By: Kelly Jemal Massry
With the passing of my Sito, Rosette Kassin, A’’H, I was lucky enough to inherit a few of her material possessions: A fruit platter and matching plates; a set of mugs and saucers, flecked with gold and green; a beautiful Venetian glass bowl. I also inherited a burning curiosity, a desire to know the facts of her life, to go beyond what I felt about her and acquire the details. Sito lived an incredibly long and blessed life – 109 years spent in happiness and good health – yet in all that time, I never asked for her life story. I never asked her for dates and timelines, for names and highlights. I never asked her because, to me, that minutia was irrelevant. It was enough just to be around her, to be touched by her holiness and to be so sure of her love. Yet now that she has passed away, we are all examining her life more closely – determining the pieces that made it up and that made her who she was. I hope this tale will be inspiring to all of you – the story of a simple woman with the most refined nature, and the deepest set of values. And I hope, after reading this, you will take some of her with you.
The oldest of eight children, Sito was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1907. Her parents were Rachel and Sam Arazi and her grandfather was the Rabbi Leon Cohen. She was so proud of her heritage and would tell anyone who would listen “I’m a Kohen!” Does her grandfather’s being a rabbi explain why she always dressed so modestly? As her great grandchild, I never saw her in casual clothing – she was always in a beautifully tailored suit. Perhaps that was simply because I usually saw her on Shabbat, or at family occasions. Maybe there was a more laid-back side of Sito I didn’t know? But no, her daughter, Vicki, confirmed that Sito never owned a pair of pants. She dressed like a queen each and every day of her life. Hashem believes all of his children to be royalty, and Sito knew it.
Was it because her grandfather was a rabbi that Sito had such a fondness for shul and a love of Torah? I wonder truly about how she was raised, because we would all do well to impart our children with such a deep respect for Judaism. Shul was the highlight of Sito’s week. She’d walk there each Shabbat while she was still able and, as she advanced in age, she’d be taken in a wheelchair. The congregants would stand up in reverence of her and she’d extend berachot when asked for them. She’d listen closely to the Torah portion, a smile playing on her face as it did anytime she heard the words of our sages. And she’d blow kisses to the Torah as it passed – sending along with the holy scroll her deepest wishes.
Sito never went to shul when it rained. She was protective of her health and wouldn’t venture out when the weather was bad, for fear of getting sick. She also, obviously, couldn’t go toshul during the last months of her life, when she lay weak and deteriorating from kidney failure. But nine days before she passed away, a Torah was brought to her bedside and the most precious picture was taken of her as she leaned her face towards it. Similar to the way a baby is taught all the secrets of the Torah while still in the womb, she seemed to want to absorb all the holiness of Hashem’s mesorah before she left this world.
I was always so in awe of my Sito. She had this aura about her, angelic and ethereal. She walked with Hashem alongside her, so maybe it was simply the presence of the Shechina that I felt around her. In researching her life, however, I came to realize that Sito wasn’t always this exalted. Her childhood was difficult and she had to work for all that she had. As a baby in Lebanon, her family was so poor that they saw no choice but to search for a better life elsewhere. When Sito was only two years old, she traveled with her family by boat to the Lower East Side. America, after all, was the Land of Opportunity. Surely, things would be better there.
As a small immigrant, Sito spoke only Arabic, but learned English in elementary school. She cut her studies short after the eighth grade, however. Money was scarce and she needed to work to help support her family. Picture 13-year-old Sito as a salesgirl in 1920 selling linens. Picture her bringing home engedrea and fasulia for dinner each night. Rice and beans – that’s what came cheap at 14 cents a pound. Growing up, that’s what she ate for weeks on end, so that when she got older, she simply couldn’t eat them anymore!
Sito worked right up until 1928, when she met her husband, Raymond Kassin. She liked him right away, as he did her. There was just one problem – she was engaged to another man. “We can’t,” Sito said. “I’m sorry, but I’m engaged to someone else!” Raymond said, “Don’t worry about it! Get rid of him. You’re going to marry me.” What a confident man he must have been – and convincing too – because Sito listened. She broke off her previous engagement and married him in 1929. Exactly, nine months later, they had their first child, my grandmother, Patsy Betesh.
It was the way of the times back then to have a big family. Yet, during Sito’s second pregnancy, she lost the baby when she was seven months along. Doctors told her she would not be able to have any more children and that it would be dangerous for her to try. Sito paid them no mind and went on to have ten more kids! My grandmother’s siblings are Leo, A’’H, Sammy, Hymie, Jackie, Ronnie, Shirley, Celia, Renee, Margo, and Vicki. “She loved all of her kids,” Vicki says, “but Ronnie was her favorite.”
To start, the family lived in Florida, where Raymond had a linens store on Lincoln Road. But as time passed, Jackie, one of the sons, developed asthma and the family moved to a drier climate. Specifically, they moved to 65th street in Brooklyn, where so much of the community was settling. “My mother was strict,” her daughter says of my Sito, who never had a housekeeper, and first got a day worker when she was 104 years old. “We all had to help. We each had a job to do.” As for living arrangements, with so many kids, it wasn’t easy! “We slept on top of each other,” her children vouch. “Four bedrooms for eleven children. Instead of a closet, we each had our own hook. And we had only one pair of shoes. But before the holidays she always bought us new clothes.”
