Improving the aging experience: completing life’s story

My interest in the active aged has been stimulated recently by hanging out with several of them and reading Dr. Atul Gawande’s powerful book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.” My curiosity was heightened, of course, by an event that occurred last October — my 80th birthday.

“For human beings,” Gawande writes, “life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments where something happens. … Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.” 

Much of Gawande’s book is devoted to the sick and their final years or days. But his words also extend to old people in good health, or at least in fairly good shape.

I happen to know such people, including members of the Brandeis Men’s Group, one of the organizations around the country that help support Brandeis University. As Roberto Loiederman wrote of the local men’s chapter in the Jewish Journal in February 2013, “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.”

Al Gomer, 91, retired head of a steel company, started the group several years ago. Men who had accompanied their wives to meetings of a women’s Brandeis support group, part of the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee, enjoyed getting together. The men formalized their casual getting together into the Brandeis Men’s Group. That happened around the country, and it’s all been combined — men and women — into the Brandeis National Committee.

The local group meets for breakfast monthly. They have speakers ranging from political candidates to physicians who explain the more complex part of medical practice. There are book groups. Some members volunteer in food banks. A major activity is raising money for Brandeis’ Sustaining The Mind Project, which is researching Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and many other neurological ailments. Brandeis National Committee chapters in other parts of the Los Angeles area and nationally are engaged in similar efforts.

The Brandeis Men’s Group combination of fellowship and good works is an example of what is being studied by experts finding ways to enrich old age. Why is it that some older people flourish and others decline? Granted that Alzheimer’s is incurable and the journey into oblivion faced by those diagnosed with it is still unstoppable. But what of the majority, who escape that fate? How can they remain physically and mentally active? Are they sharing their wisdom with the world and helping others, or are they home watching television alone all day?

“Why is it if you feel you have a valuable role in the lives of others, you actually have a better aging experience?” asked Tara L. Gruenewald, an assistant professor who heads the Healthy Aging Lab at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology. “Why do you tend to be healthier over the years as compared with folks who don’t feel that way, who don’t feel they’re playing that vital role in the lives of others?”

Research, she said, is showing the value of knitting clubs, photography clubs, anything that has a social function and challenges individuals to learn new things. These are examples of ways we might engage folks with challenging activities in a way that keeps folks wanting to do them, because crosswords get boring after a while.

“Get people out of their houses,” she said. “As we get older, people spend a lot of time watching TV and are engaged in passive activities. There is a precipitous increase in the later adult years in the time spent watching TV.”

The USC gerontology school is engaged in a novel examination of ways to improve the aging experience through its Zekenim project, financed by a three-year, $250,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

Now in its early stages, Zekenim will involve older Jewish people — 220 of them — brought together in small groups for two-hour workshops over a three-week period. They’ll talk about turning points in their lives, sharing them with each other and with young high school and college artists who will translate the stories into pictures.

Afterward, the work will be exhibited, both in shows and online. The participants, their friends and families will view the work, along with the young people who created the works and other members of the Jewish community. Instead of being shunted aside, the older Jews will be the stars, along with the young artists who illustrated their lives. 

“We know the life-review process has some benefits,” Gruenewald told me. “We also think that the visual translation of life experiences into an artistic form that can be shared with the community also gives credibility to that life’s story and permits one to share it with others.”

As is the case with members of the Brandeis Men’s Group and similar organizations, the Zekenim participants will be completing their life’s story. The Zekenim folks will be doing it by actually telling their stories while engaging with peers and young people. Others will engage in different ways, such as raising money for Brandeis research on the brain and nervous system. Hopefully, these varied chapters in their stories will lead them to an active conclusion to their lives, rather than one spent on the sidelines.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Un-Orthodox Date

What nice Jewish girl hasn’t heard this from her mother: “You should meet a nice Jewish boy!”

My mom was no different.

She would constantly urge me, “Go to synagogue. A Jewish mixer. Or a Shabbat dinner. That’s where you’ll meet lots of nice Jewish men.”

But I never cared for organized events. I prefer to meet my men through more everyday-casual-maybe-it-will-happen situations, which is how I met Carl.

