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Deborah — Debby to her friends — is a classic New Yorker in every sense. At 96 years old, she’s called the city home her entire life. Yet, she’s also been a longtime student of languages and lover of travel.
Growing up in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian Jewish refugees, Debby’s first language was Yiddish. Her parents never spoke of their experiences fleeing their home country during the Holocaust. But Debby always felt connected to her extended family and their history through language. That feeling led her to study Spanish and French in college, eventually becoming a language teacher. For the first twenty years of her career, Debby taught at Tilden High School in East Flatbush.
While focused on her career, Debby admits she didn’t think much about marriage. It wasn’t until her forties, on a trip to Fire Island with friends, that she met Martin. He’d grown up mere blocks from Debby and still they had never met. The pair quickly fell in love. “It just happened!” Debby jokes of their chance meeting on the beach that day.
Soon, Martin and Debby married, moving into an apartment in Kips Bay —the same one she still calls home nearly five decades later. Debby found work at a nearby school and spent her summers traveling. One especially memorable trip, she and Martin took a cruise around Europe before finally stopping in Haifa, Israel. She’d arranged to meet family members who lived locally and the couple spent their time enamored of the rich history to be found everywhere.
While Debby is quick to recount her travels and stories from her years of teaching, she still struggles to talk about the loss of her husband. It’s been more than two decades, but the pain endures. Having married later than most of her generation, Debby thought they’d have more time together. A framed photograph of Debby and Martin in Israel is a reminder of all they shared.
After Martin died, Debby busied herself with volunteering. She helped countless new immigrants — many Russian Jews just like her parents — with language skills and supported them as they got settled in New York. One of the women she worked with still stays in touch, reminding Debby of her gratitude. “Not a holiday goes by without a card from her,” she explains.
Debby’s days of travel, teaching and volunteering are well behind her. Most of her eyesight is gone, a result of macular degeneration. To read, she relies on a magnifying glass. Meanwhile, a heart condition requires medication and constant monitoring.
The pandemic constrained Debby’s world even further. Once able to make the short trip to her local grocery store, shopping came to pose too great a risk even with a mask. Debby began receiving meals at the start of the pandemic and the deliveries soon became essential. On a typical day, Debby has cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and our nourishing meal makes for a comforting and nourishing dinner.
During lockdown, Debby’s main comfort was her younger sister Salma, who lives a few floors down in the same building. At the height of the pandemic, the sisters would steady each other and make their way to the building’s courtyard for fresh air. While the city is bustling again, Debby’s no longer able to get out the way she was. So much has changed in just two years.
Ever a New Yorker, Debby remains optimistic and resilient. She reads the newspaper daily. On days when Salma doesn’t come upstairs, the sisters connect by phone. Asked about what she thinks of her longevity and independence, she exclaims “I’m delighted!”