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Age is Only a Number, Especially at 103

by Nanci Levy | Oct 27, 2017

Gertrude's 103rd Birthday - with THA Kids - 10-25-17If you have visited Handmaker recently, you may have seen a silver haired woman in a purple sweater buzzing around in her scooter. That is Gertrude Shankman. She recently had to slow down the speed on her scooter a bit due to a few speeding tickets, but nothing else about her seems to be slowing down. This remarkable woman was born in NY on October 26, 1914, and is celebrating her 103rd birthday this week. You would never guess that after spending any time with her. She is still unbelievably sharp, and fully engaged in life.

On her family

Gertrude grew up in what she thought of as an orthodox Jewish home. Her parents were from what she calls “the Old Country”. Her Dad was from Austria and her mom from Poland. Her dad was a kosher butcher and she spent time working the cash register in his shop after school. She can still pick out a good cut of meat. Her parents were part of the “Oelbaum Society”. The Oelbaum Society is a group of descendants of “Reb Yaacov Koppel Lukower, named Elbaum. The Holy Reb Yaacov Koppel of the Town of Lukow (who) passed away on 15 Adar 5529 (1769) (and was) laid to rest in the town of Tarnigrod”, according to the website Oelbaum.com.

Gertrude met and married her husband Ben when she was 19. She was very close with Ben’s parents who were involved in the “Workman’s Circle”, which was a social and cultural Jewish labor fraternal order that supported the labor and socialist movements of the world. This is still a vibrant social and cultural Jewish Group today.

During the depression, Gertrude and Ben both had a hard time getting employment. Ben had several jobs at once to make ends meet, including playing in a band at nights. It was not easy, but they survived. They eventually were able to open a shoe store, where Gertrude helped out, and they prospered. They raised two children together, have five grandchildren and five great grandchildren, and their lives were always full of music and great adventures. They retired to Florida in the 90’s.

On Judaism

“Faith is important to me”, says Gertrude. “Believing in something. It is who I am. I would never want to be anything else.” After Gertrude married her husband Ben, they moved to Manchester, Connecticut, and joined a Conservative Congregation called Beth Shalom. She says that there were 50 members, and that the members of the Jewish community in the town were very well respected, as was the Rabbi. When a Jewish child in town got into a little trouble, the child was brought to the Rabbi for him to take care of the problem.

She felt that the more “Americanized” version of Judaism that she practiced in Connecticut was more inspiring and interesting to her than the Judaism that she had grown up with. Gertrude loved volunteering as a teacher at the Temple Sunday School, and got much of her Jewish education from the Rabbi there. Her son and daughter continued their education there through confirmation, but she did not really participate in the services there. It was not until she moved into Handmaker over ten years ago that she began attending services regularly and had her very first Aliya. Before that, she did not even know what an Aliya was.

Gertrude has continued her Jewish education at Handmaker, attending Shabbat morning services regularly, all the Holiday services, actively participating in Torah Study once a week, and attending any Jewish programming that she can. She was curious about what Kabbalah was, so Rabbi Ceitlin, from Congregation Young Israel, was generous enough to come to Handmaker and teach a few Kabbalah classes to the residents. She is always one of the most engaged participants in any class that she attends at Handmaker. And that is saying something.

On her secret to longevity

When I recently asked her secret to longevity was, she said one word, “accepting”. She says that she always tries to make the best of what comes along. Each time something happens to her, she thinks “this is it”. She says that “there is this thing (death) always staring me in the face. But you cannot dwell on it. Tragedies come in to your life, but you have to try to move on.” But it is hard to forget some. She lost her Great Grandson Joshua less than 5 years ago. That she will never forget. But she says that self-pity is the worst. You have to keep your mind off of your problems. Have a hobby or a craft. That is where knitting and crocheting come in for her, and reading. She still knits and crochets kippot and other items for the Kiosk in the Handmaker Lobby, but not like she used to. She also started a knitting class at Handmaker, and still participates once a week. She does not read quite as much as she would like to, her eyes are not as good as they used to be, but she still does as much as she can.

On Living at Handmaker

Gertrude says that living at Handmaker is very comfortable. She initially moved into one of Handmaker’s Besserman Independent Living apartments when she moved here from Florida over 10 years ago. She moved into Assisted Living about five years ago. Moving into Handmaker was an adjustment for her. She had always lived independently in her own house and had lived on the east coast her whole life. She says that the people here in Tucson were different, much more casual.  And she still cannot get used to any kind of Mexican food. Handmaker has been good to her. She has made some dear friends over the years, and the staff always help in any way that they can. She likes to participate in as many activities as she can, to stay active mentally, and physically, and to get to know other residents. And it is important to her that Handmaker is Jewish. She really likes being able to observe Jewish Holidays, attend services, and be a part of a Jewish Community. As far as living communally goes, she equates living in an institution to living in a dormitory. She says that you have to do your best to get along with everyone. And try to help one another when you can. That is like what life is. And that is what people at Handmaker do. It is not always easy, and you can find fault with everything and everyone if you let yourself.

As a survivor of both polio and cancer, Gertrude’s mere existence today at age 103 is pretty remarkable. But it is her emotional, intellectual and energetic presence that seem most inspirational to me. She is so full of life, so curious about the world around her, and has so much wisdom to share. And while she says that she does not want anyone to plan any more birthday parties for her in the future, when she learned that her caregiver takes care of someone who is 106 she said, “I wonder what it would feel like to be 106.”