A Celebration of Dad

I called my 94-year-old father in Ohio on July 9. I told him how much I loved him, that he was the most wonderful father ever, that I would miss him, and that it was OK for him to let go.

All I could hear was his heavy breathing as the hospice nurse held the phone to his ear.

He died a few hours later.

During our last visit a few months ago, my father had said he wanted to get on with his death. He was feeling useless. He could no longer help people, which was his life’s purpose. And he was tired. I think Dad’s basic optimism and stubbornness combined to make him hang onto life a little longer. But he finally got his wish to move on.

I’m glad for him, and sad for me.

Losing a parent, even at my mature middle age, is a huge loss. My Daddy, my hero, my cheerleader, my advisor, my first love … is gone.

Even if it was anticipated, it’s a shock. How did this happen? Wait! I am not ready!

Since Dad died, I sometimes wake up crying, realizing that he’s really gone. I cry myself out, and then I remember a camping trip in the rain with Dad, and I have to smile. Then I remember I can’t call him about a new idea I have for a project, and I start to cry. Then I feel grateful, recalling how he encouraged me to be adventurous.

This transition is exhausting.

Yesterday, my friend Jeanie Cohen, a marriage and family therapist, said, “Grief is such an individual journey. One can feel fine one minute, and the next minute you’re sobbing and aching from the loss. Grieving involves acknowledging and feeling the loss, and also remembering the things you love and appreciate about your dad.”

To help me do both, I’ve been listening to my father.

When I became an oral historian 25 years ago, Dad was my first practice interview. Then, after his stroke at 83, I started recording him every time I visited. I have hours of conversations with him: about his parents and the values they taught him, about my love life, about his love life, about his pranks in high school, about his incredible experiences in India during World War II, about adopting my sister when she was a newborn, about why he divorced my mother, about the time his own mother’s car rolled into the produce section of the A & P, about his belief that people should love each other more, about how he hated being so dependent on others, and about how my sister and I are his best friends and how much he loves us.

My father was someone I could always talk with about anything. Sometimes his unsolicited advice was irritating, but his wisdom was intact right up to the last few months of his life. I wish I could talk with him now, about the other major transition in my life: My son is going 2,985 miles away, to study at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

My father dies, and my son is leaving home. Oy.

I’m flying to Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up, on Sept. 4. I’m meeting my sister Sue there. I’ll cry a bit about saying goodbye to my son and Sue will hug me. We’ll both cry about losing our father and we’ll hug some more.

Then we’ll have three days to visit all the places we associate with Dad.

We’ll hike in the park where he taught us to catch crayfish and climb cliffs; we’ll wander by Grandma’s apartment, where we had lunch every Sunday; we’ll go to the golf course where we learned to ski and the tennis court where Dad kept shouting at us, “Bend your knees!” And, we’ll drive by Hampshire Road, where I dropped the birthday cake that Sue and I had so lovingly baked for Dad.

Undoubtedly, we will no longer find the penny candy store we enthusiastically patronized, or Mawby’s, where they made the best unhealthy hamburgers, or the Cedar Lee Movie Theatre, where we spent every Saturday afternoon, sometimes sitting through the same movie twice if we liked it.

Our simple plan is to enjoy each other’s company while recalling and celebrating Dad’s life and our times with him. We’ll probably cry and laugh a lot.

And we’ll congratulate each other for having had such a loving, fun, devoted and fabulous father.

Dad and I lived an airplane trip apart for 40 years, so besides occasional visits, our primary contact was through Ma Bell. Dad always said to me, “No matter how far away you are, we’re always in each other’s hearts and we can feel the love. Do you feel it? Can you feel me hugging you right now?” And I did.

I still do.

Ellie Kahn is a licensed psychotherapist and oral historian. For information about her family and organizational history work, visit livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

At 60 for Zikna

The High Holy Day liturgy includes the poignant plea: “Do not cast me off b’eyt zikna,” which is usually translated as “when I get old.” It is a fear many of us have, but are often afraid to articulate. We live in a youth-intoxicated culture where older people are sometimes invisible.

