Anyone who thinks 100 is old has not met Ruth Davis. And for goodness sake, don’t make the mistake of telling her she’s sharp as a tack.
“I don’t like to be compared to a tack,” she will tell you.
Ruth recently went up for an aliyah at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom in honor of her 100th birthday. Another congregant, Eva Liebmann, also was on the bimah, celebrating her 90th. Both ascended the bimah under their own steam, spoke loudly and confidently, and indisputably disproved every stereotype of “old age.”
Asked how things have changed since she was young, Ruth — amused, gracious, but firm — said “I didn’t live in horse and buggy days.” She did note, however, that cars are quite different today. The major change is in the internet and telephones, she said. “They’ve changed our society, not necessarily for the better. We’re not communicating with each other. It’s very distressing.”
Ruth spent many years at the now-defunct Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield. She spoke fondly of her late rabbi, Dr. Jerome Blass, the synagogue’s longtime religious leader, family counselor, and former columnist for this newspaper. Describing herself as a traditionalist, Ruth said that at first she wasn’t happy with the music in her new synagogue, but has come to love the service. She fondly remembers winters in Florida, where “you could walk into any Conservative shul and hear the same thing. It’s no longer that way.”
Ruth was born in West New York on January 29, 1919. She grew up in Haworth, where she taught for many years. “I started out teaching in Bergenfield in 1940, then in Dumont, and then in Haworth,” she said. “I loved it. I have such wonderful memories. I looked forward to going to school each day.” She recalled having her students, around 10 years old, line up and dance to a refrain she sang to me. It was a tongue twister, but she had no trouble reciting it. As for the dancing, “the little boys hated it.”
“I gave it up to be at home when I got married,” said the former Ruth Kaufman, who married a family physician, Dr. Harold Davis. That marriage lasted for 39 years.
For her 100th birthday, “I had a bang-up party,” she said. “My son Sam is a lawyer in Teaneck. He should give up the law and do party-planning.” Sam, she said, created a newspaper detailing the story of her life, recalling songs she sang to her children and including her mother’s birthday cake recipe. Ruth had three sons. Her oldest son, Fred, an orthopedic surgeon, died last year. Her youngest son, Dan, who lives in Sharon, Mass., is the VP of human resources for MetLife in New Hampshire. When we spoke, Sam was in Israel. The founder and CEO of BAN, the Burn Advocates Network, his group runs three “Burn Camps” for children who have been severely injured in a fire or explosion.
“I have a very close and wonderful relationship with my grandkids,” she said. “They’re all in Manhattan, except for one in Idaho. We speak frequently.” She has one grandson and five granddaughters. “I wanted a daughter so badly,” she said. “Then when I kept getting granddaughters, it was like manna from heaven.”
Ruth said that she spent a good deal of time in Boca Raton. During that time, she did volunteer work at a childcare center for indigent children. “I’m still in touch with the personnel there,” she said. “They were such wonderful years.” She also did volunteer work closer to home, citing drives she ran for the March of Dimes and for mental health. “It was a big part of my life,” she said, adding that the secret to a long life is to have a daily glass of wine, along with “laughing, loving, and giving — to friends, and as volunteers.”
Because she has limited mobility, nowadays Ruth spends a good deal of time listening to audiobooks. “It’s wonderful,” she said, and you can listen on Amazon’s Alexa. “When my granddaughter Alexa is here, that makes it difficult,” she joked. She recently listened to the book “Yiddish for Pirates,” which she summarized in detail, pointing out that “It’s about a young man, adopted in Europe, who becomes a pirate inadvertently. The parrot is the narrator. It speaks Yiddish.
“My own Yiddish is quite adequate now,” she said, although it used to be better. She attends a Yiddish club once a month in Paramus.
She also enjoys the books of Alexander McCall Smith, though she prefers his Scotland Street stories to the Botswana-based detective series. “I especially enjoy the books about the German professors at Heidelberg who are just crazy,” she said
A serious dog lover, Ruth said she was not surprised at the results of the Westminster Dog Show. “The judge had entered several terriers he had trained,” she said, so choosing a terrier as the winner came as no surprise. She has a Maltipoo, “seven pounds of love. You’ve seen his picture on so many greeting cards.”
