In addition to being a freelance journalist, I recently took a position at a low-income independent living facility working with elderly and disabled residents. Part of my role is to coordinate services, such as finding medical professionals and bringing in educational speakers.
Much of my job also involves counseling the residents and their family members, though I have no formal training in this area other than a master’s in communications. But after 18 years as a writer and editor, I wanted to do something working more directly with people and, I hoped, helping them.
Many of the residents are Jewish Russian refugees who came here about 30 years ago. I see them in just one chapter of their lives, toward the end of their stories, as they are in their 80s and 90s.
But as I speak to them and uncover bits and pieces of their lives, I start to see past the wrinkled faces, toothless gums and silvery hair.
They were electrical engineers, physicians, professors, business owners once full of energy and purpose. They were confident and useful, their bodies and minds still relatively fresh. I try to see this version of them when they come to my office, to remember the full lives they experienced before their bladders and eyesight started to fail them.
Though they were not allowed to practice religion, college was free in Russia. While many received a decent education, eventually life was no longer bearable because of the restrictions on Jews. They fled with official papers in hand to unfamiliar cities in the United States.
Once here, they worked as janitors and salad makers, baby-sitters and secretaries. But they were proud to have work and to be living in a free, democratic country.
One woman, Margarita, said the first time she saw a menorah was as an adult, in a grocery store in America. She asked a non-Jewish friend, “What is that?” He told her it was a menorah for Chanukah.
I cried when she told me this. How fortunate we are to live in a country where we can live freely as Jews.
I let the residents know that I keep kosher and observe Shabbat — that I live proudly and openly as a Jew and that my children attend Jewish school. They bring me kosher cookies and visit my office on the third floor to wish me Shabbat shalom each Friday afternoon.
A short, round man with a mustache popped his head in to say, “Happy Purim.” Another stopped me in the hallway to ask if I speak Yiddish. He hasn’t spoken it since his childhood and misses it.
My role is not glamorous, and sometimes I feel like I’m spinning my wheels amid the snarls of government-funded cellphone programs and health insurance. But then Rivka, in her 90s with white hair and blue eyes, comes in to give me a kiss on the cheek, and I feel like it’s all worth it.
As my own body begins to show signs of aging, I imagine what the years ahead will be like. Will I live alone, like many of them, my family in other parts of the country or world? Will I still feel useful, a sense of purpose guiding my days? Will people younger treat me kindly, or will I be a burden? These are not easy things to contemplate.
So as they come to me for help or to chat, I try to be patient and respectful and joyful. It is amazing the effect a smile can have. Sometimes I feel as if all I can offer them is a little hope and a brighter day. But then again, maybe that’s all we need from one another, whatever our age.
This Sunday, March 12, we celebrate Purim, a holiday about all things hidden. Queen Esther hid her Jewishness. There is no mention of G-d in the Megillah. We wear masks as we celebrate the miracle of our survival.
Likewise, our souls are hidden amid the physicality of our bodies as they change throughout our lives.
Their wrinkled skin, I realize, is just a mask. Who they truly are is within. What a joy it is to reveal that.