A Centenarian's Secret of Longevity? A Sense of Humor

Surrounded by grandsons and great-grandsons, and the promise of more to come, Ziva Avital celebrates her 100th birthday, and is nowhere near to slowing down.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Angus restaurant, Rehovot, Israel

Time: 7 P.M.

In the neighborhood: Shining monolithic and eerily identical office buildings line the Science Park, a high-tech hub situated a stone’s throw away from the Weizmann Institute of Science in the central city of Rehovot. A winter’s chill runs through the completely deserted streets, as the headlights of intermittently passing cars illuminate the names of international computing corporations on the buildings.

Venue: A small yet cozy restaurant space, with rectangular and round white-clothed tables taking up most of the space, until coming to a stop at the foot of a small raised platform.

Simcha: Ziva’s 100th birthday bash

Number of guests: ~40

A (very) brief history of time: Ziva Avital (née Pomerantz), 100, was born in 1914 in the town of Motal, or Motale, Poland, now part of Belarus, and famous for being the birthplace of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. But being born in a locale with a celebrity son wasn’t the end of Ziva’s century-long affair with the Land of Israel, which began with growing up in a decidedly Zionist home: from early Yiddish whispers of Eretz Yisroel escaping the lips of Grandmother Leah, to Bible and singing teachers, and the always-present picture of Weizmann and Lord Balfour hanging on the wall of their small home.

And true enough, young Ziva was determined to follow her national calling, obtaining her emigration permit in 1937 following to a farewell from parents Ze’ev and Pnina in Warsaw’s train station. From Warsaw she moved on to Romania, where she boarded her ship, "The Polania,” arriving at the port of Haifa later that year.

Hitting the ground running, the devout young Zionist moved from job to job, from the orchards to the factory (which she promptly left, sensing the work wasn’t “pioneering enough”), and from Rehovot, until finally settling down in the seaside city of Bat Yam, her home for the next 55 years alongside husband Shalom and three daughters: Dalia, Sarah and Pnina. Ziva’s immediate family, excluding her sister Yaffa, who had arrived in Palestine a year before her, all perished in the Holocaust.

Rites: Ziva’s close family, conducted by daughter Pnina and her husband Shimon, cordially assemble around the festively laid out tables, chatting merrily as the lady of the hour sits stoically at her table, observing the proceedings with a keen eye. Soon enough, following a preliminary round of eating, Shimon quiets down the happy din in favor of the evening’s first bout of speeches and presentations.

First up is granddaughter Adi, who reads a short excerpt of Ziva’s long life story, followed by a surprise screening of a song written by Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, describing a tree and the mother birds perched there being deserted by a generation of younger birds, only to remain alone.

As the YouTube clip flashes on the portable screen, all eyes are on Ziva, as she, with seemingly characteristic semi-stoicism, listens to the song, the images flickering on moist eyes behind glasses.

Next up are well-wishers and great-grandchildren Noa (“Not everyone reaches such an age, only the best”) and Yahli (“May you be healthy and happy and live long”). Then musician and grandson Yoav takes the stage, proceeding to wow the crowd with some emotional accordion playing, taking time to commemorate the death of Ziva’s two older daughters, Dalia and Sara, who recently passed away, just months apart.

Then it’s Yonatan, Yoav’s brother, who’s up to bestow some celebratory words on his grandmother, in the form of a long, rhymed, tongue-in-cheek speech (“You experienced two world wars, and a few small ones of our own”).

After a last wish by great-grandson Ido, who feels compelled to give one last impromptu blessing (“May you always laugh”), it’s time for the state to have its say in the form of Bentzi, a National Insurance volunteer who came bearing a certificate reaffirming that Ziva indeed reached the age of 100 years.

Music: Yiddish songs, and Yoav’s accordion mastery.

Food: Salads, bread, beef steak and fish.

Drink: Soft drinks, juices, wine, and beer.

Word in the ear: Ziva, on the secret of longevity: “A sense of humor, and I like people and am always content with what I have. I was never envious of a another person.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: In the words of the day’s leading lady: “It goes by so fast.”

Random quote: An anonymous family member, while Bentzi from the National Insurance presents Ziva with her certificate: “Tell them to let her keep her caregiver!”

Want to take part in Someone Else’s Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to: HaaretzSimcha@gmail.com

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