Age has not slowed Esther Eisner: She graduated from college at 90 and worked as a bookkeeper until she was 93.
It seemed only fitting, then, for her family to celebrate her upcoming 100th birthday with another first: a better-late-than-never bat mitzvah.
“I was sure she would say no, so she said yes,” said her daughter, Phyllis Waldman, 67, who nervously agreed to be called to the Torah for the first time also. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, why are you doing this to me?’”
Mother and daughter, who live near each other in Middletown, Conn., received instruction from Rabbi Seth Reimer Adath Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue where Waldman teaches Hebrew school and Eisner attends services as part of a group of regulars nicknamed the “minyanaires.” On the afternoon of November 19, the two were called to the Torah as b’not mitzvah before a throng that included friends, congregants and family members from around the country, as well as Eisner’s doctor and a physician’s assistant from the assisted-living facility where Eisner has lived since moving from Brooklyn several years ago.
The list of attendees — which swelled to more than 160 as word of what was being dubbed “the world’s oldest bat mitzvah” spread — included Eisner’s seven grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. The latter range in age from 3 to 21, and each played a part in the celebration. This included two great-grandsons who read from the Torah. Eisner’s granddaughters and great-granddaughters presented her with a red-and-cream prayer shawl, which came with the names of Judaism’s four matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — embroidered in its four corners. Eisner recited the blessings over the Torah, a reading in English and the shehechiyanu prayer, which is uttered when marking new or special occasions.
After the service, the group gathered for a dinner of eggplant, salad nicoise and pizza. The evening also featured klezmer music and Israeli folk dancing. “Nobody wanted to go home,” Waldman said. The party lasted nearly five hours.
When asked about the secret to her longevity, Eisner cited her childhood —“We didn’t have any television or radio, and the library card was standard equipment”— and her parents, who had emigrated from Poland and raised her in an Orthodox home on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
She said that although her mother had no formal education, she raised her daughters with “limits” and a “lot of love” as well as with confidence.
Eisner was widowed at 41 and began working as a bookkeeper to support her three daughters.
“I was on my own for so many years, I had to be tough,” she said.
In recent years, Eisner has weathered two broken hips, a broken shoulder and a bout of pneumonia. She also has continued her education — this time as an unofficial student at Wesleyan University, where her great-granddaughter Alana is a sophomore.
Every week, Alana brings Eisner the reading for her Jewish studies course, which they later discuss.
Jennifer Siegel is a Forward staff writer.