Read an Excerpt
"So what do you want from us here?"
Every morning I wake up in pain. I wiggle my toes. Good. They still obey. I open my eyes. Good. I can see. Everything hurts but I get dressed. I walk down to the ocean. Good. It's still there. Now my day can start. About tomorrow I never know. After all, I'm eighty-nine. I can't live forever.
Death and the ocean are protagonists in Basha's life. They provide points of orientation, comforting in their certitude. One visible, the other invisible, neither hostile nor friendly, they accompany her as she walks down the boardwalk to the Aliyah Senior Citizens' Center.
Basha wants to remain independent above all. Her life at the beach depends on her ability to perform a minimum number of basic tasks. She must shop and cook, dress herself, care for her body and her one-room apartment, walk, take the bus to the market and the doctor, be able to make a telephone call in case of emergency. Her arthritic hands have a difficult time with the buttons on her dress. Some days her fingers ache and swell so that she cannot fit them into the holes of the telephone dial. Her hands shake as she puts in her eyedrops for glaucoma. Fortunately, she no longer has to give herself injections for her diabetes. Now it is controlled by pills, if she is careful about what she eats. In the neighborhood there are no large markets within walking distance. She must take the bus to shop. The bus steps are very high and sometimes the driver objects when she tries to bring her little wheeled cart aboard. A small boy whom she has befriended and occasionally pays often waits for her at the bus stop to help her up. When she cannot bring her cart onto the bus or isn't helped up the steps, she must walk to the market. Then shopping takes the better part of the day and exhausts her. Her feet, thank God, give her less trouble since she figured out how to cut and sew a pair of cloth shoes so as to leave room for her callouses and bunions.
Basha's daughter calls her once a week and worries about her mother living alone and in a deteriorated neighborhood. "Don't worry about me, darling. This morning I put the garbage in the oven and the bagels in the trash. But I'm feeling fine." Basha enjoys teasing her daughter whose distant concern she finds somewhat embarrassing. "She says to me, 'Mamaleh, you're sweet but you're so stupid.' What else could a greenhorn mother expect from a daughter who is a lawyer?" The statement conveys Basha's simultaneous pride and grief in having produced an educated, successful child whose very accomplishments drastically separate her from her mother. The daughter has often invited Basha to come and live with her, but she refuses.
What would I do with myself there in her big house, alone all day, when the children are at work? No one to talk to. No place to walk. Nobody talks Yiddish. My daughter's husband doesn't like my cooking, so I can't even help with meals. Who needs an old lady around, somebody else for my daughter to take care of? They don't keep the house warm like I like it. When I go to the bathroom at night, I'm afraid to flush, I shouldn't wake anybody up. Here I have lived for thirty-one years. I have my friends. I have the fresh air. Always there are people to talk to on the benches. I can go to the Center whenever I like and always there's something doing there. As long as I can manage for myself, I'll stay here.
Managing means three things: taking care of herself, stretching her monthly pension of three hundred and twenty dollars to cover expenses, and filling her time in ways that have meaning for her. The first two are increasingly hard and she knows that they are battles she will eventually lose. But her free time does not weigh on her. She is never bored and rarely depressed. In many ways, life is not different from before. She has never been well-off, and she never expected things to be easy. When asked if she is happy, she shrugs and laughs. "Happiness by me is a hot cup of tea on a cold day. When you don't get a broken leg, you could call yourself happy."
Basha, like many of the three hundred or so elderly members of the Aliyah Center, was born and spent much of her childhood in one of the small, predominately Jewish, Yiddish-speaking villages known as shtetls, located within the Pale of Settlement of Czarist Russia, an area to which almost half the world's Jewish population was confined in the nineteenth century. Desperately poor, regularly terrorized by outbreaks of anti-Semitism initiated by government officials and surrounding peasants, shtetl life was precarious. Yet a rich, highly developed culture flourished in these encapsulated settlements, based on a shared sacred religious history, common customs and beliefs, and two languages -- Hebrew for prayer and Yiddish for daily life. A folk culture, Yiddishkeit, reached its fluorescence there, and though it continues in various places in the world today, by comparison these are dim and fading expressions of it. When times worsened, it often seemed that Eastern Europe social life intensified proportionately. Internal ties deepened, and the people drew sustenance and courage from each other, their religion, and their community. For many, life became unbearable under the increasingly reactionary regime of Czar Alexander II. The pogroms of 1881-1882, accompanied by severe economic and legal restrictions, drove out the more desperate and daring of the Jews. Soon they were leaving the shtetls and the cities in droves. The exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe swelled rapidly until by the turn of the century, hundreds of thousands were emigrating, the majority to seek freedom and opportunity in the New World.
Basha dresses simply but with care. The purchase of each item of clothing is a major decision. It must last, should be modest and appropriate to her age, but gay and up-to-date. And, of course, it can't be too costly. Basha is not quite five feet tall. She is a sturdy boat of a woman -- wide, strong of frame, and heavily corseted. She navigates her great monobosom before her, supported by broad hips and thin, severely bowed legs, their shape the heritage of her malnourished childhood. Like most of the people who belong to the Aliyah Center, her early life in Eastern Europe was characterized by relentless poverty.
Basha dresses for the cold, even though she is now living in Southern California, wearing a babushka under a red sun hat, a sweater under her heavy coat. She moves down the boardwalk steadily, paying attention to the placement of her feet. A fall is common and dangerous for the elderly. A fractured hip can mean permanent disability, loss of autonomy, and removal from the community to a convalescent or old age home. Basha seats herself on a bench in front of the Center and waits for friends. Her feet are spread apart, well-planted, as if growing up from the cement. Even sitting quite still, there is an air of determination about her. She will withstand attacks by anti-Semites, Cossacks, Nazis, historical enemies whom she conquers by outliving. She defies time and weather (though it is not cold here). So she might have sat a century ago, before a small pyramid of potatoes or herring in the marketplace of the Polish town where she was born. Patient, resolute, she is a survivor.
