Ninety-year-old Lorie Zeller flew from Los Angeles to Israel for her grandson's Bar Mitzvah. At the party, I approached the sprightly, white-haired nonagenarian and told her, "Mazel tov. I hear that your grandson read the Torah beautifully on Shabbat."
"Oh, yes, he was splendid," Mrs. Zeller replied. "But I couldn't follow the whole portion. I've just begun learning Hebrew."
"You've just begun learning Hebrew?!" I exclaimed. At that point her son Dovid walked by. "I'm in awe of your mother," I told him. "At 90 she's just begun learning Hebrew!"
"Don't be in awe of her," Dovid responded with an ironic smile. "She didn't just begin learning Hebrew. She began three years ago."
Passover is called, "the holiday of spring." The point is emphasized by placing on the Seder plate a sprig of parsley or other green vegetable emblematic of springtime – the season of growth. Indeed, Passover is also celebrated as the birth of the Jewish nation. Everything about this festival is associated with new beginnings and change – as the Hagaddah says, "from slavery to freedom… from subjugation to redemption."
Apparently God assumes that it's never too late to make radical changes.
The radical changes in which the Passover moment abounds are not only for the young. The Torah requires every single Jew to look upon her/himself as if s/he "personally had gone out of Egypt." This requirement obligates the 90-year-old as much as the 22-year-old. Of course, at the time of the Exodus itself, the Jews who left Egypt spanned the spectrum from newborns to octogenarians. Moses, Miriam, and Aaron were all in their 80s when they left Egypt and marched headlong into the desert. Apparently God assumes that it's never too late to make radical changes.
PERSONAL CHANGE IN THE GOLDEN AGE
Is it really possible to make radical changes later in life? Many of us regard youth as the time for growth, change, and personal transformation. While people in their 40s and 50s have been known to make major career or life changes, the period after 60 is often regarded as a stage of enjoying the fruits, but not planting anew. While pensioners enjoy traveling to new places, they rarely work at developing new skills, or, an even more formidable task, becoming new people.
Or do they?
Leah Abramowitz, founder of Israel's Geriatric Institute, maintains that while many people face old age clinging tenaciously to every detail of their lives, from their morning routines to the dilapidated couch they refuse to replace, others regard their later years as a golden opportunity to do all the things they never had time to do before. For example, Mrs. Lorie Zeller, the nonagenarian cited above, started working four days a week in the Book Center of the C.G. Jung Institute at the age of 64 and "took early retirement" at the age of 89.
Some exceptional people regard the post-60 years as an ideal time to work on improving themselves. Free of the pressures of career and raising children, they turn to the task of fixing character flaws that have plagued them for decades.
My friend Suzanne, for example, was chronically late, by an hour or more, for her entire life until an "epiphany" at the age of sixty broke her tardiness habit. At 63, she tackled her inveterate disorderliness. After forty years of feeling helpless to keep her house neat despite the gentle importuning of her husband and grown children, she finally transformed herself – and her house – into a paragon of order.
Gerontologists have identified three factors that account for what they call, "successful aging":
- good health
- ample social contacts
- a sense of a meaningful existence
While "a meaningful existence" can be achieved through taking care of a spouse or volunteering for a good cause, ultimate meaning is achieved through spiritual pursuits.
"The older generation has the greatest interest in spirituality," claims Leah Abramowitz. She notes that even on kibbutzim founded by staunch Socialists who had eschewed all religion, when these erstwhile Socialists retire, they love to sit and learn Torah and Talmud.
"They're cramming for the next stage of life," Leah Abramowitz explains. "In every stage of life, there's a next stage. In youth, we study and prepare for college. In college, we prepare for a career. During our working life, we prepare for retirement. When you get into old age, the next stage is the Next World. Even non-believers unconsciously intuit that they're going to meet their Maker, and they have to get ready."
My mother-in-law started lighting Shabbos candles at the age of seventy, and my mother, o.b.m., went to the mikvah for the first time at the age of 76.
BUBBY IRMA AND HER COWBOY
Even more courageous and adventuresome are those rare souls who transform their whole existence to God-centered lives in their seventh decade. Nate and Irma Charles, who had made aliyah from America, moved into Jerusalem's Old City when they were in their early 60s. Natie started studying with various rabbis there, and discovered that he had a lot to learn about Judaism. Religiously, Natie and Irma were Conservative Jews. "Once I started learning Torah," Natie recounts, "I got a whole new perspective on what it means to be a Jew."
Natie and Irma's three children were already grown. The single black spot in their lives was that one daughter, married for 12 years, had not succeeded in becoming pregnant. When Natie consulted Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, about this, Rabbi Weinberg suggested that it might help if their daughter were to observe a particular mitzvah.
Natie phoned his daughter back in America, and passed on the rabbi's advice. Her terse reply was: "You've been in Israel so long you sound like the Moonies."
After several more months, and a failed adoption attempt, she decided to take Rabbi Weinberg's advice. Seven weeks later she phoned her parents. Natie picked up the phone and heard only silence. "Hello? Hello?" he kept asking. Finally came their daughter's choked voice: "I'm pregnant."
Natie and Irma made a total change of lifestyle in their 60s.
Natie looked at Irma. Two emotions surged up in both their hearts: Exuberant joy and overwhelming gratitude to God. "At that moment," Natie recalls, "it was clear to both of us that we had to give something back to God. We decided to keep Shabbos and kashrus and the other mitzvot."
