Does “Enabling” Help Women Cope with Age?

Number Our Days
by Barbara Myerhoff. E.P. Dutton (1978), $12.95; paper, Touchstone (1980), $4.95. by Carol S. Holzberg

Number Our Days is a scholarly and sensitive investigation of about 300 aged Jews in Venice, California. It is an “ethnography,” a descriptive and interpretive account of the significant cultural events, preoccupations, rituals, celebrations, and daily activities of the elderly (mid-eighties and up) members of the Aliyah Senior Citizens’ Center.

Intending to spend only a year in research at the Center, Barbara Myerhoff, chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California, worked with the members—interviewing, observing, participating, running errands and sharing their lives from 1973 to 1976. While helping them to record their own version of their history—a collective interpretation of the meaning of their lives— she captured living history and inscribed an entire generation of people in the Jewish “Book of Life.”

Today only four thousand Jews remain out of the nearly 10,000 elderly East European Jews who began migrating to Venice for health or retirement reasons 30 years ago and lived in a thriving Jewish shtetl (townlet) that is no more. They are among the last authentic Ashkenazi cultural roots in the shtetl communities of turn-of-the-century Poland and Russia. Their mamaloshen (mother tongue) is Yiddish; their domestic or folk religion is Yiddishkeit— “the slowly grown, beloved result of long intimate relationships, not grand or exalted but associated with family nurturance and survival.”

Underlying Myerhoff’s analytic portrait, and even framing her investigation of the 50 or so individuals that she worked with most intensively, is a search for the meaningful symbols and metaphors that sustain, guide and determine the ordinary lives of the Center people.

The Center people demonstrate admirable qualities in their ability to handle the problems and crises associated with aging. Basha takes care of her sore feet by cutting and sewing a pair of cloth shoes; Nathan “had a story with a moral for every occasion”; Jacob was a “professional elder”; Sadie sang songs that she had written herself; all of them still found occasion to do mitzvot (good works). They have devised a coherent, intense, and vital life-style that establishes a meaningful continuity with their past life experiences and, Myerhoff notes, they age well.

Most probably their successful aging is due to their passion for continuity—”the individual’s sense of unity as a single person (individual/biological continuity)” and the collective sense of being “One People” (historical continuity). Their search for personal and collective continuities allows them to overcome the disruptions of their families that are the inevitable consequences of growing old in American society.

Myerhoff calls attention to the differential aging patterns of the men and the women. Through personal anecdotes, bobbe-mysehs (“old wives’ ” tales) and interviews, she portrays how and why the women seem to manage better in old age than the men:

In nearly all circumstances, it seemed to me, the Center women as a group were the more capable, active and authoritative people. There were a number of remarkable and outstanding individual men, but it was clear that their personal characteristics accounted for their distinctiveness. Collectively, most of the men were quieter, vaguer, more sad than angry compared with the vitality and assertiveness of the women. The women effectively ran the Center on a day-by-day basis, and they dominated the community. They seemed, as well, to manage their private life more succesfully.

What accounts for the greater success of the women? Myerhoff traces the roots of this phenomenon to the role models of men and women in the shtetl communities of Eastern Europe. Religion was the dominant motif in the “Old Country,” and men by virtue of their privileged relationship and responsibilities to God, assumed public superiority over women. The system was patriarchial and the women “were extremely important, absolutely essential as facilitators of the men’s activities.” In order to “facilitate,” the women provided not only emotional nurturance within the home, but also the necessary material and financial supports by working “in the marketplace.” The shtetl women thus had a dual role, one realized, “sketched by tradition—subservient, restrained, homebound” and another, more realistic and more mundane, which revolved around their duties as baleboste (homemaker). This was “almost an underground role, generated not by design but out of practical necessities.” Myerhoff asserts that it was this less overt, “contingent” role of baleboste that gave women more options and flexibility than the men, “more opportunity to express their individuality and adapt to their circumstances” both in the New World and in old age.

Since the majority of the Center members are women, and the women generally tend to outlive the men, one wonders why Myerhoff portrays Center culture and its ideals mainly through the activities, insights and reflections of the men. Her key informant is Shmuel the tailor, a man who is both a “critic and a philosopher.” She continues to seek his advice and carry on discursive pilpul (argumentative debate) with him even after his death. Similarly, to demonstrate what she means by successful aging she describes Jacob Koved and details the events surrounding his 95th birthday party; to illustrate the collective identity of the members, “their interpretations of their world, themselves and their values,” she seizes upon the rise and fall of Reb Kominsky, the Center president who inspired rebellion because he “hoarded mitzvahs.” Perhaps she derives a large part of Center culture from the men because they held all the positions of formal importance.

However, while the men invariably held all formal and ceremonial leadership positions, women in the Center functioned as the emotional leaders. Whereas men seemed to undergo an impaired sense of self worth and autonomy once they were forced to retire from the workplace, “a woman’s work was never done.” Even in old age, women were still being called upon to perform their nurturant and expressive roles—to raise money for charity, to prepare food for social events, and to realize themselves through others. They still had a definite purpose in life.