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by Harold Ticktin
HERE IN CLEVELAND we have the mightily named Montefiore complex, a charitable megalith combining all the various kinds of succor to aging, mostly (but far from only) Jewish recoverees from falls, bladder infections, muscular failings and, of course, diabetes-related impairment. I write at the tail end of a four-week excursion after an aptly named “fragility” fracture, the kind that afflicts aging bones and for which patience and rehab therapy are the indicated solutions. Although many of my fellow patients are not Jewish, the impact of Jewish culture is everywhere evident. What for example is more critical to our culture than food?
For those Midwesterners like me who never knew the pleasures of Grossingers, Brown’s, or the Concord, Montefiore is a veritable Disney-like trip to that glorious past. There was a song in those Catskill days called “Essen, Essen” (eat, eat); at Montefiore, three full meals in less than eight hours captures the flavor of the song which, combined with therapy and shlofn, deprives the day of most everything else.
To put it in translation from Yiddish: Gourmet the food isn’t. The most amazing connection between the food and the help is how the latter have absorbed the niceties of kashrut. Early on, for example, after picking at an unrewarding breakfast at which I had bravely refused a donut, by the chili lunch I asked if there were any donuts left. The curt response was “No, and besides donuts are dairy.” Who knew? Certainly not me, but the sweet African-American server tossed off her response like a veteran mashgiakh. It was a learning experience for me. I had never thought of a donut having a kashrut gender.
Every trade has its vocabulary. I was surprised to learn that I was no longer a patient, as in hospital, but a resident. Actually not a bad status. When I pridefully declared myself a model resident because of turning out lights to save electricity, one of the aides said it was not uncommon. “Maybe because so many here grew up during the Depression, everyone seems to turn out lights whenever they can.”
Some few are permanent residents, as I came to learn from my romance with one of them. What? You are surprised to hear of romance among the healing and aged. Be disabused. Not the Hollywood version of course, but romance nevertheless. Rivka (not her real name} would be shocked to hear of romance, but the intertwined variables of a shared culture, age and, inevitably, the Holocaust, do evoke a kind of relationship that cannot simply be called friendship.
I sat next to Rivka three times a day far essen. Her accent instantly invoked the immanence of the Holocaust for Jews of our respective age. It also leads to a special kind of Jewish speaking-in-tongues. Between us, English was a poor third to Yiddish’s first, and, curiously enough, Spanish a strong second from where her four-continent travels had begun. Rivka is two years short of 100, with as fascinating (if quite jumbled) a history as any post-Holocaust survivor I know, despite having never been in the hands of the Nazis.
At her 98 and my 88 years, conversation was not all that easy. We sat together for over three weeks, and for many of those sittings there was the same conversation ad repitum as I strove to get her story straight. This was doubly strange because we spoke trilingually, usually falling back to the Spanish as last resort. She was born in 1916 in a shtetl near Kishinev, then part of Romania. When the Russians took over, pursuant to the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, she was soon deported as a potential security risk to a “settlement,” a milder form of the gulag until war’s end. She was returned to Bessarabia (then part of Ukraine and today Moldava) in 1947, from where she and her family escaped to Venezuela, specifically to exotic, oil-producing Maracaibo, where the family ran a “shmate” store. In 1970 she moved to Israel (we exchanged a bisl Ivrit) and remained there until 2005. Her four-continent life tour ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, to be close to one of her daughters (who cleared air for me a bit). The daughter was married to a physicist from Hungary, just to stir the pot a bit more.
In retrospect, essen, shlofn, physical therapy, and companionship all seemed to collapse into a kind of communal life. My wife, much younger than me, became an interested spectator to my romance with Rifka. It all climaxed one afternoon when I was still struggling with the details. I was visited by my dear friend Sylvia, a woman who had survived the Vilna ghetto. When I saw Rivka walk by (at 98 without aid!) I eagerly invited her to join us. Two native Yiddish speakers could bring out more of Rivka’s history.
I listened attentively as Sylvia conveyed my nagging queries, but she encountered the same obstacles as I did. Rivka simply could not narrate her story. She showed the same reluctance in pure Yiddish as she had in our trilingual efforts. The following exchange between them occurred: After informing Rivka that “Hershel vil veyzn meyre fun eyer lebn” (Harold wants to know more about your life), Rivka replied, a bit irritably, “Ikh veys, er fregt mikh yeder tog” (I know, he asks me every day). My friend responded, “Er iz zeyre an inteligent man” (He is a very smart man). Rivka ended the conversation with: “Nayn, er is a nudnik” (No, he is a nudge).
As my last days at Montefiore faded on, so did the Catskill-like relationship end quietly, as must all such brief encounters. Not with bitterness, yet with a kind of marital resignation, we sat and ate, but spoke mainly in pauses. But I have no bitter feelings at all. Now at home, getting multiple visits for physical therapy, I reflect with some nostalgia about my four-week stay, learning about kashrut, fragility fractures, and the advances of modern medicine which made It possible for a nonagenarian like Rivka to become my dinner companion. And now my wife can spread the word that she is married to a nudnik.
Harold Ticktin is a retired attorney in Shaker Heights, OH, long involved in the civil rights and labor movements, a self-taught Yiddishist, and a regular contributor to Jewish Currents.