Gloria Eisenberg has packed a lot into her 104 years, which began in Russia where she spent much of her childhood in an orphanage. Through it all, she continues to be upbeat and currently enjoys spending time with family, playing the piano and dancing.
“She’s very lively, very social, definitely part of the group,” said Adele Winters, who chairs the Adult Day Committee of the Jewish Council for the Aging. For the past year, Eisenberg has been attending the JCA’s Misler Adult Day Center in Rockville two days a week where she participates in games, goes on field trips, mingles and eats lunch with her fellow participants who have physical, cognitive or emotional challenges.
“She loves to dance,” Winters said.
When asked about her love of music, the centenarian immediately began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She often sits down to play at the first piano she sees, but is quick to explain she plays by ear and isn’t so good with reading the notes.
Eisenberg was born in a small town near Kiev on Sept. 23, 1913. Her father Aaron Morgalevich, a shoemaker, left for America before she was born in hopes of one day bringing his family stateside as well. Gloria Eisenberg started life with her mother Fanya, an older sister and three brothers.
She was four or five years old when Soviet soldiers stormed into her house, seized the family’s possessions and forced them to leave. The family took refuge in a synagogue in Kiev, along with other Jewish families forced from their homes.
The centenarian still talks about how she slept on the synagogue floor right next to her mother. One day, her sister kept asking for water, but their mother never responded. Her mother had died during the night.
That memory is as vivid today as the day it happened.
She ended up in several orphanages, moving from one to the next. One day, when she was about 13, the children in the orphanage were fighting and everyone pointed to Olga Morgalevich – Eisenberg’s name at the time in Russia – as the instigator.
Eisenberg was sent outside to sit on a bench as punishment. A woman passed by and did a double take, realizing Eisenberg was her niece, and asked the young girl if her father even knew where she was.
The aunt wrote to Eisenberg’s father, who now lived in Washington, D.C. Morgalevich sent money to his older sister for Eisenberg to come to America. Unfortunately, the sister and her boyfriend spent the money on themselves.
But when she was 14 years old, there finally was enough money to send Eisenberg from Russia to Rotterdam and then on to Castle Garden in New York, America’s immigration center before Ellis Island. She traveled that long distance by herself, arriving in a country where she didn’t know even know the language.
Her father, who had remarried, had a relative of his second wife travel to New York to bring his daughter back to D.C. A friendship developed between the two, and Joe Eisenberg married the now-naturalized American on Oct. 31, 1932.
The couple lived atop a bakery in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest D.C. and had two sons. One became a math professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the other, whom she now lives with, became a dentist. Gloria is the proud matriarch of a family of four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Joe Eisenberg worked as a cab driver, and when their sons were older, Gloria worked in women’s sportswear at a Lansburgh’s Department Store for at least 10 years.
Gloria did most of the family cooking until she was 98 years old. She only slowed down when blurry vision made it too difficult to read the display on her microwave oven.
Much of the history related here was garnered through Eisenberg herself, her son Phil, and JCA’s Misler Center employees.
“Gloria is outgoing and friendly, and she dances like crazy. She wants to be up and moving,” said Fran Lawrence, an activity manager at Misler Center. Gloria gravitates to wherever people gather to chat, she said.
“Gloria is a very lively person, very vibrant.”
Twice a month, she returns to the D.C. apartment she didn’t sell after moving in with her son, and has lunch with old friends.
Many family members attended Eisenberg’s birthday party this weekend. Eisenberg said it didn’t matter what they ate and she certainly didn’t need any presents, adding that it was all about family.
But when asked, she said macaroni and cheese and gefilte fish were her two favorite foods.
When asked her secret to longevity, she laughed. “I have no secret. I believe in God. If it wasn’t for God, where would I be?”