Someone Else's Simcha / Yitzhak's Birthday - a Century to Remember

Having gone through two world wars and a few in Israel, and after living to see several generations of his family blossom, one man looks back while looking steadily forward.

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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: the communal dining room of Kibbutz Beit Zera

Time: Noon

In the neighborhood: One-story structures surrounded by the patches of green grass and erect cypress tress that typify Beit Zera, a kibbutz situated just south of Lake Kinneret in Israel’s north, near the border with Jordan. A Thai flag hanging over the foreign workers’ living quarters flaps in the soft midday breeze, and a long mountain range looms against the clear blue sky on the eastern side of the border.

Venue: A sheer, brutalist concrete cliff standing out against the green backdrop. Inside, the main dining hall is filled with several wooden tables covered in white cloths, surrounded by 1960s-style "socialist" chairs. Several food carts and tables are packed in the other side of the room; attendants are chatting with each other in Arabic.

Simcha: Yitzhak Rothschild’s 100th birthday

Number of guests: 120

A brief history: Yitzhak Rothschild (“Not the famous family, the small one”) was born on January 18, 1914 to a traditional Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. After being abandoned by his mother at the age of 4, he was raised by cousins until his father Abraham returned from the trenches of World War I and reclaimed the child, marrying Dora.

Abraham, who ran a convenience store famous for its dairy goods and pastries, wanted his son to stay put and learn the trade, despite signs of intensifying anti-Semitic sentiment as the Nazis began their slow rise to power. Ultimately, however, the persistent young man found his way to a farm, where he first heard of the possibility of travelling to Palestine.

In 1933, despite his parents wishes, Yitzhak arrived in Jaffa, and began working in several bakeries in the Tel Aviv area. There he met his wife Rivka. After a modest wedding (Yitzhak’s son Aharon: “My father had to pick a couple of strangers off the street to be chuppah witnesses”), the couple moved to nearby Givatayim (Aharon: “I remember hiding in the bomb shelters during World War II"), before settling down on Beit Zera. The couple had 3 children: Aharon, 78, Shoshanna, 65, and Abraham, 60.

Yitzhak’s parents were both murdered in the concentration camps (Aharon: “They stayed home, hoping nothing would happen”), while several of his many brothers and half-brothers made their way to safety either in Israel, the United States or elsewhere. In 1975, Yizhak lost Rivka, his wife of many years.

After years of service in Beit Zera’s plastics factory, Yitzhak, who now resides in the kibbutz version of an old folks’ home, still assembles the same plastic filters he fiddled with for decades. He has three children, seven grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren (the oldest, Nitai, is 25).

Yitzhak's birthday
Yitzhak's birthday cake
Yitzhak's birthday.
5 of 5 |
Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
1 of 5 |
Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
2 of 5 |
Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Rites: Guests trickle into the well-lit room, as Mya – Aharon’s daughter and Yitzhak’s granddaughter, and the executive producer of the event – smilingly scrambles away from mingling with friends and family to take care of technical issues with a planned slide presentation.

The man of the hour, silent and slim, is hunched in his chair at the first table facing the screen, chatting in German with Elka, a long-time friend who traveled from Austria especially to be at his side.

First up to speak is Aharon’s wife Simcha (“You lived to see your children grow”), who also mentioned some of Yitzhak's favorite foods (“chocolate and candy”). Next up, Advah, a young woman who works in the dining hall, reminds Yitzhak of a deal they made: “Every Friday, you would say ‘Advah, I want to marry you!’ And I said ‘We’ll get married when you reach 100.’ Well, you made it!”

As the laughter dies down, the slide show begins, revealing 100 years' worth of life in black-and-white as well as color photos. Mya, sitting next to her grandfather, points at the screen, explaining some of the pictures (Yitzhak smiling with his grandchildren; smiling in a black-and-white picture with his late wife Rivka; standing next to the wall commemorating the Frankfurt Jewish community in the Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Jerusalem, etc.).

Next up, Aharon goes through a condensed version of his father’s life story, with Mya offering explanations as he goes along (Aharon: “And then they said: All the Jews get out!” Mya: “Raus!”). After describing everything from a bombardment of the kibbutz’s showers to his father’s unique way of keeping their shed cool during the summer (spilling water on the floor), Aharon closes by saying: “You raised heirs, and you have your future ahead of you.”

Yitzhak is congratulated by his daughter Shoshanna, 65 (accompanied by five of her grandchildren), and by his long-time partner Mimi, 96, and then the emcee sends everyone off to eat.

Following a hearty lunch, the man of the hour, visibly tired, thanks everyone for coming, and is gently taken by Simcha and by grandson Tzuri to his mobility scooter. Outside, the sun is shining brightly, with children loudly running around on the lawn, playing catch.

As soon as they catch sight of the elderly figure being driven away, the children all halt their play, and yell out in high-pitched voices: “Gutenacht, Grandpa! Gutenacht!”

Music: Old-school Israeli choral music, and some more modern Israeli soft rock.

Food: Starters – tables are laden with an infinite array of salads of every imaginable color and shape, including the mortal enemies hummus and gefilte fish; main dishes – grilled chicken, schnitzels and stir-fried beef, along with sides; dessert – cakes, cakes and more cakes, presided over by a massive cream cake decorated with a large “100” in strawberries and persimmon.

Drink: Pepsi, 7Up, orange soda and water.

Word in the ear: Mya: “He used to be my best friend. A grandfather you tell secrets to. Whether it was smoking with him, something that I couldn’t do with my parents, or things like that. We went through a lot together. He was at my wedding and was with me through my divorce. He’s seen it all.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: the realization that the only thing there is to learn from someone who has lived that long has nothing to do with diet or exercise, but just with living.

Random quote: Advah: “He still comes every Friday to eat, and you can sit and talk to him as long as you’d like. As long as it’s about women.”

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Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen