Residents reminisce before Menorah Parks chai mark

At 95, a leisurely stroll down nearby interior-design row on Sacramento Street can feel more like laboring through the 26th mile of a marathon.

So Mellow reserves his energy for endeavors closer to home, like keeping his one-bedroom San Francisco apartment spotlessly clean.

He doesn't even let a dirty dish sit in the kitchen sink.

He almost immediately points out the one thing in the apartment that looks awry — the couch upholstery, which is seriously frayed. "Look what Trixie my cat did," Mellow said. "You won't see her though, she always hides under the bed if anyone else is here."

Mellow and 29 other Menorah Park residents have lived at the San Francisco senior housing complex since it opened 18 years ago.

He's not involved in as many activities as he used to be and he doesn't hear much without his hearing aid. But Mellow plans on attending Menorah Park's chai anniversary celebration on July 12, being held down the block at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's auditorium.

"I'm glad to be here to observe it at my age," said the Brooklyn-born Mellow. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

The federally subsidized 150-unit senior independent living project, located at 3365 Sacramento St. in Presidio Heights, is widely considered the most desirable U.S. Housing and Urban Development facility for seniors in the city.

"It's in a beautiful neighborhood and most of the other HUD buildings are in crummy neighborhoods," said Blossom Dror, programming director for Menorah Park. "It's very safe here. When I leave work at 5 or 6, I see residents taking walks around the neighborhood."

While affordability is an appealing enough factor to keep 400 senior applicants on the Menorah Park waiting list, many of the current 188 residents appreciate the fact that the population is largely Jewish — 77 percent.

"Of course I like it. I'm among my fellow Jews," Mellow said. "In New York, I always lived in Jewish neighborhoods. In San Francisco, I don't know of any Jewish neighborhoods."

Mellow, a former tenants' association president, who also led Shabbat services and organized oneg Shabbat programs for several years, has seen Menorah Park gradually shift from an American Jewish population to one in which 68 percent of the residents are emigres from the former Soviet Union.

Many are able to embrace their Jewish culture for the first time at Menorah Park.

"I got involved with the oneg Shabbat because I wanted the people here to know something about Judaism," said Mellow. "I believe strongly in the preservation of Judaism. A lot of Russian emigres, when they first came here, didn't even know what a synagogue looked like."

Sima Zilberbrand, 87, who came from Ukraine, has also lived at Menorah Park for 18 years.

"Where I used to live, I never thought I was Jewish," she said through an interpreter. "My parents sang Jewish songs to me. But nobody spoke Yiddish in my family. A person who would speak Yiddish out loud in the street was teased or bad things would happen."

At Menorah Park, Zilberbrand and many emigres were able to discover and rekindle a Jewish life. "Lots of people here are very interested in being involved in a Jewish life. They couldn't do it back there, but they can do it here. I'm very much into the Jewish life."

One way Zilberbrand got in touch with her Jewish roots was through reading. In fact, she helped start a Russian library at Menorah Park, which is open to the public. It started with 30 books and now has 2,000. She continues to volunteer 2-1/2 hours per week.

The collection is considered the best in the city by the Russian-speaking community, said Zilberbrand, who along with several other tenants put time and energy into gathering books. "We went to Russian stores, we went door-to-door and to the Russian tenants and almost all of them donated books. I also got books from relatives."

In the early years, funds were raised through bake sales at the JCC of S.F.

"When we were much younger, we would make cakes and pierogis," she said. "We were all great bakers and great friends."

Zilberbrand's life at Menorah Park used to be more active before her arthritis curtailed her mobility. She now uses a walker to get around. She used to enjoy dancing at the well-attended monthly birthday parties, as well as holiday parties, which often feature live music.

"I didn't skip a single program," she said. "I liked to dance very much. Tango, waltz, folk dancing. Now, I sit and watch at the dances."

She used to write poems, but she does less of that now because writing hurts her shoulder. However, she still socializes with residents in the courtyard during the day and sees many of the movies in Russian and English that are shown at Menorah Park.

But things have not been the same for more than a year since another resident, her friend Raphael Brightman, died. Zilberbrand, whose husband died during World War II, refers to Raphael as her husband, even though they never married.

"I get lonely. I don't want to do as much since he died," she said. "We had separate apartments, but we lived together for 14 years. We did everything together — eating, sleeping and walking. Those were the happiest years of my life."