Journal of Gerontological Nursing

Jewish Ethnicity and Its Relevance for Gerontological Practice

Lauraine Levy Kartman

Abstract

The religious commandment, "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man" (Lev. 19:32) seems the exact antithesis of American attitudes towards aging. The American way of life is characterized by values of independence, autonomy, and self-reliance. The elderly, on the other hand, might need support in order to survive. Loneliness, isolation, and alienation often accompany aging in today's society. Indeed, in a technological era, the aged might be characterized as being carriers of a fading culture. Lessons in living can be learned from other cultures and the thesis of this article is that each ethnicity has its own unique culture that can enrich our lives. Understanding alternate culture patterns, too, can provide insight for the helping professions.

The topic of this article is some of the Jewish aged's characteristics, whether culture or value systems, and their possible relevance for present gerontological practice. Topical illustrative examples are culled from the population at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. Levindale is a constituent agency of the Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore, Maryland. Levindale's resident population consists of some aged Jews whose origins are from East European ghettos* or who are first-generation Americans. Many of these people, in their prime, tried to integrate into the mainstream of American life, i.e., the melting pot† theory of integration; however, in old age they appear to have found a new security by going back to the cultural identity of their origins, the East European ghetto, also called shtetl.**

Let's take a look back in their mirror of life to see what their reflections are and how they may affect the Jewish aged today. The multifaceted prisms are numerous; however, there are three I would like to discuss: intense family ties, the Yiddishe Momme (Jewish mother); collective history of segregation, poverty, and persecution; and religious frameworkof life.

Intense Family Ties: The Yiddishe Momme

Looking back in the mirror of life most Jewish aged recall intense family ties-in particular, their Yiddishe Momme from the shtetls of Eastern Europe who were the cohesive force in the home. The father represented the values of the community and religious tradition. The mother was flesh and blood and was the source of emotional response. The self-sacrificing Yiddishe Momme is idealized by the Jewish aged today but in actuality a realistic appraisal of Jewish family life in the shtetl has been written by Landes and Zborowski.1 For example:

There is no avoidance between mother and son, except that intercourse is forbidden- A young man often sleeps with his mother Although displays of endearment between hus- band and wife aré frowned upon, a great deal of demon- strativeness is allowed between mother and son which mothers encourage.

As for the mother-daughter relationship, Landes and Zborowski1 write:

The mother-daughter relationship contains more rivalry and even hostility than do the other family couplings Though she nags at all members of the family in her special woman's idiom of communication, she nags at her daughter in a consistantly hostile manner, while her husband and her son can be nagged at with affectionale purposes apparent to everyone.

Some Jewish aged recall their early family life with great emotionalism and sentimentality. Whether an intense image is cathected positively or negatively, their strong family ties are often recalled by the Jewish aged in a romanticized way. Mothers are often idealized as the embodiment of warmth, intimacy, food, uncondi- tional love, and self-sacrifice. (It should be noted, too, that the therapeutic aspects of the self-sacrificing Yiddishe Momme have, in our time, been distorted into a negative connotation of the overbearing mother.)

The idealization…

The religious commandment, "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man" (Lev. 19:32) seems the exact antithesis of American attitudes towards aging. The American way of life is characterized by values of independence, autonomy, and self-reliance. The elderly, on the other hand, might need support in order to survive. Loneliness, isolation, and alienation often accompany aging in today's society. Indeed, in a technological era, the aged might be characterized as being carriers of a fading culture. Lessons in living can be learned from other cultures and the thesis of this article is that each ethnicity has its own unique culture that can enrich our lives. Understanding alternate culture patterns, too, can provide insight for the helping professions.

The topic of this article is some of the Jewish aged's characteristics, whether culture or value systems, and their possible relevance for present gerontological practice. Topical illustrative examples are culled from the population at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. Levindale is a constituent agency of the Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore, Maryland. Levindale's resident population consists of some aged Jews whose origins are from East European ghettos* or who are first-generation Americans. Many of these people, in their prime, tried to integrate into the mainstream of American life, i.e., the melting pot† theory of integration; however, in old age they appear to have found a new security by going back to the cultural identity of their origins, the East European ghetto, also called shtetl.**

Let's take a look back in their mirror of life to see what their reflections are and how they may affect the Jewish aged today. The multifaceted prisms are numerous; however, there are three I would like to discuss: intense family ties, the Yiddishe Momme (Jewish mother); collective history of segregation, poverty, and persecution; and religious frameworkof life.

