February 20, 2013
Old Jewish men and a place to call home
"Greetings, you bushy-tailed alter-kackers!"
The dozens of men at the mid-December breakfast gathering — all of them in their 70s, 80s or older — laughed and applauded, reveling in their alter-kackiness.
It felt like a sitcom’s idea of how elderly Jewish men behave, but dig a little deeper into the Brandeis Men’s Group (BMG), and you’ll find a different picture. According to Dick Harmetz, co-chairman of the group, the BMG has two main functions: One is to raise funds for Brandeis University; the other is to have gatherings that provide intellectual and cultural stimulation for the members.
“We’ve got many different kinds of social functions,” Harmetz said. “One thing we do is we arrange speakers. This morning we have a woman from AIPAC [American Israel Political Action Committee]. We bring in political correspondents, like Adam Nagourney from The New York Times or candidates for local office.”
Another activity is a monthly trip. Harmetz said they might visit a museum to view an exhibit or go as a group to see the taping of a TV show.
“Once a year, we have a big tour,” Harmetz said. “Last year, we went to Alaska. This year we’re going to the Panama Canal.”
Harmetz said more than 150 men belong to the Los Angeles BMG chapter.
“You think that guys this age may not be capable,” Harmetz said, “but we have men in their 90s who perform better than 30- or 40-year-olds. They bring the skills and experience they’ve had in their personal lives and give that to the organization. There’s a lawyer on our board, and he negotiates the terms when we have legal issues, and believe me, I wouldn’t want to go against him in a court of law.
“We have current-events groups, walking groups. There’s an opera group. There’s a lawyer who runs a group that meets at my house. He takes two or three Supreme Court cases around a single issue and tells us what the arguments were and we vote, and we usually affirm the Supreme Court decisions. It’s fascinating.”
At the December breakfast meeting, there was also a healthy dose of nostalgia. Harmetz said the next day-trip would be to the USS Iowa, a San Pedro-berthed World War II battleship that, for some, will bring back personal memories. Harmetz pointed out Abe Cohen, 91, who was in the Tank Corps in that war.
As might be expected for men who have lived full lives — in many cases as professionals or entrepreneurs — the conversation among BMG members veers from nostalgic memories to how their experiences help them assess current events.
While listening to the AIPAC speaker, Jerry Silverman, 82, munched on lox and bagels. He’s recently gone back to doing what he did during his working life: appraising aircraft and other large machinery. His wry comments let you know that his vision is as sharp as ever at appraising people and ideas.
Silverman talked about what BMG has meant to him, a sentiment echoed by other members. “It’s given me camaraderie,” he said. “It’s given me a home.”
Finding a place where you feel at home is crucial for retired men. Even though you may still be mentally and physically active, when you’re no longer working, you feel cut off from lifetime routines. For retirees, it’s not uncommon to feel uprooted.
Which is why, perhaps, some elderly men maintain a connection to their roots.
Another local group, the Wabash Saxons, was formed as a social/athletic club of boys who went to Roosevelt High School from the 1930s to the 1950s. For many years, the Saxons — and other clubs from Boyle Heights, the East Los Angeles neighborhood where many Jews once lived — have gotten together every six months at Taix restaurant on Sunset.
These gatherings used to be men-only, but now, as their numbers have dwindled, some men come with a wife, friend or adult child — or, in some cases, a caretaker.
Just about all the men at the most recent reunion, on Dec. 10, were Jewish. Amid laughter and arm gestures, they swapped stories about the old neighborhood and the clubs that were that era’s version of gangs.
“There were the Wabash Saxons and there were rival athletic clubs. One of them was my group: the Sheridan Street Boys,” Don Hodes said. “My friends were tough street kids; most of them didn’t go to college. We even had three convicted felons in our group,” he added with what sounded like pride.
Hodes recalled that era with nostalgia and affection: “Most of us had immigrant, working-class parents struggling to survive, but we never felt poor.”
A lot of the attendees have been to many of these reunions, but for Eddie Kay it was the first time. Kay’s gaze roamed, occasionally recognizing someone he knew. “I’ve run into people I haven’t seen in 60 years,” he said.
There were a lot of cascading memories, much of them centering around the central event of their youth: World War II. They recalled when and where they were when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. With pride, the oldest Saxons — members of what television journalist and author Tom Brokaw has dubbed “the greatest generation” — recalled having taken part in the war that saved our freedom. They respectfully remembered their pals who had fought and died defending democracy.
I’m in a men’s group as well, one composed of men almost the same age as the Wabash Saxons and the Brandeis Men’s Group but different from those two. Our meetings are group therapy: We sit in a circle and talk about what matters to us — health, family, finances, relationships, aging … whatever’s on our minds. My group has been meeting regularly for more than 40 years; I’ve been in it for “only” 15.
During my time with the group, there have been as many as nine members. Some have died, others have replaced them, so now there are six of us. We meet every other Thursday night, and twice a year we go away for a weekend. Only one of us isn’t Jewish … but his wife is. And he’s a New Yorker, so he’s Jewish by osmosis.
In my group, as with the other groups mentioned, we try to live in the present, but nostalgia inevitably creeps in: reveries about who we were and what we’ve done. There’s nothing wrong with that, but someone in our group will usually steer the discussion back to the present, a reminder that memories of youthful escapades need to be leavened by acknowledging who and what we are now.
Still, when I’m with my men’s group, I feel it hardly matters what we talk about, or even what we do. What’s important is the simple act of being together.
As with the Brandeis Men’s Group and the Wabash Saxons reunions, what generated our group and has kept it going — becoming more and more important as we grow older — is a deep longing for a place where you feel at home, where you can meet with the same bunch of guys, month after month, year after year.
For most men at our stage of life, that’s more than enough.