Not all the Center women are steady boats like Basha. Some, like Faegl, are leaves, so delicate, dry, and vulnerable that it seems at any moment they might be whisked away by a strong gust. And one day, a sudden wind did knock Faegl to the ground. Others, like Gita, are birds, small and sharp-tongued. Quick, witty, vain, flirtatious, they are very fond of singing and dancing. They once were and will always be pretty girls. This is one of their survival strategies. Boats, leaves, or birds, at first their faces look alike. Individual features are blurred by dentures, heavy bifocals, and webs of wrinkles. The men are not so easy to categorize. As a group, they are quieter, more uniform, less immediately outstanding except for the few who are distinctive individuals, clearly distinguishable as leaders.
As the morning wears on, the benches fill. Benches are attached back to back, one side facing the ocean, one side the boardwalk. The people on the ocean side swivel around to face their friends, the boardwalk, and the Center.
Bench behavior is highly stylized. The half-dozen or so benches immediately to the north and south of the Center are the territory of the members, segregated by sex and conversation topic. The men's benches are devoted to abstract, ideological concerns -- philosophical debate, politics, religion, and economics. The women's benches are given more to talk about immediate, personal matters -- children, food, health, neighbors, love affairs, scandals, and "managing." Men and women talk about Israel and its welfare, about being a Jew and about Center politics. On the benches, reputations are made and broken, controversies explored, leaders selected, factions formed and dissolved. Here is the outdoor dimension of Center life, like a village plaza, a focus of protracted, intense sociability.
The surrounding scene rarely penetrates the invisible, pulsing membrane of the Center community. The old people are too absorbed in their own talk to attend the setting. Surfers, sunbathers, children, dogs, bicyclists, winos, hippies, voyeurs, photographers, panhandlers, artists, junkies, roller skaters, peddlers, and police are omnipresent all year round. Every social class, age, race, and sexual preference is represented. Jesus cults, Hare Krishna parades, sidewalk preachers jostle steel bands and itinerant musicians. As colorful and flamboyant as the scene is by day, it is as dangerous by night. Muggings, theft, rape, harassment, and occasional murders make it a perilous neighborhood for the old people after dark.
Farther up the boardwalk other elderly Jews stake out their territory on benches and picnic tables used for chess, pinochle, poker, and Mah-Jongg. The Center members do not regard them as "serious" or "cultured" people, while they, in turn, consider the Center elderly too political or religious, too inclined to be "joiners," for their taste. Still other old Jews periodically appear on the boardwalk selling Marxist periodicals, Socialist tracts, collecting money for Mexican laborers, circulating petitions to abolish capital punishment. For them, the Center people are too politically conservative. All the elderly Jews in the neighborhood are Eastern European in origin. All are multilingual. Hebrew is brought out for punctuating debates with definitive learned points, usually by the men. Russian or Polish are more used for songs, stories, poems, and reminiscences. But Yiddish binds these diverse people together, the beloved mama-loshen of their childhood. It is Yiddish that is used for the most emotional discussions. Despite their ideological differences, most of these people know each other well, having lived here at the beach for two and three decades.
Signs of what was once a much larger, more complete Yiddish ghetto remain along the boardwalk. Two storefront synagogues are left, where only a few years ago there were a dozen. There is a delicatessen and a Jewish bakery. Before there were many kosher butcher stores and little markets. Only three Jewish board-and-care homes and four large hotels are left to house the elderly. The four thousand or so elderly Jews in the neighborhood must find accommodations in small, rented rooms and apartments within walking distance of the Center. A belt, roughly five miles long and a mile wide, constitutes the limits of the effective community of these Eastern European immigrants, nearly all of whom are now in their middle eighties and up. Several special organizations in the area meet some of their present needs -- a secular senior citizen club operated by the city, an outreach city- and state-funded social service center, a women's private political-cultural club, a hot-meals-for-the-elderly service held at a local school. At the edge of the community, still within walking distance of the Center, are several expensive apartments and board-and-care homes (known as "residential facilities"); these accommodate the handful of members who are relatively well-off.
A decade ago, census figures suggest that as many as ten thousand elderly Eastern European Jews lived in the neighborhood. Then Yiddish culture flourished. Groups such as the Workmen's Circle, Emma Lazarus Club, women's philanthropic and religious organizations, various Zionist and Socialist groups were plentiful. Poetry and discussion groups often met in people's homes. There was a dance hall and a choral society. Then, it was said that the community had "the schonste Yiddishkeit outside of New York." Around thirty years ago, Jews from all over the country began to immigrate to the beach community, particularly those with health problems and newly retired. Seeking a benign climate, fellow Jews, and moderately priced housing, they brought their savings and small pensions and came to live near the ocean. Collective life was and still is especially intense in this community because there is no automobile traffic on the boardwalk. Here is a place where people may meet, gather, talk, and stroll, simple but basic and precious activities that the elderly in particular can enjoy here all year round.
In the late 1950s, an urban development program resulted in the displacement of between four and six thousand of these senior citizens in a very short period. It was a devastating blow to the culture. "A second Holocaust," Basha called it. "It destroyed our shtetl life all over again. Soon after the urban development project began, a marina was constructed at the southern end of the boardwalk. Property values soared. Older people could not pay taxes and many lost their homes. Rents quadrupled. Old hotels and apartments were torn down, and housing became the single most serious problem for the elderly who desperately wanted to remain in the area. While several thousand have managed to hang on, no new members are moving into the area because of the housing problem. Their Yiddish world, built up over a thirty-year period, is dying and complete extinction is imminent. Perhaps it will last another five or at the most ten years. Whenever a Center member leaves, everyone is acutely aware that there will be no replacements. The sense of cultural doom coincides with awareness of approaching individual death. "When I go out of here, it will be in a box or to the old folks' home. I couldn't say which is worse," Basha said. "We've only got a few more years here, all of us. It would be good if we could stay till the end. We had a protest march the other day, when they took down the old Miramar Hotel. I made up a sign. It said, `Let my people stay.'"
Yet the community is not a dreary place and the Center members not a depressed group. The sense of doom, by some miraculous process, functions to heighten and animate their life. Every moment matters. There is no time for deception, trivia, or decorum. Life at the Center is passionate, almost melodramatic. Inside, ordinary concerns and mundane interchanges are strangely intense, quickly heating to outburst. The emotional urgency often seems to have little to do with content. This caldronlike quality is perhaps due to the elders' proximity to death and the realization that their remaining days are few. They want to be seen and heard from, before it is too late. Fiercely, they compete with each other for limited supplies of time and attention. Perhaps it is due to the members' extreme dependence on each other; though strongly attached, they are ambivalent about living so closely with others brought into contact with them more by circumstance than choice. Perhaps it is because these elderly people enjoy the strong flood of energy and adrenaline released in intense interactions, assuring them that they are still alive and active.
