Sixty Is The New Forty
When I was very young, people became old at around sixty. Life expectancy was, I don’t know, maybe seventy, so if you were going be old, the time to do it was at sixty, or you would totally miss out on all the privileges and benefits. Jewish society in general and traditional Jewish society in particular treats old people with a great deal of respect and affection. At Orthodox weddings, when the zayde or bubbi march down the aisle everyone stands up out of respect, the same as they would do for a rabbinical big wig. It makes no difference who these grandparents are. The respect is because of their age and not their individual merit.
There were many benefits in those days in getting old. For one think you could krechts and kvetch, moan and groan, huff and puff even when there was nothing particularly wrong, just for fun. The children would listen and sigh, and everybody felt a lot better. Old Jews did lay it on thick. It was an essential vehicle for transmitting Jewish traditions, especially for the grandchildren. The implicit view was if an eight year old can’t understand the pain the arthritis is causing the grandparent, what chance is there she will ever care for other suffering Jews?
The expression I remember from those days was ‘‘er hut tzu teein mit der…’’ (’He has to do with the…’’) meaning something like ‘‘has a problem or an issue with “, as in ‘‘He has a problem with the IRS ‘‘or ‘’He has an issue with the FDA.’’ “He has to do with The Heart”, never “He has problem with his heart.” No Jew over 60 ever owned up to his organs. ”He has to do with The Prostate”, as if there was this huge prostate overhanging the entire Jewish community, which was then subdivided fairly amongst old Jewish men. Listening to these men I thought Jews exist so The Prostate could make old Jewish men miserable, a view I continue to maintain has an element of plausibility.
Life is very different these days. People live an additional five-ten years. Most everyone is in better shape. Except for the Ultra-Ultra Orthodox, Jewish communities don’t subsidize or encourage old age. Suck it up and get over it more or less sums up the prevailing wisdom. I think our generation has it right, and the way Jewish life was organized in the shtetl and in America until around the 1960’s was wrong. There is no reason why every Jew over 60 has to be stiff as a board and incapable of walking more than 5 city blocks. The downsides of the new attitudes to aging are that older people are not treated with the same respect and accommodation they used to receive. The arthritic joints and tired feet have not been notified that 60 is the new 40. There is a greater tendency for older people to suffer their aches and pains in private, as if the various conditions are somewhat shameful. Back in the 40’s and 50’s they were badges of honor.
I must admit I am challenged when it comes to this new 60-40 math. If sixty is the new forty and forty is the new twenty, what is twenty? I assume also twenty. What this mantra asserts is that parents and children are substantially the same age psychologically. I realize that in certain circles this is the reality. I’ve seen many a mother dress in the adolescent styles of their daughters. And men basically dress like their sons. Something is not quite right here. The core of this whole twisted logic is that in our society everyone is terrified of death!