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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.

Opinion | This Passover, I’m contemplating the plague of ageism

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.

Opinion | This Passover, I’m contemplating the plague of ageism

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.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

This Passover, I’m contemplating the plague of ageism

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