‘I am in my 96th year, and I can’t believe it.”
Sitting opposite Sarah Zivitz in her small but tidy apartment in Jerusalem’s Bet Tovei Ha’ir Residence, I am having a hard time believing it myself.
Sharp as a tack and elegantly coiffed, she sits calmly in her chair and recalls dates, people and events with great accuracy. Tirtza Jotkowitz, Zivitz’s daughter who lives in Jerusalem, has joined us for the interview, but it is clear that her mother can hold up her end of the conversation quite well.
Sarah Seltzer was born in Salem, Massachusetts. Her mother, one of 11 children of a Belz Hassidic family that lived in Jerusalem’s Old City, married Reuven Seltzer, a student in the Hebron Yeshiva. Soon after their marriage, they moved to New York, and her father received rabbinic ordination (semicha), becoming the rabbi of a synagogue in Salem, Massachusetts.
The family left Salem after tragically losing two children in one year – one in the 1918 influenza pandemic and one in an accident – and moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, which was nicknamed “Little Jerusalem,” due to the high percentage of Jews living there. Her father left the full-time rabbinate and became a pharmacist, joining his brother’s business. Sarah attended the Crown Heights Yeshiva elementary school, one of just three girls in a class of 15.
Referring to her family, Sarah proudly displays a framed correspondence from 1936 between her grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Seltzer, secretary of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and Sen. Robert Wagner of New York, requesting a visa for a Rabbi Moses Feinstein who was stranded in Riga. Rabbi Feinstein arrived in the US shortly thereafter and became known as the preeminent halachic decisor of his generation.
Sarah married Avraham Moshe Spiegel in 1945 and has five children – three girls and two boys. Her husband was active in Agudath Israel, serving as the first director of Camp Agudah, and was one of the founders of the Agudath Israel synagogue in Far Rockaway. Sarah taught early childhood education for many years in Spring Valley and Long Beach, New York. Sarah’s husband died at age 47, and she remarried and moved to Deerfield Beach, remaining there after her second husband died.
SARAH BEGAN to think about moving to Israel several years ago.
“About six or seven years ago,” she says in her distinctive New York accent, “I decided that I eventually wanted to go to an assisted living facility. Life had changed for me. I came to Deerfield Beach with a group of friends, but everybody died. I started to look into different places, but nothing pushed me.”
Sarah relates that she had friends whose lives became disrupted when their parents became ill, frequently flying home to take care of them. “I made up my mind that I would not do that to my kids.”
Daughter Tirtza picks up the story and relates that while visiting Bet Tovei Ha’ir, she inquired if any apartments were for sale. They told her that an apartment had become available, but several people wanted it. Tirtza contacted her mother that afternoon.
“My daughter got me at a weak moment,” recalls Sarah. “She called me on a Wednesday and said,‘Get on a plane and try it out.’ My first reaction was,‘Are you are crazy? It’s almost erev Shabbat!”
Sarah thought it over, called El Al and booked a flight – “I paid top dollar” – and arrived in Israel on a summer Friday.
She signed on the apartment and returned to Florida. Her daughter from Virginia came to help, and her son in Israel flew in.
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” says Sarah.“I did not own the place in Florida, as it belonged to my late husband’s estate. I didn’t have to sell it. I even left canned vegetables in the cupboards.”
Six weeks later, she flew back to Israel, accompanied by her son, several suitcases, and two duffel bags.
“I can’t believe I did it,” she exclaims. “My son didn’t want me to come alone. I was 93 then. I told him I could do it on my own, but he said no, and I am glad he did. I think if I had thought too much, I wouldn’t have made it.”
How does she like living in Israel?
“I have hobbies,” says Sarah. “They have an excellent arts and crafts program, and I took up beading.”
Daughter Tirtza adds that her mother has made some 60 necklaces for her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.
Sarah has three children living in Israel – daughter Tirtza and two sons, and two daughters living in the United States. She does not know the exact number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren – “kenaynahara,” she intones, to ward off bad luck. Tirtza volunteers that there are 33 grandchildren.
Dealing with the corona pandemic was difficult, Sarah admits. “I spent last Passover  in my room. We were quarantined, and I made my own Seder by myself.”
Sarah does not have a computer, but she recently purchased a TV, and she enjoys reading. “I don’t like reading about the Holocaust. I want to enjoy what I am reading. I like Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, nothing great. They have a very nice English library here.”
Both due to corona and difficulty walking, she has not gone out much in the area. She has a group of friends in the building with whom she visits frequently.
Some of the residents at Bet Tovei Ha’ir are Hebrew-speakers, but Sarah manages reasonably well.
“I’ve been learning Hebrew since I was seven years old,” she says, which means she has been studying the language for 89 years. “I took it in high school and college. I realized that I have a tremendous knowledge of vocabulary. I used to be good at dikduk [Hebrew grammar]. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I lost it. I can get along with the Hebrew that I know if I’m comfortable with the people, and I don’t care if they laugh.”
When asked whether she is happy that she came to Israel, Sarah replies, “I think so. I don’t dwell. Am I happy I came? It’s something that I had to do. Nobody promised me a rose garden. So I try to make the best of what I can. In between came the virus, so I couldn’t go to my kids to where I normally would have wanted to go for Shabbat and yom tov.”
At the age of 96, Sarah says that it is very important to keep a sense of humor. What makes her laugh? “Anything that’s funny,” she deadpans. “I like people.”
She never thought that she would end up living in Israel, and is reminded of her mother, who wanted to return to Israel to live when she was in her 80s but wouldn’t leave Sarah and her brother. “She never came back to Israel to live, and here I am.”
From Salem to Far Rockaway, from Crown Heights to Jerusalem, Sarah Zivitz has seen and experienced quite a bit in her 96 years.
To what does she attribute her longevity? Zivitz gestures with her hand and points upward. “I have no advice. There is a Man above. It’s mazel.”
But when it comes to achieving success as a parent, she recalls an important lesson she learned years ago. “A psychologist said, ‘The only way you know if you did a good job is when your children grow up and get married. If you can make a life of your own, and your children can make a life of their own, then you were successful.’ That always stayed in my head.”
After 96 years, five children, 33 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, she can claim success in that area – kenaynahara.