I had been hearing about Carl Cohen for years. He was sort of a mystery man that women always seemed to talk about. Frequently, at parties or events his name would pop up in conversation. I had never seen or met Carl, but I was totally jealous whenever I would hear that someone else was going out with him, even though he was just a name.

Then, one night at an art reception, I saw this good-looking man across the room. As he walked toward me, my eyes zoomed in on his name tag — Carl Cohen.

Our eyes met — sparks flew. Sure, he had a date clinging to his arm, but I could see they had no chemistry. We had chemistry.

I think his date noticed. As Carl and I began to discuss the nuances of art — abstract vs. representational, modernism vs. surrealism; Dadaism vs. pointillism and how the paintings in this particular collection would look better hung upside down — the overzealous blonde glued to his side whined that they had a dinner reservation. (“We should have been at Spago 15 minutes ago.”)

She dragged him away and out the door. But I knew he wanted me. I simply had to find him again.

During the next week, I asked around. Some of my friends knew who he was, but no one had his phone number.

Then fate intervened. I ran into an old girlfriend of mine who had taken a Jewish studies class with Carl. She told me that Carl was active in the synagogue, and to get his number, I should call his rabbi, so I did.

The rabbi gave me his number, and I called Carl. He instantly knew who I was. And he was thrilled to hear from me. He asked me out immediately,

“Dinner Tuesday night?” I was excited. This was it.

Now, I am not a religious woman. But the signs were clear. A rabbi had put us together.

Such a beginning. Carl was it. No doubt. The match was blessed. (It would be a Jewish wedding. His rabbi would preside.)

Wrong! The ominous signs came even before our first date.

“Honey. Sweetie.” Yes, that’s how Carl referred to me during our second phone conversation. I hardly knew this man. But I was already honey and sweetie. I let it pass.

On our dinner date, there were no great bolts of electricity. Still, he was smart and cute — and a doctor! I’d give it time.

Back at my house, Carl started telling me about his Jewish studies class. It was an Orthodox singles group. Predominantly women.

“Of course,” I said. “They all go there to meet a nice single Jewish man like you.”

“Oh, no,” he replied. “They’re very serious about Jewish culture and tradition. They’re there to learn, not to date.”

“Oh? So you haven’t gone out with any of them?” I asked.

“Well, yeah — uh, maybe a few.” He thought for a moment, silently counting. “Actually, five, no 10. But I would never even hold hands with someone I met in the class. You have to respect these women. A man can’t touch a woman until they’re married. It’s Orthodox custom — you must have respect.”

At which point, Carl leaned over and pounced on me. I emphasize pounce. He started kissing me — open mouth — with lots of tongue. (I felt like a war-torn Middle Eastern country — attacked and invaded!)

To be perfectly honest, Carl wasn’t a bad kisser. It’s just I wasn’t ready for a night of tongue sandwiches — especially not after he’d told me about all those women he respected and wouldn’t even hold hands with.

I pushed him away.

“C’mon honey,” he urged. “We’ll have a good time. I like you, sweetie.”

He lunged for my body. I lunged for his coat — and pointed him to the door!

After he left, I thought back to my mother again, and what she’d taught me when I first started dating — the man and the cow and the free milk, etc.

Did Carl consider the girls in his Jewish studies class the cows, and was I the milkmaid? That didn’t seem kosher to me. And I should know. Even if my last name is Anderson, I’m a nice Jewish girl, too.

But what if Carl was just using me for “practice?” Well, no thanks, “sweetie” “honey” “sugarpie Carl.” Because, guess what? I don’t want to be the rehearsal, I want to be the main event.

So much for divine intervention. Maybe my mother had been right all along. The next week, I joined a synagogue. I went to a Jewish mixer. And even a Shabbat dinner. Which is where I met lots of nice single Jewish women — who all had gone out with Carl Cohen!

Marilyn Anderson is a screenwriter, TV
writer and author of “Never Kiss a Frog: A Girl’s Guide to Creatures from the
Dating Swamp” (Red Rock Press, 2003). Her Web site is

Athletes Sport Skills in Chile

Did you hear the one about the Jewish linebacker? If you did, don’t tell it to Jed Margolis, executive director of Macabbi USA/Sports for Israel. “The joke is always that there are no good Jewish athletes, but that’s not true, especially in Southern California,” Margolis said. “Some of our Southern California Maccabi athletes are the best in their sport.”