In spite of its isolation, the beach community is well-known in the city, primarily because of its ethnic distinctiveness and longevity. It is small, stable, cohesive, delimited, and homogeneous in terms of the people's cultural and historical background, an urban ghetto -- closed, encapsulated, and self-contained. Relations between the older beach citizens and the broader urban and Jewish worlds are attenuated and episodic. Periodically, various charitable organizations and synagogues offer the Center services and aid, for it is well-known that the majority of old people are isolated and living on small, fixed incomes, below national poverty levels. But Center folk are not easy people to help. Pride and autonomy among them are passions. They see themselves as givers, not takers, and devote enormous effort toward supporting others more needy than they, particularly in Israel. These elders, with few exceptions, are cut off from their family and children. From time to time, relatives visit them or take them back to their homes for holidays or to spend the night, but on a day-to-day basis, the old people effectively are on their own. They miss their family but cherish their independence.
As the numbers of such people shrink and the neighborhood changes, the Aliyah Center becomes more and more important to its members. Sponsored by a city-wide philanthropic Jewish organization, it is maintained as a day center that emphasizes "secular Judaism." Officially, about three hundred members pay dues of six dollars a year, but these figures do not reflect the actual importance of the Center to the community. Many more use it than join, and they use it all day, every day. The Center is more halfway house than voluntary association, making it possible for hundreds of people to continue living alone in the open community, despite their physical and economic difficulties. Daily hot meals are provided there, and continuous diverse programs are offered -- cultural events, discussions, classes of all kinds, along with social affairs, religious ceremonies, celebrations of life crises, anniversaries, birthdays, memorials, and occasional weddings. The gamut of political and social processes found in larger societies are well-developed in Center life. Here is an entire, though miniature, society, a Blakeian "world in a grain of sand," the setting for an intricate and rich culture, made up of bits and pieces of people's common history.
Center culture is in some respects thin and fragile, but its very existence must be seen as a major accomplishment, emerging spontaneously as a result of two conditions that characterize the members: continuities between past and present circumstance, and social isolation. Several marked similarities existed between the circumstances of members' childhood and old age. They had grown up in small, intimate Jewish communities, cohesive, ethnocentric, surrounded by indifferent and often hostile outsiders. Previously, in Eastern Europe, they had been marginal people, even pariahs, as they were now. They had strong early training in resourcefulness and opportunities to develop sound survival strategies. Then, as now, they had been poor, politically impotent, and physically insecure. Then, as now, they turned to each other and their shared Yiddishkeit for sustenance, constituting what Irving Howe has called a "ragged kingdom of the spirit." It was not a great shock for these people to find themselves once more in difficult circumstances, for they had never given up their conviction that life was a struggle, that gains entailed losses, that joy and sorrow were inseparable. They knew how to pinch pennies, how to make do, and how to pay attention to those worse off than they and thereby feel useful and needed. They had come to America seeking another life and found that it, too, provided some fulfillments, some disappointments. And thus, they were now not demoralized or helpless.
Their culture was able to emerge as fully as it did because of the elders' isolation from family and the outside world, ironically, the very condition that causes them much grief. Yet, by this separation, they were freed to find their own way, just as their children had been. Now they could indulge their passion for things of the past, enjoy Yiddishkeit without fear of being stigmatized as "not American." With little concern for public opinion, with only each other for company, they revitalized selected features of their common history to meet their present needs, adding and amending it without concern for consistency, priority, or "authenticity." It had taken three decades for this culture to develop to its present state of complexity, now a truly organic, if occasionally disorderly and illogical amalgam of forms and sentiments, memories and wishes, rotating around a few stable, strong symbols and premises. Claude Lévi-Strauss had used the word bricolage to describe the process through which myths are constructed in preliterate societies. Odds and ends, fragments offered up by chance or the environment -- almost anything will do -- are taken up by a group and incorporated into a tale, used by a people to explain themselves and their world. No intrinsic order or system has dictated the materials employed. In such an inelegant fashion does the bricoleur or handyman meet his needs.
Center culture was such a work of bricolage. Robust and impudently eclectic, it shifted and stretched to meet immediate needs -- private, collective, secular, and sacred. Thus, when a Center Yiddish History class graduated, a unique ceremony was designed that pasted together the local event with an analogous, historical counterpart, thereby enlarging and authenticating the improvised, contemporary affair. And the traditional Sabbath ceremony was rearranged to allow as many people as possible to participate -- making speeches, singing songs, reading poems, taking into account the members' acute need for visibility and attention. Among them, two or even three women instead of one were required to light the Sabbath candles -- one singing the blessing in Hebrew, one in Yiddish, one putting the match to the wick. Similarly, Center folk redefined the secular New Year's Eve, holding their dance a full day and a half before the conventional date, since this made it possible for them to get home before dark and to hire their favorite musicians at lower rates. These improvisations were entirely authentic. Somehow midday December 30 became the real New Year's Eve and the later, public celebration seemed unconvincing by comparison. In all this no explicit plan or internal integration could be detected. Cultures are, after all, collective, untidy assemblages, authenticated by belief and agreement, focused only in crisis, systematized after the fact. Like a quilt, Center life was made up of many small pieces sewn together by necessity, intended to be serviceable and to last. It was sufficient for the people's remaining years.
The vitality and flexibility of the Center culture was especially impressive in view of the organization's meager budget. Enough money was available only to pay for a few programs and the salary of the director, Abe, who had devoted himself to these elderly people for fourteen years. Sometimes he was a surrogate son, sometimes a worrying, scolding, protecting parent to them. Thirty years younger than most members, Abe was a second-generation American, from the same background as they. A social worker by training, he watched over the elders' health, listened to their complaints, mediated their quarrels, teased and dominated them when they lost heart, and defended them against external threats, insisting to them and the outside world that they survive. Without his dedication, it was unlikely that they would have been able to continue for so long and so well, living alone into advanced old age in an open, inhospitable setting.
