Rebecca Gottesman with a photo from her days as a fashion model.
Rebecca Gottesman with a photo from her days as a fashion model.

Rebecca Gottesman moved to California from New York a half century ago, but her hard-boiled upbringing is still evident in her New Jersey accent and countless stories of an age gone by.

“I grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan in a Jewish neighborhood, side-by-side with all sorts of people,” she said. “I heard the words ‘Jew bastard’ a lot, but I never let it bother me.”

Until recently moving to Hoffmann Hospice in Bakersfield, California, the straight-talking Gottesman—born Rebecca Abowitz in 1917—lived quietly with caregiver Melissa Mitchell across the street from her church. Gottesman says she is “blessed night and day” by her friends and hospice caregivers and shrugs off questions about her illness as if there were more interesting topics to discuss.

For Gottesman there are more interesting topics, such as a childhood that came to an abrupt halt at age eight, when she began caring for her ailing mother, her father away in hospitals much of the time with tuberculosis. When her mother’s heart gave out four years later, Gottesman took over the rearing of two younger siblings and found work to help support them.

“I worked in people’s homes to make some money,” she said. “It’s easy when you’re twelve to get down on your knees and wash floors.”

Fortunately, Gottesman was blessed with brains and beauty, both of which came in handy about the time she turned sixteen. Always good with numbers, Gottesman found work as a bookkeeper for a Manhattan sportswear designer. When the designer noticed how well his designs looked on his bookkeeper’s well-proportioned, but petite frame, he put her to work modeling at the company’s 38th and Broadway showroom.

“I liked walking down the runway,” Gottesman said. “I was very good at it.”

Gottesman and husband Sid in the early days of their marriage.Gottesman and husband Sid in the early days of their marriage.

Modeling, caring for siblings and school kept Gottesman busy, but not too busy to notice Saul “Sid” Gottesman, a handsome nineteen-year-old who lived in the same apartment building one floor up. After their first meeting, Gottesman “never looked at another man.” They were married six months later.

The young couple took up photography, shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs to support themselves. Sid took the photos, while his bride developed the black-and-white images, adding color as clients wanted.  Gottesman worked other jobs to help support her family, but, despite the birth of two sons—Stan and Charles—she remained in demand as a model.

“Modeling is more work than people think,” Gottesman said. “You have to dress and undress and you have only so much time. It was fast and tedious.”

The Gottesmans’ sons were grown and on their own in 1962, when the couple, weary of New York, packed up and headed for the sunny climes of Hollywood, California. There, they opened up Sid’s Coffee Shop on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, serving up pie and coffee to stars like Jayne Mansfield and the “boys from Bonanza.”

Sadly, Sid died in 1988 at age 74. Gottesman moved to Bakersfield to be closer to her son and his family, eventually landing across the street from Olive Drive Church. It was there, she said, she discovered God in a way she’d never known him before.

“I watched everybody walking into the church and I thought ‘What do I have to lose?’” she said. “I started going and liked what I heard.”

Two years after Gottesman walked into the church, she was baptized in her new-found faith. Gottesman remains proud of her Jewish heritage, but now calls herself a “completed Jew.”

“I’m a very happy Hebrew Christian,” she said. “My life feels better and I like who I’ve become. I’m somebody.”

She’s happy, too, with her hospice caregivers whom she calls “the most wonderful, caring people.” With her pain under control and the finish line in sight, Gottesman is resolved to enjoy every moment she has left.

“You can live every day and be sad and gloomy, but there’s always an alternative,” she said. “I choose to be happy.”

The author, Marylee Shrider, is communications coordinator for Hoffmann Hospice. The story originally ran in the spring 2012 issue of Reflections, a quarterly publication of Hoffmann Hospice. Reprinted with permission.