I am concerned that this is also the case in the Jewish community. When the Jewish community speaks about ensuring the Jewish future, it focuses primarily on young people in their 20s and 30s. But surely, the Jewish future demands the active engagement of older people as well—people with the experience, perspective and resources needed to move our community forward.

Who are these older people? Pirke Avot says: “At 60 for zikna.” I’m 62. That makes me one of them, a baby boomer who has become … what? Old? An elder? A senior? I’m not even sure what to call myself, but I know there are a lot of others like me.

Approximately 29 percent of Jews in the United States are between 50 and 64, according to a recent study. In 2030, baby boomers will be between 66 and 84, representing 20 percent of the U.S. population and an even greater percentage of the Jewish population. The Jewish community can ill afford to cast us off. Rather, it should be facilitating a conversation on how to engage us or, more to the point, keep us engaged.

At Temple Emanuel, we have begun a “listening campaign” on growing older, modeled after the congregationally based community organizing that we have been doing over the years with OneLA. The goal of a listening campaign is not to leap to solutions or to design programs but, rather, simply to listen to what people are saying about matters that concern them. Over many conversations, common issues will emerge that we can work on together. The responses so far have been moving and illuminating.

Here are some of the responses:

  • “I worry about invisibility—sometimes I feel that my viewpoint is ignored at work or that I am simply not seen by a cyclist when I am walking on campus.”
  • “I feel fear. I have a real sense of the time going by; my awareness that it is not endless is profound.”
  • “I appreciate living in the moment. Time is speeding by. I am amazed at how vital I feel.”
  • “I serve on a number of boards. I love what I do. I don’t spend my time now raising kids. I know how to seize the moment.”
  • “How much time do I have left? I don’t want to think about the future and inevitable decline. But still, so much of my time is taken up with overseeing the care of my really old mother. We never imagined she would live this long or that caring for her would take all of her resources and much of ours.”
  • “I could have 40 years ahead of me. It used to be that at 50 you had 10 years of life to look forward to. Now, you need to plan.”
  • “The biggest surprises are the capacity to reinvent, the resiliency. I have aspirations of communicating this knowledge to people.”
  • “I am still working in the trenches, but now with much younger people. I am competing with them. I do the same thing they do. They think I’m just some guy with white hair, but eventually they see that I know more than they do. I’m still who I always was. I don’t suffer from the illusion that young people love us. They don’t.”
  • “What weighs on my mind is that I don’t feel like I’ve left this world a better place than it was when I came into it … that I haven’t done what I need to do to make things better.”
  • “When I was younger, I had mentors who helped me succeed as a professional. I need mentors to teach me about how to grow old.”

What does the Jewish community have to offer these thoughtful people? What gifts of talent, insight and resources can these people bring to the community? How can we create opportunities for mentoring across generations? What resources does Jewish tradition offer for this stage of life? And how might thinking about all of this together help us leave this world a better place than it was when we came into it?

It is time to deepen and expand the conversation. I encourage other congregations and organizations to develop their own listening campaigns. And I invite them to join with us in a network and a larger conversation.

Again, Pirke Avot: “At 60 for zikna.” A commentary on this text reads “zikna” as an acronym for ze s’koneh chochma, “one who has acquired wisdom.”

Let’s listen to what this wisdom is telling us and embrace it as a community. Then none of us need be afraid of being cast out in our old age.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).

Longer life, programs, care make Jewish Home’s wait list daunting

As bombs dropped over Germany, aerial photographer Arthur Oxenberg would lean out of a B-17 Flying Fortress with his camera to snap a photograph. His photos were a way the U.S. Army Air Forces could tell whether bombs hit their targets.

Based in Italy, Oxenberg flew 62 combat missions with the 301st Bombardment Group, 419th Squadron, bombing factories and military installations in Germany, Hungary and Austria. Seventy years later, he still has the log that recorded those missions.

On Nov. 4, 1944, Oxenberg wrote, “I hope that today’s mission was the ‘rough’ one. I don’t like to think of having another one like it. It was one of those days. Everything happened. … Twice I passed out for short periods because of lack of oxygen.”