I sat on the benches outside the Center and thought about how strange it was to be back in the neighborhood where sixteen years before I had lived and for a time had been a social worker with elderly citizens on public relief. Then the area was known as "Oshini Beach." The word shini still made me cringe. As a child I had been taunted with it. Like many second-generation Americans, I wasn't sure what being a Jew meant. When I was a child our family had avoided the words Jew and Yid. We were confused and embarrassed about our background. In public we lowered our voices when referring to "our people" or "one of us." My grandparents had also emigrated from an Eastern European shtetl as young people. Like so many of the Center folk, they, too, wanted their children to be Americans above all and were ashamed of being "greenhorns." They spoke to my parents in Yiddish and were answered in English. None of the children or grandchildren in the family received any religious education, yet they carried a strong if ambivalent identity as Jews. This identity took the form of fierce pride and defensiveness during the Holocaust, but even then did not result in any of us developing a clear conception of how to live in terms of our ethnic membership.
I had made no conscious decision to explore my roots or clarify the meaning of my origins. I was one of several anthropologists at the University of Southern California engaged in an examination of Ethnicity and Aging. At first I planned to study elderly Chicanos, since I had previously done fieldwork in Mexico. But in the early 1970s in urban America, ethnic groups were not welcoming curious outsiders, and people I approached kept asking me, "Why work with us? Why don't you study your own kind?" This was a new idea to me. I had not been trained for such a project. Anthropologists conventionally investigate exotic, remote, preliterate societies. But such groups are increasingly unavailable and often inhospitable. As a result, more and more anthropologists are finding themselves working at home these days. Inevitably, this creates problems with objectivity and identification, and I anticipated that I, too, would have my share of them if I studied the Center folk. But perhaps there would be advantages. There was no way that I could have anticipated the great impact of the study on my life, nor its duration. I intended to spend a year with them. In fact, I was with them continuously for two years (1973-1974, 1975-1976) and periodically for two more. In the beginning, I spent a great deal of time agonizing about how to label what I was doing -- was it anthropology or a personal quest? I never fully resolved the question. I used many conventional anthropological methods and asked many typical questions, but when I had finished, I found my descriptions did not resemble most anthropological writings. Still, the results of the study would certainly have been different had I not been an anthropologist by training.
Sitting in the sun and contemplating the passing parade on the boardwalk that morning in 1973, I wondered how I should begin this study. At eleven-thirty the benches began to empty as old people entered the Center for a "Hot Kosher Meal -- Nutritious -- 65¢," then a new program provided by state and private funds. Inside there was barely enough room to accommodate between 100 and 150 people who regularly ate there. The Center was only a simple, shabby hall, the size of a small school auditorium, empty except for a tiny stage at one end with a kitchen behind it, and a little area partitioned off at the other end, used for a library and office. The front window was entirely covered by hand-lettered signs in Yiddish and English announcing current events:
TODAY AT 2:00
Jewish History Class. -- Teacher, Clara Shapiro
SUNDAY AT 1:00
Special Event: Films on Israel
Refreshments. Come. Enjoy.
MONDAY AT 3:00
Gerontology Class. -- Teacher, Sy Greenberg.
Informative. Bring your questions.
TUESDAY AT 10:00
Rabbi Cohen talks on Succoth.
Beautiful and enlightening.
Over the front door hung another handmade sign, written and painted by one of the members: "To the extent that here at the Center we are able to be ourselves and to that extent Self feels good to us." The walls were adorned with pictures of assorted Yiddish writers, scholars, and Zionists. Two large colored photographs of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and of Golda Meir hung above a bust of Moshe Dayan. Seniors' arts and crafts were displayed in a glass case. Their paintings and drawings hung along one wall, depicting shtetl scenes and household activities associated with sacred rituals -- the lighting of the Sabbath candles, the housewife baking the Sabbath loaf, a father teaching his children their religious lessons, and the like. Portraits of rabbis, tailors, scholars hung there, too, along with symbols of Jewish festivals and holidays -- a papier-mâché dreidel, and cardboard menorah, a shofar. A large, wooden Star of David illuminated by a string of Christmas tree lights was prominently displayed. Framed certificates of commendation and thanks from Israeli recipients of the elders' donations hung alongside photographs of kibbutzim children to whom the Center elders had contributed support. The wall opposite bore a collective self-portrait in the form of a room-length mural, designed and painted by the members, portraying their common journey from the past to the present in several colorful, strong, and simple scenes: a picture of a boatload of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, a Shtetl marketplace, a New York street scene, a shtetl street scene, and a group of picketers bearing signs, "Better Conditions First," "We Shall Fight for Our Rights," "Power and Justice for the People," and one that simply said, "Protest Treatment." The last sequence rendered the elders at present, seated on benches along the boardwalk and celebrating the Sabbath inside the Center. Over the small stage, the line from the Old Testament was lettered, "Behold How Good It Is for Brethren to Dwell Together in Unity," and opposite, a prominent placard that read, "Cast Me Not Out in My Old Age But Let Me Live Each Day as a New Life." More than decoration, these visual displays were the people's icons, constituting a symbolic depiction -- the group's commentary on itself -- by reference to its sources of identity, in particular, its common history. This use of symbols pointed to a community that was highly conscious of itself and its own distinctive ideology.
I followed the crowd inside and sat at the back of the warm, noisy room redolent with odors of fish and chicken soup, wondering how to introduce myself. It was decided for me. A woman sat down next to me who I soon learned was Basha. In a leisurely fashion, she appraised me. Uncomfortable, I smiled and said hello.
"You are not hungry?" she asked.
"No, thank you, I'm not," I answered.
"So, what brings you here?"
"I'm from the University of Southern California. I'm looking for a place to study how older Jews live in the city."
At the word university, she moved closer and nodded approvingly. "Are you Jewish?" she asked.
"Yes, I am."
"Are you married?" she persisted.
"You got children?"
"Yes, two boys, four and eight," I answered.
"Are you teaching them to be Jews?"
"So what do you want with us here?" asked Basha.
"Well, I want to understand your life, find out what it's like to be older and Jewish, what makes Jews different from other older people, if anything. I'm an anthropologist and we usually study people's cultures and societies. I think I would like to learn about this culture."
