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Sunday, March 27, 2011

100-year-old Bronx jweish woman is sharing her trove of memories in hospice through national program

Lily Rapaport has a story worth telling.

She escaped brutality in her home country. She raised a family and lived the American Dream.

And now, near the end of her rich life, the 100-year-old is sharing her trove of memories with a national program called StoryCorps, which linked up recently with Rapaport's hospice service, MJHS Hospice in Riverdale.

"I was young, and we had everything we needed," Rapaport began, but the sentence belies the harsh struggles she and her Jewish family faced during the violent pogroms in Ukraine during the early 1900s.

Known back then as Leeza Yurkovsky, Rapaport says she watched as Russian soldiers, or "Cossacks," rode through town shooting people. A bullet killed Rapaport's baby sister. She saw the rabbi's wife get raped.

Dressed in a lavender robe, her white hair brushed up into a small pompadour, her brown eyes looked down, she spoke quietly, conjuring vivid memories while her daughter, Alixe Dancer, prodded.

When Rapaport was 8 years old, the family escaped to Romania, and then across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S. four years later.

As if out of an American fairy tale, the family landed at Ellis Island on July 4, 1922, as fireworks exploded.

"I said to my mother, 'Let's go back, they're shooting here, too,'" Rapaport recalled, sitting in her living room, surrounded by lush landscapes that she painted and Jewish theology books.

Rapaport has lived in the same apartment, on Holland Ave. off Pelham Parkway, for the last 70 years.

She keeps track of where she lived in the Bronx by each daughter she had with her husband of nearly 70 years, Irving Rapaport, who died in 2000.

"Longfellow Ave. was our first apartment when Leora was born; then we moved to Kruger Ave. because Alixe was born, and then we moved to this apartment and Michale was born, and I said, 'I'm not moving anymore; no more kids,'" Rapaport said.

Rapaport never finished school or held a job - "women didn't work in my time" - but she found something that quickly became a passion.

On her first trip to a department store - either Orbach's or Gimbels - Rapaport recalled noticing paintings hanging on the walls. A saleswoman told her if she bought the paints and brushes, she could get free lessons.

"When I brought [paintings] home and lined them up in the foyer, Irving said, 'You bought seven paintings?'" Rapaport reminisced. "I said, 'I didn't buy them, I made them,' and he was impressed."

While Rapaport reflected on her life, she was surrounded by Dancer, 71, and Rabbi Charles Rudansky, a social worker and a nurse's aide, all from MJHS.

"Whatever she wants to do, she does," Dancer said as she gazed lovingly at her mother.

With that, Rapaport got out of her wheelchair and showed off some of her bellydancing moves. She twisted her hands and intertwined her arms, moving them slowly over her head. She learned the dance when she was in her 70s, Rapaport said.

"I had a full life," she said, pausing for a second - maybe ruminating on an existence that gave her three children, three grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

"I had a wonderful life."

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