Much has been written about the trends and keys to longevity. One study last year (“Life Expectancy in the U.S. is Lagging,” World Economic Forum) predicts that the average South Korean will live six years longer than the average American. Others (“Eating to Break 100,” April 2015, Eliza Barclay) address the Blue Zones – parts of Greece, Sardinia, Japan, and Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, Calif.– where there are pockets of remarkable longevity based on diet, walking and social interaction.
What does Judaism tells us about old age? With Abraham living to 175 and Moses, 120, Deuteronomy 34:7 states that their “eyes were undiminished and vigorous.” Hasidic Rabbi Nachman Breslov said that “Jews are forbidden to feel old.”And as we wish others good tidings, we say, “May you live to 120!”
Two unrelated high-functioning centenarians, Sarah Berlin at the age of 104 and Ralph Sacks at the age of 100, shared their wisdom and memories.
Jaffe: What do you recall about the early days in Atlanta?
Berlin: We lived by Oakland Cemetery in Grant Park. Our store sold work clothes and was at Five Points, Decatur Street. Atlanta was a “hick town.” Street cars. No buses that I recall.
Sacks: Coming from Canada in 1948, we were shocked by Georgia segregation. My wife was puzzled by the label “colored” on water fountains. She was literally not understanding the white porcelain of the fountain base. Around 1960 we started to see changes at restaurants and theaters. We lived on Ponce de Leon right next to the popular Ponce City Market.
Jaffe: What was Jewish life like?
Sacks: Rabbi Harry Epstein was at Ahavath Achim downtown, where the bimah was in the center. He was transitioning the congregation from Orthodox to Conservative. Another memory was the rabbi was always fighting with Cantor [Joseph] Schwartzman.
My wife was head of early childhood education at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center within the Jewish Alliance downtown, then moving to a Buckhead location, which was in a mansion. This was before the AJCC building on Peachtree.
Berlin: My father, Charles Leffkov, a tailor at Muse’s, was one of the original charter signatures for Ahavath Achim Synagogue in 1900. His name is on the cornerstone. At that time, there were 115 original male members, not counting the women and children.
Jaffe: How did you spend your young adulthood?
Berlin: I was a volunteer Red Cross nurse driver. We went to jails to get blood from prisoners. Interestingly we only got it from the executive-type white collar criminals. I got a teaching degree and taught third grade at James L. Key Elementary School. I married late. I just couldn’t get him to agree to it so easily (laughing).
Sacks: I was in the Canadian Army and served during the war in England, Italy and Holland. I drove tow trucks to recover wrecked vehicles.
Jaffe: Do you have a special diet/exercise regime that keeps you healthy?
Sacks: I had a heart attack in 2011, which slowed me down a little. Now I do 75 push-ups a day and lift 10-pound weights. I avoid a lot of sugar, but basically eat what I want.
Berlin: For 30 years I walked three miles every day. I take vitamins. I eat what I want to also.
Jaffe: A huge predictor of longevity is family history. Did either of your parents live a long life?
Both: Not at all. Quite the contrary.
Jaffe: How about hobbies?
Berlin: I play canasta, attend lectures and current events discussions. I like opera. I used to be a good cook. My specialties were potato salad (my secret is pimientos and the right pickles) and mandel bread. Funny story: I volunteered at Emory Hospital for 40 years and made mandel bread for the cardiologists. The docs used to say, “My wife sure did like those cookies if you can make some more.”
Sacks: I still attend Sabbath services weekly. I love classical music and read the daily newspaper. I do enjoy my cocktails. I have a drink before dinner – vodka, bourbon, or rye. I do not like scotch or gin. I especially enjoy the open bar wine events we have here.
Jaffe: Describe the state of mind that has sustained you?
Berlin: I smile all the time and never complain.
Sacks: That’s right. I am content. I think longevity is luck.
Jaffe: Leave us with a laugh.
Berlin: When I was a young lady, I went into Boomershine Pontiac to shop for a car. I told the salesman that I had to ask my dad. He said, “Just take the car. Here are the keys and see if he likes it.” So I drove off. That’s how people did business back then.
Sacks: When I turned 100, I gave up driving. I applied for a legal ID card anyway, and they sent me a renewed driver’s license, valid until 2025!