Aliyah and anxiety: The tale of a reluctant olah

Minnie’s days are full: reading, doing 1,000-piece puzzles, Skyping with son and family, playing Scrabble, all the while grateful to her daughter and family.

Minnie Smilchensky with her physician Dr. Lynn Zacharowitz, both recent olim (photo credit: ELISHEVA KOLATCH)
Minnie Smilchensky with her physician Dr. Lynn Zacharowitz, both recent olim
(photo credit: ELISHEVA KOLATCH)
The 1,000-watt smile and twinkling eyes are the first things you notice about 96-year-old Minnie Smilchensky. The second is the book she’s reading: As Long as I Live by Aharon Margolit, a bestselling chronicle of perseverance amid multiple challenges.
The neatly coiffed hair, tasteful pastel blouse with simple gold necklace emblazoned “Ima Nehederet” follows, and only then you realize she’s in a wheelchair. Minnie speaks English, laughing about her poor Hebrew (“Nonexistent! Despite many attempts at ulpan!”), calling herself “The oldest reluctant olah.”
It’s Day 12 following Minnie’s hospital discharge following leg surgery after a nasty fall. The medical kupah’s physical therapist, already there that morning, insisted Minnie put pressure on the leg in four half-hour sessions weekly. The hospital discharge instructions sternly warn Minnie to stay off the leg for several weeks. Minnie shakes her head, the contradictions bewildering: Is it Hebrew? Bureaucracy? Middle East?
Minnie’s private physician, herself a recent olah, hovers in the background. Dr. Lynn Zacharowicz is formidable; knows her medicine, loves her patient. Those energies plus her no-nonsense manner, discipline and definite opinions have kept Minnie healthy and thriving despite two serious operations since Minnie’s Israel visit, the fall of 2018. That autumn trip, initially scheduled as a routine holiday visit, ended up being the impetus for the quickest aliyah in history, Guinness Book World Record-worthy for fastest documentation processing. Within 2.5 weeks, Minnie had her teudat zehut with 9-digit ID number and photo of her likeness atop, complete with quizzical expression – “WHAT am I doing here?”
Those holiday Israel trips were ongoing for years ever since Minnie’s daughter, Golda, then a single, 23-year-old, upped and left a promising New York career to follow her dreams. Minnie recalls Golda saying, “‘I don’t need to make Americans richer. I want to help Israelis in Israel.’ I cried that night, telling my husband, ‘She’s not coming back.’” That was in 1983. (Minnie was right.)
At first, Minnie and husband of 53 years, Rabbi Joel Smilchensky, would faithfully visit biannually, spending the holidays in the loving company of Golda (since married), husband Michael Doniger, and four wonderful children. Following her husband’s death, despite debilitating spinal stenosis, Minnie would continue, traveling with a companion to help navigate and assist with her daily care. On each of these visits, Golda would try to convince her mother to stay. “I married late,” Golda recounts. “With a young daughter and elderly mother, both sides of the Atlantic needed me. It was impossible. I just wished my mother would move here.”
But moving to Israel was not an easy sell. Minnie Breslow grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Richfield Park, New Jersey, one of four siblings of first-generation American Jews. The State of Israel, while always of concern, was in the background and so foreign. Life was good in America for Jews. Her family owned their own two-story house in south New Jersey, with her father’s stationery store on the ground floor and the family living quarters above. Minnie was quiet and shy, a voracious reader and introvert. There were not many marriage prospects in her small New Jersey town. “If I am to get married,” she told her mother, “He will have to come find me in this house.”
She got God’s ear on that one. Her father was on the “search committee” for a new rabbi for the town’s small synagogue. So when young Joel Smilchensky, a recent Yeshiva University rabbinical school graduate, came to the southern town to try his luck, he was steered to the home of the search committee president. Minnie recalls thinking, “This guy is so not ‘with-it,’” when they first met. That opinion soon changed; after a few short weeks and whirlwind courtship, the young couple married.
