December 7, 2019

Advice in ‘Getting Older’ Never Gets Old

Those of us in the baby boom generation used to warn one another not to trust anyone over 30. Now that many of us are twice that age or even older, we are going to need a new credo. Happily, Richard Siegel and Rabbi Laura Geller offer us exactly that in “Getting Good at Getting Older” (Behrman House), 

Geller, of course, is a beloved and respected figure in our community. One of the first women to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States, she continues to serve as Rabbi Emerita at Temple Emmanuel of Beverly Hills. And her late husband, Richard Siegel, who co-wrote the book but did not live long enough to see its publication, was ≠one of the co-authors of the original “Jewish Catalogue: A Do-It-Yourself Kit,” a kind of Jewish counterpart to the “Whole Earth Catalogue.”

Appropriately, the book opens with Rabbi Geller’s recollections of her late husband, but there is nothing morose about “Getting Good at Getting Older.” Indeed, it is wholly upbeat, full of both wisdom and practical advice, suffused with good humor, but always willing to embrace the poignant and painful moments that come with the accumulation of years.

“When that moment comes for someone you love, I know that having thought about the issues this book raises will be as helpful for you as it was for me,” she writes. “But let me be clear: This is a book about life, meant to empower, delight, challenge and whet our appetite for whatever comes next.”

The book is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, sometimes as it is enshrined in the Bible and sometimes as it is celebrated in popular culture. The authors ponder Psalm 90 — “Teach us to number our days so we may attain a heart of wisdom” — but they also quote Gilda Radner on the “delicious ambiguity” of life: “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”

 “Getting Good at Getting Older” is wholly upbeat, full of both wisdom and practical advice, suffused with good humor, but always willing to embrace the poignant and painful moments that come with the accumulation of years.

But Siegel and Geller do not expect their readers to acquire “a heart of wisdom” through inspiring words. Rather, they challenge each reader to “change your behavior” and “rewrite your brain.” The method is summed up in one of the cartoons, quotations and comic drawings that enliven each page of the book: “Yoga Doesn’t Work,” a signboard announces. “Psychotherapy Doesn’t Work. Drugs Don’t Work. You have to work.”

The work that the authors set out consists of daily practices that are intended to develop the traits we need to not only survive but to thrive in old age, including gratitude, forgiveness, humility, generosity and enthusiasm. For example, they encourage us to adopt the traditional Jewish aspiration of saying 100 blessings every day: “[S]top, look around, and notice some little miracle,” they write. “In all of these moments, saying a blessing — a traditional one or one you compose on your own — helps you notice what you are experiencing and enables you to find the good in it for which you can be grateful.”

The book is further enriched by contributions from poets, writers, teachers, rabbis and scholars on various subjects ranging from mindfulness to journaling to group encounters. Tiffany Shlain, for example, offers the example of what she calls “Tech Shabbat,” a day of unplugging from all of the electronic devices that distract and perplex us every other day of the week. “Life continues to speed up the older you get,” she writes. “My tool to slow things down is to turn things off.”

Creativity is a constant theme. We are invited to invent our own rituals, “something to nourish us at a particular milestone,” and we are encouraged to choose the time, place, participants, foods, music and objects to use in our rituals. Some of the events to celebrate are obvious — renewing marriage vows, regaining one’s health after an illness, a major birthday, a retirement — but others may be surprising. How about a “Separation Ceremony” when the last of your grown children has moved out of the house, or even the adoption of a new name: “A Jewish tradition teaches that everyone has three names: the one your parents give you, the one others give you (such as a nickname), and the name you acquire for yourself that reflects the essence of who you are.”

Health and fitness are among the essential goals that Siegel and Geller advocate. Here we find both inspiration and perspiration. The “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Workout” is a detailed list of 18 exercises, starting with five minutes on the elliptical machine and ending with “medicine ball tosses while standing up off a bench and sitting back down.” And just when you think you might be able to match Justice Ginsburg, you will notice that “all exercises include three sets of 10-13 repetitions.”

Some life passages are more likely to result in suffering rather than celebration, of course, and these are not overlooked. The authors present “Tips for Having the ‘Talk’ About No Longer Driving.” They offer highly practical advice on housing options when an aging individual can no longer live on their own. They urge us to encourage our adult children “to support their partner’s dreams, not ours,” even if it may mean no wedding or no grandchildren or a partner from a different faith. And a
contribution from William Cutter consists of instructions in how to perform the
mitzvah of visiting the sick, including what we should talk about and how we should act.

Just as every life inevitably ends with death, “Getting Good at Getting Older” goes there, too. “We are all a bit like a comedian who once quipped, ‘I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens,’ ” the authors write. “But avoiding the subject does not make it go away.” Indeed, they warn us against “[losing] out on the gratification of participating in our last act, as unpleasant as the planning may seem initially.” They even encourage us to write our own epitaphs, and they show a photograph of one such headstone, which consists only of the complete recipe for “Mom’s Christmas Cookies.” 

The photograph sums up what Siegel and Geller have managed to achieve in their book — it is intimate and unflinching, often poignant and sometimes even painful, always full of both compassion and information, and enlivened by the sense of humor that is an essential quality for an aging baby boomer.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.