A Pioneer At 99


Her dream has been deferred — for a full half-century — but it hasn’t died. It has survived the Shoah, the squalid conditions for Jews on the run from the Nazis, of postwar Shanghai, and her husband’s desire to live in the States.

And now, 50 years after the idea first lodged itself in the mind, and in the heart, of Dina Noth, and more than a decade after her husband died, her dream is on the verge of coming true.

Come October, the feisty Noth — who is 99 — will make aliyah. “I always wanted to go to Israel,” she says, sitting in a wheelchair on the lawn of the Hebrew Home of the Aged in Riverdale overlooking the Hudson River.

“As far as we know, she’s the oldest person we’ve sent [to Israel] in the last 10 years,” said Boaz Herman, a New York-based aliyah emissary.

When Noth contacted the Israel Aliyah Center two months ago, one of the first thoughts that sprang to Herman’s mind is how rare she is among those asking for the center’s help.

Ninety-four percent of the Americans and Canadians now making aliyah — or immigrating to Israel — are under the age of 65, said Herman, whose organization, part of the Jewish Agency for Israel, promotes and facilitates immigration to the Jewish state. The center’s emissaries, or shlichim, see plenty of college students and young adults, for whom there are scores of programs in Israel, and they often work with young families willing to link their own future to that of Israel. High on their list, too, are young professionals whose skills, often in the high-tech field, are much in demand.

That, of course, leaves Noth among the 6 percent of North Americans 65 or older who have made aliyah or are planning to do so. But even among that group, Noth is special in the annals of the Israel Aliyah Center.

A native of Berlin who still speaks in a thick German accent, Noth now lives in the Hebrew Home for the Aged, the expansive and sprawling facility in Riverdale. She can hardly hear, prompting those around her to raise their voices, and is now considered legally blind. Moreover, her move from the Hebrew Home won’t be to an apartment in, say, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but to another nursing home chosen by relatives in Israel.

Her aliyah will likely take place in late October, when, according to tentative plans, an ambulance will take her directly to the tarmac at one of the area’s two international airports and another ambulance, some 10 hours later, will meet her plane in Israel.

What amazes people the most, though, are her wit, spirit and feistiness, all of which she displays with the abundance normally associated with someone in her 20s, say those who have gotten to know her.

Herman has his own stories illustrating Noth’s humor.

One took place during Herman’s first visit to the home, in early July, said Herman, who usually interviews potential immigrants in his Manhattan office. It was then that Herman began compiling Noth’s aliyah file, a thick sheaf of papers that includes medical documents, a declaration of the candidate’s desire to make aliyah, proof of Jewishness and a visa application. When the moment arrived for Herman to ask her age, he recently recalled, the 99-year-old replied, “I hope you’re sitting down for this one.”

“She’s the Henny Youngman of the floor,” said Rhonda Magid, a 51-year-old White Plains resident who befriended Noth 11 years ago and has visited her every week since.

Much of Noth’s story emerged during Herman’s second visit, earlier this month, in the presence of a reporter, Magid and Laurie Kleid, a social worker at the Hebrew Home. She expanded on the story several days later, her wheelchair parked on the home’s lawn, while responding to questions from the same reporter, Magid and Rabbi Simon Hirschhorn, the home’s rabbinical director and a figure to whom Noth has grown close.

Making aliyah has been a “lifelong dream” of Noth’s, said Kleid, who phoned Herman on her behalf and has helped with what she called the “mounds of paperwork” required for the move. “For the past 40 or 50 years, she’s been talking about it,” only to defer to her husband, who wanted to live in the United States.

Born in 1908, Noth grew up mostly in Spandau, Germany, the third among four children in a religious household. Her father was a yeshiva student, and her mother taught her the Hebrew alphabet, “but when you get older,” she recalled with a smile, “you never do what your parents teach you,” and so the Hebrew never took hold. Later, of course, she met her husband, Herman, a Polish Jew who had come to Germany.

One of her two sisters, Leah, moved to what was then Palestine in 1933, said Noth, referring to her family as “halutzim,” or pioneers. But Noth herself, she added, “was too young [at the time] to be a halutza.”

As the Holocaust approached, tragedy befell Noth and her husband, an episode still raw and powerful enough almost 70 years later that she recounted the tale with tears and a high-pitched voice. The couple, she said, had a baby girl, who wound up for some type of illness in a German hospital. One of the hospital’s doctors later called the parents at home to tell them their child had died, said Noth, who believes the doctor was a Nazi who killed her baby.

A short time later, the Noths escaped Germany and made it to Shanghai, where they lived with other Jews in an old schoolhouse and in squalid conditions. Her parents died before the Holocaust, but her brother and another sister were killed by the Nazis. Meanwhile, Leah, who had become a nurse in Palestine, died in the late 1940s of asthma, a condition that is readily treatable today.

After 10 years in Shanghai, the Noths traveled to the United States by ship in 1949. The move was contrary to Dina’s desire, she said, adding that she wanted to make aliyah at the time, but her husband had relatives in the States and wanted to be close to them. They eventually came to New York, where the couple opened a tailor’s shop on the Upper West Side. In the 1980s, though, Herman Noth developed Alzheimer’s disease, and his wife, devoted as ever to her husband, nursed him until his death 10 years later.

Throughout that time, Dina Noth never forgot her dream to move to Israel, where she now has more than 40 relatives, said Magid, who befriended Noth while delivering a package of food from Project Dorot, a local social-service agency that helps the elderly. All those relatives are the daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her sister Leah, as well as their spouses — family members whom Noth has seen, both in Israel and in New York, and who call Noth at least once a week, Magid said.

Speaking of those relatives, the only living family Noth has, she made clear that being close to them is what motivated her to finally move ahead with her dream. Asked by her rabbi friend if she was ready to leave the United States, she indicated that she sees nothing to keep her in this country. “I want to see my family,” she said.

If her family is close to Noth, so, too, are many of the people Noth has met in recent years, some of whom recently described her apparent ability to charm complete strangers, drawing them into her life.

Magid began visiting Noth 11 years ago and continued those visits two years ago, when Noth entered the Hebrew Home, because she saw in her friend “such a great storyteller” with “such an interesting story to tell. … Dina’s lost none of her spirit through the years. She never gives up on anything until she gets satisfaction. She doesn’t fade away.”

Rabbi Hirshhorn noted that Noth “has plenty of problems,” including a struggle with cancer and roughly 20 operations in as many years. “But on a spiritual level, on a psychosocial level, she’s as alive as she ever was. Age is almost irrelevant.”

Noth confirmed as much while revealing her own secret to survival. “If you want to live,” she said, “you have to look ahead, not back. … I was always satisfied with what I had.”

It seems, too, that nearly each of Noth’s friends and acquaintances draws a different meaning from her story. For Herman, the aliyah director, her plans to make aliyah send a strong message that “Israel is not only for the young and strong. It’s also for people who dream about the state and want to spend the rest of their years there.”

There’s also a lesson for young people, he said — one that suggests that, “if they want to go to Israel, they should follow their dream, rather than postpone it.”

Noth’s story reminds Rabbi Hirshhorn of a quote, he’s quick to say, “that’s not part of Jewish tradition: ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings.’ Life is in the making for her.”