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Naomi Graetz

Turning Eighty: The Moment of Truth

Turning 80 is a moment of truth. As of midnight today, August 7th 2023, I will be officially old. Most of my best friends are old. My appliances are old; my house is almost 50 years old. Even my car is relatively old (13 years). One of my closest friends (who is ten days younger than me) is debating about which microwave and dryer to buy, because her old machines are on their last legs. And then someone in our WhatsApp group reminds us: that our oldest member (may his memory be a blessing) bought new appliances and then died soon after. Was she hinting that we should stick to the old, try and fix them rather than replace them? Good question. At the beginning of Covid, I made major improvements in our home, not altogether planned, but at the time, I said, hopefully, now’s the time to enjoy them before it’s too late. If only it were cooler, so that we could sit outside in our new (two years old) patio.

WHAT TURNING 80 CHANGES

A few days ago, someone sent me a list about “What turning 80 changes”. Although it wasn’t a questionnaire, I answered as if it were. My responses are in italics.

  1. My priorities changed—yes
  2. I have less patience for bullshit—yes
  3. Very little fazes me anymore—no, when I look around at the brazenness of politicians who have no shame, what can faze me anymore. When I read headlines such as these: ‘It’s already happening’: Ex-gender equality minister says women’s rights under attack” (here) I should get goosebumps, but this is not new to me, I’ve been doomsaying for years.
  4. I’m finally good at saying “no.”—sometimes, it depends on who’s asking; if it’s one of my grandchildren, I always try to be helpful.
  5. I’m hopeful—not at all, I’m basically a pessimist.
  6. I live a lot more intentionally—absolutely, who knows how much time is left!
  7. I’m terrified of the state of the world—oh, and how; you have to be an idiot not to be.
  8. I’m finally ready to have a family—not relevant, I have one I love and cherish.
  9. I feel like I’m running a marathon—not relevant, I can barely walk (see below).
  10. I’m physically exhausted—yes, all the time.
  11. I’m ready to evolve—what does that mean? Into something higher, something less human?
  12. I’m going to get my first tattoo—that’s disgusting! But I might change my mind if God forbid one of my children or grandchildren decide to do it.
  13. I’m as young as I’m ever going to be—not really—and senility has a lot in common with youth and irresponsibility.
  14. I’m going to quit my job—volunteerism sometimes feels like a job—so I guess I’ll never quit.
  15. I feel experienced—oh boy am I; but that doesn’t mean I don’t make the same mistakes I used to.
  16. Life is kind of making sense—it makes less sense as I grow older. And that’s what happens when I spend a whole year teaching the Book of Job—and we’re only mid-way into the book.
  17. I feel motivated—to put things into order, but then get tired when I start to organize and push it off until the next motivation spiel comes into my feed.
  18. It’s helped put things into perspective—yeah, but what good does that do.
  19. I’m eager for knowledge—yes. and now that we have the internet, knowledge and learning are infinite.
  20. I can’t party like I used to—not relevant; I was never one for “partying” whatever that is.
  21. I can party like I used to—just because I can, doesn’t mean I want to or should!
  22. I’m unsure of my “legacy” —we can never be sure, but now that my book has been translated into Hebrew, I hope that all of my Hebrew speaking grandchildren will one day read it (YES!!! IT’S BEEN ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION).
  23. I’m gaining confidence– all the time. As my body fades, my mind seems to be stronger.
  24. I’m dreading the “exam” —not relevant; the advantage of old age is that there are no more exams to take. Unless the exam is a reference to physical exams. And those I try to avoid whenever possible.
  25. I thought I’d have more money than I do—so what; you never can have enough. And as I age, quality of living and good health are more important.
  26. I’m excited to buy my first house–not relevant; the only new house will be assisted living when the time comes and then the cemetery.
  27. I’m taking a risk to celebrate– absolutely; we have to celebrate when we can.
  28. I’m trying to be much calmer — there’s no point in being aggravated, too much time is wasted being angry. But I still get up in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep and worry about the state of the world.
  29. I’m learning to accept and allow– it depends on who annoys me; I’m not always willing to do this. But so much is beyond my control, so I often have no choice but to accept. But I draw the line at flies, mosquitos and cockroaches!
  30. I’m kind of ashamed– why should I be; ashamed of what? For being a strident feminist? For disrespecting people in authority who deserve to be disrespected? Perhaps I should be ashamed for being less patient with those close to me.
  31. I’m done pleasing people—been there, done it! As a rabbi’s wife, I always had a smile on my face; now I don’t bother and I feel free to speak my mind.
  32. I’m getting a dog–you must be kiddingit’s bad enough having the family visit and then cleaning up after them. I can barely walk around the block, so walking a dog, forget about it.
  33. I’m ready to blame the midlife crisis—what crisis! The whole country is in crisis and falling apart. Who has time for individual life crises.
  34. I’m going to be four years sober—no need, I like the occasional wine and beer; my fridge is always well-stocked, so much so that my grandson sent a picture to his friends showing how cool I am.  They must have thought I was a lush!
  35. I still have a lot to learn– yes, the more I learn, the less I know.
  36. It got me into shape–that probably won’t happen in my lifetime.
  37. I’m turning a new page– always, but only if the pages are digital!
  38. I’m optimistic–you must be kidding—I’m the pessimist in the family—someone has to be.
  39. I feel fine–it depends when you ask me. At the moment, yes; but ten minutes from now….

