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This Passover, I’m contemplating the plague of ageism

I used to think old peo­ple were either cute or sad.

The cute ones were Kirk Dou­glas or Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg doing push-ups, and gray-haired cou­ples ani­mat­ed­ly talk­ing to each oth­er or walk­ing hand in hand in the park.

The sad ones were stooped, infirm, inept, crotch­ety, disheveled, occa­sion­al­ly inco­her­ent, and most­ly invis­i­ble.

I used to laugh when come­di­ans mocked elder­ly men who still flirt when a pret­ty girl pass­es by, and 80-some­thing women who still dress with panache and take pains with their make-up as if they had a prayer of attract­ing the male gaze. In oth­er words, hav­ing absorbed from the world around me its neg­a­tive stereo­types of ​“seniors,” and its cultish ado­ra­tion of youth, I’d suc­cumbed to the plague of ageism.

Since turn­ing 60, then 70, then, incred­i­bly, 80, I’ve cringed at age-relat­ed stereo­types and raged not just at the ​”dying of the light” — Dylan Thomas’ immor­tal phrase for mor­tal­i­ty tremors — but at the mad­den­ing soci­etal atti­tudes that dis­miss my cohort as over the hill has-beens.

In 2017, America’s seniors totaled more than 46 mil­lion, a num­ber expect­ed to near­ly dou­ble over the next 30 years. Yet chil­dren and young peo­ple are still being indoc­tri­nat­ed with the same dis­parag­ing images and demean­ing mind­sets about age and aging that I grew up with.

Jew­ish tra­di­tion, though more bal­anced, sends mixed mes­sages. On the one hand, our litur­gy and sacred texts con­stant­ly refer to elders as repos­i­to­ries of wis­dom, com­pas­sion, expe­ri­ence, under­stand­ing, judge­ment, and insight. The Torah reminds us that ​“Moses was 80 and Aaron was 83 when they made their demand on Pharaoh,” an act of immense courage and chutz­pah. The Tal­mud calls 80 ​‘the age of strength.” Proverbs describes ​“a hoary head,” (gray hair) as ​“a crown of glo­ry,” imply­ing that longevi­ty is the reward for a life of righteousness.

On the oth­er hand, we also encounter descrip­tions in gran­u­lar detail of the depre­da­tions and bur­dens of age — dimmed vision, phys­i­cal weak­ness, men­tal con­fu­sion — and per­plex­ing para­dox­es. Leviti­cus com­mands, ​“You must rise up before the aged and hon­or the face of the old­er per­son; you must fear your God,” align­ing the will of the deity with the dig­ni­ty of the aged and sug­gest­ing that Adon­ai stands ready to police ageism.

Yet dur­ing the High Holy Days, She­ma Koleinu has us recit­ing the Psalmist’s plea, ​“Do not cast us off in old age; when our strength fails, do not for­sake us.” Sure­ly, I’m not the only one who hears those words as an indi­rect expres­sion of, dare I say it, the divinity’s occa­sion­al slide into ageism. Why else would God require an explic­it request to not aban­don those who are weak­er than they once were.

Just as our inher­it­ed tra­di­tion tries to rec­on­cile these con­tra­dic­tions, so should we tack­le the scourge of age-bias and con­front the idol­a­trous wor­ship of youth. We must assume the best (imput­ing to old­er peo­ple per­son­al val­ue, con­tin­u­ing capac­i­ties and aspi­ra­tions), while accom­mo­dat­ing to the worst (the inevitable deple­tions of age) by pro­vid­ing care and kind­ness until the end of life. Any­thing less will be a plague on human­i­ty and a shan­da for our people.

This piece was produced in partnership with Jewish Book Councilas a part of a Passover sup­ple­ment for Dwelling in a Time of Plagues. To down­load the full Passover sup­ple­ment, which includes ten authors and ten artists respond­ing to ten mod­ern plagues, please click here.

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