Seniors rekindle Yiddishkeit as they gather to mark Shabbat

They came from New Jersey, New York and Florida, leaving Jewish communities in the East to be closer to their grown children and their grandchildren.

Now in a Peninsula senior home where Jews are a small minority, they're trying to recreate a sense of a community they left behind.

So once a month on a Friday afternoon, seven to 10 seniors gather around a table at Redwood Villa in Mountain View to welcome the Sabbath. They share songs, stories and a nosh before dinner.

"It gives us community within a place where we all live," says Bess Frank, a former Philadelphia resident who participates regularly. "It's belonging."

For Sunny Landsman, who leads the group in Yiddish songs, one of the joys is sharing Shabbat. "It brings Jewish people together," she says. "It is a time for reverie, kept as a holy day."

Marlene Levenson of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services helped organize the monthly Shabbat program about a year ago, along with Aviva Snow, a volunteer who is working on her master's in gerontology. Snow usually brings along baked goods.

The Shabbat gatherings are an extension of Levenson's work organizing Jewish holiday events at the facility over the past eight or nine years. As the JFCS coordinator of senior services and senior outreach on the Peninsula, Levenson says her goal is to build a strong Jewish connection at the senior home, which has about 95 residents.

"I feel very strongly about these things," she says, noting that Christian organizations are "very active" in senior facilities, but the Jewish presence is much less visible.

"The number of Jewish people in these residences is a small percentage," Levenson says. "I want them to know that they're not forgotten. They're remembered."

Shabbat, Snow says, is "a time to bring them together, especially since they're a minority."

Adds Levenson, "They watch out for each other."

During the service, Levenson includes prayers and readings, some compiled in a booklet she has handed out.

Frank adds her own meditation and thoughts about healing. "It's not from a book," she says.

Participants offer blessings for a group member who isn't able to attend. They also share a happy occasion. Mae Haber is marking a birthday — "I'm not counting" — and has brought a flower arrangement to the table.

"Here we are sharing this great, great wonderful simcha," Levenson says.

Gladys Reed, a resident who is not Jewish, attends because she is interested in learning more about Judaism and its practices. She asks what "Shabbat" means. She's told it is the Jewish Sabbath, a holy day that begins at sundown Friday.

Blanche Cohen, a former New Yorker, lights the Shabbat candles and recites the blessing. Participants continue the readings, going around the table.

When the service ends and the challah is shared, memories start to flow.

Sawyer Larson, the only man present, recalls his former housekeeper, a woman who wasn't Jewish, who baked challah. He called Shabbat a "blending of all people."

Landsman agrees. "That's what it's all about — the blending of people."

A professional storyteller and teacher of Yiddish, Landsman shares her own story. She was born in Russia, coming to America as a small child.

"My mother, when she came to America, said, 'No more Yiddish.' But I loved the language and would not give it up….I have a love affair with Yiddish and everybody knows that," Landsman says.

Frank, whose parents came from Russia and Romania, also loves Yiddish. "I never spoke English, never knew English till I went to school. I spoke Yiddish all my life."

Beatrice Hirsh remembers that as a child, she played with her cat who tickled her. She used to use the Yiddish word for cat, kitzel, which her friends understood. However, one day when she talked about her cat at school, she was surprised that the teacher had never heard the word before.

Doris Frager also grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, in Far Rockaway, N.Y. "I never knew anything about non-Jews," she says.

Frank had a different experience. She went to a high school for girls and was an excellent student, but "we were very, very poor and I couldn't go to college without a scholarship."

After getting a high score on a scholarship exam, however, she was given the opportunity to attend a Roman Catholic college. When an official from the college spoke with Frank and her family, Frank's mother, who spoke only Yiddish, said, "Tell her she's not to convert you."

Later, Landsman leads the group in the singing of "Oyfn Pripetshik," a Yiddish lullaby, and "Di Grine Kuzine," about a greenhorn cousin arriving from the Old Country.

She also tells the joke about a little boy who thinks his name is Tattele — his mother's pet name — until at age 5, when he goes to school.

"What did you loin at school today, Tattele," his mother asks.

"I loined my name is Oiving," he replies.

Listening to the Yiddish songs and stories "just makes me feel part of the Jewish world," Frank says.

For Snow, a Los Altos Hills resident with family in Montreal, "being here keeps me in touch with my Jewish roots. Their stories, their wisdom — it's like having 10 bubbes."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].