Evelyn (Chava Rivka) Kozak – the oldest Jew in the world – passed away on June 11, 2013, at the ripe age of 113.
Since her passing, dozens of articles have been written about her unique longevity. However, it is the quality of her life – rather the amount of years – that is truly newsworthy.
The Torah records that "Avraham was old, he came into days" (Genesis 24:1). Some commentaries explain the cryptic "came into days" to mean that Avraham’s uniqueness was not that he lived for 175 years (!), but rather it tells us that he lived each and every day to its fullest.
This, too, exemplifies the life of Evelyn Kozak. "She lived so long because she truly loved every second of life," said her granddaughter, Sarah Polon of New York.
An Honest Inheritance
Mrs. Kozak was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1899. Her parents had emigrated from Russia in 1886; they worked their way up from nothing and eventually became quite wealthy. Despite the extreme challenges of keeping Shabbat in America back then, they struggled to raise their nine children as observant Jews – even without Jewish schools or basic infrastructure. They were among the first Jews to live in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, at a time when Jews weren't welcome there, and helped pave the way for what would later become a center of Jewish life.
Even if an employee stole, he instructed the bookkeeper not to deduct anything from their wages.
Mrs. Kozak recounted that her parents taught the values of honesty and kindness at all costs – pillars with which she lived her long life. Although he began as a peddler, her father, Yitzchak Jacobson eventually opened a hatbox factory. He cared for his many employees as if they were his own children. Even if he found out that a worker was stealing from him, or arriving late, he instructed the bookkeeper not to deduct anything from their wages, for he knew that they needed the money.
Yitzchak Jacobson used to let a homeless man sleep in the basement of the factory. Decades later, people claimed there was a ghost in the building. When Mrs. Kozak heard that, she knew the answer right away. "Does he wear a fedora hat?" she asked. "Oh, that's just Willie the homeless man. He was happy there and must have stayed long after the factory closed down."
Mrs. Kozak's mother, Katie Jacobson, used to wear 5-carat diamond earrings and a 10-carat diamond necklace. One day a poor woman knocked on the door saying, "The butcher said that you could help me with a problem." Mrs. Jacobson immediately invited her in, and noting how tired she appeared, sent her upstairs to bathe and rest. She then fed her and asked what she could do to help. At that point, the visitor took out a weapon and confessed that she was sent by a gang to kill her and steal the diamonds. "You were so kind to me that I can't do it," she said, and then ran out the door.
"My grandmother continued this tradition of caring for each person, no matter who they were, regardless of race or religion, rich or poor," said her granddaughter Brucha Weisberger of New York.
Always to Give
Mrs. Kozak’s greatest joy in life was to give. "You saw her belief in God in the way she helped others. If someone is unaware that God is watching, you could go through life thinking only about yourself. It's not always so comfortable to do what's right, but that's what my bubby did all her life," said Mrs. Polon.
When guests came to visit, Mrs. Kozak would always offer them a gift. "If she couldn't buy something before you came, she would go into her closet and give you something from her wardrobe," Mrs. Polon continued. "She would literally give you the shirt off her back – if you complimented her on her sweater, she would offer it to you.”
In the hospital one time, when she had nothing to give, she even offered her granddaughter the blanket off her bed. “She appreciated the good in what she had, but realized that the joy of giving is even greater."
"She understood that the most fundamental value in life is to give, but she didn't pervert that selflessness by refusing to enjoy anything, the way a person might if they don't understand what life is really about,” said another granddaughter, Rochel Leah Fuchs of Jerusalem. “She understood that the world is here for our pleasure and she appreciated the depth of beautiful things – clothes, delicious food, music. I believe that she knew, in a profound way, the ultimate truth that ‘life is good.’ It is only good, and always good!"
Life is Always Good
Mrs. Kozak was married in 1921 and had five children. She suffered through many hardships, including several life-threatening illnesses, the Great Depression, the death of a spouse and two children, and the loss of much of her eyesight. In 1929, when she was deathly ill, she received a blessing for health and long life from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn zt"l. She often attributed her longevity to this blessing. "The Rebbe blessed me too well," she would joke.
Although she didn't continue schooling past 8th grade, she was an avid reader. She was completely self-taught, yet possessed an incredible vocabulary.
“I lived so long because I never harmed anyone, and always tried to help everyone.”
In 1944, when her youngest son suffered from asthma, Mrs. Kozak was forced to move down to Florida. There she eventually opened a guest house – an operation that she single-handedly ran for over 40 years. She took care of her guests' every need – even when she was almost 90, many years their senior. When asked why she lived so long, she would often tap her heart and say, "A good conscience. I never harmed anyone. I always tried to help everyone."
"She inspired people to believe in God because she was such a kind person who cared about everybody,” said Mrs. Weisberger.
Although she couldn't eat toward the end of her life, she constantly worried about whether her aides had enough to eat. After her passing, the aides were utterly devastated. One of the aides related to the family that she could barely eat for days and couldn't bring herself to go back to the employment agency and ask to be assigned a new patient.
When Mrs. Kozak had a stroke in a nursing home at age 110, the medical staff stopped feeding her. When the family arrived, they were furious. But the staff told the family: "She's 110. She's lived long enough.”
"It is so presumptuous to think they know when someone is supposed to die," Mrs. Polon said passionately. "It's a too-common attitude in the medical field today that there is less need to preserve the life of the elderly. The Torah teaches us that every second of life is a precious gift – regardless of how old you are."
A natural extension of Mrs. Kozak’s love for life, was her love of children. This was undoubtedly because she shared their joy, curiosity, and love of life, and like a child, she was always growing. Although Mrs. Kozak grew up observant, at the advanced age of 110, she decided to take on new observances, at the suggestion of her 12-year-old great-granddaughter.
Toward the end of her life, Mrs. Kozak had to wear expensive hearing aids. Someone once asked if she wouldn't rather have the money. She replied, "I could take the $5,000 and stick it in my ears, but then I wouldn't be able to hear anything!"
"This captures her attitude toward money," Mrs. Fuchs said. "She recognized that it wasn't of value in and of itself, but only for the good it could be used for."
"Love surpasses everything," Mrs Kozak once said. "You could have beautiful cars, furs, everything. But if you don't have love, you don't have much." Perhaps she lived so long to pass these messages of joy, kindness, and growth on to a generation that needs them more than ever. If we internalize them, her legacy will live on for many more years.
Photo credit: Alex Gorokhov