Beyond “Cute” & “Sweet”: Truly Respecting Our Elders

The author's grandmother in 1947
Geri (the author’s grandmother) in 1947

I recently watched this great animated clip from StoryCorps. The woman featured in the clip, Kay Wang, immediately reminded me of my maternal grandmother.Similar to Kay Wang, my grandmother, Geraldine “Geri” Eisenstadt, was incredibly strong-willed and outspoken. She wasn’t afraid to tell you what she thought, and certainly did not censor herself when calling someone out for doing something wrong. Similar to Kay’s granddaughter, I often giggled in response to bold remarks made by my grandma. Her lack of fear about what others thought of her both inspired and intimidated me.

Unlike Kay’s granddaughter, I did not have the chance to sit down for an oral history interview with my grandmother before she passed away. Although the last time I saw my grandmother, I filled my phone’s memory with videos of her stories, I regret not asking more. It’s been about a year since she passed away.

I remember telling her about my recent hire at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I was used to people immediately responding to the news with comments like “there are Jews in the South?!” or, “why would you want to go there?” Instead, my grandma lit up and said, “What an incredible opportunity. Did you know we had family in the South?”

I didn’t know we had family in the South. But then again, I never asked.

This got me thinking about the way we generally treat elderly members of our communities. My grandma was fiercely independent- she lived alone until she was 94. Yet when strangers met her, they would often note how “cute” or “sweet” she was. I can assure you, she was neither cute, nor sweet, and would not have appreciated either description.

She was a feminist before her time. She worked as an accountant in a clothing factory before women generally held jobs of that nature. She told me stories of her boss hitting on her, over and over again, and demeaning her abilities due to her gender. One day she found a huge mistake in the books and publicly called him out on it. He didn’t bother her again. I didn’t hear this story, or many others like it, until I graduated college. Up until at point, I didn’t really have any interest in learning about her life-her hardships, accomplishments, regrets, and dreams. Not because I didn’t care about her, but because I sort of just thought of her as a loving, maternal presence in my life—as, simply, my grandmother.

The author with her grandmother

 

There’s a quote in Midrash Tanchuma that challenged me to re-think the way I interacted with my grandmother, and interact with the elderly generally. It says: “Whoever greets the old – it is as if they greet the Divine Presence.”

To me, bearing this in mind, “greeting the old” doesn’t refer to saying “hey” in passing. That’s certainly not how I would treat the divine presence. Instead, I would sit down and delve into deep and meaningful conversations in an attempt to learn lessons for my future, and in order to better understand our world. And that’s the beautiful potential inherent in inter-generational conversations.

I know my grandmother overcame so much in her lifetime- she had a career, held her own, and lived through the Great Depression (thanks, in part, to bathtub-gin her Mom made)! She had a lot of incredible knowledge and guidance to share.

What messages does society give us about elderly people, and how can we challenge these messages moving forward? What do Jewish values guide us toward, when it comes to senior citizens? How do you interact with the elderly in your life? Share your thoughts, comments (and stories of the inspiring older individuals in your life!) in the comments section below. Also, check out these great Southern & Jewish Oral Histories from the ISJL collection!

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