Even at age 94, for Shirley Zuckerman life is still sweet

Born in the Catskills town of Bethel, New York, the youngest of eight children, Shirley grew up on a farm that had little electricity, and as she smilingly adds, “little of anything.”

Shirley Zuckerman (photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
Shirley Zuckerman
(photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
After 94 years, Shirley Zuckerman can still taste the strawberries. Born in the Catskills town of Bethel, New York, the youngest of eight children, Shirley grew up on a farm that had little electricity, and as she smilingly adds, “little of anything.” Several years later, after making money in a Coney Island bakery business, her parents moved to a larger farm, in the nearby town of Wurtsboro.
The second farm had indoor plumbing, a barn, a chicken coop and an icehouse. It had 10 rooms, and her parents rented out rooms to boarders and summer visitors from New York who came to the mountains to escape the city heat. The farm, Shirley recalls, had a great deal of land, and they grew corn, strawberries, and blueberries.
Sitting in her Jerusalem apartment, she recalls those days and says, “You cannot believe the taste of wild strawberries. There is no comparison to regular strawberries. They are sweet like sugar.”
Visitors were provided with a kitchen and an icebox that held ice from the brook that froze in the winter. Her brothers would take out the ice and store it in the icehouse for use in the summer.
“We had a cow, and my mother made all kinds of things with it. She made different kinds of creams, and she used to make butter. The shochet (ritual slaughterer) came every week to kill the chickens, and we ate a lot of chicken.”
Laughing, she says that one of her brothers stopped eating chicken because one of the chickens was his favorite animal on the farm.
People stopped by often to buy eggs, she recalls. Shirley and her brother attended grammar school in a one-room schoolhouse that was equipped with a stove to keep the students warm in winter.
“In the wintertime, they went out to get wood from the woodshed for the stove. In the spring, we used to go for a walk with the teacher, and she explained about different plants, growths and trees. I really appreciated living on a farm.”
“The family farm was in the Catskills, and my brothers were comedians,” says Shirley. “Every Saturday night, they would put chairs out on the lawn.” People came for the shows to watch her brothers perform, and Shirley, who was nine or ten at the time, would sing between acts. “They called me Shirley Temple.”
Despite the seemingly idyllic life, Shirley experienced antisemitism in her childhood. Her family was one of the few Jewish farms in the area.
“There was a lot of antisemitism in Sullivan County,” she recalls. “They called us ‘dirty Jews’ when we were kids,” she remembers.
Shirley mentions the notorious radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, whose antisemitic views reached millions. Shirley graduated from high school in 1941. She moved to New York in her early 20s and worked for USO Camp Shows, a subsidiary of the USO, which provided entertainment to troops during World War II. Later, she worked for an advertising agency and rubbed shoulders with many stars, including Frank Sinatra, Morrie Amsterdam, Bing Crosby and others.
In 1952, Shirley married Leonard Zuckerman. After their marriage, they lived in Brooklyn. Leonard and Shirley had two sons, and they moved to Rockland County. Leonard worked as an optometrist, and Shirley worked at Rockland Community College for many years – “I did everything, and I ran the place” – and she also received a degree in education.
Years later, Bethel, the town where Shirley was born, became famous as the location of the famous Woodstock Music Festival, held in August 1969. That summer, Shirley was visiting her brother and sister-in-law who lived in the nearby town of Monticello.
“My sister-in-law was making sandwiches,” she recalls. “I asked her why she was making them. She said, ‘We have to feed all of those people.’ They had so many people that they didn’t have enough food, so all the locals made sandwiches, and the food was dropped in via helicopter.”
Living in Rockland Country, Shirley and Leonard enjoyed a comfortable life, but Shirley wanted to move to Israel.
“We made up our minds that someday we would move to Israel. I was the one who was pushing for it more. He was normal like everybody else. I wasn’t normal. I was a real Zionist! But he went along with it, and it was wonderful.”
In 1984, the Zuckermans moved to Israel, and Shirley still remembers the first day that they arrived.
“The first day I came to Israel was in January. I went out on the back porch, and the sun was out. I said, ‘Oh my God – I love it!’ It was so beautiful to me to have a Jewish homeland. It was the biggest thing in the world.”
By the time they arrived in Israel, their two sons were already living here. Shirley was retired, and husband Leonard was semi-retired, though he still worked in Israel on a part-time basis. They spent a great deal of time touring throughout the country.
“When we first moved to Israel, we went all over the country. It was safe to travel everywhere in those days,” she says.
Shirley and Leonard attended ulpan (Hebrew study class), but they never learned to speak fluently.
“We went to ulpan, but we spoke to our friends in English. That was a mistake,” she acknowledges. Leonard passed away in 2012, at the age of 91. Shirley shakes her head sadly and says, “He was the best.”
Shirley’s eldest son is an engineer and a rabbi and lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, and her younger son is a pediatric neurologist living in Oranit. She has eight grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren. Shirley would love to speak more with her great-grandchildren, but they don’t speak English well, and she cannot speak much Hebrew. Nevertheless, she tries to tell her family what life was like growing up on a farm in 1930s America.
“We had maple trees and my brothers placed buckets to hang on the trees. They took the sap, and then they took the buckets out from the trees. My mother would cook it on the stove, and then we got the real maple syrup. That was the biggest story I could tell them.”
Today, Shirley volunteers at the OU Israel Center weekly, where she helps prepare the OU Torah Tidbits booklets for distribution each week. At age 94, Shirley is the oldest volunteer working at the Israel Center, and while she has lost some of her mobility, she continues to be active, engaged and involved.
“I feel very comfortable here,” says Shirley. “I feel good about everything.”
While nothing compares to the taste of wild strawberries, overall, for Shirley Zuckerman, ‘Ha’haim shelanu tutim’ – her life is like strawberries – meaning life is sweet.