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Looking back and giving back – Dora turns 100

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It’s not often people celebrating their 100th birthday do so with a speech and a commitment to providing a bursary for a young Jewish person to get a higher education. But then, Dora Seeff, who celebrated becoming a centenarian on Women’s Day (9 August) surrounded by many of her closest friends and family, is no ordinary woman.

Born in Lithuania, and the oldest Litvak in South Africa, she not only got a message from the Lithuanian government congratulating her on her 100th birthday, but from King Charles III too.

In the week of her birthday, Dora was also able to add one more great-grandchild to her posse of four children, 12 grandchildren, and 34 great-grandchildren.

In her speech at the party at Killarney Country Club, she said all that she had achieved, not least of all her longevity, was due to having had a wonderful husband (the late Morris Seeff, who passed away 25 years ago), wonderful children, and good genes.

Citing her own mother, she told the crowd, “When you marry, you don’t marry a man, you marry a family.” She insisted that the most important thing she imparted on her family was to ensure shalom bayit as family was the most important part of her life.

She felt heartbroken that her oldest daughter, Ruth Fait, who passed away on 31 October 2021, was unable to be there. “My heart is breaking that she can’t share this celebration with us,” Dora said.

For Dora, paying it forward was key to celebrating her birthday. “Education is always number one, and I want a needy child to enjoy a higher education and to benefit from it,” she said.

Dora, daughter of Berta and Jasef Miller, was born in the town of Ponevezh. She recalls life there as a “peaceful existence”. She and her family emigrated to Johannesburg when she was eight years old.

They first lived in Fordsburg, and her parents opened a fruit shop and milk bar near Johannesburg station. Dora told her children that she used to help in the shop, but read every comic before it was sold and added a little extra to the milkshakes she sold so she could have a sip before she handed it over. “Her father complained she was eating his profits,” joked Dora’s daughter, Joyce Levin, in her speech.

Dora attended Jewish Government School and then Athlone Girls High before getting a job as a secretary at the 20th Century Fox movie house. Around this time, she met her husband and married him when she was 20 in 1943. She went on to have three girls, Ruth, Denise, and Joyce and then a boy, Bernard, and the family moved from a small house in Yeoville to a large mansion in Houghton. “Initially, us children couldn’t find our way around the place, especially the door leading downstairs,” said Joyce.

“Dora was a homemaker wherever she lived. She’s a true ballabosta,” Joyce said.

Dora was involved in a number of Jewish communal organisations and loved sport. She first played tennis, and then became a keen bowler, becoming a Houghton Club bowls champion, according to Joyce.

She made entertaining look effortless, sometimes having as many as 45 people over for Pesach seders, Shabboses, and Sunday lunches. She would often have extended family members staying with them for long periods of time. And she and Morris loved travelling overseas and spending holidays in Muizenberg and Durban with family.

She embraced her family as it grew, and invariably remembered everyone’s birthdays. “You should see her talking to all her descendants, old and young. She engages with them at their level, even having learnt WhatsApp so she could keep in touch with them all,” her daughter said.

When Morris died in 1998 after they had been married for 54 years, she still didn’t let anything get in her way, Joyce said. “She made numerous trips overseas to Israel, the United States, and Lithuania, among others. It was then that she got the nickname ‘Dora the Explorer’,” Joyce said.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Dora drove herself around, last renewing her licence at 94. She played bowls and bridge, and lived on her own. She was so busy, it was difficult for family to pin her down to make arrangements. She was always the designated driver for her 90-plus bridge club or when it drove to Durban or Cape Town. This ended in 2020, when COVID-19 weakened her.

But though her hearing and sight isn’t as it was, she still stands upright, does her somewhat strenuous daily exercises, and is always stylishly turned out. Her mind is sharp, and her memory exceptional. She still has the knack of making everyone she speaks to feel that they are her favourite person, and is happy to listen to everyone’s problems and give sage advice to all.

When her son-in-law asked her at her last birthday what she wanted when she turned 100, she replied “one more candle”, and she got her wish. However, when those who know her consider their own ageing process, they all set the standard of wanting to do it like Dora Seeff.

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