When people reach that vulnerable age of retirement, they usually think of making that move to warmer climates, traveling to exotic places, pursuing tennis, or taking that creative part-time job. But some have no plans for after retirement. And surprisingly, my second husband Ben was the latter, an odd lacuna in a guy who planned the rest of his life so carefully. More than odd -- Ben’s lack of plans became an issue for us early in our marriage.
I was 62 when I remarried, Ben was 76. He looked and acted ten years younger. In the words of my grandson, Chaim, “Age is a number, Bubby.” Ben was debonair, always with a twinkle in his eye and good sense of humor. You could set your watch by his promptness.
On our first date I heard the highlights of Ben’s life that built his character. He grew up poor with a bathtub in the kitchen, graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School at age 16, and two years later his father suddenly died of a brain tumor. As the oldest of four children, Ben dropped out of City College and became the sole family breadwinner and decision maker. He never finished college although he loved books and knowledge.
He enlisted in the army during World War II and became a radio specialist, stringing communication wires along the French coast ahead of the Allied troop landings. At Buchenwald, he helped free prisoners. Hearing his story, I was struck by his response to adversity, his forward attitude toward life. Eventually, he became the top salesman in a pant’s manufacturing company and eventually a partner in the business. Only recently did he retire.
The snapshot of my life seemed to mirror his own life challenges. I too gave up a scholarship to college in order to help support my mother. My father also passed away when I was only 14. But I kept my eye on that degree at the end of the rainbow. Between having children, moving to different communities and attending eight universities, I almost completed a Ph.D. Persistence is a great motivator. He nodded in agreement. I told him that it was never too late to go to college.
College or Bust
After what felt to me like a whirlwind courtship of six months, we married. It was wonderful to find each other. Still, I realized we had a problem. I was working in real estate and Ben was trying to fill his days. How many books could he read? How much comparison shopping could he do? With his intelligence and an I.Q over 160, he would run out of things to keep him meaningfully preoccupied, and I was not always available to fill in the gaps.
Matters came to a head when I started working full time. My cell phone would ring in the evenings, the best time to take out customers. Ben resented it. “When will you be home?” He was upset I was gone.
Sometimes I lost my temper. I didn’t understand that he was lonely and bored. None of his friends lived close by. I was at my wits end. I desperately had to find something meaningful to occupy his time.
With a nudge and a push from his children and me, Ben audited a class at Hunter College. Soon, he felt comfortable enough to seek out his advisor and receive credit for his course. Surprising himself, he was suddenly matriculating with 12 credits. Sixty-five years seemed to melt away, and he felt as though he had never left college. Majoring in Political Science, Ben was infused with a new passion. Like a horse with blinders, he felt nothing could deter him.
Ben admired his fellow-students, who were conscientious about their studies even while holding jobs. “When I was younger, I couldn’t work and attend school at the same time. Look at what these kids can do!”
With a catch in his voice, he said, “Some students wrote about me in my English class. They also said they were going to encourage their parents to go back and finish school. Isn’t that something?”
I was thrilled that he found school such a delight and enjoyed his relationship with the teachers and students. And, he was meaningfully retired!
In an attempt to complete his degree sooner, he took a full load in summer school. Ben became a determined student.
Finally, the big day arrived. He was graduating! Ben awoke on the day of graduation with an attack of nerves. As an 84-year-old college graduate, I guess he had a right to be nervous. His children flew in from Israel for the event. At Hunter, Ben went to join his fellow students, while the rest of our family was shown to the VIP seats upstairs in the balcony. I was honored to discover that we were seated with Hunter College donors.
The president of Hunter began speaking and the words, The Greatest Generation, were heard. With much surprise, Ben was asked to come up to the stage, and all the students respectfully stood as he walked slowly toward the president with tears in his eyes. She thanked him for his great contribution during the War and for his hard work at Hunter.
I had called the Riverdale Press, our community newspaper, both to make the event special for him and in the hope he might inspire other seniors, no matter what age, to take the plunge. Not only did they cover the event, but Hunter sent in Channel 4 News! When an interviewer asked Ben’s grandson if he was proud of his grandfather, he replied, “I certainly am, but I hope it doesn’t take me 65 years to finish college.”
Celebrations continued. Ben had a Kiddush in the synagogue with 150 guests, making him feel like a celebrity.
But then came the day after graduation. With the end of the college adventure, once again I feared our marriage would slide back into my under-occupied husband waiting and worrying for me. For a good while, Ben ordered books on how to unlock the mysteries of the computer, spent time reading and typing (another newly acquired skill) and talked about going back for his Masters. But it was all scattershot. Somehow he lacked the motivation this time around.
Bright and bored, Ben couldn’t seem to find his passion. Computer games didn’t engage him. I often found him asleep on a comfortable chair.
Since my problem-solving genes were trying to tell me something, I sat myself down, scratched my head, and thought of a variety of solutions. I also knew a number of wives who were in the same situation as me, and desperately wanted their husbands to be challenged and happy.
So with a dual motive (perhaps selfish) in mind, I had someone approach Rabbi Rosenblatt with an idea. The rabbi of the synagogue loved to teach. Perhaps he could devise a lunch and Torah learning afternoon program. The rabbi embraced the idea. He dubbed it the “The Gentlemen’s Kollel.” It had a nice ring to it. I thought the men would like it.
This select group met in the Beit Medrash – a light and airy study hall with many new windows. The walls boasted a library of both old and new Hebrew books in shiny, new, wood bookshelves. The agenda included a buffet lunch, learning and then the mincha, afternoon prayers, a perfect afternoon.
The group started with less than a handful of men. Lugging their own Talmudic tractates to and from class like serious Yeshiva students, the men rippled with excitement and passion. Ben came home, his eyes gleaming with the afterglow of his learning and said, “The rabbi really knows how to teach a class.”
Silently, I blessed the rabbi and smiled at my husband. “Well, now you have a challenge for that good brain of yours.”
The group comprised of retired dentists, businessmen, teachers, lawyers and rabbis. The ages ranged from 65 to 90. On any given day you could find between 15 and 20 men hunched over their Torah books, thumbs twirling Talmudic style, using their minds to figure out the meaning of God’s words.
If the husbands were delighted, the wives were ecstatic.
One day I met my friend Ruth at a doctor’s office. "How is your husband?” I inquired. I knew him as a brilliant man.
“Dreams are renewable. No matter what our age or condition, there are still untapped possibilities within us and new beauty waiting to be born.” – Dr. Dale Turner
A shadow passed across her face as she told me, “He is confined to a wheel chair. But,” she said with a happy lilt in her voice, “I just dropped him off to attend the Kollel. His mind is still working even though he has trouble walking. The Kollel is such a blessing.”
I have fallen in love anew with my husband, the Yeshiva bachur (student). Although I never saw myself as a kollel wife, I suppose that’s what I am. I love how Ben is always learning and growing, sharing his knowledge with me and his family. I love how at the Shabbat table he always has something special to contribute, uplifting the whole meal. To keep up with him, I too have started going to Torah classes. And the best thing about the Kollel: there’s no graduation day. Torah study never ends. It continues as the person grows.
Watch the video from Channel 4 News