Gerald B. Bubis is 88, and he knows there are things he’ll never do again.
He’ll never travel to Israel again, for one, and after 46 trips, that’s a tough one to swallow. Then there’s the fact that this author and/or editor of 12 books and 200 articles on serving the Jewish community now has a tremor in his hand that prevents him from putting pen to paper. He also can’t drive anymore, and he can’t stand up long enough to wash dishes.
Despite all this, he’s not frail, and the clarity and wisdom he still possesses have provided him the blessing of being able to ponder how he wants to approach this late stage of life.
“I think of this more as a condition than as a stage,” Bubis said, sitting in an armchair in the living room of his Beverlywood condo. “This is the first time in your life you’re confronting the fact that this is really the end of the physical stage, and that’s different. Because there is this notion of it being Dec. 25 on the calendar, and it’s a matter of saying how will you spend that last week of your life.”
It’s a scenario the High Holy Days imposes on all worshippers, but for Bubis, as it is for many seniors, the question of what has filled his book of life and how it will close is not abstract, but an everyday reality.
He has made the decision that he will not allow himself room for regrets — neither about the past nor about what he can no longer do. Rather, he focuses on what he has accomplished and what he still can do.
Bubis is the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and was an early and ardent advocate for peace with the Palestinians. He is recognized nationally as an elder statesman, both in the peace camp and in the world of Jewish professionals.
In his earlier years, Bubis, who is still a broad 6 feet tall, was probably called strapping. Now, his hearty eyebrows and booming voice both have taken on the qualities of old age, and he moves slowly, with a walker. His health issues are profound: He takes two dozen pills a day to deal with legs that barely work, heart trouble, high blood pressure and episodes of pain on one side of his face that are so debilitating the condition is referred to as suicidal neuralgia. He’s had three bouts with thyroid cancer, and a serious car accident in February exacerbated issues with his legs and left vision in one eye impaired.
But Bubis is well aware of the tendencies of his age cohort, so to a genuine query of, “How are you?” Bubis will begin his answer by setting himself a time limit to update the essentials, and he promises that he will then move on to more interesting conversation.
“You can either sink into a morass of depression or feeling sorry for yourself, or you say it is what it is, it can’t be any different,” Bubis said. “The people I admire most are the people who confront their limits and cope with them in ways that say, I still have my life, and I still have my pleasures. I still have my challenges, and if one part of my body is diminished or extinguished or involves some kind of coping or adjusting, so be it. I can’t do anything about it, but what I will do about it is, I will say ‘hineni,’ here I am, and how do I go forward?”
Jerry and Ruby, his wife of 64 years, still go to concerts and lectures regularly; they get together with friends often, and they are close with their two children and three grandchildren. They study and socialize with a chavurah they have been part of for 35 years, and have been members of Valley Beth Shalom for decades, but their once weekly attendance has become more sporadic since the car accident.
And Jerry still works. He mentors and consults with Jewish professionals several times a week and reliably holds court at Pat’s on Pico, where the lunch waiters know to pack up half his salad at the outset and to bring him biscotti with the bill.
Because he can no longer write, he is considering looking for funding to hire someone to help him transcribe his words into articles.
He has volumes of anecdotes to share, and while he is careful about his listeners’ time and patience, it doesn’t take much goading for him to unleash dependably gripping stories about camping in Yosemite or personal encounters with King Hussein.
Bubis says he is at peace with where he is now, because he allows himself the satisfaction — but not the fiction — that his life has been lived well.
“To me, it’s a nourishing thing to know that this stage has grown from all those other stages. I have been lucky enough to go through all the stages there are — by way of love and marriage, children, professional fulfillment and accomplishment and recognition,” Bubis said.
That’s not to say it’s been perfect. He’s got an ego, and he can get angry, he said. He said he was for too long married to his work, and didn’t always give Ruby or the children the time he should have.
“My regrets are of my failing as a father and as a mate in the early days of our marriage,” he said. Today he has a strong relationship with his son, David, who is vice president for development for Bet Tzedek Legal Services, and his daughter, Deena Libman, a development officer at the San Diego Jewish Federation. Both David and Deena were Bubis’ students in graduate school at HUC-JIR, and, like their father, both also were awarded honorary doctorates from HUC-JIR.
Dwelling on what wasn’t accomplished is a sure road to unhappiness, Bubis advises.
“Making peace with what you have accomplished, and not judging yourself for what you didn’t accomplish, is to me a very important attribute, which I believe a lot of people never acquire, but rather they have this restless dissatisfaction, and maybe in some cases depression, about what they wished would have happened that didn’t happen,” Bubis said. “But you can only be what you are capable of being at the time that you are that.”
Jerry and Ruby built their life from modest beginnings.
Bubis grew up in Winnipeg, and his parents divorced when he was 11, after his father fled to the United States after being caught embezzling. Jerry, his mother and his sister moved to Minnesota, where they lived with his mother’s parents, Orthodox immigrants from Minsk.
As a teenager, he split his time between the Talmud Torah at the Jewish community center and loitering around the streets, shoplifting and pulling pranks. He had a lot of anger, he admits, and says he once went at his mother with a butcher knife and tied his sister up in the closet.
But his maternal grandfather was a true role model. He was a quiet and kind small property owner who established a synagogue and Jewish free loan in Minnesota, and during the Depression he would secretly leave food and coal for his tenants.
“I’ve always had two birds on my shoulder — my father and my grandfather, and each influenced me in his own way,” Bubis said. “As a result of my father, I vowed that I would try to be a person with a good name. And as a result of my grandfather, I had a model of a person who had a good name.”
Bubis enlisted in the Army during World War II as a combat engineer and was trained to remove land mines. He was about to be deployed overseas when he was plucked from his unit and sent back to the camp in Oregon to train other soldiers. A few months later, his entire unit was killed in Italy.
With injured feet, Bubis was discharged with a disability pension that paid his way through college and social work school. Two months after he left the military, he met Ruby at a Manitoba-Minnesota Hillel event and was smitten immediately.
“Having the luck of having a mate, a partner, for so long is in itself an incredible gift, because we grew up together,” Bubis said, looking across the room, where Ruby sat on a loveseat that, like most of their furniture, is a family heirloom. “The love, for me, grows and grows, and it grows even as the nature of how we relate is different than when we were young. And, for me, having the luck of a person who is on the one hand always my supervisor and a goad for keeping me focused, and on the other hand has kept me from ballooning up about myself and puffery about myself, that to me has been a tremendous help.”
Ruby, also a social worker, helped resettle refugees after World War II and later helped settle Soviet Jews in Los Angeles. Jerry worked as a camp director and a Federation executive before he founded the School of Jewish Communal Service and then became a professor at HUC-JIR.
After his recent car accident, which left Bubis laid up for months, he was stunned at the love that began to flow from across the globe and from those close by — people stepped in with meals, rides and visits.
“This has just been a shower of love and support from places I never, ever would have expected — e-mails and calls from former students all over the world. And it has been a tremendous experience to have the equivalent of my hesped [eulogy] while I’m alive — the equivalent of what people will say at my funeral. To me that is remarkably lucky.”
It is the knowledge that he has affected so many people that gives him peace now.
“You never know what time is going to be. I live as if there will be time to get to our grandson’s smicha [ordination], which will be in two years. My wife comes from a long-lived strain of people. I believe she could live until 100. I have no relatives who lived past 87, so I’ve already passed them. And I’m at peace with that. It doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the future and wondering what will happen, but I really do feel peaceful.”