"And what will you do for us?" she asked me.
"I could teach a class in something people here are interested in -- how older people live in other places, perhaps."
"Are you qualified to do this?" Basha shot me a suspicious glance.
"I have a Ph.D. and have taught in the university for a number of years, so I suppose I am qualified."
"You are a professor then? A little bit of a thing like you?" To my relief, she chuckled amiably. Perhaps I had passed my first rite of entrance into the group.
"Faegl, Faegl, come here!" Basha shouted to a friend across the room. Faegl picked her way neatly over to where we were sitting. She was wiry and slight as Basha was heavy and grand. "Faegl, sit down. Faegl, this here is -- What did you say your name was? Barbara? This is Barbara. She is a professor and wants to study us. What do you think of that?"
"Why not? I wouldn't object. She could learn a lot. Are you Jewish?" Faegl leaned past Basha and carefully peered at me over her bifocals.
Basha accurately recited my qualifications and family characteristics. Faegl wasted no time. She moved over to sit next to me and began her interrogation.
"So you are an anthropologist. Then you study people's origins, yes? Tell me, is it true that human beings began in Africa once upon a time?"
"Many scholars think so," I answered.
"Ha! And once upon a time this country belonged to the Indians. That's right?" she went on.
"Yes, certainly," I answered.
"Now a lot of people don't think it's right that we took away from them the country just because we were stronger, yes?"
"Yes." I was growing wary, sensing an entrapment.
Faegl continued systematically. "So this business about putting all the Arabs out of Israel because we said we had our origins there, maybe that's not right either? It is not so simple, is it?"
"No, no. Certainly it is not simple," I answered.
"So Bashaleh, what do you say now?" Faegl asked her. "She's a professor and she says maybe it's not right. Like I told you, even from the Arabs we can't take away the land."
Basha looked at me closely while Faegl waited.
"You don't believe in Eretz Yisroel?" she asked me. "You are some kind of anti-Semite?"
Faegl rescued me. "Basha! You think everyone who isn't a Zionist is an anti-Semite? Shame on you. You used to be an internationalist. You used to have beliefs."
Their argument had grown loud enough to attract attention. Abe, the director, came over to see what was going on. Again, Basha introduced me. I asked him about the possibility of doing my study here. He was noncommittal but friendly and after the lunch, we walked along the boardwalk together. He was exceptionally well-informed about the changes in the neighborhood during the last decade and a half. He seemed to know everyone on the streets, not only the elderly. But when he spoke of them, his voice was thick with affection, and anger at their being neglected. He evidently knew all the members, where they lived, how much money they had, where their families were, their state of mind and health, on an hour-by-hour basis. Abe was a naturally gifted sociologist and he had a remarkable memory. Because of these qualities, and his lengthy association with the area and its people, he proved to be an invaluable source of insight and information throughout the work I did there. In the course of our walk and talk, he filled me in on the background characteristics of most Center members.
Nearly all came from poor families, he explained. Their fathers were craftsmen, traders, peddlers, and middlemen, and their mothers worked, too, despite numerous children. The shtetl of their childhood was still very much a presence among them. They remembered it with intense affection and nostalgia in spite of its terrible hardships. Self-regulating, highly stratified, valuing religious education and study even above wealth and family connections, the shtetl Jews had held themselves apart from the surrounding illiterate peasantry; but by the end of the nineteenth century, these communities were being rent apart by internal as well as external forces. The new movements sweeping that part of the world -- communism, Zionism, the international trade union movement -- the secularization and concern with worldly matters known as the Haskala began to pull young people away from shtetl customs. Youth were growing impatient with their parents' strict religious orthodoxy, conservatism, and fatalism. Immigration to the New World swelled until around the turn of the century nearly everyone had a relative in America, someone who could help one start a new life.
Most Center folk had come to America as children or young adults, settling first in the urban industrial centers of the East Coast. They worked there as petty merchants, retailers, wage workers, and artisans and went to night school to learn English. They married people like themselves and dedicated the next twenty years of their lives to their children's education. It generally took American immigrant groups three generations or so to accomplish what these people achieved in one; as a result, they were dubbed, "The one-generation proletariat." Professors, scientists, musicians, industrialists were the children of peddlers, craftsmen, and laborers. But the cost of such a rapid ascent was the development of strong social and cultural barriers between the Old World parents and New World children. They had jettisoned much of their Yiddish practices and beliefs, for it seemed to them that, as one writer puts it, "a clean break with religion...was the best and surest way of becoming an American."
"You know, these people may seem unique to you, but there are others like them all over the country -- Pittsburgh, New York, Florida," Abe explained to me. "They're a proud bunch. No wonder. Look what they've lived through. You gotta be strong to survive what they have. Something in them, something about their background must have given them tremendous courage and independence. We don't know what that 'something' really is. It would be good if you could find out. You don't have long, because they'll be gone soon. And when they go, there's nobody else. The sixty-and even seventy-year-olds who were born here, they're nothing like that. So if you really want to do this study, you had better get going."
For the next four years I was to be involved with these people, as an anthropologist, doing fieldwork, as a friend, and sometimes as a family member. When Josele Masada decided that I looked like his mother and told everyone I was his long-missing granddaughter, Barbarinka, no one was certain what to make of this, for boundaries between his memories, dreams, and the present were often blurred. Did he "really" think there was a biological bond between us, was this a wish, a metaphor, a great compliment? Since no one was certain of Masada's notion, our relationship could neither be affirmed nor denied, and it remained a puzzle to everyone, including me. I was right in expecting that my closeness to the subject would be both troublesome and advantageous, but there was no way I could have anticipated what the specific struggles and compensations would be.