“His big fear was that he would die over some country where no one would know him,” said Jan Oxenberg, his daughter. “When he came back to the United States after his final mission, he literally bent down and kissed the ground.”

After the war, he made a name for himself starting several of his own businesses. But today, Oxenberg, who turns 90 on Sept. 2, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and requires 24-hour care.

Like many people his age, Oxenberg is seeking admittance to the only dedicated Jewish elderly assistance facility in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Jewish Home, in Reseda, is the largest multilevel senior living facility in the Western United States. But it is also the smallest Jewish senior living facility, based on Los Angeles’ per capita Jewish population, according to Jewish Home CEO and President Molly Forrest. The Jewish Home caters to the needs of more than 1,900 in-residence seniors each year, providing services that include independent living accommodations, residential care, skilled nursing care, short-term rehabilitative care, acute psychiatric care, and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care.

Arthur Oxenberg as a photographer during World War II. Photo courtesy of Jan Oxenberg

Consequently, the Jewish Home has a wait list of up to two years. On any given day, there are about 400 people on the list, and only 100 to 200 of those are actually admitted each year, according to Forrest.

“Our promise to provide for the comprehensive needs of our residents means that current residents who require a change in the level of their care are the first in line for any newly available space at the Home—before new applicants,” she said. “While the Home does have a wait list, each person is considered on a case-by-case basis. We make accommodations when we can, but we can’t simply have one person move ahead of others on the wait list.”

Jan Oxenberg, a television writer, contacted the Jewish Home in February when she moved her father from Florida to Los Angeles, where two of his four children reside. Since then, Arthur Oxenberg has lived in private assisted living facilities and a VA-contracted nursing home.

“It is so painful to see him like this. He grabs his head and says, ‘Make me real again!’ ” Jan said. “The amazing thing is that he knows who we are. He is still very talkative, friendly and social.”

Because of his condition, Jan sought to admit her father to the Jewish Home’s Auerbach Geriatric Psychiatry Unit program. Like all other applicants, Oxenberg was faced with the daunting wait list.

“We try to be responsive, but it’s hard when we are 98 percent filled at all times,” Forrest said.

The first priority for new admissions is those in unsafe living conditions.

“Preference may also be given to those who can benefit from the Home’s unique programs and services, including survivors of traumatic life events such as the Holocaust, violent crime or elder abuse,” she said.

“In reviewing applications, we do take hardships into consideration. However, each person is an individual who is considered on his or her particular and unique basis. We do give preference to those who have served the Jewish Home and Jewish community, including employees, volunteers, rabbis and Jewish communal workers,” Forrest said. “Making a donation is never a condition of admission to the Jewish Home. In fact, the vast majority of our residents are financially needy.”

For dementia care with skilled nursing, someone can be on the wait list for six months to two years.

This lengthy wait list is partially because the average age of Jewish Home residents is more than seven years above the national average and the average length of stay is more than eight years, compared with two to three years in similar settings, according to Forrest.

“Because of the quality of our home, we like to say that we add life to years and years to life,” she said. “Our statistics are unlike any other programs. We ask people why they want to come here. Half of the applicants on the wait list say because of the quality of our medical services, and the other half say that they are lonely and want to make friends.”

Reasons like this are why the Oxenbergs and other families are drawn to the Jewish Home.

Jan Oxenberg said that it’s important for her father to be able to socialize, something she knows the Jewish Home will provide. And so, Jan, and hundreds of other families, endure the wait in hopes of securing a spot in one of the Jewish Home’s facilities.

“One of the great things about the Jewish Home is that they honor our people,” Jan said. “It is very important for him to be in a place where he can be around people and socialize.”

Singer Packs Seniors With Old School Hits

Thousands of screaming girls. Packed nightclubs. Love-crazy
fans. Ron Gartner has seen it all.

That is, on television, of course.

In real life, Gartner is an up-and-coming singer who, while
not exactly drawing the sorts of crowds that come to Eminem shows, is packing
the social halls of senior centers across the nation singing the tunes of Frank
Sinatra, Tony Bennett and other big-band and Motown standards. His fans may be
closer in age to Bob Hope than Britney Spears, but Gartner is quickly becoming
the newest big thing in the senior-home entertainment circuit.

