This year, we are all living apart…forced to quarantine…many alone, sheltering in place, often with no outlet for deep connection and community. For our elders, there is a loss of voice and in these times, a disappearance. This outdoor installation focused on the Sukkot tradition of the ushpizin: symbolic guests invited into the sukkah…ancestors…friends. The tradition manifests by calling them into the temporary space of the sukkah to honor stories of the past. Traditionally, the ushpizin are called in through photos and drawings displayed in the sukkah—remembered together by its nightly visitors.
In keeping with Los Angeles culture, this sukkah was designed as an old-time Hollywood movie house, with the voices and stories of the ushpizin watched and heard from the outside. While the sukkah remained Covid-empty, it was filled by the once voiceless, with their diverse and cherished Jewish stories and remembrances of the past.
Tiffany Woolf is a filmmaker with 25 years of experience in visual arts, film and entertainment. Her work is centered around moving images as a catalyst for remembrance and legacy. Since 2017, Tiffany’s major artistic focus has been her project Silver Screen Studios, a series of documentary shorts and digital platform to celebrate the wit, wisdom and candor of seniors, both in and out of the public eye. She has traveled the country to capture the stories of older role models along with the legends we love and launched three series: “The Last Act,” “Coming of Age” and “Dispatches from Quarantine.”
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
I used to think old people were either cute or sad.
The cute ones were Kirk Douglas or Ruth Bader Ginsburg doing push-ups, and gray-haired couples animatedly talking to each other or walking hand in hand in the park. The sad ones were stooped, infirm, inept, crotchety, disheveled, occasionally incoherent, and mostly invisible. I used to laugh when comedians mocked elderly men who still flirt when a pretty girl passes by, and 80-something women who still dress with panache and take pains with their make-up as if they had a prayer of attracting the male gaze. In other words, having absorbed from the world around me its negative stereotypes of “seniors,” and its cultish adoration of youth, I’d succumbed to the plague of ageism.
Since turning 60, then 70, then, incredibly, 80, I’ve cringed at age-related stereotypes and raged not just at the ‘dying of the light’—Dylan Thomas’ immortal phrase for mortality tremors—but at the maddening societal attitudes that dismiss my cohort as over the hill has-beens.
In 2017, America’s seniors totaled more than 46 million, a number expected to nearly double over the next 30 years. Yet children and young people are still being indoctrinated with the same disparaging images and demeaning mindsets about age and aging that I grew up with.
Jewish tradition, though more balanced, sends mixed messages. On the one hand, our liturgy and sacred texts constantly refer to elders as repositories of wisdom, compassion, experience, understanding, judgement, and insight. The Torah reminds us that “Moses was 80 and Aaron was 83 when they made their demand on Pharaoh,” an act of immense courage and chutzpah. The Talmud calls 80 ‘the age of strength.” Proverbs describes “a hoary head,” (gray hair) as “a crown of glory,” implying that longevity is the reward for a life of righteousness.
On the other hand, we also encounter descriptions in granular detail of the depredations and burdens of age—dimmed vision, physical weakness, mental confusion—and perplexing paradoxes. Leviticus commands, “You must rise up before the aged and honor the face of the older person; you must fear your God,” aligning the will of the deity with the dignity of the aged and suggesting that Adonai stands ready to police ageism. Yet during the High Holy Days, Shema Koleinu has us reciting the Psalmist’s plea, “Do not cast us off in old age; when our strength fails, do not forsake us.” Surely, I’m not the only one who hears those words as an indirect expression of, dare I say it, the divinity’s occasional slide into ageism. Why else would God require an explicit request to not abandon those who are weaker than they once were.
Just as our inherited tradition tries to reconcile these contradictions, so should we tackle the scourge of age-bias and confront the idolatrous worship of youth. We must assume the best (imputing to older people personal value, continuing capacities and aspirations), while accommodating to the worst (the inevitable depletions of age) by providing care and kindness until the end of life. Anything less will be a plague on humanity and a shanda for our people.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a writer, activist, and national lecturer with a special interest in women’s issues, Black-Jewish relations, and dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. A founding editor of Ms. magazine and a columnist for 30 years for Moment magazine, Letty’s work has also been published in The New York Times, The Nation, Time, Huffington Post, The Forward, and many other publications. A co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, Pogrebin has served on the boards of the Brandeis Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Harvard Divinity School Women in Religion Program, and Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication. Winner of an Emmy Award for her work as Editorial Consultant on Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be, You and Me,” Pogrebin has also been honored for her social justice activism by dozens of organizations and institutions. A graduate of Brandeis University, she and her husband, Bert Pogrebin, a labor and employment lawyer, have three children and six grandchildren.