Staying Supple

Leo Cohen wanted to see my PalmPilot.

“How do you put in the data?” he asked.

We were just completing our pre-fast family dinner, and I’d taken out my snazzy, whiz-bang electronic calendar to demonstrate it to Leo’s son-in-law, Sam, an astronomer who gets his data from the sky, not from bytes in his Palm.

But if Sam was blasé, Leo was emphatic.

Leo is 93. He could hardly see the potato on his plate next to the chicken. He has a hearing aid. He had two valve-replacement surgeries, for starters.

This man is anything but turned off. I’d been speaking to Sam in a low-pitched voice I hoped was below Leo’s radar screen, to spare the man frustration. Yet I had underestimated his interest, his tolerance for new ideas. Leo, with a look that said ‘Don’t count me out,’ read me loud and clear.

I explained that I type the information into my computer, and then transfer it electronically.

“How do you put in the data?” he repeated, still not satisfied. He immediately reached for the Palm, examining its buttons, fingering the stylus, the thin inkless pen that lets me write on the portable screen. The tiny typeface embarrassed me, with its blatantly discouraging “Do Not Enter” for those with limited sight. Though Leo couldn’t see the print, he got the principle. Funny, the Palm wasn’t so newfangled after all. It was just an updated version of the old plastic film scratch pads we’d had when we were children. With the pride of a man who had grasped a new technology, Leo was content.

It was a night for lessons. The topic arose, was Leo fasting?

“Yes!” he said.

“No!” said his daughters, Margie and Cindy, together.

I, trying to play peacemaker, rushed in with the voice of tradition. I explained, as if he’d just started celebrating Yom Kippur this year rather than before Henry Ford, that the rabbis say you don’t have to fast if it jeopardizes your health. I figured such excuses would have pleased me by getting me off the hook; maybe it would help him.

But Leo gave us that same withering look: “Don’t count me out.” He knew all about the rabbis and their opinions, and a lot more. Only when he made it clear that he’d fast, how and if he wanted to, did he become content. Now we went to shul, where Leo fought his entire family on the topic of his cane.

“Take it with you, Dad!” said Margie.

“Take it, Dad!” said Sam.

“Dad!’ said Cindy.

“It takes up a full seat,” said Leo, throwing the cane back into the car, like a bowling ball ready to forge a strike.

We were all dreading the evening, the terrible indignities the man could suffer without his cane. Surely he’d be unable to stand and sit with the rest of the congregation.

Fuggetaboutit. Years ago he lost his beloved wife. In his 70’s, he packed up and moved cross-country and started a new life. He had hobbies, including a new recipe for fruit compote that he made using candied pineapple. The man is supple.

Up and down, Leo stood and sat throughout the service while Cindy complained about her back and Margie and Sam discussed the philosophical distinctions between vanity and pride. Leo, who knows that attitude, not physical limits, is the true test of infirmity, was content.

The old are difficult, but so are the young. I am in the middle now, marveling at it all.

During this High Holiday period, I traveled around my community, visiting shuls and taking the temper of our time. The synagogues these days are filled with people like me, proud of our new knowledge, our trophy spirituality, our newfangled reconstruction of ancient rituals.

But we take change hard. We get irritated when the cell phone cuts off at a mountain pass. We get frustrated when the Internet service cuts out, when voice mail overfills and won’t accept more messages. We get irritated when the cantor changes the melodies and the rabbi moves Yizkor from 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock.

And that’s just the outer change. We come to shul alone now that our children are grown and gone. Our homes are filled with computers, surround-sound stereo, hardwood floors and Wolf ovens. But they are emptier, as we get ready for the next stage of life. We have completed the season of teshuvah, the period of self-reflection devoted to personal change. But it’s clear we have only scratched the surface. Life is change. Instability is the rule. Keeping steady is the challenge, for the young or old.

When I am seriously old, will I still care about the Palm Pilot 200? Will it matter that I walk to my seat under my own steam? When the rabbi says it’s all right to sit for the final “Amidah,” will I rise anyway, because I care?

As the new year proceeds back into normal rhythms, think of Leo Cohen. Stay supple.