From Dec. 24, 2003-Jan. 4, 2004, 57 of those California athletes participated in the 10th annual Pan American Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile. According to Macabbi USA, more than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 20 countries were participating, making the event larger than the Winter Olympics.

The all-Jewish competition provides a unique opportunity for the athletes who are used to open playing fields. Jon Levin, a Team USA golfer from Huntington Beach, is thrilled with the prospect.

“When I played professional golf, I was in the minority. I was often the only Jew. I can’t wait to be around fellow Jews from all walks of life who all excel in athletics,” said Levin, who played on the Asian Golf Tour.

The Pan American Games, which take place once every four years, are an offshoot of the Maccabiah World Games in Israel. Athletes participate at junior (13-16), youth (17-19), open (12-62) and masters (35 and up) levels in sports ranging from baseball to table tennis.

With this year’s official dual theme of “Now More Than Ever” and “If Not Now, When?” the 2003 games emphasized the importance of building a worldwide Jewish community. Maccabi USA sent over 400 athletes, its largest delegation ever, as a sign of Jewish strength, solidarity and unity.

“Part of our goal is to celebrate Jewish athletes, and the other part is to simply bring Jews from around the world together,” said Margolis, who played basketball in the 1973 Maccabi Games.

Zak Murez, a Venice High School swimmer, was looking forward to socializing with other Jewish teens from around the world.

“I’m excited to meet new people, hang out and talk and have a good time,” said Murez, 14, whose family belongs to Mishkon Tephilo. “I just know we’re going to have so much fun together.”

For more information, visit

Israeli Folk Dancing: The Phenomenon

They are doing Rachel in Rio, Lamdi Oti in London, Dira 26 in Dimona and Biladaich in Boston. Israeli folk dancing is all the rage, and is possible almost any night of the week here in Los Angeles. And if you happen to be traveling out of town, no need to put your hobby on hold, chances are good you can dance there, too. Israeli folk dance aficionados can find a way to entertain themselves almost anywhere in the world.

Thousands of people, young and old, Jews and gentiles, attend Israeli folk dancing sessions regularly. Its popularity seems to stem from a combination of appealing qualities: from the benefits of exercise to the ability to socialize in a low-pressure environment and for many, a way of connecting to their Jewish or Israeli roots. And at only $6 a session, it is cheaper than a movie, a yoga class or a martini at the local hot spot.

Walking into an Israeli folk dance session can seem intimidating at first. Some dancers look like they have been doing it for years. Even at the beginners’ sessions, the onlookers can make anyone feel self-conscious. But one soon realizes that just like everything else in Judaism, we learn by doing. Once you grasp the basic steps, it is easy to follow. And whoever is standing next to you is usually glad to hold your hand and steer you along.

Pop Israeli music fills the large room. The sweet aroma of perspiration and perfume permeates the air. There are 50 or so people, ranging from high schoolers to seniors, following one another in a circle, some holding hands, others alone, all doing the same steps with varying degrees of competence … or confidence. Small groups of people taking a breather gather, drinking coffee, eating orange slices and kibitzing in Hebrew, English and other tongues.

For many Israelis, folk dancing is a place where they can feel at home, meet with friends and hear music in their language. For many Americans, it’s one way to connect to Judaism.

Cheryl from Agoura Hills has been folk dancing for seven years. Her friend brought her once, and she has been coming ever since. "Why do I come? The culture, the language, the kind of people and the exercise combination. I never came here to meet people," she said.

Yet, Cheryl met her husband, Oren, at Israeli folk dancing. Now that they have two small children, they take turns coming to dance. " I come for the dancing, and to keep a bit of the Jewish tradition alive in my own way. It is my contribution," she said.

"This is a place I come to get in touch with my culture," said Roni, a chiropractor originally from Israel, who finds new clients among fellow dancers. "I originally started coming when I was in school — to get away from the pressures. When I was single, I used to come to meet people. Now I come for fun."

There seems to be some discrepancy as to how many Israeli folk dances actually exist, but according to one Web site (, there are over 4,000 Israeli dances, with more being created all the time. There are choreographers and instructors who attend dance camps and learning sessions year-round, both to teach their dances and to learn dances from other colleagues. Those who lead sessions back in their hometowns, markidim, act as combination instructor-DJ, teaching new dances during lessons and playing the popular old and new songs during open sessions.

