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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Juliet Relis Bernstein (left) at 105.

Juliet Relis Bernstein (left) at 105.

The Torah specifically instructs us to “honor the elderly” (Leviticus 19:32): “…every old person is regarded as having a special wisdom that comes with life experience” (Aish.com).

My cousin Juliet celebrated her 105th birthday last month with friends and personal assistants in the dining room of her house in Chatham, Massachusetts. I had emailed her the day before the festivities, to see how she was managing in the heat wave and to let her know my husband and I would be away for a few days. We were heading to the Sullivan County Catskills, where she was born and raised and I spent my childhood summers. On the way back, I wrote to find out how she had enjoyed her special day.

Two days later, Juliet responded to my emails and we had a “back and forth” for a while. In the last one she commented on the fact that for the Fourth of July we had breezed through the Lincoln Tunnel to a sparsely trafficked New York City to see a Broadway show. Her response was, “Oh, to be young again!!” That tickled me since at 40 years her junior, I could easily be making the same statement. I know lots of people my age who speak that way.

After mulling it over for a second, I wrote back, “Dear Juliet, You are the youngest 105-year-old that I know.” It really is the honest truth. While she is also the only 105-year-old I have ever personally known, she is surely one of the youngest appearing of centenarians. Just the fact that she can immediately reply to an email by typing on the computer is utterly amazing. Nine minutes later, in the middle of writing this article, I rechecked my emails and found that Juliet had responded: “Do you know any other 105 year olds? I don’t.” Can you plotz from her? What a fun and funny lady.

When my husband and I visited for her 100th birthday celebration, her three children were in town. Her daughter quipped about a senior moment and I will never forget Juliet nippily correcting her by saying, “Ellen, there is no such thing as a senior moment.” Certainly not for Juliet. A former New York public school home economics teacher, she is quick-witted with unusual verbal dexterity. She clearly saw her daughter’s comment as a teaching moment.

Judaism emphasizes the tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next. The Talmudic tractate Pirkei Avot begins by telling us that Moses—after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai—transmitted its teachings to Joshua, and from Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Great Assembly. We constantly credit our preceding generations with the wisdom upon which our entire way of life is based (Aish.com).

Juliet was married to my father-in-law’s cousin, so while she is not biologically related, she knew everyone on that side of the family and she was very helpful in my genealogy research. When I wrote a book about my family history, she suggested that publishing is like trying to get a baby to sleep. That’s probably why she keeps trying to get me to self-publish. Juliet was one of the contributors of “We the Resilient,” a 2017 self-published collection of words of wisdom for America from women born before suffrage, edited by Sarah Bunin Benor and Tom Fields Meyer. I cherish my autographed copy. She wrote her four-page spread for the book when she was 103. In her lead-in bio it says: “Inveterate follower of the news and writer of letters to the editor.”

When the book came out, at 104 Juliet spent a full half-hour discussing it on The World of Work radio broadcast. It was remarkable that she had total recall of events both long ago and current. She vividly recounted the auspicious day on which she accompanied her mother to the polls in their horse-drawn carriage the first time after women were granted the right to vote.

Juliet ended her story in the book with the following advice: “Laugh a lot; it is good for the soul and for your heart and lungs.” She is someone who helps me accomplish that goal. When I emailed that we were heading out west to visit our children and planning to take a side trip to Idaho, she replied, “Don’t forget to have trout in Idaho. Selig and I had it in 1937 when we went west (before you were both born). I am sure it is quite different, but they must have the trout. Love, Juliet”

Write on, Juliet. Right on!

By Sharon Mark Cohen


Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist, and a contributing writer at The Jewish Link. Sharon is looking forward to the publication of her family history book. Visit sharonmarkcohen.com.