In advance of her 101st birthday last month, Helen Regenstein’s Daughters of the American Revolution chapter, where she serves as parliamentarian, honored her at Park Place for a mere 80 years of membership.
Regenstein is the granddaughter of one of the five Moses brothers who fought for the South from the beginning to the end of the Civil War. Andrew Jackson Moses and some two dozen other members of the extended family fought for the South in some of the first and last battles of the war.
There’s quite an illustrious history in belonging to the DAR, especially for a Jewish belle.
She grew up in Sumter, S.C., and married attorney Louis Regenstein, Jr., chairman of the board of Regenstein’s department store in Atlanta, started in 1872. It was the first company in the South to hire a female salesperson.
Her family in South Carolina served in the American Revolution, and Rachel Moses –the daughter of the family’s “founding father,” Myer Moses — is the only Jewish female known to have been killed by the British during the Revolutionary War, being fatally wounded during the siege of Charleston by a cannonball that destroyed their home in 1780.
Helen’s great-great-grandfather was Isaac Harby, the leading founder of America’s Reform Judaism. Understanding her history was the main event for the tribute in her honor Oct. 27 in advance of her birthday three days later.
She is truly remarkable. In an interview about her longevity, she told me that six days a week she drives her silver Jaguar to Jeanne’s Body Tech in Buckhead for pilates and yoga.
“I started working out at Jeanne’s when it was a backyard tool shed” circa 1975. Son Reg said, “Watch out! Mom drives anywhere she wants at the drop of a hat, even in rush hour. When we go to an event, she wants to drive!”
Helen said she has no particular diet. “At 104 pounds, I eat whatever I want, when I want, but I do not like stewed okra.”
Reg recently followed her lead. “Since I’m a vegetarian, after 50 years of admonishing her that red meat will kill her, I finally stopped at her 100th birthday.” Ice cream and popcorn are favorites.
Both of Helen’s parents died around 80 and her younger siblings are deceased. Helen is an avid reader and recently finished “A Gentleman from in Moscow” by Amor Towles. She has read it twice since, because “it was so beautifully written.”
Helen, known for her designer couture, said, “The good news is I haven’t bought anything new because I can still fit into my old clothes. I do miss wearing high heels!” She mused that the key to longevity is luck.
She concluded, “Who wants to read all this about me anyway? My father used to say ‘A person should only be in the newspaper twice, when you’re born and when you die.’”
But Helen’s rich Jewish family history is worthy of more than a passing mention.
One branch of the extended family, the Levys, were responsible for preserving Monticello, the Virginia home of our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson.
Commodore Uriah P. Levy, a naval officer, bought the dilapidated estate after Jefferson’s death. His nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, completed the restoration and arranged for it to be a private foundation, then a national monument.
Commodore Levy fought in the War of 1812, rose to the highest post in the Navy, and is credited with leading the fight to abolish flogging in the service. His father Michael Levy was a member of the Silver George’s Regiment, protecting Philadelphia from the British during the Revolution.
Uriah Levy’s maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, came to Charlestown as an indentured servant in 1756, and gained his freedom. He married Rebecca Machado, granddaughter of Dr. Samuel Nunez. Among the guests who danced at the family wedding in 1762 was “the Virginia planter and soldier, George Washington,” according to son Reg, who sent an 800-word family tree.
Dr. Nunez was once the personal physician to King John V of Portugal, and fleeing persecution under the Inquisition, came with a boatload of other Portuguese Jews to Georgia in 1733, landing in Savannah,
When Nunez arrived as the first physician in Georgia, half the colony had died of “fever” (probably malaria), but he is credited with saving the rest of the colony. The Nunez family traces its ancestry back to the family of King David of Israel, from which the family was expelled by the Romans over 2,000 years ago.