Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Gerontophobia - The Fear and Hatred of the “Old”

In November of 2000 I wrote an essay on this site called Punishment Without Crime. That referred to the treatment of the old in American and Jewish society and outlined how we have abandoned our ethics and our heritage as we treat the old like the blacks were treated in Mississippi before the civil rights movement.

Because we Jews usually consider ourselves “liberals” we went to Mississippi in disproportionate numbers in the 1960’s to help the black population in its voter registration drive. Many secular Jews, i.e. the majority of Jews, believe that their religion consists of “doing good deeds”. These “good deeds” are usually confined to doing a great deal for minorities, voting for liberal candidates for office and making disproportionate contributions to all kinds of “causes”.

We are ipso facto opposed to racism and sexism. Together with most Americans, however, we are by no means opposed to ageism. The word “ageism” was coined by Robert Butler, M.D. in his 1968 book “Why Survive?” which deals with the “systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old.”

We Jews indulge in “ageism” just as most Americans conduct themselves accordingly even in the face of the consequences. The most important of these consequences is that the anti-old hate mongers demonstrate to their children how they treat their parents and others deemed “old” only to collect the same treatment in the next generation.

Gerontophobia is everywhere. There are synagogues whose rabbi rejects anyone deemed “old”. Exclusion and segregation of the “old” appears to be an obligatory ritual in the Jewish communal “service” even as the old are treated as imbeciles and useless furniture in their own family.

We segregate the “old” to such an extent that even at shivah visits in the homes of a deceased, the visitors generally talk only to each other but not to the widow who needs help the most. Usually widows are not “merry” but old women who have just lost the most important person in their lives. Yet, the gerontophobic visitors ignore the widow and look for younger friends and acquaintances even at a funeral.

In “shul” the old are generally consigned to the status of non-persons. That is, they are present in the flesh, are asked for money but don’t otherwise exist for the “machers” who run the committees, hold offices and seek honors and recognition.

It has been said that “old age is not for sissies.” That is indeed the case not only because the physical deterioration which is an inevitable part of the aging process, but also because the old who continue to seek love and affection, recognition and relationships and that modicum of social honor that normally accrues to anyone just for being human find this seldom forthcoming.

All this is denied the old in American culture. Why must we Jews follow the common lead in this regard? Does not our tradition include the Fifth Commandment: “Honor Your Father and Your Mother etc.” ? The Bible asks that we “rise before the hoary head” and “honor the face of an old woman.” The Talmud makes numerous references to the need to treat the old with some dignity.  Remember.  Those who are “not old” today will be just that tomorrow.

We Jews have been accused again and again of being “different” from most everyone else. We like to vehemently deny this. Yet, we could try to be different in at least this. Let us be the exception and not the rule and treat those who appear “old” to us with all that kindness and reverence which we seek for ourselves. What have we to lose?

Shalom u’vracha.

Home ] Up ]