The recent death of the world’s oldest person at 118 brings on more conversation about the growing number of centenarians. While genetics plays a key role, as well as where one lives, social support can influence the odds.
New centenarian Selma Merbaum was honored at two local synagogues to celebrate her momentous occasion. Judaism and her resiliency certainly play a key role in her life of contentment.
Daughter Sabina Slaw said, “Mom was active on synagogue boards, and National Council of Jewish Women. She will tell anyone that is Jewish that the first trip they take should be to Israel. She (and Izzy) have been there five times, and on two of those trips, they volunteered on the army base. Judaism has always been important in maintaining a kosher home, attending services, and making sure we children had a Jewish education.”
What was life like in 1923?
Merbaum was born in Brooklyn N.Y., and grew up in The Bronx. She said, “I remember all the streetcars, and the peddlers. I grew up in a small apartment above a retail store. We had heat from radiators, but no air conditioning. No telephone, on the rare occasion that there was a call for my family, the shopkeeper would yell up the window, ‘Bernstein-Call.’
She loves to reminisce about the specific vendors like, “Jake the pickle man,” and all the others.
After high school, Merbaum started college, but was unable to finish when the need for work/income called. She was a deputy zone commander for the Air Warden Service in 1943. And, in 1945, she worked in the Navy Yard and was recognized by the U.S. Navy for her service.
Merbaum was then briefly married to Dr. Sol Krell, but the marriage was short-lived as he passed away after four years. She remarried Isidore Merbaum and were together for more than 50 years. They had two children and five grandchildren. She feels very fortunate that her son, David, who is a lawyer, along with his family live close by in Milton. Her daughter, Sabrina, who is a dementia practitioner, actually lives with Selma. As capable as Merbaum is at 100, it helps to have another set of hands around.
Merbaum has always been a lifelong learner, and finally returned to Queens College, where she graduated with high honors with a degree in history, with an emphasis on Jewish history. Using this knowledge, she developed several lectures on topics of Jewish interest: Jewish gangsters, pushcarts and peddlers, and Jews of the Civil War.
Continuing her education was a constant theme. She and Izzy spent several summers at the Madison Senior Scholars Institute taking courses. She was president of every PTA in her children’s schools. Up until COVID, she took courses with Rabbi Mark Zimmerman at Congregation Beth Shalom, and Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz at the Chabad of North Fulton.
Now that she has a driver, she has returned to the Chabad for classes on Thursday nights. Merbaum still likes to cook and bake. Her specialty is date nut bread. She also made all the typical Jewish foods by hand, like kreplach, perogies, chicken soup, and kneidlach, which are among her top tier.
Merbaum has few regrets about her life but wishes that she had continued to pursue a graduate degree. When queried about her guideposts to a long life, she said, “I have no secrets to longevity; but do what interests you. Take advantage of opportunities as they come along.”
Gerontology researcher Nir Barzilai, director of aging research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, studied the lives of hundreds of centenarians, the people they married and their kids to find, “The children of centenarians are about 10 years healthier than their peers…people who have certain mutations on their growth hormones are very likely to live longer because their cells spend more energy on maintaining existing cells not growing new ones.”
- Senior Living
- Marcia Caller Jaffe
- Selma Merbaum
- Sabina Slaw
- National Council of Jewish Women
- Air Warden Service
- Navy Yard
- U.S. Navy
- Queens College
- Jewish gangsters
- pushcarts and peddlers
- Jews of the Civil War
- Madison Senior Scholars Institute
- Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
- Congregation Beth Shalom
- Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz
- Chabad of North Fulton
- Nir Barzilai
- Albert Einstein College of Medicine