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What Do a Bunch of Old Jews Know About Living Forever?

Irving Kahn is about to celebrate his 106th birthday. He still goes to work every day. Scientists are studying him and several hundred other Ashkenazim to find out what keeps them going. And going. And going. The secrets of the alter kockers.

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“Don’t be sad,” says Finklestein on his deathbed. “I’ve had 80 good years.”
“But you’re 98!” says his wife.
“I know.”


Except for the occasional doctor’s appointment or bad cold, Irving Kahn hasn’t skipped a day of work in more years than he can remember. And he can remember plenty of them: He’s 105.

That record is vexing to his youngest son, Thomas Graham Kahn, who though 69 and president of Kahn Brothers, their brokerage and money-management firm, is still called Tommy. (Irving is chairman.) How can he take a vacation if his father won’t?

Instead, Tommy threatens to dock his dad for his short workday, which begins around ten and ends by three and often includes a nice bowl of soup. “It’s not like we have so many employees we can afford to have him shluf off,” Tommy says.

Tommy runs the business, which has about $700 million under management. But even though Irving, with his very short stature and very large glasses, looks a bit like a horned owl peering up from his desk—a desk that features both a computer and grip bars—he is no figurehead. His is still the corner office, 22 floors above Madison Avenue. (During the blackout of 2003, he walked down.) He gives or withholds the papal blessing on investment policy and reviews every transaction undertaken by the firm’s youngsters on behalf of clients.

The world’s oldest stockbroker, he first went to work on Wall Street in 1928. “This was before the Depression,” he says, then specifies which depression, as if I might confuse it with the one in the 1890s. Both are real to him; through a chain of memory leading back to his grandparents, Eastern European Jews who settled on the Lower East Side shortly before that earlier upheaval, he can almost touch the Civil War.

More directly, he can touch the technological revolutions that followed. He describes his father’s good fortune in getting into the lighting-fixture business in the years after “Mr. Edison opened his downtown office”—the one that brought electric power to Manhattan in 1882. He remembers with perfect clarity building a crystal radio in his bedroom around 1920 and amazing his mother, who thought music came only from Victrolas, with the music he “caught for free.”

When you’re 53, as I am, and believe yourself to be on the wrong side of life’s unknowable midpoint, a conversation with someone who will soon be twice your age, and who furthermore has retained all his marbles, can be disorienting. For one thing, it has the effect of collapsing a century into a pancake. Czar Nicholas II and Barack Obama, gaslight and computer glow, grandmothers and grandchildren: All are contemporaries, all in sharp focus.

The indiscriminate urgency of memory is disorienting for Irving as well. “I’d rather not know who I was and who I knew and what I did,” he says. “It uses up space I need for today.”

By “today,” incredibly, he also means the future. All conversations with Irving eventually wobble back to his favorite ruts, such as how new technology might affect the viability of companies he follows. “I don’t worry about dying,” he says, assuming it will happen in his sleep. Instead he worries about staying mentally agile, which is why he reads three newspapers daily and watches all the C-Spans. “I know people collect postage stamps, but that’s just one thing. It’s about having multiple interests.”

He does not say multiple attachments; his own upbringing—his mother ran a shirtwaist business out of the home—suggested the value of independence and keeping an eye on the horizon. Newness served his family well: “A new country, a new language, a new public school, a new college.” At his home a mile up Madison—until he was 102 he took the bus—he has, he says proudly, “thousands of books, not one fiction. Mostly I’m interested in what’s on the edges: solar energy, sending vehicles beyond the moon.”

His belief in a personal future that will repay this curiosity—a future I can hardly imagine for myself without worries of illness and decrepitude—is what’s most disorienting about Irving Kahn. You’d think that as he got older, then even older, and then bizarrely old, he’d have had ever more opportunities to despair. And, true, his eyesight and “earsight” aren’t what they were. He can’t walk much on his own anymore. He despises these limitations but ignores or finds ways to outwit them. Loss as well. His wife’s death, in 1996, was a huge blow, Tommy reports, but Irving “put his foot down a little more on the pedal, if that was possible.” When macular degeneration recently made reading difficult, he learned to enlarge the font on what he calls his Gimble.


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