Intense Family Ties: The Yiddishe Momme

Looking back in the mirror of life most Jewish aged recall intense family ties-in particular, their Yiddishe Momme from the shtetls of Eastern Europe who were the cohesive force in the home. The father represented the values of the community and religious tradition. The mother was flesh and blood and was the source of emotional response. The self-sacrificing Yiddishe Momme is idealized by the Jewish aged today but in actuality a realistic appraisal of Jewish family life in the shtetl has been written by Landes and Zborowski.1 For example:

Picture (opposite page) is of an etching of a Yiddish Momme by the late Ben Silbert.

Picture (opposite page) is of an etching of a Yiddish Momme by the late Ben Silbert.

There is no avoidance between mother and son, except that intercourse is forbidden- A young man often sleeps with his mother Although displays of endearment between hus- band and wife aré frowned upon, a great deal of demon- strativeness is allowed between mother and son which mothers encourage.

As for the mother-daughter relationship, Landes and Zborowski1 write:

The mother-daughter relationship contains more rivalry and even hostility than do the other family couplings Though she nags at all members of the family in her special woman's idiom of communication, she nags at her daughter in a consistantly hostile manner, while her husband and her son can be nagged at with affectionale purposes apparent to everyone.

Some Jewish aged recall their early family life with great emotionalism and sentimentality. Whether an intense image is cathected positively or negatively, their strong family ties are often recalled by the Jewish aged in a romanticized way. Mothers are often idealized as the embodiment of warmth, intimacy, food, uncondi- tional love, and self-sacrifice. (It should be noted, too, that the therapeutic aspects of the self-sacrificing Yiddishe Momme have, in our time, been distorted into a negative connotation of the overbearing mother.)

The idealization of the Yiddishe Momme by the Jewish aged has some basis in the Ten Command- ments. One of the Ten Commandmentsstates, "Honour thy father and mother as the Lord commanded thee" (Deut. 5:17). Not following this biblical injunction (because cursing of parents is equated with cursing God) contributes toward their idealization of the Yiddishe Momme. An example of this is: Once before Mother's Day I gave a performance at Levindale and played the sentimental Jewish song, "My Yiddishe Momme" while a friend sang the words. During the song the 100 residents present, collectively, sobbed and wept. This emotional expression of feeling was, in fact, perceived by me as a group catharsis and a positive experience for them. In my clinical judgment, it was a healthy thing to be able to cry together and exemplified group solidarity and unity.

This unabashed sentimentality is illustrated in the words of the song, "My Yiddishe Momme":}; (versus Landes and Zborowski's hypotheses) which are as follows:

My Yiddishe Momme-1 need her more than ever now.

My Yiddishe Momme-I'd love to kiss that wrinkled brow.

I long to hold her hands once more as in days gone by

And ask her to forgive me for things I did that made her cry.

How few were her pleasures-She never cared for fashion's

styles.

Her jewels and treasures-She found them in her baby's

smiles.

Oh, I know that I owe what I am today

To that little lady so old and gray

To that wonderful Yiddishe Momme of mine.

Another illustration of present day meaning of the Yiddishe Momme concept is: Often the residents of Levindale and elsewhere refer to significant younger women in their environment by the epithet Mamelah (Yiddish term meaning little mother.) They also refer positively to very young children exhibiting maternal behavior as Mamelah. It should be noted that many of the Jewish aged at Levindale still continue to do mothering kinds of things or may desire mothering both of which this writer feels is beneficial.

One can conclude that in the lives of some of th Jewish aged the "good" mother concept that makes î strong family ties is a lifelong vital dynamic. (Similarií ties might be found in other cultures; however, I a focusing on the Jewish aged as an ethnic group.)

Remembering the idealized as a means of coping with both the past and present can be viewed as a positive force-the mirror of lifes primary ties is draped in a gossamer veil.