The holidays were so important to Sito. “The holidays are coming! The holidays are coming!” she’d exclaim. “I have to go shopping!” She loved buying new outfits – not because she was vain, Gd forbid, but because she saw it as a way to honor Hashem. The holidays were also another opportunity to go to shuland have company, hosting elaborate meals on an extra-long table. “My mother was a great cook,” her daughters say. “You should see what she made! Fifty pounds of potatoes! Fifty pounds of meschi! And she never let anybody help her.” To the contrary, she would offer her help to others. “Can I help you make kibbe?” she’d say. “Can I help you make kaak?” Up until about four or five years ago, where her hands lost some of their functionality, she was in the kitchen cooking – her own dinner during the week and meals for her children and grandchildren every Shabbat.
Sito never learned to drive, though she did try. While cleaning out her things this past month, a $4.00 receipt was found for a driving lesson she took in 1940. The story was told, too, of the way her husband Raymond endeavored to teach her. The moment he watched her drive over a bridge that was still under construction, though, he said, “That’s it! You’re not driving!” As inconvenient as it must have been, Sito never minded not having access to a car. She was home at 12:00 when her children came home for lunch and she was home at the end of the day, too, when they arrived home from school. She walked everywhere, most often to the Sephardic Community Center to play cards with her friends. She treasured their companionship and was tremendously sad when the card games came to a halt. “My friends don’t call me up to play anymore!” she’d say. “Was it something I said? Was it something I did?” Of course, it was nothing she did. Her friends had all simply passed away. For solace, she spent more and more time among her books.
I asked her children why she loved to read so much. What did books mean to her? “ Her books were her friends,” her daughter, Vicki, said. “She was alone a lot. Even though people came to visit her every day, she spent a lot of time herself. She learned a lot from the books she read. They were a big part of her life.” Sito didn’t order her books from Amazon. She never learned to use a computer. Instead, her scores of descendants - children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and even great, greatgrandchildren – would bring her books. There was nothing she loved more than to sit in a comfy chair and wile away the hours this way.
As a young wife, though, Sito was never idle. She always sought to be a helpmate to her husband. Sadly, he had a heart condition and it got to the point where doctors told him he could no longer work. Sito took on the burden without complaint, venturing forth with her sons on business trips. She’d be out of town every December – the busiest time in retail – and her husband would take over the household, cooking and taking care of the children. What an interesting arrangement they had – one that seems like a complete reversal of the norm – yet it worked for them. They loved each other dearly. In fact, Raymond would often get teased for the apparent beauty of their relationship. In those days, men were tough on their wives and even mean to them. Not Raymond. He’d walk hand in hand with my Sito, talking softly to her.
When her husband passed away at just 62 years old, leaving her a widow at 58, with eleven children still to raise, Sito was devastated. For a long time, she was simply broken. Even as the years passed and she spent decade upon decade alone, she kept a tissue in the pocket of every suit she wore; she never knew when she’d start thinking of him and be overcome with sadness. Though she had many suitors – men who were bent on marrying her – Sito was not interested. To her, there would never be another man like her husband Raymond. For 51 years, she stayed single in remembrance of him.
As she got older, Sito became more and more affectionate. She never hung up the phone without saying “I love you” and when she looked at you, she’d take you in with a sweeping glance of her eyes and say, “You’re gorgeous!” She was a woman of few words, surprising wit, minimal eating habits and a gracious heart. Whenever you asked her, “How are you, Sito?” she’d say, “I’m fine!” If something was hurting her, she never complained about it.
Sito lived until 109 years of age and was the oldest living person in our community when she died. Not long ago, Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, who attended the birthday party my mother made her every year from when she turned 99, asked her the secret to her long life. Sito simply replied: “I love everybody. I love my children.” And she did. She loved all of us, she loved the life Hashem bestowed her with, and because of this, she never worried. Those small sources of stress that eat away at our hearts and unknowingly shorten our lives were never hers to bear. Perhaps that’s because she was never envious of what other people had. Growing up poor, raising her children with very little, she never begrudged what she couldn’t afford and never put undue pressure on her husband to give them more. “She never really had a lot,” Vicki says. “We were never wealthy, but she never cared. She was never one who wanted and we didn’t grow up jealous ourselves. If we had one pair of shoes, we thought we had it all.”
Perhaps the formula for long life is this – never comparing yourself to others, keeping religion close to your heart, maintaining your health and rejoicing constantly in what you have. Let’s remember this: Sito lived simply. She never owned a car, a computer, or a cell phone. (In fact, on her bedside table, an old rotary phone still sits.) She never employed a housekeeper. She made her own bed every morning and did all the cooking and cleaning herself. With such a loving family around her, she never had reason to live in a home and instead maintained her independence, even paying her own bills and balancing her checkbook as a centenarian. What a unique person Sito was! From her, we learn it’s notthat you live life but how you live life that counts.