THE NEXT decades found Minnie in Brooklyn, NY, her husband the beloved, lifelong rabbi of Sheepshead Bay-Shelbank Jewish Center, and she, devoted wife and mother, lovingly raising her two children (Golda and Ben, her younger son, now a successful investment banker in Westchester). “I don’t remember my mother ever raising her voice,” Golda recalls. “In all the years, she never criticized or complained. Being a mensch was the life lesson I learned in my mother’s home.”
Minnie was involved with her extended family, ran an open home, volunteered in the community and shul, and was a mainstay for the Braille Institute, spending painstaking hours manually preparing Braille sheets for the sightless. “This was before computers and other mechanical visual aids,” Minnie recounts. “The work was delicate; you had to push a thin metal rod into a special paper to form each letter. I trained for six months. You needed patience, spending hours upon hours; one small mistake and you had to throw the page out and start all over. All volunteer work, I loved doing it.”
Following her husband’s death in 2013, the entreaties to move grew more intense. “But, how can I leave Eitan?” Minnie protested. “I promised Eitan (her oldest grandchild with whom she was very close) I would not leave until he married.” The joke was on her. Due to the economic downturn and fed up with the American scene, Eitan himself was planning aliyah, a job and Katamon apartment lined up for early 2019. Minnie was stuck, doomed to come to Israel.
That’s where Providence stepped in. During that fateful visit to Israel in fall of 2018, Minnie woke up with a gaping grapefruit-sized pelvic abscess, and was rushed to Hadassah-University Medical Center, where she was greeted by an emergency room physician declaring, “Operation now, or you won’t make it to the morning.” Despite the odds, the resilient nonagenarian survived, but the recovery would be slow. Between the stenosis and months of rehabilitation, travel back home to the US was out.
Golda’s determined faith came into play. Within hours, documentation jump-starting aliyah was faxed from the US to Jerusalem. Birth certificate? No digitized records available from those years. No problem. Ben drove to the Richfield Park courthouse to find an old, yellowing book with the handwritten details of Minnie Breslow’s birth. Appointments with the Interior Ministry were scheduled. Round-the-clock meetings and telephone entreaties ensued. The Nefesh B’Nefesh representative said, “Three months.” Golda’s response: “My mother gets out of the hospital in one week. I need medical coverage NOW.”
That’s where making aliyah is at its best. The Nefesh B’Nefesh representative? Turns out her husband’s brother’s ex-wife was Golda’s roommate. Classic protectzia–Israeli style. Waiting times cut. Appointments moved up. The Misrad Hapnim representative personally comes to Golda’s house, delivering teudat zehut papers.
In parallel, the depressing rounds to find appropriate medical facilities started. Standing on a Jerusalem street corner, tears streaming, Golda was determined: “NOT putting my mother into a home. She will live with us.” Us was a three-bedroom apartment on the top floor with no access to the street, except via eight steps not maneuverable by a wheelchair.
And medical care? Golda remembered a former high school classmate who recently made aliyah. Lynn was a physician, internal medicine board-certified – maybe she needed temporary work? Lynn was game. That was nearly two years ago; the temporary position is a full-time, nine-hour daily love and care fest between doctor and patient.
The prognosis? Very positive, thank God. Surrounded by the love of adoring grandchildren, under the hawk eye of her personal physician, Minnie’s stenosis disappeared. The excruciating pain is gone. Diabetes is under control. The leg operation? Minnie was told to expect things to go downhill; but she is soldiering on, doing her daily steps with her walker across the living room, getting stronger on her feet. She WILL go down those eight steps and see Israel.
And when not walking, Minnie’s days are full: reading, doing 1,000-piece puzzles, Skyping with son and family, playing Scrabble (with mean triple word scores!) and acing iPhone’s Wordscape. The mind is sharp, humor intact. She doesn’t complain. Not a word of criticism. She is eternally grateful to her daughter and family.
What does she miss? Not New York, but independence. What is difficult? Not knowing the language. What would she want to do? “I miss being useful.” The lifelong volunteer isn’t ready to retire. She still has something to give.
And yes, she’s got to strengthen the leg. She promised Eitan to jitterbug at his wedding – in Israel.
Minnie Smilchensky, 96
From Westchester, New York
to Har Nof, Jerusalem, 2018