Numbers have certainly become less important to Eli Zebooker as he has aged.
But in his 105 years, he’s quick to point out the nearly 200 trips and more than 60 countries he’s traveled to in his lifetime, always accompanied with his wife, Janet, who is 95.
He circumnavigated South America three times. They climbed the Great Wall of China. The pair have even revisited a few, like Greece, Italy, Sardinia — “every European country. They’re all great,” he said.
In their later years, they opted for cruise ships, making travel a tad easier. Plus, they get to meet and schmooze with other people onboard.
While in a foreign country, Zebooker likes “to go around the countryside and talk to people,” he said, “to see how they’re doing, how they get along.”
And on every adventure, the Zebookers always made sure to take lots of pictures of themselves with a unique background (pre-selfie days) to cherish the memories for the years to come.
Those memories now reside in a huge photo album on Zebooker’s coffee table, a scrapbook of sorts he put together, featuring every trip they’ve been on since their honeymoon around Gloucester, Mass.; Maine; Georgetown, Md.; Split Rock in Pennsylvania; and Lake Pine, N.J. Eight hefty passports also weigh down the back inside cover of the photo book (though more are scattered throughout storage his condo).
They spent a lot of time in Israel — in the Negev, before it was really built into what it is now — as well as the Jewish quarter of a few countries like Italy.
“Janet went swimming — well, floating — in the Dead Sea,” he said. “I didn’t feel like going in that day, but it was a nice trip.
“Every trip I had was with my wife, except during the war,” he joked. Zebooker was already a practicing dentist when he was called to active duty in 1940. He received his undergraduate degree from Franklin & Marshall College and then went on to Penn Dental School. As an officer in the 20th Armored Division and the 9th Infantry Division, he ended up in Munich during World War II.
“It was also very close to the extermination camp,” he said somberly. “It’s about 6 miles from Munich. We were the first people — my Army group — who went into that area.”
After the war, the couple married. Their most recent cruise trip was five years ago to South Africa. (If you’re doing the math, Zebooker was 100 years old at the time.) They spent some time visiting Cape Town, Zambia and the Victoria Falls.
For him, traveling as a centenarian is simple. “It’s not difficult under any condition if you don’t expect too much. You find out there’s a lot there for you to see and do,” said the Delaware Valley native.
Any time they went somewhere, Zebooker would usually rent a car and drive through the countrysides of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Wales — you name it.
But cruising is definitely the way to travel for older people, he said. They took their first cruise in the 1970s and became hooked.
“It’s not too expensive. They offer you many, many, many places to visit, which you wouldn’t normally visit on a trip, and you have food available.” They’ve taken a variety of different cruise lines, totaling 36 trips by ship.
Although no future trips are in the works, the Zebookers are proud to look at the memories they’ve made together, along with their family — two children and three grandchildren. In addition to photos, 10,000-plus slides occupy a sliver of Zebooker’s closet in his reference room.
The room is filled with a collection of history books and atlases, as well as a couch upholstered with a print of a map.
In his free time, he’s working on articles about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Previously, he authored two books on the topics of ancient Greece, the Trojan War and Heracles, and Charles I of England.
Zebooker’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1903. Born on April 4, 1913, Zebooker was joined this year by about 40 of his friends and family members for a birthday party, gold and white balloons still floating behind the couch in the aftermath of the celebration.
The couple, who belong to Congregation Kesher Israel, celebrated their 71st anniversary just a few weeks before Zebooker’s birthday.
Also in his proud possession are dozens of (now outdated) world maps and globes.
A map of the Mediterranean, for instance — about the size of an average flat-screen TV — is one of roughly 40 framed maps adorning his walls. His collection comes from an atlas that was printed in 1730.
He found the first bunch in a random shop in Philadelphia. The second batch came from another store, but it turned out both collections are from the same 18th-century atlas.
Zebooker also came across maps of antique Philadelphia of the pre-Revolution era, discovered in old bookshops or secondhand stores. “I collected hundreds of old drawings, lithographs,” he said, “copies of printed items.”
Worth a pretty penny centuries later, he donated them — including a 12-mile circle map of the city — to the Athenaeum of Philadelphia about 10 years ago.
Whether he’s traveling the world on a ship or in books, Zebooker has plenty of history to explore in the comfort of his own home.
“I always find something to do,” he laughed.