Another “love of her life” is the music of Gilbert and Sullivan, which she sang at William Paterson College, then a teacher’s college, when she was a student there. She had no trouble reeling off the names of their operettas, stumbling only once when she forgot “Ruddigore.” (Learning that this correspondent also had sung Gilbert and Sullivan in college, she said how wonderful it was to meet “a fellow Savoyard.” The name is derived from the Savoy Theatre, which Richard D’Oyly Carte built to house the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.]) “At one point I could sing whole operettas,” she said. “When I would go to a doctor’s office and sit and wait in an exam room, I would start at the beginning of an operetta and sing until the doctor came.”
Her love of music has continued. When she needs a burst of energy, “Every so often I ask Alexa to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebees’ or ‘The Typewriter,’” she said. Sometimes, however, she will ask for Brahms. “I sing at home all the time,” she said. “I’ve always loved music.” She also composes verse, she said, reeling off several of compositions from memory.
Ruth goes to Hazak meetings twice a month. “It’s a delightful group, with varied programs,” she said. “I like the people there,” guessing that many were “80-ish. They have klezmer now and then, or a movie or speaker. We’re going to have chair yoga.”
Eva Liebmann was born on February 1, 1929. She is 90. She is a mainstay of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, and arguably she is as active today as she has ever been.
Many things have changed over the last nine decades, and Eva has changed with them — although she admits to being stumped by the new melodies attached to old prayers, and so she is content to hum them. “It took me so long to learn what I knew,” she said.
Eva remembers the Great Depression clearly. “It certainly helped form me,” she said; it strongly influenced her attitude toward money, material things, and family life. “I once asked my father for a nickel for ice cream and he said no. At that time you could buy a loaf of bread for a dime.”
But she did get that ice cream after having her tonsils removed. She also got 10 cents for the movie theater, right around the corner, “where I could watch two movies, one or two serials and maybe cartoons, the news, and coming attractions. The first 50 children to enter the movies got a free comic book. I always got a comic book.”
Her parents came here during World War I. The countries they came from are in some doubt, she said, because the borders shifted so frequently. When questioned, her mother would say, “Polish? Russian? German? The hell with all of them. We were Jews.”
Eva remembers that when she was a child, “we didn’t have a television, a telephone, or a refrigerator or freezer. My mother shopped almost every day. When my uncles in Brooklyn wanted to speak to my father, they called the candy store on the corner. The candy store owner would find someone to ring our bell. My father would have to walk down three flights of stairs and walk to the candy store to answer the phone. When we finally got a phone, it was a party line, which was awful.”
Eva, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, met her husband, Lee, in 1951. It was a double blind date, and Lee was not her date. He was born in Germany, got out soon before Kristallnacht, and went to England, where he waited until 1946, when he was able to get to the United States. Raised in a “European-oriented home, I always liked European boys,” Eva said. “I preferred them to American boys.”
Eva and Lee moved to Teaneck in 1959 and started to attend Beth Sholom right away. (Eva has lived in the same house for 60 years.)They became dues-paying members in 1960. Lee died in November 2016.
In 1959, Beth Sholom was small. “The congregation had bought a small church when it started,” Eva said. “The sanctuary was a long narrow room with two pews on either side of a center aisle. There must have been about 20 rows with seats for about 200 to 230 people.” Congregants decided to expand the building; they met in a storefront on West Englewood Avenue during construction.
“We had a Hebrew school, and my children received a good Jewish education,” Eva said. And with many business people and manufacturers in the congregation, “every year we had a huge bazaar. Everyone donated the goods. I remember tables with large bolts of fabric, handbags, etc. It was a big fundraiser.” Oh yes, she recalled, the annual gala featired women in evening gowns and men in tuxedos. The band played mostly ballroom music.
It is clear from her recollections that Beth Sholom’s ongoing musicality can be traced to the leadership of founding rabbi Barry Schaeffer. “The rabbi had an operatic singing voice, and he was also the cantor,” Eva said. “His wife was a musician, and she led a choir that sang during the high holidays. She also wrote and directed plays for the Hebrew school that were performed before the entire congregation. They had Saturday night musicals at their home and invited members of the congregation to join them in listening to beautiful music.”
If kiddush was a simple affair — the children had juice and cookies, enjoyed in a separate room — it nevertheless was a time to connect with other congregants, “and because it was a small congregation, everyone knew everyone.”
