By Markeshia Ricks
NEW HAVEN — Herbert Mermelstein and Pearl Karmasin’s romance started the way so many do: Girl meets boy at a party.
Like many budding romances, it built up to an unforgettable swinging night at the senior prom — in this case for seniors, like Mermelstein and Karmasin, in their tenth decade of life.
“We met at a New Year’s party here in January,” Mermelstein recalled. “We were all sitting around a table and she asked if she could join the table. I said, ‘Why not?’
During the course of the party, they got to know each other and he discovered that Karmasin’s birthday was in March. “I said, ‘I’m taking you to lunch for your birthday.’”
Karmasin didn’t take him seriously. But when she turned 96 in March, Mermelstein, who recently turned 91, was a man of his word. They went to Outback Steakhouse.
“We had the whole thing—the bloomin’ onion, coconut shrimp, steak,” he said. “We’ve been dating ever since.”
On Thursday, May 26, the two residents of New Haven’s Tower One/Tower East got dressed in their best evening wear and went to their first prom together. Billed as a “senior prom,” the event is an intergenerational collaboration between the community for the elderly and the teens from BBYO (formerly known as B’nai B’rith Youth Organization).
Aside from the fact that the event was dominated by octogenarians, nonagenarians and one soon-to-be centenarian, it was a prom just like any other.
Attendees wore flowers and took pictures with their friends. Like a dutiful principal and chaperone, Mark Garilli, president and CEO of Tower One/Tower East, helped people put on their flowers and made sure the evening went smoothly. He said within the first hour of last year’s prom, they knew that the event had to become an annual one.
“But we’ve said we have to recruit some men,” he said: 86 of the 100 people in attendance were women.
Sylvia Rifkin and Izzy Juda came together last year and decided to give it another go this year. Unlike Karmasin and Mermelstein, they are not a romantic item. They’re just friends. Juda was crowned king last year, but he was good-natured about handing that honor to someone else. “I’m abdicating my throne,” he joked.
Gertrude Lerman, 99, has lived at the Towers for eight years now. She said there are always fun happenings like the prom to be had at the towers. She joked that prom would be over by 8 p.m. given the age of the attendees. “It’s fun,” she said. Lerman, who ultimately was crowned this year’s prom queen, turns 100 on June 19. Franklin McCauley was crowned prom king.
When the music started to get good, the prom goers made their way to the dance floor.
The handful of those who had dates danced together.
But just like traditional proms, eventually the tunes were pumping, and date or no date, people started to get loose.
Bette Kozak attended her high school prom in 1960 at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. This prom at the Towers was way better, she said. “This is much more fun. I didn’t like my date [back then] so much.”
Pearl Karmasin, who attended her 1937 prom, learned Thursday that her sweetheart had some pretty sweet moves on the dance floor. Mermelstein, a World War II veteran who missed his senior prom because he joined the Air Force, cut plenty of rug as his date looked on admirably.
“I didn’t know he could do that,” she said of one particularly memorable moment when Mermelstein boogied down to the floor.
Though Mermelstein’s dance card kept filling up — “She wouldn’t let me go,” he said of one dance partner — he periodically came to check on his best girl to make sure she was still having a good time. The two could often be seen holding hands or touching affectionately.
“I never at this point in life would have expected to meet someone at 95 years old,” said Karmasin, who lost her husband of 65 years about 10 years ago. Mermelstein lost his wife of 64 years in 2014. “He says he loves me already. It’s nice to have someone now who cares about you.”
CAP: Sylvia Rifkin (2nd from left) and Izzy Juda, last year’s prom king, with two unidentified prom goers.