Collective History of Segregation, Poverty, and Persecution

The East European heritage of many of the American Jewish aged is one of segregation, poverty, and persecution. As noted previously, they were forced to physically segregate themselves from the outer society in ghettos or shtetls (small Jewish villages). Observance of religious ritual further isolated them from other groups. Confined within these shtetls in overcrowded conditions, there was never enough work, food, or room for the ever increasing population. Also, there was hardly an event in the external political world the Jews were not held responsible, blamed, or used as scapegoats in the dreaded pogroms. +

Mrs. F at Levindale told me that as a young child in Russia, her mother and all the housewives made borscht (beet soup) for the Jewish holiday of Passover (commemorating the Exodus from Egypt). She told me the Russians accused the Jews of using their blood in the borscht as an excuse to kill many Jews.

Every Jew has his own personal history, i.e., his individuality. Yet, there is a collective identification with their common cultural heritage, an intense feeling of groupness. "The individual is merged but never submerged; rather, he is so strongly identified with the group that it partakes of his own individuality-he is the group, and the group is he."2

Two present day examples illustrates how their collective history affects the Jewish aged:

1. During the Yom Kippur war between Israel and the Arabs, at a mass activity at Levindale, everyone's face was strained as they heard the bad news of the beginning of the war. Many of the aged spontaneously offered to donate from a few pennies to a total monthly I allowance toward a cause they felt would help their fellow Jews. The mass activity ended with the singing in unison of the Jewish national anthem, Hatikvoh (which means hope). What a wonderful way for the charitable role so often denied old people in institu- tions to be expressed!

2. Sayde Z was an old woman who came from Russia as a little girl and never directly experienced the pogroms. Due to personal problems with the juxtaposi- tion on her collective history of persecution, she had become quite paranoid and referred to the Levindale staff as being "worse than Haman° or Hitler." Once the staff was aware of what components of her suspicious- ness were real and which were projections of her Collective, cultural past, they were able to help her sort out reality from fantasy and live more productively within the institution.

The Jewish aged's collective history of poverty, .segregation, and persecution does indeed present a bleak picture; however, life in the shtetls was spiritually and intellectually far from bleak. In fact it fermented into a rich Yiddish cultural heritage fondly remem- bered today. The following is an account of how a segregated policy was turned to auspicious purposes as well in the shtetl:

The East European countries encouraged the crea- tion of the kahal, the Jewish communal organization, to become the administrative organ of Jewish self- government. The non-Jewish countries used the kahals ?;âs a highly efficient tax collecting agency and for harrying out the orders of the state. "In actuality the kahal became the very hub of Jewish communal fife.. .It provided religious and communal institutions, cared for the poor, the sick, the victims of disasters, orphans, and widows. It dispensed justice through its Own beth din (law court), supervised the religious 'education of the young, and arranged the burial of the .âèacL"3 One can speculate that the tight knit well- developed Jewish organizational structures today for ^Self-help are probably derived from the East European kahal.

At Levindale, for years, they have had resident »verning bodies which actively take a role in ntributing toward the policy for the institution and other residents. One such group petitioned the director for an outdoor barbecue which ultimately became a reality. Another group censored a group member for her distinctly beliggerent behavior towards other residents. For me this illustrates how the kahal concept is kept alive today with the institutionalized Jewish aged.

Religious Framework Of Life

The religious framework of life of the Jewish aged's youth literally encompassed rules and regulations from the time he woke up until the time he went to sleep. It is not my purpose to expound on the myriad regulations which would be an inexhaustible topic of discussion. Rather, I will touch on three areas: dietary laws, religious learning and prayer, and observing the Sabbath and attempt to illustrate how they are relevant in working with the Jewish aged today. Built around this entire religious framework is the concept of tzadaka (Heb. righteousness). A tzaddik (righteous man) is the appelation given to a person outstanding for his faith and piety and for helping his fellow man.

Dietary Laws

First, many of the Jewish aged, in their youth, observed most of the dietary laws (derived from the Bible and expounded and interpreted for them in other religious literature). Some of these laws encompass the injunction not to eat milk and meat together and not to eat certain meats or fish. If one follows the Jewish dietary laws scrupulously, they follow the regulations of kashrut (kosher: "fit").

Many bf the old Jewish generation today prefer to keep these dietary laws of their religious orientation and Levindale allows them to do so. The policy is to maintain as Jewish an environment as possible, and to allow a setting in which one can be observant.

What I observed with the Jewish aged today is an oral preoccupation with food. It is a fact that institutional food is never the same as home cooking, but in the case of the Jewish aged, I felt the oral preoccupation is derived from the early childhood kosher diet combined with the Jewish mother's somewhat exaggerated use of food as an expression of love and a medium of sociability.

