Navigate to News section

One Super Supercentarian

Goldie Michelson immigrated from Russia at the turn of the century, and wrote her graduate thesis about Jewry in Worcester, Massachusetts. At 113 years old, she’s reportedly America’s oldest person.

Raquel Wildes
May 16, 2016
An picture of Goldie Michelson with her great-granddaughter, Deanna Minsky, posted on Facebook in 2014. (Clark University / Facebook)

An picture of Goldie Michelson with her great-granddaughter, Deanna Minsky, posted on Facebook in 2014. (Clark University / Facebook)

According to the New York Daily Newsciting the Gerontology Research Group, Goldie Michelson, a Jewish woman, is now the oldest living American. Last Thursday, Susannah Mushatt-Jones, a Brooklynite who was reportedly the last person born in the 1800s, died at the age of 116.

“It never occurred to me that I would live this long,” the 113-year-old Goldie Michelson told Clark University magazine in 2012. “I just went on and on, and I’ve loved it.”

Michelson was born in Russia in 1903. Her father, Max Corash, received word that he was going to be re-enlisted into the Russian Army as a medic—he was one exam away from finishing medical school—so he decided to instead join his two brothers and sister in Worcester, Massachusetts, where they’d been living since 1885. When Michelson was two years old, she moved to America, and her father opened up a dry goods store in the Central Massachusetts hub to earn a living. From Clark University magazine:

Goldie attended city schools, where she threw herself into the theater—whether it was acting, finding costumes, or working the lights. By the time she was a freshman at Classical High School, Goldie’s passion for the stage was so well established that one Friday afternoon the chairman of the English Department stopped her in the hallway, handed her the 19th-century poem “Lasca,” and informed her that she would be reciting it from memory at Monday’s assembly. “It was a long poem,” she says. “I went home and memorized it over the weekend.” Not only did Goldie nail her performance, but to this day she can recite “Lasca” verbatim.

Michelson was one of the few women to receive a college education in the 1920s. She earned her undergraduate degree in sociology in 1924 from Pembroke College, the women’s affiliate of Brown University. When she returned home she was offered a job at Worcester State Hospital, but her “old-fashioned” father would not allow his daughter to work in “that place,” Goldie told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Since Goldie was going to make $25 per week at the hospital, he offered to pay her $25 a week to stay home. Goldie accepted, although she said she never took the money.

Around the same time, Michelson met her husband, David, who came to Worcester from New Jersey to take a job for $90 per week—a lot of money at the time. One of Goldie’s brothers met David at the pool at the Y and brought him home for dinner. David was planning on moving back to New Jersey the next day, but after meeting Goldie, he decided to stay. “He kept his job, and I kept him!” Goldie told the Telegram and Gazette.

She and her husband also acted themselves, and a favorite story involves entering their theater group, Workshop Presents, in a yearly competition.
“We entered the first year, and we got first prize,” she said. “Then the second year, we entered and we got first prize. The third year, they said, ‘We hope you take this as a compliment, but we’re going to ask you to drop out. Our organization is falling apart, because everyone said, ‘What’s the use of entering? Workshop Presents is just going to win!’ ”

Her husband died in 1974, and Michelson never remarried. Goldie honors her late husband’s memory with the endowment of the Michelson Theater and the David and Goldie Michelson Drama Fund at Clark University. Michelson also worked with the foundation that helped establish Brandeis University.

While raising her daughter, Renee Minsky, Michelson went on to complete a master’s degree at Clark University where she explored why older Jewish residents in Worcester were evidently choosing not to become U.S. citizens.

“I found that they were scared to death of the language, and never believed they would be able to learn it,” Michelson told Clark University magazine.

Michelson told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that her 90-page thesis was inspired by her time working with immigrant communities through the local Jewish women’s organizations, like Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women. As an immigrant herself, she recognized the talent and depth immigrants—especially Jewish immigrants—could contribute to society.

Clark University provided Tablet with her thesis abstract. Here are a few highlights:

The attitude of America toward the ever increasing flow of immigrants to its shores, has gradually changed from indifference to concern. The problem, from a sociological point of view, seems to be whether or not so many diversified races can make for national solidarity. An answer is found in assimilation, not by force or coercion, but rather by guidance, understanding, and protection.

The forced migration of the Jews has encouraged in them an ease of adaptability. Their intention, in most cases, is permanent settlement, and they are consequently anxious to absorb America customs and the American way of life. They do not allow their religious faith to interfere with their patriotism for their adopted fatherland. Jews of America have always urged their later-coming fellow Jews to assimilate.

Michelson identified three main groups of Jewish immigrants and their respective contributions to American life: the “deep religiousness” of the first Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the 1700s, the “worldly cultures and knack for communal organization” of the German Jews in the 1800s, and the “suppressed longing for freedom and opportunity” of the East European Jews in the early 1900s. Michelson also distinguished the historical contribution Jews had made to American society before 1936.

The contribution of Jews to American life takes us back to the first expedition of Columbus which was financed by two Spanish Jews. Abraham de Lyon, an early Jewish settler, was the first person successfully to introduce useful foreign plants to this country. Haym Solomon advanced great amounts of money to the United States government during the Revolutionary War, and refused all recompense. In every field of endeavor, in every phase of civilization, in government, politics, law, philosophy, art, Jewish men and women have been contributors.

The abstract reads like both a sociological study of an immigrant population, and a plea or directive in favor of increasing Jewish immigration and, eventually, assimilation into American society—something Michelson worked hard to spearhead in her own community—and something that the public still debates today, 80 years later—and counting.

Raquel Wildes, a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School, is an Audio Consultant at Tablet.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.