Thursday, November 1, 2007

Breaking the Silence

Meetings With the Jewish Elderly
I think of them as long‑distance runners who have passed more scenery than I can imagine. Now they sit quietly holding it all inside of them-- first-hand experiences of the Russian Revolution and the Nazi Terror, and all the heroic private battles that go with being human. I am newly married and new to Denver. On a threshold. They have passed through all that I am entering.
We gather in the second-floor reception area of the nursing home every Monday afternoon in what I call “writing workshops” because I write down their stories, memories, and philosophical musings. They either sit in wheelchairs or have canes propped up against their chairs. Sometimes they are puzzled by my efforts to record their words, but they perk up just to see the names of their sisters or late husbands immortalized on paper.
Because of their physical weakness and obvious frailty, I feel initially overwhelmed by pity for them and saddened by the thought of old age, but I remind myself that it is all an illusion. My resolve is to make contact with them as individuals, to learn from them, to look beneath the exterior of their physical beings and find them inside, as fully alive as I am..
Chaim left the town of Bialistock in Russia when he was six years old‑ that was in 1890. Whenever I ask him to recall something about his past, he shakes his head: "It's hard to remember. Well, it was only about 90 years ago." At one meeting, we speak about weddings, and Chaim tells me: "I must have been happy under the chuppah, but it was only 75 years ago, so it's hard to tell." Often, he leans forward to catch as much of our discussion as he can. I can tell that he's reached his saturation point when he sits back with his hands folded over his cane, protected by his hearing disability.
Once I asked him what he thought about when he withdrew into the quiet space beyond words. Chaim looked puzzled, so I tried to explain: "Everybody daydreams. You might daydream about your profession, considering all the years you spent at your work."
Immediately, I can sense a bridge going up between us, and Chaim gingerly steps across: "I designed machinery. I never went to school for it, but I always loved to tinker with machines. It started out when I was about 12 years old, and my friend ordered a simple lathe from `The Youth's Companion,' this magazine for kids. He put the lathe in the basement, and we spent more time monkeying around with that lathe."
Chaim's face lights up as he sees how he commands an audience. Everyone is turning towards him to listen; his words are awakening their memories and dreams.
Annie is transported back half a century when she remembers helping out in her mother's fish store. That was on Denver's Westside when there were so many Jewish immigrants that the area was called "Little Jerusalem."
First Annie's mother raised and sold chickens, but the neighbor across the street kept a look‑out and stole most of her customers before they reached the front door. It took a long time to save up the $25 for a fish store license. "Talking about cutting and filleting fish‑‑ I've done that not once or twice, but a million times. On Sundays, when people went fishing at Sloan's Lake and didn't catch anything, it was a great day for us in the fish store."
While she helped in the store, Annie dreamed of becoming a Hebrew teacher. Proudly, Annie tells us that her nephew, the boy she raised when her sister died, is now a rabbi in Montreal.
I can hear Frank stewing about something, and I take the risk of asking him what he thinks of all this. His words fly back at me: "I was an orphan in Russia. I wasn't allowed to dream big dreams. When I started to think about doing something, the World War broke out. Life was cruel to me-‑ the revolution, the civil war, and then the pogroms. A bomb dropped in my backyard and killed my aunt. After that I packed up and went to America."
Edith also came over from Russia, and something in Frank's story reminds her of an incident in her distant past. She recalls how a peasant woman came back to her rural village from a visit to America. The woman wanted to sell a little American dress to Edith's mother, but Edith was out playing when her mother called for her to try it on. "I must have been six years old, and I was out playing too far away to hear my mother's voice. I cried and cried when she told me that I could have had an American dress. Oh, how I cried."
Edith is talking about something that happened to her 80 years ago. It’s refreshing to see her relive the emotions of a six year‑old child and her dazzling dream of America. The story carries us across time and space.
At moments like this, I can easily imagine each one of them as they appeared at different ages in their lives. I can look beyond the dark folds surrounding his eyes to see Cappy as a young man about to be married. Cappy may not get around much now, but he doesn't always feel eighty-six years old and stuck in a nursing home, especially when he tells me, "I'm still in love with my wife, and she's been gone for 25 years."
Annie waxes eloquent when she weaves her tales about the personalities and way of life she knew on the Westside of Denver 50 years ago. She brings to life Channa the Gabiter ( Yiddish for “charity collector”) who went into pool halls with the opening line: "Tramps, giv mere a por cent." Annie remembers those times when "people cared and things were good, because we didn't know better," and Rose nods her head in agreement. Rose lived in Annie's neighborhood, but she lets Annie tell the stories, because she feels more comfortable as a listener: "It was my husband who taught me how to listen."
Besides the fact of their pleasure in sharing memories, these Jewish elderly are the guardians of a valuable record of the first generation Jewish experience in America. Almost without exception, their stories reflect the process of assimilation.