TURNING EIGHTY IN THE BIBLE

It’s always worthwhile checking out the Tanakh to get perspective on aging. Did you know that Moses was eighty years old (and Aaron eighty-three) when he demanded of Pharaoh to “let my people go” (Exodus 7:7). Not only that, but he had another 40 years left before he died and not only was he totally there, cognitively functioning until the very end, but even his “masculinity” was unimpaired:

Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated (Deut 34:7).

In contrast, after King David was on the run from his son Absalom, during what was a civil war, Barzillai the Gileadite who came to see him off described himself as very old:

Barzillai was very old, eighty years of age; and he had provided the king with food during his stay at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. The king said to Barzillai, “Cross over with me, and I will provide for you in Jerusalem at my side.” But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years are left to me that I should go up with Your Majesty to Jerusalem? I am now eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between good and bad? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still listen to the singing of men and women? Why then should your servant continue to be a burden to my lord the king? (2 Samuel 19: 32-36)

So, Barzillai’s self-description of himself at age 80 is that he is decrepit; but perhaps he is also very wise. Unlike some politicians we know today, he knows when it is time to let go and leave the halls of power and not be a burden to others.

The Psalms describe how fleeting life is and how much of life is problematic. And that is why we should make the best of the short life we have.

All our days pass away in Your wrath;
we spend our years like a sigh. ׃

The span of our life is seventy years,
or, given the strength, eighty years;
but the best of them are trouble and sorrow.

They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.

Who can know Your furious anger?
Your wrath matches the fear of You.

Teach us to count our days rightly,
that we may obtain a wise heart
(Psalm 90:9-12).

The Message of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is that we should enjoy life while there is still time:

How sweet is the light, what a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness! O youth, enjoy yourself while you are young! Let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth. Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes—but know well that God will call you to account for all such things— and banish care from your mind, and pluck sorrow out of your flesh! For youth and black hair are fleeting (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10).

So appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth, before those days of sorrow come and those years arrive of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; And the life breath returns to God Who bestowed it (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8).

IS OUR PESSIMISM WARRANTED?

A lot of hype and media coverage is being given to those who are leaving the country. Doctors are looking at relocation websites. Startups are seeking to start up elsewhere. But many of us are staying. Is it inertia? Are we too old to begin life anew? Can we afford to do this?  Do we want to or even have to? The other night on the satiric television program ma-she tageedu (here)  two comedians made a connection between the new Dictatorship in Israel and the announcements by the Prime Minister and the Transportation Minister about building railroads which will connect Kiryat Shemona with Eilat and another with Israel and Saudi Arabia. And then one of the comedians said, “well you know, we [the Jewish people] have a right to be fearful of the association of dictatorship with trains”.  I shivered at the thought since I was born in the shadow of the Holocaust. Half my maternal family in Hungary was wiped out in 1944. Had my mother and her four other siblings not left, I would not be here to celebrate 80 years. I was two years old exactly when the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th) took place. I grew up always expecting tragedy.

CONCLUDING WITH A SOMEWHAT UPBEAT NOTE

Yet in last week’s Parsha Ekev which we read on Shabbat, there was a verse which spoke to me:  When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you (Deuteronomy 8:10). It is also part of birkat hamazon (Grace, the blessing after the meal) when we thank God for our food. Knowing all this has always made me aware of the blessings that I have received. I take nothing for granted. At age 80 I can be both pessimistic but also be grateful that “there for the grace of God, go I”. We are staying; we are not leaving; Yes, we have American passports, but so what. I can understand those who choose to leave. But one can also choose to stay. Only time will tell who made the right decisions. At age 80, I choose to stay on The Fence!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MYSELF!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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