I know that food is often overly important to the residents in any institutional setting and have tried to use this knowledge in a positive, constructive way by asking the elderly ladies to share with me their favorite recipes (a common topic of conversation). Also, occasionally, there is a gourmet cooking club at Levindale where the women can putter in the kitchen and cook their favorite ethnic dishes. Last, there are bus trips to local restaurants for residents so they can enjoy food that is not prepared by the institution.

Mr. Y, for example, made a "daring exploit" to a local restaurant. He had come to Levindale following some suspicious activities in the community. At Levindale he seemingly turned over a new leaf and became more zealously religious than the most religious resident, proud of keeping the dietary laws. Then, while at the restaurant, he ordered a succulant lobster (nonkosher, not complying with the dietary laws). In fact, Mr. Y savored every morsal of that lobster. A very pious coworker summed him up according to her religious orientation and told me, "He's a con man. Now he's trying to con God." In summary, the impact of the dietary laws sometimes works in unexpected ways.

Religious Learning and Prayer

Religious learning, scholasticism, and intellectual- ism by Jewish males has the highest cultural value to the Jewish aged who, in their past, rigourously studied the Torah (Old Testament) and the Talmud (name applied to two great scholarly compilations).

What has evolved from this rigorous heritage of sacred scholasticism is a great value placed by the Jewish aged on their children's secular intellectual achievements in America. It is by no mere chance that many Jewish children have become professionals. Where goals of achievement for their children are not fully realized, a covert kind of rejection takes place with the passage of time. For example, Mr. V had two sons and always kvelled (from German: "to gush," "to swell") to everyone about one of his sons who was a college professor. He never spoke of the other son. Mrs. G, too, has two sons, and she kvells to everyone about the one who is a doctor. In both cases, each pair of sons would visit their respective parents. As you can see, the omissions by elderly parents of children who obviously were not high achievers is significant. Both Mr. V and Mrs. G were "saving face" by kvelling about their achievers.

There is a synagogue (building for Jewish public prayer) where ritual prayer garments and Hebrew prayerbooks are available for the residents on the grounds of Levindale. I think one specific illustration shows the meaning of prayer to the Jewish aged.

Mr. ? had a history of mental illness and had been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility. When he came to Levindale, he did very well in the protected and routine environment of an institution. Here, he developed a close friendship with another male resident who suddenly died. Mr. ? decided for a year to observe the ritual of kaddish for his best friend. (Kaddish: Heb. "consecration," a mourner's prayer-requiring the mourner to attend services twice daily.) In this way, b prescribed ritual observance, he worked through hi' feelings of grief.

Religious learning, its ramifications, and prayer a most meaningful in the lives of the Jewish aged and car be used as significant factors in helping them achiev. ego integrity versus despair in the last stage of the lif cycle.

Observing The Sabbath

Observing the Sabbath, too, has always had sped cultural significance for the Jewish aged and still do< for observant Jews. It is a day of complete rest an' abstention from work. No matter how drab the weekly" life of the Jew in the shtetl was, on the Sabbath every Jew was a king and the Sabbath herself a queen and a bride. (In fact the song ushering the Sabbath is entitled, "Go my friend to meet the bride.")

Levindale, accommodating the orthodox popula-« tion, attempts to keep the Sabbath. The highlight of the: week is the kiddush ceremony for the residents' Sabbath; eve. After the kiddush (blessing over a cup of wine)! everyone partakes of some of the wine. It is interesting that the Jewish aged today imbibe usually only for religious purposes. (The older generation focuses on eating rather than drinking for sociability.) Then, too,, there are Sabbath services for those who wish to attend. Once an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair complainedj to me bitterly that he was assisted in dressing too late' Saturday morning to attend synagogue. A large part of his identity was obviously wrapped up in observing the Sabbath through communal prayer. Through referral, this situation was promptly corrected.

What is most spectacular is the atmosphere at; Levindale during the Sabbath. Upon rare occasions I have gone to Levindale on this day. The residents, many of them with the overlay of depression that one: sees in the institutionalized aged, were smiling and! greeting me joyfully, saying "good Shabbos." Also, J living in a group situation, the petty squabbles and! displays of temper appeared subdued on the Sabbath. I They subconsciously, or maybe consciously, seemed to j make a "truce" and used the day to rest without! arguing. It is amazing to witness this tranquilizingl atmosphere. In fact, the Sabbath is the best tranquilizer I I know for the Jewish aged.