The anthropologist engages in peculiar work. He or she tries to understand a different culture to the point of finding it to be intelligible, regardless of how strange it seems in comparison with one's own background. This is accomplished by attempting to experience the new culture from within, living in it for a time as a member, all the while maintaining sufficient detachment to observe and analyze it with some objectivity. This peculiar posture -- being inside and outside at the same time -- is called participant-observation. It is a fruitful paradox, one that has allowed anthropologists to find sense and purpose within a society's seemingly illogical and arbitrary customs and beliefs.5 This assumption of the natives' viewpoint, so to speak, is a means of knowing others through oneself, a professional technique that can be mastered fairly easily in the study of very different peoples. Working with one's own society, and more specifically, those of one's own ethnic and familial heritage, is perilous, and much more difficult. Yet it has a certain validity and value not available in other circumstances. Identifying with the "Other" -- Indians, Chicanos, if one is Anglo, blacks if one is white, males if one is female -- is an act of imagination, a means for discovering what one is not and will never be. Identifying with what one is now and will be someday is quite a different process.
In working among the elderly -- also, I suspect, among the very young -- an exceptionally important part of one's information is derived from nonverbal communication and identification, this because the bodily state is such a large determinant of well-being for the growing and declining organism. At various times, I consciously tried to heighten my awareness of the physical feeling state of the elderly by wearing stiff garden gloves to perform ordinary tasks, taking off my glasses and plugging my ears, slowing down my movements and sometimes by wearing the heaviest shoes I could find to the Center. Walking a few blocks to the day-old bakery in this condition became an unimaginably exhilarating achievement. Once by accident I stumbled slightly. The flash of actual terror I experienced was shocking. From the close watching of the elderly it seems I had acquired their assiduous need to avoid falling, though of course, to one my age in good health such a minor accident presents no real danger. This recognition occurred after I had been watching two very old women walk down the alley with great concentration, arms tightly linked, navigating impediments in slow-motion movements that were perfectly coordinated and mutually supportive. So great was their concern with balance they might have been walking a high wire.
The work with the very old people at the Center was not the first time I had employed this imaginative identification as a source of information. Years before, in doing fieldwork with the Huichol Indians of Mexico, I had had similar experiences. However much I learned from that was limited by the fact that I would never really be a Huichol Indian. But I would be a little old Jewish lady one day; thus, it was essential for me to learn what that condition was like, in all its particulars. As a society, we are increasingly cut off from the elderly. We do not have them in the midst of our daily lives, and consequently have no regular access to models of successful old age. How can we then do anything but dread the coming of age? I consider myself very fortunate in having had, through this work, an opportunity to anticipate, rehearse, and contemplate my own future. This has given a temporal integration to my life that seems to me an essential ingredient in the work of maturing.
I see old people now in a new way, as part of me, not "they." Most normal, relatively sensitive people identify naturally with children. They remember what it was like to have been a child themselves and as a result see children -- are aware of them as a part of life, appreciative of their specific needs, rights, and characteristics. But in our culture today, we do not have this same natural attentiveness to and empathy with the elderly, in part because they are not among us, and no doubt they are not among us because we don't want to recognize the inevitability of our own future decline and dependence. An insidious circularity has developed -- ignorance, based in part on denial of our future, leading to fear and rejection of the elderly, engendering guilt that is often expressed as neglect or mistreatment, then more guilt, avoidance, and ignorance; agism is characterized by the same self-fulfilling processes that operate in racism. Our anxiety about the future is guaranteed by our own behavior, assuring that our worst unspoken, unspeakable fear will be realized: Our children will treat us as we treat our parents.
As usual, Basha had a myseh on the subject, told to her by her grandmother. Paraphrased, it went as follows:
Once there was a rich man who decided he would give all his money to his son as soon as the boy was grown instead of following the custom of making the boy wait till the father's death to inherit. He did this, but soon the son began to neglect his elderly father, and one day the son put him out of the house. The old man left and came back many years later. He saw his little grandson playing outside the house and told the child who he was. "Fetch me a cloak, child," he said, "because I am cold and poor." The little boy rummaged in the attic for an old cloak and was cutting it in half when his father came in. "What are you doing, child?" he asked. "Father, I am going to give half of the cloak to my grandfather and keep the other half for you, for the time when I am grown up and you have grown old."
What the Center people taught me went beyond knowledge about old age. In addition they provided a model of an alternative life-style, built on values in many ways antithetical to those commonly esteemed by contemporary Americans. The usual markers of success were anathema to them -- wealth, power, physical beauty, youth, mobility, security, social status -- all were out of the question. Lacking hope for change, improvement, without a future, they had devised a counterworld, inventing their own version of what made "the good life." It was built on their veneration for their religious and cultural membership and it was full of meaning, intensity, and consciousness. This they had managed on their own, creating a nearly invisible, run-down, tiny world, containing a major lesson for any who would attend it. It was not the first time that an anthropologist had found in obscure, unworldly folk a message of wide applicability for the larger outside society.
It was especially their passion for meaning that appealed to me so deeply, this the Center folk valued above happiness or comfort. Their history and religion provided them with ample raw material for enacting their celebratory attitude toward their lives. "It's good to be a Jew. It's hard to be a Jew. What else is new?" laughed Basha when contemplating the pros and cons of her contemporary situation and past history. The word Jew in this context served as a metaphor for being human. She used it the same way other people might have said, "That's what life is like." Basha shared with others in the Center an acute sense of dignity, irony, and stoicism, and these were enormously helpful to her in meeting the challenges of her present life, and so, too, the recognition maintained since her early shtetl experience -- that a sense of humor is redeeming and ultimately one must face being alone.
Among the Center people life was highly ritualized, and their penchant for ceremony and symbol was aided by Judaism's particular richness in these domains. Drawing on their cultural background, Center people were able to elevate mundane affairs, bringing to each moment a heightened consciousness that rendered suffering and scarcity explicable, and because explicable, bearable. Most of these people had developed some conceptual framework in terms of which their afflictions become comprehensible. This was particularly evident late one Friday afternoon not long ago, when following the Center's celebration to welcome the Sabbath, I lingered to walk along the ocean front with Josele and Nathan. I left them talking on a bench in front of the Center, somewhat uneasily, because I had noticed a young woman familiar in the neighborhood, pacing back and forth, evidently hallucinating, ranting wildly to herself. Just as I was about to pull away, I glanced at the rearview mirror of my car and was shocked to see her attacking the two old men. She had thrown over a huge garbage can next to the bench where they sat. Josele had shouted at her and waved his cane to try to shoo her away. She had seized the cane and thrown him to the ground. He rolled about helplessly, trying to cover his face as she beat him about the head with his cane. As I ran toward them, I heard her yell, "Dirty Jew, fuck you, I'm going to kill you, dirty Jew!" I couldn't wrest the deadly flailing cane from her, but shouting for help, I managed to draw her away from Josele by enticing her to chase me down the boardwalk. Bystanders seized and held her before she got to me. Someone had helped Josele onto the bench. He was bleeding from the mouth and nose and there was a purple lump over one eye the size of a tennis ball. I insisted that Josele wait for the police and paramedics. He didn't want to. "I got no use for police," he said. "What could they do with this poor crazy girl? Nothing. Could they make my poor head stop hurting? Police don't know from these things.
