Arrivals: Centenarian ascent

At age 100, Judith Brodkin has made aliya to Jerusalem.

Judith Brodkin_311 (photo credit: Brian Blum)
Judith Brodkin_311
(photo credit: Brian Blum)
At the sprightly age of 100, Judith Brodkin is one of the oldest immigrants ever to arrive from North America. Despite visiting some 15 times over the past 40 years, Brodkin never imagined she would end up living here. She was a devout Yiddishist, steeped in Yiddish literature and culture; indeed, she spoke only Yiddish for the first years of her life.
But when her health began to fail, she decided to join her daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren in Jerusalem.
Brodkin attended New York’s Hunter College, then a free school aimed at training women who wanted to be teachers. She subsequently worked most of her career in public schools as a high-school language teacher – in addition to Yiddish and English, she speaks French and German.
But it is her earliest years that stand out. Brodkin’s family was active in the Workmen’s Circle, an organization founded in 1900 with the aim of promoting secular Yiddish culture. In 1912, her parents moved to Clarion, Utah, the site of a brief experiment in Jewish rural living. At the same time as Zionists in Palestine were promoting the concept of a brawny new kind of Jew working the land, the Jewish Agricultural and Colonial Association was doing the same in the US.
Twenty-three families – including Brodkin’s – moved to Clarion that year, creating a secular socialist collective under the framework of the US land grant program.
“If you were willing to learn a little about agriculture, you could receive a piece of land,” Brodkin recalls. “The government even paid our transportation from New York to Utah.” This American “kibbutz” was all-Jewish, and everyone spoke Yiddish – a kind of “little house on the shtetl.” Life there was lonely, however – “I had no other children to play with,” she says – and the proto-commune went bankrupt by 1915.
Brodkin is not religious nor does she particularly consider herself a Zionist, though “I believe in having a Jewish state,” she says. Her daughter, Dina, and son-in-law, Moshe, however, became religious in 1969 and made aliya to Kibbutz Lavi, prompting the first of Brodkin’s many visits.
What does she think of her religious children? “Dina wanted to keep the dishes separate, so we arranged for it. I did think that some of the details were overdone, though,” she quips. Nevertheless, Brodkin was a regular visitor to the kibbutz and occasionally gave talks there on the Yiddish language. “It was a wonderful place,” she says.
100 Brodkin turned 100 in September. That’s five years beyond the next oldest immigrant, 95- year-old Zelda Weiner, who made aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh in July. How does it feel to reach a full century of life? “Well, it’s quite an accomplishment,” she says modestly, then adds that the mayor of the New Jersey town in which she lived “came to give me a proclamation” prior to her move. She is still in good health. “I had very intelligent parents. We didn’t eat junk food. We exercised.” She works out regularly now with a physiotherapist.
Brodkin’s husband worked as an air-conditioning engineer. He died in 1978. Other than her daughter, she has little family and, sadly, no friends left. “None of them have lived as long as I have,” she laments. But even at her age, she is open to meeting new people and she participates in activities at a senior center in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, where she now lives.
She enjoys writing poetry. “I kept records of my own life,” she says, including her many travels (in addition to her trips here, she once landed a Fulbright scholarship to Germany). She used to enjoy folk dancing but “not anymore,” she says. “I don’t need it at my age!”
While she was the only new immigrant on her flight, a large group from Nefesh B’Nefesh on a different plane landed at the same time, so she was able to enjoy the festive welcome. Is she proud to be an Israeli citizen after all these years? Absolutely, she says. “I did it because I wanted to do it. That’s it.”
Living with her family has its charms, but Brodkin says she’s ready for her “own place.” She hasn’t had much of an opportunity since her arrival to see much of the country – she hopes that will change. And perhaps she’ll even learn Hebrew.