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When Harry met Lilly…

Rabbi Harry Roth will read this article aloud to his wife, Lillian, after it’s published.
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March 18, 2015

Rabbi Harry Roth will read this article aloud to his wife, Lillian, after it’s published. They might be sitting in a community dining room or her bedroom, where she dorms with her assigned roommate — referred to as “the retired singer” — separated by a curtain. 

He’ll read this particular line out loud and she’ll listen as she either inspects her immaculately manicured, cherry-red nails or stares away in thought, trying to remember a name, a word, a memory, something stirring deep inside. Maybe she’ll be wearing that emerald green dress he bought her. 

Harry, 91, will be visiting his wife — whom he calls “my dear Lillian” — as he’s done every day for the past 18 months, ever since she was admitted into the Goldenberg-Ziman Family Special Care Center at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Now in the advanced stages of the disease, Lillian remains in a wheelchair and is assisted by nurses. She first started showing signs after the couple moved to L.A. from Massachusetts nearly 20 years ago. At first, the symptoms were mild — she was forgetful and easily disoriented. But symptoms eventually worsened, and her confusion deepened. 

“She needed all kinds of help that I couldn’t give her,” Harry said in a defeated tone.

So, every single day, the aging rabbi travels from his apartment in Westwood to Lillian in Reseda; Harry takes Cityride on weekdays, and is driven by one of his two children on the weekends, or, on occasion, drives himself. 

“I need it more than she does,” Harry said about his daily visits. “I don’t know how I’d feel if I didn’t see her every day, and I don’t want to find out.” 

Since Lillian, his wife of 72 years, entered the Jewish Home, the only times Harry hasn’t visited her were after he underwent two minor operations and when he flew to New York for their grandson’s college graduation.

By the time Harry reads this out loud, his dear Lillian will be 92, or almost — her birthday is March 23. There are certain things you should know about her: She has pale green eyes, dainty hands and an identical twin named Vivian. When she was young, Lillian was zaftig, pretty, shy and practical. Growing up, her family took trips to Rockaway, N.Y., where she was known to dance the jitterbug. When she cooked, she baked a mean babka and an out-of-this-world chicken soup — the secret is to puree the vegetables, making the soup the color of carrots, Harry said. 

“It wasn’t hard to fall in love with her,” he said. 

They first met 85 years ago when Harry and his family moved to Corona, Queens, from their small-town shtetl in Romania, and Lillian and her family came to welcome the new arrivals. Harry was 6 then, and Lillian was 7.

On their wedding day, Oct. 14, 1942, Lillian was 21, but he was only 20 — Harry said he couldn’t legally drink alcohol or get married without parental consent. But he was old enough to serve in the military, and when he was on furlough — a five-day visit before returning overseas to serve in World War II — they tied the knot. 

The Orthodox ceremony took place on a Saturday evening, and the next morning they drove to the Catskills in New York for their honeymoon, a three-night stay at the Borscht Belt landmark Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel. This was before the hotel built a swimming pool, so if they wanted to swim, they had to go to the lake. “Anyways, it was too cold to swim,” Harry still remembers. Four days later, he was stationed in France. 

Before retiring in 1990, Harry spent 28 years as a Reform rabbi in Massachusetts. Then he traded his stationary pulpit for a gig as chaplain on the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship, where he and Lillian sailed the seas, traveling the world.

These days, Harry regularly attends Friday afternoon Shabbat services at the Goldenberg-Ziman Family Special Care Center with his wife. After, he eats a meal in the Jewish Home’s cafeteria, which includes chicken soup (“made with real chicken!”) and Manischewitz wine. Lillian stays at the Center, where she’s assisted by nurses.

The Goldenberg-Ziman Family Special Care Center is probably the most musical building at the Jewish Home. There’s always a blanket of sound, whether it’s a performance in the main room, a musical serenade in the back or the crooning coming from a stereo. Studies have shown that music is an effective therapy in the treatment of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. It soothes agitation, sparks memories, engages the mind and improves eating. 

“It’s the songs that she remembers,” said Harry about Lillian, who, depending on the day, might not recognize her husband. But even on what Harry calls “the bad days,” Lillian remembers the lyrics of her favorite melodies. 

When Harry asks Lillian,“Do you want to sing ‘Oyfn Pripetchik,’ ” at first she responds apathetically. But when he starts to sing, just the first few bars, she joins in and belts out the old Yiddish ballad, whose title translates as “On the Hearth.” 

It’s strange, Harry explained later, because Lillian wasn’t very musically oriented when she was younger. For some reason, though, the songs stuck with her. 

“I really don’t know where all this music came from,” he said. It’s through music that he’s able to still communicate with his wife.

Which is why Harry, as he nears reading this article’s end, likely will look up to gauge his wife’s response. And when he says the words, “Oyfn Pripetchik,” her eyes will focus, her head will turn, and he’ll read the first line of the song they know so well, “Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl — on the hearth, a fire burns.”

And together, they’ll sing. 

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