Pearl Mizrahi: Woman of Valor
Pearl Mizrahi lived every day of her remarkable life –from the young age of sixteen until her last days at 83 —answering Hillel’s three eternal questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?”
She was indeed for herself with her incredible Determination to hold onto life. And her unbelievable Courage in overcoming daunting physical injuries and pain. She answered the second question when she gave of herself not only to her dear husband and children, but to her mother, father, brothers and sisters, friends, synagogue and community as well. Her responses were always swift and meaningful. They were the answer to Hillel’s third question. .. the clarion call for action; to do it “now” not later.
Family was always of greatest importance to Pearl. She grew up in Brooklyn in a large, close family with three brothers, two older sisters and one younger sister. Her father Saul Dayan was the bread winner and her mother Juliet Dayan was raising seven children. Saul was Syrian and spoke both Arabic and English in their home. Juliet was a traditional Jewish homemaker whom Pearl described as very lively and fun.
How Pearl met Harry is a wonderful story. ……The date was December, l948. Pearl was sixteen, in her senior year in high school in St. Petersburg Florida where the Dayan family had moved earlier. Harry Mizrahi, age 27, was in St. Petersburg helping his older brother open a linen store. He had been a pilot in the United States Navy during World War II, flying from a carrier in the Pacific Ocean low over the waves to bomb Japanese submarines. Saul Dayan met this young, handsome veteran one day and learned that Harry was also from a Syrian Jewish family . Dayan had two eligible unmarried daughters, Grace and Dorothy and he invited Harry home to lunch the next Sunday. (pause) When Harry walked into the house, he saw Pearl’s picture on the wall and asked her mother who that was. “That’s one of my younger daughters,” she answered. Harry always says , “I knew that was the daughter I wanted.”
Pearl came home from teaching Sunday school and was introduced to Harry. Then, she went into the kitchen and asked her mother, “Who is that?”.
Juliet answered, “He’s not for you.” As it turned out, after a few weeks of seeing each other every day, they had fallen in love and Harry proposed. Pearl’s parents agreed to the wedding after Pearl promised her mother she would finish her education. They were married on April 28, 1949 with the entire congregation in attendance. …… That beautiful picture of her is hanging on their living room wall today after sixty six years of marriage.
The first years of their marriage were not easy. Juliet Dayan gave birth to her eighth child Arnold on December l, 1949 . Two years later to the day, December 1, 1951, Jay Mizrahi was born. When he was only two weeks old, a closed stomach meant that he needed surgery . It was successful and Pearl fed him every hour during his recovery. Her parents had come up from Florida for the Bris. Then, tragedy struck. Her mother collapsed , returned to Florida by train and was diagnosed with cancer, lymphoma. Pearl was the one of the adult children who came to Florida for six weeks at a time during Juliet’s two year illness . Harry was at home with Jay and a caretaker. Juliet Dayan was 45 when she died in 1953.
When Pearl returned home, she found Jay seriously ill. He had developed a brain tumor. The specialist who was called said he had to operate to find out exactly where it was. Pearl asked , “Do you want to do it tomorrow?” The doctor hugged her and said, “Most of my patients say wait. I’m proud of you.” The operation was a success.
After her mother’s death, Pearl, at age 21, was faced with one of the most important decisions of her life. Her father, like many men of his times, was not equipped to raise Arnold, only three and Cecile, thirteen. Although her two older sisters were married, Arnold and Cecile came to live with Harry and Pearl in Ocean City. Harry had said, “We can’t leave them. We’ll take them both.” A year later, with their savings and a Veteran’s loan they built a house in Margate for their new family. Harry flew in the reserves on weekends. Jeffrey was born on June 23, 1956. Pearl remembered those years as happy times. …..pause….However, the happy times were not to last…..
On April 9, 1958, when the family was visiting in Tampa, Florida for Passover , they were in a catastrophic automobile accident. They were hit head- on in a blinding rain storm by a drunken driver going 60 miles an hour on a narrow country road. Harry was driving with Jeffrey at 22 months wedged between him and Pearl. He was holding a big stuffed monkey that saved his life. Jay, Arnold and Cecile were in the back. The other driver was killed instantly and Pearl was thrown forward into the broken glass of the windshield. There were no seat belts or air bags in those days. Farmers heard the crash and ran to help get them out of the car. Jaws of life were needed to pull Pearl free. They were all rescued just as the car burst into flames and burned to the ground.
