Hazel Fleishman has lived through 18 presidential administrations. When she was born in 1914, women didn’t have the vote, but she votes regularly, as she has for more than 80 years, following the news daily in The New York Times. About to turn 106, she loves being an American.
“I love my life,” she tells me, when we first meet on a Zoom conversation, along with her caregiver Luana Francis and the volunteer who visits her regularly, Julie Friedman. Thanks to this technology, I get to see how Hazel emanates a joy that’s contagious.
Soon after her birth, World War I broke out in Europe. She has experienced, stateside, both World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the Spanish flu epidemic, the Depression, recessions, the deaths of her parents, husband, sister and her many close friends and now the coronavirus epidemic. But Hazel is an optimist, punctuating her sentences with smiles.
When I ask her the secret to staying so positive and youthful at 106, she says she has no secrets, but has been a positive person all of her life. And playing tennis every day for decades kept her young. Never a smoker, she says she eats everything. Francis opens a compartment in a polished wood credenza to reveal their stash of chocolates and red licorice twists.
In the days before the coronavirus pandemic, when she and Francis would go outside every day, whether to a nearby garden or the beauty salon — always wearing three-inch heels, even in the wheelchair she has used for the last few years — Hazel liked asking strangers how old they thought she was. The usual reply was something like “not a day over 88.”
Hazel lives in Yorkville, in the same apartment since the building opened in the early 1970s, a tidy place filled with decades of photos and mementos. She has 24-hour care, and she praises highly “the three girls who take care of me.” In our conversation, Francis, who has worked with Hazel for 12 years, often holds her hand, with her perfect manicure (done by Francis) visible.
Friedman, a real estate broker with a doctorate in social work, has been visiting Hazel as a volunteer on the staff of Metropolitan Jewish Health System (MJHS) Hospice Service for about two and a half years, sometimes with her son Sam Koffler, a Ramaz sophomore. Friedman is half Hazel’s age.
Determined that Hazel’s birthday on June 1 not go uncelebrated — even though their initial plans for a “blowout party” in a tulip garden with a band, dancing and lavish food had to be abandoned — Friedman reached out to friends. Promptly, she had offers of 106 homemade mini-cupcakes, a challah in the shape of “106,” several cakes and 106 colorful carnations. Her friends have never met Hazel, but stepped up in this time of challenge to create something joyous.
Friedman also reached out to Dr. Giovanna Delucci, principal of P.S. 43 in the Bronx, where Hazel taught kindergarten for more than 50 years. The current kindergarten classes made a birthday video.
Sam bought heart-shaped pillows to hold up in lieu of the hugs Hazel likes to share. He’ll be playing his violin, when he and Friedman surprise her with a visit that day — for the first time in months — in masks and gloves. Francis will style Hazel’s hair, apply her make-up and help her dress in the elegant style she favors. Others will join on Zoom.
“Hazel demonstrates to me that life can be good anytime and everywhere, at every age,” Koffler says. “I walk away much better and much happier.”
“Her spunk and charisma are still there,” Friedman adds.
Born in the New Brighton section of Staten Island, Harriet Cohen (always called Hazel) enjoyed the local beaches and especially going to the movie house right across her house, for 10 cents admission. Always having sat near the piano player, she remembers the shift from silent film to talkies. She graduated from Curtis, Staten Island’s first high school.
Her grandfather, an immigrant from Russia, was a Staten Island merchant with a pushcart, with compartments for pots, brooms and glasses. Her American-born father, Herman Cohen, opened a hardware and furniture shop called “Cohen’s Store of a Million Items.” Her mother also worked in the store, but Hazel and her sister did not. She says that her father treated “the boys” who worked for him like sons.
She also remembers the Depression years, when her father kept his business but lost many houses he owned. It was young Hazel’s job to keep an eye on her father to prevent him from harming himself. But they bounced back. Her mother’s expression from those years, which Hazel likes to repeat, “Love flies out the window when poverty is at the door.”
In later summers, they would go to the Catskills — very much in the style of Mrs. Maisel — although one parent would stay back and watch the store. They would arrive with lots of new outfits but Hazel was more interested in playing tennis. She loved the comedians, even when she didn’t understand the racy humor.
In 1938, she married Abraham Fleishman. She and Bremmy, as he was called, met as fellow Sunday school teachers at a JCC in Staten Island, when she was 17 and he was 18. Her sister Faye was friendly with his sister Adelaide. Her mother urged, “Find a boy with more money.”
But she “loved him right from the start. He was smart, handsome and I looked up to him.”
After Bremmy’s service as a communications officer on a U.S Naval ship during World War II — they wrote letters every day and she prayed for his safety — he became a Jewish communal worker, studied at JTS and headed a JCC in the Bronx. Hazel attended Harriette Melissa Mills Training School for Kindergarten and Primary Teachers and completed her degree at NYU before teaching at P.S. 43 in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx.
“I just loved the kids,” she says. “And they loved me.” She understood that many came from troubled homes and she wanted them to feel safe and protected. She taught songs, prepared them to read and tried to model honesty — and did a lot of hugging. “All the time. We were very affectionate.”
The Fleishmans didn’t have children, which she ways is “the one thing that was missing for both of us.”
They enjoyed dancing, especially the Charleston, and went out dancing at supper clubs and on cruises, “where it’s always New Year’s Eve.” They were married for 65 years, when he passed away in 2003.
“He always made me feel like I was doing the right thing,” she says of her late husband.
When she could no longer play tennis every day, she took weekly bridge lessons at the Cavendish Bridge Club on the Upper East Side, considered the world’s most illustrious bridge club, founded in 1925. Its closing in 1991 was a front-page story in The New York Times.
These days, she enjoys the music of Dean Martin (“Mambo Italiano” is her favorite) and likes online shopping, ever confident in her sense of style. She has taught Francis to play mah jongg, and they recently enjoyed reading the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Gray” together. A feminist, Hazel likes watching “the smart women” on “The View” and, as “a Democrat through and through,” watches Gov. Cuomo every day at his coronavirus briefings. She misses friends and family visiting, especially Friedman (“I love her with all my heart”).
Her advice to others in this pandemic: “Try to accept things as they are. You have to look at life as you are given it, and be satisfied with your fate. Be honest. See the good.”
“I try to instill that in the girls,” she adds.