"Today is not the first time I got beat up. When I was only a boy I was already a revolutionary, working for justice, that's all I cared about. Then the Cossacks threw me to the ground and beat me up with clubs yelling all the time like this girl, 'Dirty Jew.' So what has changed? As long as these things happen, I know my work is not finished. Now I go home. I don't keep the Sabbath with prayers. I got my own ways." He chuckled, heaved himself up from the bench, and picked up his cane. "On Fridays the cats on my street get extra rations. Since we got no more beggars in America, we got to do the best we can with what we have." He limped off down the alley.
Being so rooted in their Judaism helped the old people in their struggles and celebrations. They were sufficiently comfortable with it to improvise upon it and adapt it freely as needed, for small requirements and large. Basha exemplified this when she described her dinner preparations. She ate alone in her tiny room. Over an electric hot plate, she cooked her chicken foot stew (chicken feet were free at the supermarket). Before eating, she spread a white linen handkerchief over the oilcloth covering the table, saying:
This my mother taught me to do. No matter how poor, we would eat off clean white linen, and say the prayers before touching anything to the mouth. And so I do it still. Whenever I sit down, I eat with God, my mother, and all the Jews who are doing these same things even if I can't see them.
Such a meal is a feast, superior to fine fare hastily eaten, without ceremony, attention, or significance. I wondered if Basha's daughter knew how to dine so splendidly. Because of such things, I came to see the Center elderly as in possession of the philosophers' stone -- that universally sought, ever-elusive treasure, harboring the secret that would teach us how to transmute base metals into pure gold. The stone, like the bluebird's feather of happiness, is said to be overlooked precisely because it is so close to us, hidden in the dust at our feet.
Alongside death and the ocean, a third invisible protagonist was present among Center members -- guilt. These people were a distinctive breed, survivors all. A group selected to endure many times over, living considerably beyond the norm, they were biologically elite. And they were also psychologically and socially special. Unlike most of their siblings, cousins, and parents, they had found the courage and vision to break with family, home, and community to better their own and their unborn children's lot. Because of their decision to leave Eastern Europe, they had escaped extinction; virtually all who remained behind perished in the Holocaust. Subsequent courageous choices and sacrifices had allowed them to realize their most cherished ambitions -- providing education and freedom for their children. In the course of their history, these people had demonstrated their capacity for survival many times over; they were determined, and resourceful beyond the norm.
But one's own survival, when loved ones are being destroyed, is not experienced as a simple triumph or stroke of good luck, as the literature coming out of Hiroshima and Hitler's Europe demonstrates so clearly. It is an extremely problematic condition, often arousing the most severe, even crippling anguish, "survivor's guilt." The Center people were survivors twice over, once due to their escape by emigration from the unnatural ravages of the Holocaust, and again later by living into extreme old age, surviving their peers, family, and often children. That the more recent losses were the natural, inevitable results of the mere passage of time did not necessarily make them more bearable. These elderly men and women, like all those who cry out in moments of extreme pain, asked, "Why me, O Lord," requesting explanation, not for their affliction but for their escape. Thus do victims and survivors alike petition the gods to know the sense behind their destiny. "How do I deserve this? In what ways am I better or worse than those who perished?" There is evidence that suggests it may be universal for survivors of mass destruction to believe that the best die, that by merely being alive, one is guilty, that somehow others died in one's stead. It must be said even when it is self-evident, that survivor's guilt is often irrational, an expression of humanity's metaphysical passion for morality and order. Survivor's guilt, as well as a reality, is a metaphor, referring to that sense of intermingled destinies that denies impotence, solitariness, and the irrelevance of each of us for the others. These elderly Jews were not, strictly speaking, survivors of the Holocaust, for by emigrating they had escaped. Still, they participated in the Holocaust with intensity and depth, and most spoke of it as though it had been their own experience as well as that of the families and peers they left behind. Although they had not actually been through it, they were much more than spectators, and they asked themselves many of the same questions and manifested many of the same questions and manifested many of the same characteristics noted among actual survivors. They searched their consciences often and with severity, and held themselves responsible for the fates of those who had not survived. This guilt was not "realistic," for as nearly as I could determine every person I met had strained him or herself utterly, exhausting all the human and material resources they could mobilize to bring their families to safety in America, as soon as possible. Still they wondered what more they might have done. Still, they tormented themselves with questions about why things had turned out as they had. Faegl described her struggle to bring her parents and younger sister to America. For two years she had nearly starved herself to scrape up money for their passage. Her parents came but the sister would not. They did not stay long -- they missed the younger daughter too much and returned to Poland. All were killed in Auschwitz. "How can I account for this?" Faegl closed her eyes and wrung her hands when she talked of it. "Were my parents killed because they loved their child so dearly? Was I saved because I didn't love them enough to go back with them?"
The need to reiterate here the irrationality of survivor's guilt comes from the ever-present tendency to blame victims for their fate. To find them in some way responsible for what happened -- by their alleged collusion, passivity, weakness, cowardice, selfishness, or denial, as well as more venal attributes -- is reassuring. It tells us that people get what they deserve, that they have power over themselves, that the universe is predictable, so that if we are strong and attentive we can avoid the victim's conduct and assure our own safety. "It can't happen to me," comforts onlookers but not survivors themselves. They know by what slender threads their lives are distinguished from those who died; they do not see in themselves soothing virtues or special merits that make their survival inevitable or right. They know how easily it could have happened to them; to these people complacency is forever lost.
