Play it cool

The longest-married and oldest couple at San Francisco’s Jewish Home plan to celebrate their anniversary just like they’ve approached their life: Simple and easy.

“Play it cool. If it goes, it goes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” says Jean Soffa, 95, of life with her husband of 75 years, Phillip, 97. “I guess it helps that we like each other and are best friends. Otherwise it could have never worked out.”

The couple’s diamond anniversary is Wednesday, Sept. 8, and they’ve received tons of fan mail from senators, businesses and even former President Clinton.

The couple has had their share of hardships — they lost a son 10 years ago and Phillip has Alzheimer’s. “It’s hard to get old,” says Jean.

But if you run around the block once a day, avoid whiskey, don’t stay out too late and, most importantly, believe in God, you’re bound to live a pretty long, healthy and happy life, says Phillip.

Religion was a part of their daily life, and the Soffas regularly went to synagogue in their native Detroit. They began their romance there when Phillip caught sight of Jean one day and invited her to play tennis. They spent more and more time together and married Sept. 8, 1929.

Jean was a homemaker and Phillip worked as a newspaper deliveryman for the Detroit Times, a union man. They went on to have three children. Today their 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren are lawyers, doctors and teachers scattered around the country and world.

Born in 1907 and 1910, respectively, Phillip and Jean are descendants of Russian and Romanian immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th century. They lived through both world wars, the Great Depression and 17 presidents. From their home in Detroit, which Phillip built by himself, they saw the world grapple with the Cold War and the civil rights movement and welcome a smorgasbord of new inventions, such as the television and personal computers.

But memories have become foggy, especially for Phillip, who often repeats himself and has trouble identifying his wife.

“He says to me, ‘Am I alive?’ and ‘Do I know you?'” says Jean, sadly, as she sits in their room at the Jewish Home, where a Jewish songbook sits on a small keyboard and frames of quilted Hebrew letters hang on the wall. “It’s a real tragedy.”

Phillip’s illness may have taken a heavy toll on his family, but he remains amicable and funny. He often jokes and spins tales of his boxing days and of his father, a tailor for “fancy ladies.”

The Soffas fled Detroit seeking a warmer climate compatible with Jean’s arthritis. They tried Las Vegas and Millbrae before settling in San Francisco. But her arthritis has steadily worsened and today is so debilitating that she cannot play her piano, and she requires special gloves to knit.

“If I was well, there are so many things I’d do,” says Jean, who sports a chai (“life”) around her neck. She enjoys reading newspapers and romance novels as well as doing crafts projects. And she spends hours looking over family photos and thinking about the past.

“Nobody goes through life without heartache and we’ve had our own share of it,” she says, looking wistful. She doesn’t share details, but one is the loss of her son to cancer at the age of 60. “Such a beautiful boy,” she says.

Still, there are lighter moments. Besides receiving the congratulatory letters, the couple was featured in the Jewish Home’s newsletter. But the couple, who have lived in San Francisco since 1997, don’t see what the fuss is all about.

“Really, what’s the big deal?” Phillip says. “You think we are special?”

Milton Lewis contributed to this report.