At the hospital, Harry, Jeffrey, Jay and Arnold had escaped with minor injuries. Cecile suffered a knee injury and head laceration. Pearl sustained massive internal injuries, broken bones and severe facial injuries . She was not expected to live through the night. … Pearl was in and out of consciousness. At one point she saw her father standing at the foot of her bed, holding a prayer book. She called out in a loud voice, “Don’t do that, Dad! ‘I am not going to die.” And she didn’t.
Harry had to be strapped to a bed, to restrain him from going to her side while he was treated for his injuries. Finally, they brought him in a wheel chair to see Pearl. She was on the critical list for 8 weeks and hospitalized for 3 and a half months. She had blood transfusions for days and was in traction for her broken pelvis and leg. At one point, the doctor told her she would never walk again. She looked up at him and said very clearly, “We’ll see.
During her stay, she found that helping other patients was important to her recovery. The doctors sent the patients in and she would talk with them and encourage them. She couldn’t move in traction and her head was kept straight, but it became part of her routine. She was answering Hillel’s second question. Harry returned with the children to Margate in the early weeks and flew down every other weekend. The three boys came down with measles and he kept track of their meds with lipstick on the bathroom mirror.
When Pearl finally came home in July, she weighed 68 pounds. By October, she was able to maneuver on crutches and a walker. She worked hard with physical therapists to build the strength and mobility in her legs and right arm. Cecile and friends did the cooking. Harry took care of the boys when he came home from work. Two years after the accident they flew to Florida and she walked into the office of the doctor who said she would never walk again.
Pearl never forgot her promise to her mother, and in the decade that followed, she went to Atlantic Community College and took courses to receive her GED, high school diploma. It was just the beginning. In the years that followed, she would complete a four year college degree at Glassboro and work with pre-school children, first as an assistant and then as the head teacher at Friend’s School in Atlantic City. After the school closed, she taught for ten years at the Hebrew Academy. Some of you here today or your children may have been her pupils.
Pearl was active at Beth Judah and in the community. She coordinated a group of women who cooked and delivered meals to those who were ill or in a period of bereavement. According to Jewish tradition, she cared for the bodies of women who had died and sat with them for a proscribed time period. She and Harry arrived early every morning at Beth Judah to prepare the coffee and bagels for members who came to say the Mourners’ Kaddish. She also took a job at South Jersey Airways because of the perks. She wanted to travel. And they did. She called those years, “the happiest times.”
On January 30, 1992, fate intervened again.. They were in California visiting her brother Victor and sister-in law Margaret, who always said, Pearl was the most fun at family parties. They were driving in a car with a friend, Claire at the wheel. It was 8:30 at night when once more they were in a disastrous car accident. Although Pearl was wearing her seat belt , she was thrown forward through the windshield and had to be freed by the Jaws of Life. Neither Claire nor Harry in the back were injured.
Pearl was flown by helicopter to the nearest hospital . She was in and out of consciousness and joking with the men who were saving her life. She lsaid, ,“Oh, I always wanted to go for a ride in a helicopter!” . Pearl was very badly hurt but the internal injuries were not as critical as the first accident. She suffered broken bones in both legs. One ankle was smashed and one hand had serious damage. She spent weeks in three different hospitals for recovery and rehabilitation. They taught her how to walk again. She praised them because they never said she couldn’t do it.
Harry flew back and forth to be with her as he had 34 years earlier. It would be almost 4 months before she could return home. She was in a wheelchair first, then crutches and a walker. She persevered with exercise, walking and therapy in a pool. One leg was shorter than the other and she wore special shoes, but she danced at her grandson, Daniel’s bar mitzvah in l998!
Pearl had eight operations after she left the hospital in l992, including taking the metal bars out of her legs. Then, she and Harry took their first trip to Europe in l997. They visited friends in Tuscany and she walked very slowly up the steep path to Orvieto. Nothing daunted her heroic spirit!
Pearl always praised Harry and how he encouraged her through the darkest times. She said, “ He encouraged me to go back to school. He encouraged me to drive the car again after both accidents. He always was there to encourage me to overcome my fears.” During Pearl’s last long illness, she fought impossible odds to get better so she could be there for Harry. ….Her remarkable life story and his story were intertwined to the end.
Pearl Mizrahi was a true woman of valor and a very dear friend. ..She will always live in blessed memory in our hearts.