Judy Eder overcomes childhood hardship and celebrates a century of life.
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky
The love and support parents give their children is integral to their becoming happy, well-adjusted, productive adults. But what if a child is abandoned by not one, but both parents in childhood, is made homeless by relatives and is shuffled from one foster home to another? What chance does such a youngster have to not only survive, but also thrive, succeed in school and career, find love, raise a family and dedicate time and effort to raise thousands of dollars for children in need?
Ask Judy Eder, a native Detroiter now living in Southfield, who’ll celebrate her 100th birthday on Nov. 2, and she’ll say her background of hardship taught her to forgo bitterness, be positive and persevere to live a fulfilling life dedicated to helping others.
The friendly, personable great-grandmother, a breast cancer survivor who loves to paint and sew, works out with a personal trainer twice a week and enjoys cooking for her friends at the Claymoor Apartments, where she’s lived for 20 years. She has kept meticulous records of her life’s journey and has an incredible story to tell.
A Shaky Start
“When I was 9 months old, and my sister 2 years old, our mother abandoned us,” Eder, who was born Julia Nevitsky, said. “We were taken in by my father’s sister and lived with my father and her for the next 10 years. One day my father took me and my sister for a walk, saying he had something special to tell us.”
That “something special” was a revelation to his daughters that he was “disgusted with life.” He, too, left his children, who would continue to be cared for by their aunt. But that care didn’t last very long.
“My aunt told us if my father didn’t send money for our keep, she would throw us out. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where he was and couldn’t let him know what was happening,” she said.
True to her word, their aunt sent the two girls from her home, with, as Eder noted, just the clothes on their backs. Bewildered, they walked the Detroit streets all night and sought help at the first open place they came to.
“We wandered into a Catholic service agency,” Eder recalled, “and they put us in a cab and sent us to the Jewish Child Placement Bureau. My sister was taken in by another aunt and uncle, but I was sent to a foster home.”
The next six years she spent moving from one foster family to another. She received $1 a month from the agency to help the families with her expenses. “That was a lot of money back then!” Eder said.
In those days, she explained, children didn’t stay with any one family for more than six months. Despite moving from home to home, with little chance to develop lasting relationships, Eder remembers many of the families with fondness and said most of them treated her like one of their own.
Determined to Excel & Give Back
Living with different families also meant attending a different school with each new placement. While this would be a tremendous obstacle to maintaining good scholarship for any young child, Eder explained it was her determination and fortitude that saw her succeed, even excel, in her education.
“I made all A-pluses on all my report cards,” she said proudly. “I can prove it — I’ve saved every one!”
In 1935, at 16, Eder’s life changed again — for the better. While at a dance, she met 25-year-old Jack Eder, and after a 10-month courtship, they married in 1936. Eder saved a 1935 letter from Child Placement Bureau Executive Director Edith Bercovich, congratulating her on meeting the man who would be her husband and promising to continue sending her the dollar because “surely you need an additional few pennies at present … until you get on your feet and start working full time.”
Eder was no stranger to the working world, though, with her first job coming at age 14.
“I worked at a department store and was put to work selling toothbrushes,” she said. “I was nervous, but I sold every toothbrush they had on display in less than three hours. I did so well, the manager had me selling scarves, which was also successful. From then on, I worked in every department, selling everything from ladies’ wear to jewelry, from silverware to furniture. I’ve been a saleswoman all my life.” She retired at age 85.
That busy life also included helping her husband begin his own business. Jack built Dixfield Market in Lincoln Park, and the grocery store chain eventually grew to seven stores in the metropolitan area.
With this newfound prosperity, Eder knew she wanted to do something to exemplify tikkun olam, giving back, in the spirit of helping other youngsters in need.
“I know what underprivileged children endure,” she said, “and I vowed I would do anything I could to help others — the way I was helped.”
In 1950, she joined the Infants Service Group, an organization that distributed supplies to needy preschoolers and provided aid to visually and mentally handicapped children. In 1965, she was feted with a testimonial dinner for her work raising thousands of dollars for that organization.
She and Jack raised three children of their own during nearly 40 years together. Sadly, a daughter died at 39 from leukemia; however, Eder’s remaining son and daughter have expanded the family to seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Daughter Linda Ross spends a lot of time with her mother. “I can hardly keep up sometimes,” she said.
Eder’s something of a card shark as well and goes to the casino twice a week with her son, Dr. Dennis Eder.
As a tribute to his grandmother’s life and to call attention to the difficulties those in the foster care system face, her grandson Randall Kaplan, a prominent Southern California businessman and venture investor, and his wife, Madison Kaplan, established the Julia Eder Dean’s Scholarship at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, in 2004. The four-year grant allows any student with foster care experience to attend U-M’s College of Literature, Arts and Science and graduate debt-free.
In a letter, Kaplan said, “My grandmother’s life story exudes tremendous emotion, inspiration and spirit. I would be honored to celebrate her life … and give other less-fortunate children some hope that there are people out there who have overcome incredibly difficult odds and are determined to make the world a better place.”
Eder’s volunteer efforts have followed the spirit of helping others, including 25 years as a Red Cross worker at Providence Hospital. But one story stands out as a true testament to her giving nature.
“You’ve heard the expression ‘giving the shirt off one’s back,’” Eder said. “Years ago, I was at the beauty shop, having my hair done. When I went to pay my bill, the receptionist remarked that the suit I was wearing was the most beautiful outfit she had ever seen. After hearing this, I went to the back of the shop, took off my mink coat and took off the suit. Then, I put on one of the shop’s gowns under my fur coat, and went back up front, and handed her the suit. So, I really did give the ‘shirt’ off my back,” Eder said with both a smile and a tear. “That’s the kind of person I wanted to be!”
And how have all these exemplary characteristics served this remarkable woman over the past century?
“I’ve always tried to be honest, kind and helpful, and achieve the best in everything I’ve done,” Eder said. “In spite of all the misfortune when I was young, I believed things would get better with effort.”
Anyone who meets Judy Eder wouldn’t doubt — they surely have!