Yiddish was Eva’s first language — to her regret, she no longer speaks it — and “I was raised on European fairy tales, as well as stories of pogroms,” she said. She also learned about her incredible grandmother, who supported an underground effort to help Jewish boys avoid conscription into the Russian army.
“A bed was made for my mother and aunt with a false bottom beneath the top mattress where a man could hide and spend the night. If the police came looking for someone, my grandmother would say, ‘Look wherever you like; just don’t disturb my children because you will frighten them.’”
Her family’s religious observance was strict. “We couldn’t play ball or cards on Shabbat and I went to synagogue with a hankie safety-pinned to my dress,” she said. Her mother was so cautious that she made her father paint the cabinets each year before putting in the Pesach dishes.
Eva’s two children, both writers, no doubt were influenced by their mother’s passion for books. “I love books,” she said, adding that she spent many hours during her youth in the New York City public library system. Indeed, her first volunteer stint at Beth Sholom involved books. “The rabbi had a small room with books, totally disorganized, so I organized them.” She also became the synagogue’s first librarian.
Also in the early days, “When the original building was going to be renovated, the younger members in the congregation wanted to get rid of all the plaques in the shul. I and another woman physically took the plaques off the pews. We also rescued one pew, part of a stained glass window, and the ner tamid. All the things we saved are now in the Heritage Room in the synagogue lobby.”
While she has had various careers, Eva worked primarily in the field of interior design. When she moved to Teaneck, she got a degree in education and taught part-time in Teaneck for six years. In 1973, she started teaching full time in Haworth and got two master’s degrees — one in special education and one enabling her to be a learning disabilities consultant.
In 1988, she had an adult bat mitzvah. Afterwards, “several women and I decided we wanted to study more, so we started a class in Tanach. We started with Bereshit, finished the Tanach, and kept going for 14 years, meeting every Tuesday evening. We had the same leader for 13 years. He was a volunteer and a member of the shul. He was a wonderful teacher.”
When she retired in 1990 — having taken what she calls a hiatus from volunteering at the shul — she turned her attention once again to the synagogue. “I co-chaired the Dinner Dance for over 10 years and the chesed committee for about 13 years. I have been on many nominating, social action, and other committees.” In addition, she is a lifetime member of the Board of Trustees and received the Shofar Award in 2008 for service to the congregation.
Eva is particularly proud of the Kristallnacht remembrance programs she has run. She chaired her first such event in 2008, marking the 70th anniversary since Kristallnacht. “It was held in the sanctuary, and the entire community was invited. We had a very good turnout. We’ve had a program every year since then. This past year, we commemorated the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht under the auspices of Hazak. People were moved to tears.”
She now is working on a new project, “an intergenerational program where teenagers meet with seniors once a month for discussion and dinner. We hope to continue this program next year.” Also, under the auspices of the Adult Education Committee, “I have just started a program to share adult education programs between Congregation Beth Sholom and Congregation Gesher Shalom in Fort Lee.
Are synagogues the same today?
When she was young, “There were no social activities in the synagogue,” she said. “It was strictly davening and Hebrew school,” which she hated, frightened of the rabbi who carried, and used, a ruler on students’ knuckles. “I think synagogues are better today, and I think it’s good that we’re in the suburbs,” she said. “It’s different from a shtetl. We have a greater sense of the synagogue as a community — not just a place to daven, but a community.” Because she has lost many friends, “most of my social life now is with people in the congregation, despite an age difference.”
She noted as well that when she was growing up, she never saw a stroller or very young children at services. “Now we have young families who bring their children to shul on Shabbat in strollers.”
Beth Sholom, in particular, also is different in many ways.
“Beth Sholom has a large number of members who have gone through day school and are knowledgeable in Hebrew learning,” Eva said. “That was not the case in the beginning. Women could or could not read Hebrew, but many did not know what they were reading.” Today, she said, women have equal roles in the synagogue service. Also, while many members in the past were manufacturers and business people, today, “many are rabbis, teachers, lawyers, social workers, and doctors. The number of rabbis is amazing!
“The congregation is wonderful,” she continued. “It takes seriously tzedakah and chesed, and that’s more important than anything. If we’re not good people, then all the prayers in the world don’t mean a thing.
“My mother was a devout Jew and my father was a socialist. My mother stressed tzedakah and chesed and my father stressed social justice. To me, they are the same. It is important to me that the Beth Sholom community share these values as well.”