By Deb Silverthorn
Happy birthday, happy everything to Ethel Gruen, who turned 100 years young Thursday, June 4. The beloved longtime Dallas resident celebrated, garbed in a pink tiara, as an adoring court passed through her driveway honoring the birthday queen.
“The key to my longevity? I trust in the Lord to take care of his children and believing in God is the most important thing to me. That has been the lead of my life,” said Ethel, whose smile was constant as partygoers in more than 50 cars showered her with blessings and love. “A wonderful life, a wonderful family — I’ve got it all.”
Born June 4, 1920, the New York native was the only daughter of Aaron and Sarah Agatstein and sister to Lee, Michael and Sam, the latter her twin. She has outlived her family by more than a quarter century, and is now the matriarch of a family of four children (one of blessed memory), five grandchildren (one of blessed memory) and eight great-grandchildren.
Her memories of childhood include visiting her Poppa’s furrier shop, at 7th Avenue and 28th Street, on the 17th floor, running to the vaults to try on the latest style, then going to lunch with her father at the kosher restaurant in the building.
A lifelong learner, Ethel considered education important from early on. She skipped the third grade and graduated high school early to begin studies at Hunter College at 16. She always appreciated the legal system, and remembers exiting the subway and stepping into the county courthouse. Eight decades later, a most appreciated greeting on this centenarian’s birthday came from Judge Judy, a video greeting of mazel and more.
Love of her life
Ethel was just 14 when she met Ronald Gruen, of blessed memory, at her parents’ home. Her grandmother and his grandfather were siblings. Ron had just arrived in the United States, from Czernowitz, Romania (now Ukraine), and she recalls that that she told a friend: “He’s the most gorgeous man on Earth and I’m going to marry him.” Eight years later, the two were married June 21, 1942, and after 75 years of marriage, each the other’s better half until his passing in 2009. She still says: “I was nuts about that man.”
The couple moved to Dallas in 1952 for a new start for their family and professional future.
Shabbat and Jewish connections have always been a constant in Ethel’s life. As a child, it was she who climbed the cabinets to bring down the Passover dishes and she who helped her mother shop and set the table. On Friday nights the white tablecloth came out with the fine dishes, cutlery and glassware. The singing of Old World Jewish melodies rose above all, and the sound of her mother’s voice still rings sweet on Ethel’s heart.
As a married couple, they continued that table, singing and spirit, now with the next generations. Ethel became the mother of four: Dan (Grace Bascope), Debbie, Naomi (Brit) Schlinke and Ted (Helen), he of blessed memory; the grandmother of Michelle (Will) Bryant, Sara (Jonathan Gaynor) Gruen, Aaron Gruen (of blessed memory), John (Antonia Strachwitz) Gruen and Alyssa (Alexander Sicular) Gruen Sicular; and great-grandmother of Danny and David Gaynor, Beckett, Elliott and Isabella Bryant, Diana and Micah Sicular and Joseph Gruen.
“Mom is the queen and I thank her for raising me with all that matters,” said Dan, who led the birthday festivities with Shehechiyanu, thanking God for reaching this season with prayers fulfilled.
Her children remember her as a quintessential ’50s mother who always kept a well-ordered home, drove carpools, took care of the shopping and had dinner on the table when their father came home from the office.
Rather than pursuing the law, Ethel instead studied business at Hunter College. She’d sit at the kitchen table at night with an adding machine and logbooks, her husband’s partner in every way, supporting their Gruen Tool and Die Company and Gruen Manufacturing Co. The two worked hard, all of their lives, said Ethel, so that “we could care for our parents, our family and ourselves, and share as we could, without relying on anyone.”
“Mom is the real deal,” said daughter Debbie Gruen, “and she has led a life of integrity and goodness in the world.”
Adds daughter Naomi Schlinke: “To be able to share so many stages of life; our childhoods, our adult, middle age and now later life together, is incredible and has provided unique levels of relating. Mom pulls you in closer always and the glory of her long life is in the maturity of the prism of all of our relationships.”