David Dassa and Israel Yakovee are the two principal markidim in Los Angeles. Recently, Yakovee spent three weeks teaching Israeli folk dance in Japan. "There is a tremendous curiosity worldwide," Yakovee said. " Israeli dancing’s popularity is the combination of catchy, easy steps and unusual Middle Eastern music."

On average, Dassa and Yakovee host between 150-200 attendees on their big nights here in Los Angeles. While the largest sessions are held in Israel, Los Angeles and New York are the most popular U.S. cities for folk dancing.

Jacob Giron, 21, is a gifted dancer who got started in Israeli folk dancing at age 15 as a punishment by his mother for bad behavior. She was introduced to dancing by a friend of hers, and thought it would be a good way to keep her son off the streets and out of trouble. And it worked. He fell in love with dancing and teaching others to dance. In fact, he is now leading his own Israeli folk dance session at Arthur Murray Studios, as well as teaching at a Jewish senior center and at a temple Sunday school program — even though he is not Jewish.

Israeli folk dancing has changed significantly over the years. And as trends changed and moved in Israel and elsewhere, Israeli folk dancing changed with them. Originally, folk dancing was done in a circle, holding hands, using a series of simple steps that anyone can do.

Israeli folk dancing was born out the Zionist youth groups and early pioneers just before the creation of the nation and continued as Israel won its statehood as a means to create a cultural form that was uniquely Israeli. It combined and incorporated music and steps from Yemen to Poland that reflected the pluralism and diversity that is Israel. The music usually reflected biblical stories or stories about the land of Israel. The classic Israeli dance "Mayim," or water, refers to one of the key foundations to establishing the state, specifically, developing agriculture — a focus of early Zionist pioneers.

Today, in addition to traditional and not-so-traditional circle dances, it also incorporates couples dances and line dances (think The Hustle). The music is modern pop, both Israeli and from around the globe, particularly worldwide trends like Latin music. One of the most popular line dances in Los Angeles these days is choreographed to Shakira’s pop hit, "Whenever, Wherever."

In the early 1960s, Fred Berk brought Israeli folk dancing to America and other dancers brought it to other parts of the Diaspora. As folk music and culture was popular in the 1960s, it had a setting in which to flourish and it did.

David Katz, a longtime Los Angeles instructor noted, "After the ’67 war, there was an outburst of support, which added to its popularity."

According to Dassa, Israeli folk dance popularity seems to have a political ebb and flow. "It is more popular when Americans feel more positively about Israel," he said. "Americans are starting to get back into it, because they feel they want to be connected and supportive."

Some bemoan the fact that Israeli folk dance has lost some of its roots. They have seen it change from a more pure form that connected people to Israel and Judaism to just another form of dancing to new, trendy music. But even those most skeptical about it accept it as part of the reality. It is a reflection of how Israeli society is changing.

"Israelis are into what is trendy and popular. As Latin music like salsa becomes more popular, the dances have simply caught up with the times. While there is value in preserving the old, progress is inevitable," Katz said.

And just as technology plays a greater role in all our lives, Israeli folk dance has been affected by the high-tech revolution: from the way markidim play music selections from computerized play lists to how new Israeli dances are being learned.

One of the most popular Israeli dances worldwide currently is called "Anigma." And truth be known, how this dance can be characterized as an Israeli folk dance is something of an enigma. It is being danced in Israeli folk dance sessions-circles from New Zealand to Holland to Israel and across the United States. The music is Greek. The choreographer, Roberto Hadonis, is a Spaniard who lives in London and is not Jewish. After Hadonis put a video of his new dance on an Israeli folk dance Web site it took off.

"It is the first Web Israeli dance to catch on using the Internet as its means of dissemination. And it is incredibly popular," Katz said. "Before you knew it, it was being done in all over the world." According to Katz, "It is a phenomenon certainly, but it may not be the way of the future."

But what constitutes an Israeli folk dance today is not simply if it has biblical meaning, traditional steps or Hebrew lyrics to the music. " If a dance, like ‘Anigma’ is accepted by the Israeli dance community as part of its repertoire, then it is," Dassa said.