to New York, I became a Betar commander.
My boss was Moshe Arens, even though he was a year younger than me.
And I organized New York for Betar, worked for the Etzel [Irgun Zva’i Leumi] underground, and collected money and munitions.”
She was also “very much involved” with sending weapons intended for the Irgun on the ill-fated cargo ship Altalena, sunk by the Hagana off Tel Aviv.
She was married in 1947 to Abe Lieberman, who had served in the US Army during World War II along with his three brothers. The youngest was killed in the invasion of Normandy.
Lieberman worked as a gym teacher and swimming instructor, at Esther Schoenfeld High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and at Yeshiva University High School in Brooklyn, and also at Camp Morasha and Camp Hillel for almost 30 years. After one visit to Israel by herself in 1967, she, her husband and five sons finally made aliya on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 1971.
“I hardly attended ulpan, because someone had to make a living. Nobody wanted to hire me, because I did not know Hebrew fluently at all. My first job was at the YMCA as a swimming teacher. I was there for almost nine months.
“No Jewish institutions would hire me, because I didn’t know Hebrew well enough. But I got very involved with the city of Netanya. We came to Netanya.
I wanted a private home. We had just about enough money to make a deposit on a private house. And I got very involved with the city.”
Aside from becoming active in the Likud, voluntarily organizing and working for the party at election time, Lieberman’s involvement with her new hometown included helping to create the hospital where the two of us are chatting now.
She tells me, “One day I wasn’t feeling very well. I had terrible pains, and I thought I was having a heart attack. My husband wasn’t home, and we didn’t have a phone, so I went to my neighbor and asked her to call our kupat holim [health fund] for a doctor. But the doctor didn’t want to come.
“He told me to take nitroglycerin and go to a hospital if I didn’t feel better.
Nobody was home, and there was no hospital here in Netanya.”
Later, feeling somewhat better, Lieberman went to the hospital in Hadera.
She learned there that she was not having a heart attack, but resolved at that moment to organize the creation of a hospital in Netanya.
“There was no hospital, but in Kiryat Sanz, there was a rebbe there who had started something. I marched myself down there, through rain and mud.”
She found a small one-building clinic, built in 1959 under the auspices of the Sanzer Rebbe, Yekutiel Halberstam.
She was hired on the spot to contribute her skills in organizing and fund-raising, and out of that grew the Laniado Medical Center we see today, in which Lieberman is the longest-serving and oldest employee, with the title of senior staff officer of the Public Relations Department.
“To me it’s not that important what I’ve done in the past, or what I’m still doing now,” Lieberman insists. “What’s important is what I am trying to see get done in the future. Now that I’m a senior citizen, with all the problems, and my husband is lying here as a patient for four years in an unconscious state, I find that the systems that are running today for the elderly are inadequate. It’s just not right.”
She points to the present system of importing caregivers who are underpaid and, as a result, she says are often under-motivated.
In addition, Lieberman believes that health-fund doctors today have abrogated too many of their functions and responsibilities, preferring to “dump” all manner of patient treatment to hospitals, particularly when treating the elderly.
“You go to a doctor today, they’ve got their computers. First of all you sit outside and wait, wait, wait trying to see the doctor. You come inside, and they’re still busy with their computers, and after five or 10 minutes finishing up what he’s doing, he says to you, ‘What’s wrong?’ Then ‘Okay, I’ll give you this’ and you walk out.
“Your blood pressure isn’t taken.
You’re not examined in any way.
Nothing at all is done. And then he sends you with a note telling you to go to the hospital and have whatever it is treated there.
“There should be a whole change in this system today, whereby it works the opposite way. Take the load off the people at the hospital. We are not at all prepared today to deal with the elderly.
What’s the point of living to old age if you’re just going to get what the elderly get here now?” After a moment of reflection, Lieberman concludes, “My whole life has been about health and well-being. I want to see people reach old age. I don’t want to see people having Alzheimer’s disease.
There’s no need for that to happen.
“Starting at the age of 40, people need to start protecting themselves by taking vitamins, minerals and supplements.
They need to stop taking medicines for pain to put them to sleep at night.
“All these add up in the body, which affects the brain. I want to see people watch what they’re doing, being physically active, eating limited amounts of food, and eating good food which will help them lose weight – protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits.”
Asked to account for the success of her marriage, now spanning 70 years, Lieberman says simply, “I love my husband.
And even though we might have had differences, neither of us would ever go to sleep at night, even if we were angry, without kissing and saying goodnight.”
She concludes our interview by saying that she loves the Land of Israel, loves God, loves people and wants to help them as much as she can. She grabs her walker, escorts me again through a maze of corridors, and leaves me at the exit door, telling me to exercise more and lose weight. Thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.
Edith Lieberman’s husband, Abe, died on the eve of Tisha Be’av, after this article was written.