The Walk Of Life
Tue, 07/26/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Lillian Silverman with grandson Alan Jacobson, who shares her July 4th birthday.
Lillian Silverman with grandson Alan Jacobson, who shares her July 4th birthday.

‘I’m just an ordinary person,” said Lillian Silverman, 101, who celebrated her July 4th birthday (twice) this month. Born in Brownsville, and a lifelong Brooklyn resident, she walks at least one hour a day in her Borough Park neighborhood. “It’s part of my living — all though the years,” she said.

Fitness comes naturally to Silverman. “I don’t know how to get around except walking. Whoever heard of taking the bus to go to 9th or 10th Avenue?” she said. “I couldn’t think of any other way than walking.”

Born on Independence Day in 1910, Lillian celebrated her birthday once on July 4th with a girls-night-out dinner party with her three assistants, and again on the 6th when grandson Alan Jacobson returned to the U.S. from an Israel vacation. The two share a special bond. Named for Lillian’s first husband Abraham Rudnick, her first grandchild shares her birthday. “That was my birthday present to her that year,” said Lillian’s daughter Florence Jacobson.

A thriller novelist, Alan dedicated the first book of his bestselling “Karen Vail” series in 2008 to his grandmother. He said “Lily” as he dubbed her in childhood and the Vail character share some commonalities, both being strong women with strong personalities.

Lillian recalled her one proviso before accepting her late husband Lew Silverman’s marriage proposal. “Can you afford to move my piano?” she asked. “Yes,” she said Silverman answered. The account of how Lillian obtained the cherished piano in the 1940s exemplifies her spirit. “I had a dollar twenty-five in my pocket,” recalled Lillian, whose parents valued music. “I decided I wanted a piano, so I went to [the] Baldwin [piano store] on 57th Street in Manhattan and asked the man how I could put a down payment on the piano I wanted.”

She was told that the store did not extend credit, but that Macy’s did, and had the same piano. But “hurry,” she was told by the salesman, because Baldwin would soon stop making pianos because of war production. “Quick as a bunny I walked to Woolworth’s on 42nd Street, had a five-cent cup of coffee, and then walked to Macy’s on 34th Street.” She selected her piano, and arranged to pay the $360 purchase price.

Florence Jacobson describes her mother as someone who, “has more guts than anyone I know. She has lived through a great deal of adversity and has come out stronger for it.” Lillian was widowed at age 40 when husband Abraham suffered a sudden heart attack at age 42. A homemaker until then, Lillian went to work as a bookkeeper in Manhattan to support Florence and her brother, Leonard.

Alan shared a memory of how his grandmother taught him his address when he was a young child playing in his backyard. “Lily used to come on Friday to Queens after work,” he said. She would bring him a new Tonka truck, and taught him his address by pretending that the truck had broken down, and he had to give its location to the repair service. He also remembers that she would make him sweet coffee. Jacobson said two of his grandmother’s favorite phrases when they speak are ones she would say to him when she hugged him as a little boy: “I’m recharging my batteries,” she would say as she squeezed him in a strong hug, and, “I love you the whole universe.”

Lillian’s son Leonard Rudnick, who phones his mother daily, recalls that in the recent past, “she would describe where she would walk to and from — and it would be a third of Brooklyn.” Rudnick, a physician, said mobility is Lillian’s secret to health and beauty. “Well, obviously the protoplasm is a little different, the circulation, but her secret is all related to her walking — her physical exercise and activity,” he said.

When she worked in Manhattan Lillian enjoyed walking part of the way home to Brooklyn. “I just loved the people I would meet,” she said. She would walk from City Hall over the Brooklyn Bridge to Borough Hall, where she caught a bus home. “Imagine going into a train when you can see all that for nothing.”

Silverman, whose complexion would be the envy of most women, says she has never been preoccupied with a beauty regimen, but has “learned so many new things with the girls,” the aides who assist her now. On fashion, Lillian said she dresses conservatively now, “in good taste for my age.” She said, “Be satisfied in your own body. There’s a certain respect that you have to give yourself.”

Irving Katz, 94, is Lillian’s lifelong friend. Now living in Arizona, he grew up in Brooklyn as her brother Heshie’s “best buddy” and later served with him during the Second World War. He credits his own excellent health with an active lifestyle that, like Lillian’s, came naturally. “There were no school buses in the 1920s and 1930s,” he said, “so we walked.” Katz said it was two miles to Tilden H.S. and two miles back.

He stays fit now with thrice weekly exercise classes that include the use of elastic resistance bands. Katz said one of Lillian’s best qualities is “her sense of humor,” and that “she’s honest, she’s open.” The two friends enjoy regular phone conversations.

Florence said her mother reads the Sunday Times and the science section “with a passion.” The subscription was a gift from her 90-year-old cousin. Family and friends are important to Silverman.

“This is my life,” said Lillian, “this is the way I have always lived. You don’t need a lot of money. If you see someone who needs something you try to do it. Being alive and being able to run and laugh — isn’t that wonderful?”