‘Moses was only 80 when he confronted Pharaoh’
I failed my driver’s test on my 17th birthday. My parallel parking was perfect, so I assumed I had passed, but when the DMV examiner dropped me off, he told me I had forgotten to turn on my blinker. I stayed home the rest of the day, too embarrassed to have my father drive me to school, and for several months I avoided driving altogether.
On a flight to Louisville, Kentucky to visit my grandparents, a short time before going to Israel with my high school class, my mother reminded me that my grandmother had not only taught her how to drive but my grandfather and a close family friend too.
“It might be a good idea to have your license in Israel as a second form of ID,” she said.
“Are you saying you think grandma can practice driving with me?” I asked. My grandmother was 90 years old at the time.
Don’t ever doubt your grandmother’s abilities. Not only did my grandmother sit patiently in the passenger’s seat as I practiced driving and parking in the JCC parking lot, she helped me rebuild my confidence reminding me, “slow and steady will get you there.” I liked being behind the wheel and became my grandmother’s chauffeur for the rest of the trip. A few weeks later, back in New Jersey, I passed the test without a hitch. I brought my shiny new driver’s license with me to Israel.
A couple of years later, having a tough time adjusting to college, I made a call to Louisville, “Grandma, would you like to go on a road trip with me? I need a change of scenery.” The next day, I was back on an airplane to Louisville, and became my grandmother’s chauffeur once again. She was 92, and probably a better driver than me, but on this particular springtime trip to Chicago and St. Louis, my grandmother let me do all the driving.
Age is just a number. I know it’s trite to say, but it’s important to remember. I continue to hear sound bytes that imply COVID-19 is only putting grandparents at risk, so we should open our states. Or more recently, “that if your grandma who is 81 dies from COVID-19, it’s tragic and terrible, but the life expectancy in the United States is 80.” Are we supposed to feel better that the elderly are dying instead of young children? I hope not.
I am witness to the fulfilling life the 80 years old and older folks can lead. My grandmother died at 105, three weeks after I got married. When she was 103, she taught my husband (then boyfriend) how to weave on a loom. “Beat, change feet,” she told him, showing him the pedals, just as she taught me, my brothers, cousins, their spouses, and their kids throughout the years.
When she was 97, she was living alone, and when I came to visit with my friend she drove us to her favorite restaurant on the Ohio River, followed by a tour of the city by dusk, the most dangerous time of the day to drive. She insisted my friend see the whole city on her first trip.
When I was 10 and she was 84, she fulfilled her promise to take me on a walking tour of Mammoth Cave as she had with my older cousins at my age. My grandmother may sound unique, but there are plenty of octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians who also should not be discriminated against by their age, and should not feel like we are abandoning them to the dangers of coronavirus.
As we all know, it is a mitzvah to honor our parents, but Jewish tradition also tells us to honor the elderly. “We should stand up before a very old man even if he is not a scholar.” (Mishnah Torah; Torah Study 6:9). This source explains even a young scholar should stand for the unlearned and forgetful elder as a sign of respect.
Are we standing up for our seniors as we should? It was reported in 2018 that one in three Holocaust survivors in United States are living in poverty. Over 10,000 people in nursing homes have been killed by the virus in the United States. A study in 2001 found a nursing home resident is provided with on average about 24 minutes of care less than they clinically need. Have we had a problem in caring for our elders all along or has our stubbornness to shelter in place exposed a bigger crisis?
I think we can do better and it starts with changing our rhetoric and attitudes towards the elderly. When I was last in Jerusalem, I visited Yad Lakashish, an organization founded in the 1960s by a school teacher, Myriam Mendilow, who wanted to bridge the generations. She found her students had negative attitudes towards the elderly, and the local elderly community suffered socially and economically.
Yad LaKashish began as a small bookbinding shop where students would interact with the seniors who fixed their tattered books. Since that time, the organization has grown to train over 300 seniors in craftsmanship. They have expanded their training from bookbinding to fine housewares, jewelry, and Judaica.
The original mission continues, the seniors are producing craftsmanship to be proud of, and they have built a community among fellow seniors and with younger visitors. As one craftsman told me upon visiting, if someone is sick, we call them up right away and see if they are okay.
Before leaving Yad LaKashish, they gave me a source sheet of Jewish texts that command us and remind us of our duty to honor the elderly. We need our elderly population as much as they need us. So the next time it’s someone’s birthday, make sure to say biz hundert un tsvantsik, and mean it. Moses was only 80 when he confronted Pharaoh about granting the Jewish people freedom, and this Yiddish blessing wishes one to live to 120, just like Moses.
Danielle Winter is a librarian from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. She leads storytimes, teaches information literacy skills and holds weekly craft programs for school-aged kids. Her favorite craft to teach is weaving, which she learned how to do from her grandmother. When she is not working, she can be found cooking, baking, and exchanging recipes.