It was a total change of lifestyle for Natie, 63, and Irma, 62. Natie started to wear a kippa and to learn Torah every day – a practice he has continued for the last 20 years. Irma became the devoted "Bubby" of an entire community of yeshiva students and young couples. Her cooking skills – in her newly-kashered kitchen – became legendary as she routinely fed a dozen guests every Shabbat night. More than 25 young people filled "the House of Charles" for Kiddush every Shabbat morning. On the eve of her 70th birthday, Irma published a popular cookbook-cum-memoir, Adventures in Bubby Irma's Kitchen. The book begins with the words, "I am thankful to the Almighty, who has allowed me, even after all these years, to enter into His world and has given me the opportunity to learn about Torah and mitzvot."
Changing life-time habits is difficult, not only because the force of inertia hampers such efforts, but also because adopting a new action subtly incriminates one's previous actions, instigating the defensive response, "What was wrong with the way I was doing it before?" In her book, Bubby Irma describes the conflicting inner voices that beset her after she had learned that an egg must be cracked into a glass and checked for bloodspots before being considered kosher:
One day, I was baking my famous Babka, and as I always did, I started to break the eggs into the dough. A little voice inside said, "No, no, I have to crack the eggs into a glass and check that there's no blood."
I walked away from the dough and got a glass to crack the egg into. But I couldn't crack it. I heard a voice again: "Irma, you've been cooking for 39 years and never cracked an egg into a glass. It's ridiculous. Don't do it!" So I walked back to the dough and started to crack the egg.
Again I was stopped by a voice that said, "Irma, if you are going to do something, do it right." So I cracked it into the glass, and what I saw and smelled put me into a state of shock. Not only was the egg rotten, but it was full of blood and even had a part of the beak formed. I dropped it and stood there in awe of Hashem. He had found a way to get His message across to me.
Change later in life also requires a good measure of humility. To admit that the practices of a lifetime can be improved upon is a challenge to the ego. Bubby Irma's humility is as legendary as her cooking. Fannie Schwartz recalls one pre-Passover period when Irma was becoming observant. Twenty-two-year-old Fannie looked around Bubby's kitchen and informed her that she would have to cover two more surfaces. Irma grimaced. Did she really have to heed the instructions of someone 45 years her junior? Bubby gave Fannie a look, but she did it. And when she was finished, she flashed Fannie her trademark smile.
For Irma and Natie, inner transformation became not a one-time feat, but a way of life.
For Irma and Natie, inner transformation became not a one-time feat, but a way of life. They both constantly strive to learn and to grow. At the age of 66, Natie learned from Irma how to make challah. Every Thursday night, a band of young American students from a local Jewish-learning program would crowd into the Charles's kitchen to watch Natie demonstrate how to make challah dough and Irma demonstrate how to braid it. While in his 70s, Natie adopted the practice of carrying a notepad with him wherever he goes. When he hears an interesting lesson about the week's Torah portion, he jots it down. At the Shabbat table, he pulls out the notepad and delivers "a word of Torah."
For some two decades, Irma also regularly attended Torah classes where frequently a half-century separated her from the other students. Even after developing a heart condition when well into her seventies, she would struggle up two flights of steps to Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller's class on improving one's character traits. She is currently finishing her second book, another cookbook-cum-memoir, entitled, The Adventures of Bubby Irma and Her Cowboy. When diagnosed with cancer at the age of 82, Bubby Irma told me: "I'm trying to figure out what God wants me to learn."
For those of us a few or many years younger than Natie and Irma, their example of flexibility, perseverance, and good cheer in the face of adversity is a constant inspiration. Rabbi Shmuel Schwartz relates that when he was a 25-year-old neophyte studying in at Aish HaTorah and he would get discouraged, he would look over at Natie sitting there plugging away learning the aleph bet [the letters of the Hebrew alphabet] and be galvanized to keep trying.
In the Midrash, God proclaims: "Because Israel is young and I love him." The sages explain that "young" refers to the ability to grow and change. How much God must love Natie and Bubby Irma!
On April 27, 2005, hundreds of people said goodbye to this true Aishes Chayil, Chaya Rivka bat Malka, their "Bubby" of the Old City. Her example of flexibility, perseverance and good cheer in the face of adversity will remain a constant inspiration to all who knew her.
EYAHT, Bubby's favorite school in Jerusalem wants to help perpetuate the memory of Irma Charles and continue her influence through the generation of students that will be able to learn in her merit. Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, Dean of EYAHT, honored our family by asking permission to name EYAHT's new DINING ROOM and KITCHENS (meat and milk) in Memory of Bubby Irma. My family and I agree there's no better way to perpetuate Irma's twin loves: Judaism and Cooking. As Irma was the backbone of our family, EYAHT is the backbone for thousands of women who want to bring meaningful Judaism into their lives. We, her family, turn to all of you to contribute generously and help make the Bubby Irma Memorial possible.
Donate today by making your contribution online or by mail to:
Israeli citizens and residents:
Western Wall Plaza P.O.B. 14149
Old City, Jerusalem, ISRAEL
Attn: Rabbi Daniel Schloss
US citizens and residents:
Eyaht/American Friends of Aish HaTorah
PO Box 1259
Lakewood, NJ 08701 U.S.A.
*Make your check payable to: American Friends of Aish HaTorah / Bubby Irma Memorial
US tax ID# (EIN) is: 51-0243498 - You will receive a tax receipt in the mail