Among the birthday well-wishers was daughter-in-law Helen Gruen, who described her as “a great and wise woman who has made my life better. Ethel really is my best friend.”
Daughter-in-law Grace adds her chorus to Ethel’s in-law fan club, noting her kindness and resilience. “She’s the most positive person I’ve ever known. She has absolutely been the best role model, all of her life.”
Granddaughter Alyssa Gruen Sicular has always been moved by the lilt in her grandmother’s voice, full of the love passed on to her by the generations before. She is excited that her own children will also have a memory of their great-grandmother’s voice.
“My grandmother is a quiet strength,” she said. “She is a mission-oriented woman of humility and it means everything to have my daughter giggle with her, to have her know my children and for her to put her hands and heart filled with love around them.”
Building a legacy
As Ethel and Ron became involved at Congregation Shearith Israel and Tiferet Israel, Ron was looked to as a teacher to many in the community. In 1974, when five other couples came together to form Congregation Beth Torah, they asked the Gruens to join them. For its first eight years the congregation was led by laypeople in their homes.
Ethel, who taught herself to read Hebrew, relishes the memory of realizing that in helping start Beth Torah, the couple helped create a place where women would join men at the forefront, in the Torah reading, in the learning and in everything that Jewish community would mean. These were opportunities she did not have as a child, as participation in worship and education were not offered to women and girls.
“Ethel’s vigor and strength is something we should all be blessed with,” said Rabbi Elana Zelony, noting that Ethel has taught her, the congregation’s first female rabbi, so much about the history of the shul and the Dallas Jewish community. “I admire so much about her, her frank and candid manner, combined with a most gracious kindness and thoughtfulness that knows no bounds.”
The Gruens have left their mark on many institutions, as founders of Beth Torah, he a former president of Akiba Academy and the couple among the founders of Chabad of Texas and Yavneh Academy, longtime supporters of Hadassah, of Yeshiva University and many other Jewish and secular organizations locally and globally.
The two spent years at B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism, each summer in a week-plus-long engagement of scholars, music, Jewish learning and social engagement.
Together, Ethel and Ron were a quickstep, a two-step and whatever steps could keep them on the dance floor as the couple were for many years involved in folkdance groups — Israeli, German and Scandinavian — their nights out to cut a rug evoking delight. When they weren’t dancing, the couple enjoyed singing, forming a weekly sing-along of music from around the world, that spanned four decades.
“We whooped it up on the dance floor and sang our bloomin’ heads off,” said Ethel. “‘Those were the days my friends …,’ we were alive and kicking.”
Gratitude for a well-lived life
Thanking God for her long life, Ethel in part credits her careful diet. She said she chooses salty over sweet, a nod to her childhood days when good behavior while shopping with her mother earned her the right to reach into a pickle barrel.
Ethel’s warmth is a magnet to many. At her side, a set of hands and support for more than a decade, caregiver Renee Junkin said she couldn’t love or respect her more. “Ethel and I have been an integral part of each other’s lives and the time we have together is an honor to me,” said Junkin. “She is a remarkable woman, a strong woman and one who couldn’t love harder than she does.”
As the cars came through the parade, there were songs and shouts of “mazel,” and perhaps a birthday first as Mark Kreditor took to his shofar to blast, literally, a blessing followed by a round of “siman tov u mazel tov” from all.
“Ethel, and Ron, are held by so many in such high esteem and it’s an honor to celebrate her and to have her feel the love we all have for her. We all want to be Ethel when we ‘grow up,’” said Fern Gerstein, among the organizers of last week’s birthday party on the street. “She is gentle and beloved, from her progressive philosophies and the smiles, spark and spunk that comes through her eyes to her penetrating love. She is one of a kind and we’re all blessed she is ‘ours.’”
“Ala menschen haut koyach, each life, each person, has their own strength,” said Ethel. “My parents instilled in me a love and sensitivity for others, and I hope in my life I too have shared that. We are all special.”