Survivor's guilt can be crippling, but among these elderly people it was not. Instead it served as a transformative agent that made it impossible for them to lead the unexamined life. Life for these elderly was many different things: gift, relentless struggle, challenge, a curse, and all the shadings in between. But it was never taken for granted. Above all, it contributed to their passion for meaning. It is common for survivors to attempt to re-create an orderly universe, one that can be found somehow to be sensible; despite the brutality of the concentration camps, inmates during internment and afterward pursued and seized upon any evidence of sense and justice in the world. Meaningless accidents, chaos, and inexplicability are more insupportable than suffering and cruelty. Survivors have a heightened desire for interpretation, for finding the comprehensible elements in their experiences. Says psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who has documented the psychology of survivors of Hiroshima as well as the Holocaust, "...Any experience of survival -- whether of large disaster or intimate personal loss...involves a journey to the edge of the world of the living." What he calls the formulative effort -- the search for meaning -- is the survivor's means of return from that edge. Then it was not merely these elders' proximity to their own deaths that so enlivened them -- rather it was due to their survival of loved ones, the guilt and responsibility this generated, and the subsequent necessity for understanding what had brought about the destruction of their people and their natal world. These were what turned them so strongly toward the symbolic life.
Survivorhood accounted for other, positive features among them. It validated their values. In foiling enemies determined to destroy them, by merely outliving them, they demonstrated that they were indeed Chosen People. And survivorhood also caused them to intensify their dedication to social justice; they not only sought evidence of morality in a shattered, disordered world, but also worked to establish it. Such activity -- "collecting justice" Lifton calls it -- is common among survivors, and of course these people's traditions had always emphasized it. Their sense of responsibility for the welfare of others was the transformation of survival guilt into conscience, another commonplace among those who live despite others' efforts to destroy them, as historian Terence Des Pres observes. Their philanthropic activities, the construction of a symbolic universe made out of the long past, the quest for meaning, and their concern for human dignity -- all were signal traits in Center life, accentuated by the survival experience.
In the beginning phases of my work with the elderly I too suffered severe pangs of guilt. It took many forms and floated about, settling on different issues at different times. At first it focused on questions concerning my competence in the task I was embarking upon. Did I know enough Judaica? Did I know enough Yiddish? Was I too young? Was I too emotionally involved? Should I be working for the old people's welfare instead of studying them? and the like. In the course of a conversation with Shmuel, a very learned man who was to become one of my principal informants, I confessed my fears about not being able to do justice to the materials he was giving me. There was so much I did not understand. As usual, he was severe but not unfair in his response.
You don't understand. How could you expect to understand? You ask me all these things, but you know nothing. You don't know Yiddish. You don't know Hebrew. You don't know Aramaic. You don't know Russian and not Polish. You have not set your eyes on any part of the place we lived in. How can you expect to understand?
I agreed with him and was terribly discouraged. For a while, I stopped to study Yiddish, then realized that I was taking too much time out of the fieldwork. It was wasteful in view of the Center people's fluency in English. I also spent some time studying Jewish law and history, but the subjects were overwhelmingly complex, needing lifetimes of devotion to achieve more than a superficial understanding. I decided to try to follow the old people's leads in deciding what to study, learning as much as I could from them. I would enter these fields of knowledge in an ad hoc fashion, letting the elders point out what I needed to know as the work progressed rather than plowing into it systematically or for its own sake.
Resolving the question of my right to do the work did not free me from the inner and outer taunts. Many of the Center people continued to "make" me feel guilty. After greeting me warmly, Basha would often ask, "Never mind these other things you all the time ask about. Tell me, who's with your children?" Men and women alike would admire a new skirt or dress I wore, then turn over my hem for inspection. Nathan remarked, "For a lady professor, you don't do so good with a needle." When I stayed away too long, they scolded and snubbed me. When I was not completely fair (and sometimes even when I was) in the distribution of attention, I paid dearly for it. The old people were genuinely proud of me, generous, and affectionate, but at times their resentment spilled over. My presence was a continual reminder of many painful facts: that it should have been their own children there listening to their stories; that I had combined family and a career, opportunities that the women had longed for and never been allowed. And too, that I knew so little of their background suggested to them that they had failed to transmit to future generations any but fragments of their cherished past. I felt guilty about invading their privacy, for however much I explained my publication intentions, I knew our conversations sometimes crossed the invisible line from informed disclosure to inadvertent confidence. Diffuse and even irrational guilt plagued me until I had to laugh at myself. I had become a tasteless ethnic joke, paralyzed by Jewish guilt: about my relative youth and strength, about having a future where they did not, about my ability to come and go as I chose while they had to await my visits and my convenience, when I relished food that I knew they could not digest, when I slept soundly through the night warmed by my husband's body, knowing the old people were sleeping alone in cold rooms. (In some African tribes, all the elderly are loaned a child for warmth and companionship at night.)
I considered quitting. It was unbearable to abide the countless ways in which the Center people used guilt, often unconsciously, intending not to hurt but only to make themselves feel potent. But after a time I accepted the fact that one cannot be "made" guilty. One volunteers. The arousal of guilt is what I have called "a strategy of intimacy," one of many used by the Center old people. Useless among strangers, it is based on interdependence and connectedness. The bright side of guilt is that it is an expression of a sense of responsibility for another's well-being. When I realized that, I became resigned and even grateful about my responses to my subjects.
I had been with these people for almost two years when I hit on what seemed the most significant component of my complex feelings about them. I chanced to read a comment by Isaac Bashevis Singer in one of his novels about survivors. A single statement of his suddenly clarified matters for me. In reference to his own difficulties in writing about victims he remarked, "Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust...." Yes, it was that feeling that they were set apart from the rest of us and hallowed by their suffering. Paradoxically they were the privileged ones for having lived on our behalf through what was in one sense our common fate. How, then, could anyone look at them dispassionately? How could I feel anything but awe and appreciation for their mere presence? In view of their proximity to mass destruction, it was indecent to ask more of them than that they be alive and in good spirits. But they were more than their sufferings; too great an appreciation on my part was a disservice and falsification, ultimately disrespectful. I wanted my people to be loved and admired as a result of my study, for in addition to being survivors, they were presently poor and maltreated. I wanted to protect them, even from my responses. But finally I accepted the necessity for sacrificing that desire. A reverential, protective attitude would allow the reader to distance him-