Originally a denizen of what he calls the shmatte business —
the garment industry — Gartner, 58, is building a second career by singing
big-band favorites in nursing homes, senior centers and gated retirement
communities all over the country. Now, on the eve of the release of his first
CD, “Someone Like You,” Gartner is bringing his show to Southern California for
two performances, on April 10 at Leisure World, a gated community in Laguna
Woods, and on April 13 at the Indian Ridge Country Club in Palm Desert, where
Gartner is playing the Desert Cancer Fund Dinner Dance.

“I am as close to Las Vegas as a lot of these seniors are
going to get,” said Gartner, who croons the oldies solo, along with backup
music recorded on a state-of-the-art, karaoke-style machine and sound system he
brings with him to performances. “I really give them a hell of a show for an

Gartner’s debonair performance includes the hip-swinging tunes
of the likes of Sinatra, Perry Como and Steve Lawrence. Though not all audience
members are actually able to swing their hips — real or plastic — seniors are
flocking to Gartner’s lounge-style act, if advance bookings are any indication.

Gartner launched his new career about two and a half years
ago, when his wife, Fran Heller, told him she was tired of following him to
piano bars late at night to hear him indulge a hobby she knew was close to his
heart but far from his livelihood. At the time, Gartner was working full time
in the textile business at a company he owned called BiCoastal Textiles. Until
then, the only time his garment-industry work enabled him to use his voice was
when he did a few radio spots for the Fabric Warehouse, a chain of retail stores
in Los Angeles owned by Gartner and his father.

“Ronnie’s been singing for a long time,” Heller said. “He
had his own band in college, and over the years he would go to karaoke bars and
piano bars.”

When his wife stopped going with him to the piano bars,
Gartner knew he had to find another outlet for his singing. He offered his
services free of charge to a ballroom dance class at a senior center in
Flushing, Queens, and within weeks he was getting inquiries from senior centers
all over the New York area. He began charging $50 to $75 for his gigs, and
within months, the combination of word-of-mouth promotion and his wife’s
advertising savvy — she’s an executive at the Young & Rubicam advertising
agency — propelled him into the top tier of the senior entertainment circuit.

“It was almost beshert,” Gartner said. “I offered to do the
ballroom dance class at the senior center in Flushing. I got a standing
ovation. Then they said they have monthly birthday parties, and I said I’d
perform for that.”

It wasn’t long before Gartner moved up from senior centers
to assisted-living and independent-living residences. Now he’s making his
entrée into gated communities, the holy grail of the Borscht Belt, as Gartner
sees it.

The son of a Holocaust survivor and Jewish boy from the
Bronx, Gartner got his start in synagogue choirs in his native Los Angeles. One
of his first paid gigs was at a Jewish cemetery, where he was part of a choir
singing at an annual memorial service.Â

“My Hebrew school teachers were foaming at the mouth for me
to be a cantor, but it just wasn’t for me,” he said. Gartner gave up synagogue
songs after his bar mitzvah, and by the time he graduated from Fairfax High in
1962, a singing career was looking less and less likely. “I was going to be the
first white recording artist for Motown, and when that didn’t happen, my dad
had always been in the fabric business, so I went with that.”

He moved to New York from Los Angeles about eight years ago,
met his wife through matchmaker-to-the-rich Janis Spindel, and grew
increasingly restive in textiles. Now that he’s playing two to three shows a
week at $1,500 a pop, fabrics have taken a back seat to Gartner’s singing
career. The Friars Club has taken an interest in Gartner, and the fledgling
musician is trying to break into easy-listening radio stations. But his
favorite audiences, he says, are Jewish ones.

“I really love performing for a Jewish crowd, because it
gives me a chance to be a little looser,” he said, peppering his conversation
with Henny Youngman-style one-liners. “I’ll throw Yiddishisms into my show. I
never want to forget my roots.”

For more information about the Desert Cancer Fund Dinner
Dance, call (760) 773-6554, 8 a.m.-12 p.m. Â