May 25, 2006
Wandering Jew - The Hit Parade
Here it is: 5,000 years after Moses wandered the Sinai, his people have finally found a home in Reseda, no less, at the Jewish Home for the Aging, the largest continuing residential care facility for the elderly in the Western United States. Yet while these Jews are no longer wandering, they are today wondering when the big simchah begins.
"We're so excited!" says Mimi Kolmer. "We've been waiting for this all year!" In her mid-70s, she is one of close to 1,000 residents here at Eisenberg Village, most past their 90th birthday, and here they are today, watching guys in their 30s and 40s playing softball.
"What's this about?" I ask Doug Gellerman, and he tells me this is the Spring Classic Event sponsored by the Synagogue Softball League.
"The league consists of 32 teams," he says, "made up of 620 guys from temples all over the San Fernando Valley and West L.A. Four years ago we decided to give something back to our Jewish community, and each year it's gotten bigger. We raise money for the home and bring our families so the kids and elders experience each other."
Gellerman points to a kid about 10 years old talking with an old guy on a bench: "It's a mitzvah for the kids to learn about giving back."
"Is this your grandfather?" I ask the kid.
"Yeah," he says. "He's telling me about when he was a kid, but he can't remember. He thinks maybe he has old-timer's disease."
"It's Alzheimer's, not old-timers," Gramps says. "Maybe you have young-timers disease?"
Then he grabs his grandson and kisses him hard on the cheek.
Next event is senior softball, and I watch a bunch of elders swatting a whiffle ball with a big plastic bat, with pitching and fielding handled by the kids. The pitcher, who looks like he's ready for his bar mitzvah, throws Morton Symans a soft pitch, and he misses.
"Hey kid!" yells Symans, who's 85 years old. "I might be a senior citizen but don't throw me no soft pitch! The road ahead of you is not the road that I'm on. It's not a soft road. So toughen up!"
The kid shrugs, winds up, throws with all he's got, and Symans slams the ball over everyone's heads.
"Smart kid," Symans says. "He'll do just fine."
Hilda Foodman, 72 years old and a self-proclaimed tomboy, is up next.
"I'll tell you a wonderful story that happened to me," she says, "but you must promise not to tell."
"Hilda," her friend interrupts, "you're telling a reporter!"
"Oy!" says Hilda, and grabbing the bat, hits everything pitched her way.
Up next in a "Be Cool" T-shirt is Shelly Balzac. At 78, he walks with a cane but he swats a long one.
"Any relation to the writer?" I ask.
"Balzac was married in the Ukraine," he says, "and my parents were from Kiev."
"So that makes Balzac..."
A kibitzer. Everyone here is a kibitzer.
Next event is the talent show. First up is Bill Mednick. A youthful 82, he wails, "Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger...."
Well, for most residents, the hearing isn't what it used to be, so the PA is set very, very loud. Good-natured Ida Greenbaum, the accompanying pianist, is like a city bus in that she tends to slow down and speed up unexpectedly, which obligates Bill to turn to her pleading, "Where are you?"
Bill concludes, and master of ceremonies Ellis ("Not the Island!") Simon introduces Muriel Tuckman. She finishes to loud applause but not as loud as her singing: "There's a somebody I'm longing to see...someone to watch over me...."
"And who would that be, dear?" I ask. "George Bush?"
"That louse," says Simon, and everyone agrees.
"When I was in the Marines," he says, "a G.I. called me 'a dirty Jew' so I kicked his ass."
Simon now asks us to show some love for "The Bird Lady" -- and up steps Mildred Cadish, wearing a long, red feather boa. Looking like a bird, she takes the mike, puckers her lips and makes so many high-pitched squeals, some of the residents begin sprouting feathers. "I've been chirping 79 years," she announces to great applause.
Muriel is a hard act to follow, but here's Howard Hersh, 85, marauding his way through "I've Got You Under My Skin." Amazingly, each note Howard sings is in a different key.
Give it up now for Lee Miro, who while disavowing any relationship to the surrealist painter, nonetheless presents a surrealistic performance sitting in her wheelchair and belting out in an operatic voice, "I Could Have Danced All Night."
"We thank you all for being with us today," she tells the appreciative crowd, while Adam, a lad of 14, takes the stage and juggles oranges. He tosses one under his leg, and the room roars.
"Maybe he'll wind up a produce man at Ralphs," says Mimi Kolmer, who then asks me what temple I'm from.
I tell her Shirley Temple and she smiles.
"This is the most outstanding place," she says. "I have lots of friends. And everyone has a smile or a greeting. I'm very lucky."
But not as lucky as those of us now being pummeled by Al Heyman, "singing" a little ditty that was popular around the time Noah built his ark. "Because, you come to me, with naught save love, and hold my hand and lift mine eyes above...."
As Al hits his last note, I can hear corneal implants shatter.
"Every time he sings," Simon tells the crowd, "my hernia kills me. Next week he'll sing 'The Lord's Prayer' and your head will explode!"
The talent show now ends with Simon himself singing "My Way."
"If it wasn't for Frank Sinatra," he says, "I would have been famous!"
Someone yells, "Ellis, was your family rich or poor?" And without missing a beat, Simon tells the room "You know, my family was so poor, if I hadn't been a boy, I'd have had nothing to play with."
Gellerman now hands out checks totaling $3,300, money raised by the softball teams to be used by the home for the residents. Before he leaves, Gellerman asks Ellis to "return the money."
On my way out, as I head for my nearest Beltone dealer, I run into Symans, the guy who told the kid to toughen up.
"Old people are like Don Quixote," he says. "They think they're still independent but they wind up tilting at windmills. I accept what I have and who I am -- so I try to help others adjust."
And then suddenly, from the PA, comes one last announcement, the one proclamation that bridges all senior politics, religion and age: "Bingo will begin in the library in 15 minutes!"
"Gotta run," Symans says. "Zey gezunt!"