When Edith came to this country to stay with her cousins who had stopped being observant, it was the first time she questioned her strict orthodox belief. At the age of 19, she began a course of self‑education that made her fluent in the English language and literature. Now she is proud that there is only a hint of the Old World in her pronunciation and her beliefs.
I am her natural successor with my degrees in higher education, and if I had chosen to continue on that path, hardly a trace of my Jewishness would have remained. Edith became for me a symbol of the “enlightened” attitude which gave Judaism a bad name and turned away the spiritual seekers of my generation who then looked for G-d in ashrams and Jews for Jesus.
Sometimes we argue. Edith calls it "an antiquated way of life" when I defend my choice to observe Jewish laws and customs. When she expresses her glowing admiration for the "modern" approach, I rush to enumerate its miserable failures.
The battle rages, and the other members of the group quietly wait it out. Because Edith and I are such a good match, they can barely get a word in edgewise. When Edith remarks about "the beautiful flowers and the organ music in our new synagogues," they immediately turn to me and await the counter‑offensive.
However, the lines are not so clearly drawn. When I ask Edith about Shabbos in her mother's house, she can hardly find the words to describe the white tablecloth, the glow of the candles, and the smell of the special foods. In spite of her "modern" views, Edith conjures up the Shabbos in parents’ home like a precious jewel in her safekeeping.
I look around the table at these good Jewish faces. Sometimes I picture how their parents must have looked ‑‑ the same faces full of humor, depth, and character, but distinguishing themselves as Jews by their yarmulkes and tzitzit and the hair coverings of the women. Here are the children who once meant everything to their parents, and in some other real dimension, they are still the children and the hope, even as they turn towards me with their one good ear.
I am inspired by something my Rabbi said to me just the previous week on a Thursday night, as I stood in his kitchen sifting flour in the Rabbi’s kitchen. Suddenly, he called me over to the dining room table where his siddur was open to “The Song of Songs.” He pointed out the word “varda” which is the Aramaic for “rose.” It was in the passage which describes the Jewish People as G-d’s beloved, as “a rose among the thorns.”
When I asked him what it meant to be a rose among thorns, the Rabbi talked about the beauty of acts of kindness. He wasn't answering my question, but he pointed out the way. I began to think of my name as a mysterious point of truth that was beckoning me.
By seeing my name in a new light, I felt that I was making a fresh beginning. Now I wanted my old friends at the nursing home to experience the thrill of beginnings as they recalled how their own Jewish names reflected the hopes their parents had seen in them. I can see their stories flame up in response to mine. Suddenly for all of us, a name is a hidden promise that takes a lifetime to emerge.
First they talk about their own names and then go on to tell stories about how their sisters and brothers were named, and how they named their children. Annie's brother got his name in a mystical way: "My mother had a dream of an old man with a red beard who appeared and said, `You are going to have a son, and I want you to name him after me ‑ Eliahu.' She found out later that the man in the dream was her husband's father.
At this meeting, we know each other by our Jewish names ‑‑ Annie is Channa, Frank is Fishel, Edith is Ittel, Rose is Rachel, and Chaim, and Leiba.
Frank has never before spoken about the death of his only child during the Second World War. I didn't even know he had a son until he tells this story: "A cousin of ours named her son after my son who was killed in the war. Now this baby is a grown man ‑‑ he's a doctor ‑‑ and his name is `Baruch Noach.'” Edith adds, "The main thing is that the beloved person reappears, in some way, with the birth of a child."
Another time, I ask my friends whether or not they remember their dreams when they wake up in morning. It takes them a while to warm up to the subject, and I find myself having to explain why I am so interested in dreams; how they can conjure up fantastic situations with star appearances by people we haven't seen for years.
They seem to be preoccupied with their own thoughts until I read a poem about my father and how he appeared in a dream exactly as he looked during his lifetime, but even more radiant and loving. Edith responds that she never dreams about her husband who died in 1944. However, just recently she had a dream about her cousins in the Old Country, and the dream cleared up a misunderstanding that stayed alive in her mind all these years.
Annie has been smiling for the last few minutes since she heard me read aloud the poem about my father. Very slowly she begins by explaining that this is not an actual dream but something she experiences when she is just about to fall asleep ‑‑ she has the physical sensation of flying like a bird. Annie is almost entirely paralyzed from multiple sclerosis. I can tell that she doesn't expect us to believe her, but she tries to persuade us anyway that she is not simply imagining soaring like a bird, but that she actually feels it in her limbs.
I watch the others as they listen to Annie's dream. They are looking at Annie and realizing that there is a place in her, even when all her vital systems seem to be slowly shutting down — a place of renewal and growth that cannot be touched by her crippling illness.
It’s a moment of triumph. It’s the victory of the human spirit over the forces of bitterness and despair. Annie is shining. Now we are silent from savoring the exhilaration of it, for we are all flying with Annie. We sit in silence for another few moments, but it’s not the usual silence of the elderly in a nursing home. And then we continue on together—laughing, remembering, sharing, and breaking open what was locked inside.
--This is a chapter from my book, "I Remembered in the Night Your Name," presently available through emailing me at

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