Tzadaka

As mentioned before, built around this entire! religious framework of life is the Jewish cultural J concept of tzadaka (Heb. righteousness). A tzaddik I (righteous man) is the appelation given to a person for I his faith and piety and for helping his fellow man. As 1 illustrated in this article, when the residents atl Levindale donated money to help the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War, this was an act of tzadaka (which also has the meaning of charity, philanthropy). Also when Mr. ? said the mourner's prayer for his best friend, this too was tzadaka, because, according to the Jewish idiom, it was an act of piety. Perhaps one other illustration depicts this concept. It is the story of a grand old man whom I knew for a number of years at Levindale.

In my informal conversations with Mr. Η I gleaned many impressions of this fragile old gentleman but his conversations elicited two world views in particular. The first theme is the concept of tzadaka. He felt he was his brother's keeper and was prompted by humani- tarian motives, which I witnessed on numerous occasions. The second world view stemmed from his vaudeville days in the Keith circuit where all the world was a stage and all the men and women merely players.

Being ambulatory, he once asked me to go with him to visit the "sick" people, which I readily obliged. He stopped at every person's wheelchair, kidding with them and saying a kind word. On another occasion, Mr. Η told me that when he visited the oldest women at Levindale and saw them so "forlorn," he cheered them up by singing the Yiddush lullaby, "Raisins and Almonds."

This year, Mr. Η died. Almost up to the very end he would regale the residents and staff with the old clinkers. He is sorely missed and I paid my last respects to this wonderful old man by attending his funeral. According to a medical diagnosis, he would be labeled "regressive senility"; however, according to the Jewish cultural idiom, I would call him a tzaddik, a righteous man.

Relevance For Gerontological Practice

It is my impression that whether the chronic depression of the aged can be reversed depends upon a number of factors: psychological knowledge of its origin; insight into its nature, (in the case of the Jewish aged, insight also into their culture and value patterns of ethnicity); incentive by staff in institutions to want to do something to help the aged maintain their dignity as human beings; what amount of physical or organic impairment is present; and how well organized the environment is toward replenishing their emotional needs.

With some knowledge of the Jewish aged's culture and value" patterns, a therapeutic milieu by an understanding staff can have great impact on sus- taining the aged's emotional needs. Some implications of the foregoing article have been:

Intense family ties: the Yiddishe Momme: The need here today for the Jewish aged is on one hand, mothering, and on the other hand, to have someone be as loving as a mother to them. The balance between dependency and independency needs to be restored.

Collective history of segregation, poverty, and persecution: The minority complex due to a hostile world is evident today in the Jewish aged's tendency toward'suspiciousness and the need to build trust. If staff treat the aged fairly and with respect, always giving explanations about their care, this will help deflect the penchant for distrust.

Religious framework of life: An understanding of this religious framework and a respect for differences in life styles is essential for an accepting atmosphere. Also encouragement in accommodating this religious framework will help the Jewish aged keep their identities in tact.

Every ethnicity has its own unique culture, cultural values, and collective history. Many Jewish aged see their own mirror of life's reflections and also long to literally reflect back and reminisce about them to any interested listener. They can be aided in this regard to recapture the most valued part of themselves that lies in the legacy of the past.

This can also be done very nicely with the Jewish aged in particular in group form since their indivi- duality is linked with their unique group unity association. Activity combining usefulness with crea- tive participation can help the aged lead meaningful lives at the end of the life cycle.

Conclusion

Our acceptance of every ethnicity and particularly the minority aged is an obligation of civilized mankind. We can enrich their lives and, in return, become enriched ourselves by these associations. "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the fact of the old man" (Lev. 19:32).

Acknowledgment

The author expresses appreciation to Harry Citron for his encouragemeni and assistance.

References

  • 1. Landes R, Zborowski M: Hypotheses concerning the East European Jewish family. Psychiatry, 13:447-464, 1950.
  • 2. Zborowski and Herzog: Life Is With People. New York, International Universities Press, Inc., 1953, ρ 422.
  • 3. Hubmann: The Jewish Family Album. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1976, ρ 11.

10.3928/0098-9134-19780101-09

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