At 81, Janet Silver Ghent has published her memoir. (Photo/Courtesy)
At 81, Janet Silver Ghent has published her memoir. (Photo/Courtesy)

Longtime J. staffer peppers memoir of ‘late-life love’ with humor, brutal honesty

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Book coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Few people have stuck with J. as long as Janet Silver Ghent.

She joined the Jewish Bulletin, J.’s forerunner, in 1993 and worked on staff as a copy editor, senior editor and writer for 13 years. Sometime around 2000, she became a columnist, too, and today continues to churn out her “Act Two” column as well as occasional articles.

If you’re counting, that’s more than three decades.

At 81, Ghent has also written her first book, set for release on April 2. “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-Life Love” focuses primarily on the second half of her life, starting at age 45 when her first marriage fell apart. With humor, self-effacement and brutal honesty, she relays her years of struggles to find a new life partner. But the book doesn’t end once she meets and marries Allen Podell. She also folds in her journey back to Judaism, several wacky travel stories and the emotional and physical tolls of aging.

Ghent, who lives in Palo Alto, stole some of the funniest parts of the book for a recent column in J., revealing how she wrote a personal ad that ended up in Podell’s hands in 1999 when he randomly leafed through his tenant’s copy of the Jewish Bulletin.

I recently sat down with Ghent over Zoom to discuss her book and life. Full disclosure: We worked closely together during my first stint here in the 1990s, and I joyfully attended her wedding. The following Q&A has been lightly edited.

J.: The book begins at Passover 1988 when you announce to your then-husband in a San Diego hotel room, “This is our last vacation together.” Why did you start your book with the demise of your first marriage?

Janet Silver Ghent: I wanted to show closure. Before I got to new beginnings, I wanted to show a door being closed. It was very difficult. I was 45 years old. I had two children, one in college, one in high school. When I said, “This is our last vacation together,” I did not mean I want out of this marriage. I did not mean that consciously. I simply meant that the tension of traveling together was too much for me. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t deal with his silences. I simply felt something was terribly wrong. I could handle the marriage when I was working, when I was taking care of children. When I was doing things around the house, the marriage was tolerable. But on a vacation, it wasn’t.

One of the things you don’t spend a lot of time on in the book are regrets. You’re constantly looking forward.

I’ve been told that. But I have gone through terrible sadnesses. I turned 50, and my life fell apart. I lost my job [at the Oakland Tribune]. I was in escrow for a condo in Alameda. I lost my alimony because my ex had been laid off the summer before that. I was 50, jobless, homeless and single.

You’re 81 and have had your first book published. Mazel tov! Why are you still writing? Why not retire?

There’s a wonderful line in a song by Stephen Schwartz: “I want my life to be something more than long.” People ask me if I love writing. It’s a compulsion. It isn’t a choice. It’s in me.

But why a book now?

This is not the first book I’ve written. It’s the first book I’ve finished and gotten out there. In 1992, I was writing another book about a disillusioned fashion writer called “Going Out of Style.” I’m returning to that book, writing it. That’s the one that never got finished.

[“Love Atop a Keyboard” started when] I attended an all-day memoir writing workshop with Joyce Maynard in 2018. She explained what a memoir is and what it isn’t. It’s not an autobiography. It’s not a series of anecdotes. It’s a story like a novel that has an arc. After that workshop, this memoir began to take shape from many of the pieces that I had before and many of them that were yet to be written. I realized I could do it.

Who is this book for?

It’s not simply to leave a legacy for my family. That’s part of it. I want to tell my kids and my grandkids who I am. But beyond that, it’s for women in my age group.

We grew up with one set of expectations. The world changed on us, and if we wanted to survive, we had to reinvent ourselves. We had to become flexible, and part of that flexibility involves taking risks.

It’s also to let younger people know what it was like for people of my generation. I was raised to be the “woman behind the man” … to move when he moves, to help him get promoted, to be the mainstay, to keep the home together.

When my daughter was about a year old, I was visiting my mother and she was telling me that I needed to prod my husband to make more of his life professionally. And I stepped back and I said, “Mom, if there’s one person I’m going to be prodding, it’s going to be me. I’m not going to be the woman behind the man. I’m going to be the woman behind the woman.”

You go into great detail about your yearslong, sometimes humorous, sometimes agonizing search for a new partner. You joined singles groups, attended singles mixers and events and replied to and placed personal ads. Why try so hard, for so long?

I’m very traditional in many ways. I’m very domestic. I like having somebody to cook for — or cook with, as we often do. I wanted somebody to share my life with.

Janet Silver Ghent and husband Allen Podell. (Photo/Courtesy)
Ghent with her second husband, Allen Podell. (Photo/Courtesy)

You were raised by nonobservant Jewish parents, and your first marriage was to a non-Jew who wasn’t open to Judaism, which led you to Unitarianism. So after your divorce, how did you know you wanted to explore Judaism? 

What helped me turn the corner was attending a seder at the home of one of my daughter’s college friends. I realized what I was missing. As I said to my parents, many years ago: You never told me there was anything good about Judaism. It was all about antisemitism and “they don’t like us” and “don’t deny who you are.”

If I really put Judaism into one sentence, it would be this from Tevye: “Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” It’s not about belief. It’s about action.

You ended up spending a large part of your career in Jewish journalism. How did that contribute to your return to Judaism?

Well, I read an awful lot. Every week, there was a Torah commentary, and I read it and learned from it. And I learned about the diversity in the Jewish world. I became much more educated.

You became a bat mitzvah in 1998 at age 55. What inspired you to do that?

I wanted to learn. I wanted to discover what I had missed out on. I wanted to do more than just mouth the words. I wanted to know what they meant.

You’ve been writing J. columns for more than 20 years. Which columns have gotten the most feedback?

The one about not being able to figure out the remote to the TV set — and the one about my bat mitzvah. There were women who wrote to me that they couldn’t have a bat mitzvah and they envied me. One of them was an Israeli woman who grew up in Rochester, New York. She said, “I never had a bat mitzvah. We were too religious.” And another woman wrote that she couldn’t convince her husband that it was OK. That made me sad.

Girls in my generation did not receive a Jewish education. The boys got a Jewish education where they learned to mouth out the words of the Torah without necessarily understanding them. That was their Jewish education. We girls got nothing.

One of the things I found refreshing about your book is your honesty about the physical and emotional realities of growing older.

I felt it was important to take off the blinds. We can’t just pretend that getting older simply means that you’re more mature. It is hard. My closest friends have lost their husbands. You can’t get around it.

I need to note that I am among editors in your acknowledgments at the end of the book. Why acknowledge copy editors?

Copy editors are important. I mean, we save people.

Anything else you want to mention?

For me, growing older, a sense of humor really is important. And if you want to remarry, you’ve got to be willing to take a risk. It is a risk.

“Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-Life Love”

By Janet Silver Ghent (Mascot Books, 288 pages). J. staff writer Emma Goss will interview Ghent at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 7 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills. Free, registration requested.

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.