On Saturdays, I often wake up in a grumpy mood. I know it is Shabbat, a day for synagogue and siestas, for refraining from the frenzy of the workaday world, for building what Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called “a palace in time.” But in my apartment, the only castles under construction are the kind we tend to trip over, those erected from blocks by my 5-year-old son and my 7-year-old daughter. In my home, Saturday has long been simply the day before Sunday. And that makes me grouchy.
In New York, it was mid-August on a Sunday morning. In Tel Aviv, it was afternoon. I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed 14 numbers.
“Shalom?” said an elderly woman.
“Shalom,” I replied. “And hello. I am looking for Eva H___. Are you Eva?”
“Yes.” Her voice sounded guarded and cautious: “Who are you?”
Climbing up the stairs of the Victoria Luise Platz subway station, I had the anxious feeling that I was going to a place that was filled with quiet importance. I expected myself to feel connected to this place, this West Berlin neighborhood surrounding a tree-lined park with benches scattered about, a fountain at its edge. While I can’t say that I felt a sense of belonging in my grandmother’s pre-Holocaust neighborhood or one of entitlement to her former building, to the sidewalk in front of it, I felt a sense of urgency of needing to understand this place.
Lifnei seiva takum, v’hadarta p’nei zaken — “You shall rise up before the elder, and you shall honor the old person.” Kabed et avicha v’et imecha — “Honor your father and your mother.” These two normative biblical principles, separate albeit related, inform much of Jewish life and by extension our larger society, often — and sadly — more in the breach than in the observance.
Growing up in a small town where there were few Jewish families, Jewish stories gave me belonging despite the fact that there wasn’t a physical community for me to belong to. Educated at Brandeis University where I was immersed in a largely Jewish student body, Jewish stories gave me pride, for there we were, descendants of the twelve tribes learning side by side.
My father continues to breathe — huge, wheezing, unconscious but determined breaths — despite the doctor’s predictions, despite the Alzheimer’s that’s ravaged his brain and despite the broken hip and pneumonia that brought down the rest of him. And somehow, that continued existence seems entirely appropriate for this inadvertent survivor.
‘I am becoming a new rabbi and an old rabbi — both at the very same time.” This is what I pronounced at my Academy for Jewish Religion ordination ceremony six years ago. I was turning 60 just a few hours after the festivities ended, and according to Ethics of the Fathers (5:21), ben shishim le-ziqnah, old age begins at 60. Two major changes in my life were occurring simultaneously.
Other than “How are you?” which is in reality a greeting, “What do you do for a living?” is the single most common question we ask each other. Not only the perfect icebreaker, it is also a subject that genuinely interests us. Best of all, it is a simple question with a simple answer.
Except in my case.
Yes, I can give a simple answer: I am a psychiatrist. It is accurate, but it is simultaneously deceptive. The listener invariably makes inaccurate assumptions.
‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made,” Robert Browning wrote in “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” The Victorian poet had interests in Judaica and was inspired by the 12th-century Spanish scholar and poet, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra. In Browning’s optimistic poem, youth and age are not flip sides of life’s journey; generations are interconnected, always.