Punishment without Crime

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Punishment without Crime - the Stigma of Being Old


   A stigma is a sign. In ancient Greece, slaves were pricked on the skin so that they were “branded”. This made it easier to identify runaway slaves. The Greek word stigma means to "prick".

    Now old age is a stigma. That was not always so, nor is it the case everywhere even today. However, in the post-industrial world of the computer and the internet, old age is viewed with contempt and fear so that those who are so designated become outsiders in the community of their youth.

    Because we, the Jewish Americans, share the culture of the electronic age with all other Americans, we too have stigmatized old age and pushed the old to the periphery of our families, our communities and even our religious institutions.

    It was not always so. Our European ancestors, and even our American grandparents, still honored old age as did other cultures and other communities. This was so much more the case among Jews than anyone else because our basic laws, our constitution, the Torah includes among the Asseret Hadibroth the commandment "Honor your Father and your Mother," etc. Furthermore, there are innumerable reminders in the Torah concerning the great concern of the Jewish community for the aged. Among these are Kedoshim 7:12; Maimonides in Yad, Talmud Torah 5:9; Leviticus 19:3 and all those many references to the old in the Mishnah. These many admonitions are still important to that 11% of Jews who attend our synagogues once a week. Furtheremore, there are innumerable Jews and others who may  know nothing about Torah and who nevertheless do what they can to support the old among us both financially and emotionally.

   Nevertheless, the electronic age presents the old with some real challenges. First among these is the ever increasing life span. When most people lived only 45 years, there were few truly old people in any community and it was easy for the many to take care of so few. Now, the average life expectancy is 73 with a larger cohort living far longer. Therefore, fewer children must support the old, the old-old and the very old at the same time. The greater affluence of the old offsets somewhat the problems that arise from these obligations. Much more common than poverty is a different difficulty faced by the old with money and seldom known to the old without money. That problem is abandonment.

   Read once more the wonderful book by Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers. This book tells us about the life of the Jewish immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1930. They had no money but they had family. The old were seldom abandoned because the young could not leave. The young were also poor sweatshop laborers. They had nowhere to go.

   One hundred years later, we live a totally different life. Jews are now part of the American mainstream. There are nine Jewish senators, although we are only 1.8% of the American population. We are represented in government and in industry, in education and in sports. We are taken for granted. We have arrived. Together with that arrival comes all those ills which all Americans share. One of them is the abandonment of the old.

   Whether Jewish or not, we seek economic advancement. Unlike the general population, eighty percent of our college age children attain a higher education. Only 40% of American high school graduates do so, and only 25% earn a four year degree. Therefore, we Jews move around more than any other group. We are highly mobile. We go “out of town” to college. We marry someone from a different part of the country. We move to wherever the economic opportunities carry us. The consequence is that at least here in Erie County, one seldom finds a Jew with adult children who can say that these children and grandchildren live here. Almost everybody’s adult children live many miles away.

   A second reason, besides high mobility, for the abandonment and rejection of the old in America and among us, the Jews, is the general fear of old age and death which our culture practices in extremis. In more sedate societies than ours, the old live with the young and die at home. Therefore, old age and death are well known to everyone and the old and the dying are well supported during the last period of their lives. In our culture, this is seldom done. In our communities we practice “the last segregation” as we place the old in so-called “old age homes” or nursing homes. There we visit on occasion, but because we live “out of town” we seldom see the old. We die in hospitals or in “hospices” and there too we are segregated, even in our last moments. It isn’t that the younger generation is suddenly a gang of cold hearted, rejecting ingrates. Far from it. The young want to believe that they have done “all we can.” The young send food and gifts but they don’t want to visit because the young cannot spend the time the old take. The young fear old age and death and don’t want to be reminded of either event by visiting the old, who are directly concerned with both. So the young run away because they can. They have a fast car. They can fly out of town.

    A third reason for the abandonment and rejection of the old are our fast moving scientific developments. The grandchildren know all about computers. Grandparents know nothing about that and may not want to learn it. This makes grandparents not the wise advisors of yesterday, but the “dummies” of today. Indeed, life experience teaches us much that cannot be learned from a book or a lecture. But we don’t want to know that. If you cannot understand Boolean algebra, use a “chatroom” on the Internet or manipulate “Napster” you must be indeed outdated, outmoded and have outlived your usefulness. We reject that. So much so that the governor of a western state has suggested that all who are over 70 commit suicide lest they continue to be a burden on the young.

    Of course the old now have one more thing to give the young. That is their inheritance. As the wealth of the old has grown, more and more in the Jewish community are in a position to leave money to their children and grandchildren. Many are involved in “tax shelter” schemes that insure the government gets less and the heirs get more. Therefore, some in the younger generation keep this in mind even as our ancestors did who inherited the land from the old at a time when land was the only wealth. Therefore, those who are now old may like to know a German poem which I found imprinted on a small tablet I bought in the medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber some years ago. The tablet reads: Merk es dir ergrauter Vater, sag es auch dem Mütterlein, soll der späte Lebensabend ohne Lebenssorgen sein! Gib du die erworbnen Güter nicht zu früh den Kindern ab, sonst wirst du zu ihren Sklaven und sie wünschen dich ins Grab. There is a good deal more to that poem, but those who know Yiddish can read this, of course, and for those who cannot read this, here is an approximate translation (all translations are approximations): “Be reminded graying father, tell it also mother, if the late evening of life is to be without worry do not give your possessions too soon to your children or you will be their slave and they will wish you into the grave.”

   Because of the power of money and the craving for wealth we foster so much in our society, there are indeed those who harbor such sentiments. The overwhelming majority of the young do not. Our treatment of the old is seldom grossly rejecting. It is more subtle. We want to be the boss over the old. We want to reverse the roles which parents and children must inevitably assume. We want to tell the parents what to do. We often treat old folks as non-persons who are allowed to pay but not to play. Whether in the family or in the “shul”, whether in private or in public, we seek to ignore the old, keep them away from our friends, segregate them, trot them out only at Bat Mitzvahs and weddings and let them know that they are more an object than a subject.

   This is particularly true of “in-laws”. Our culture teaches that “in-laws” are ipso facto terrible people. This is particularly true of the much maligned “mother-in-law.” Now, the mother of the spouse is of course also the daughter of someone. No doubt in that capacity she too rejected the “mother-in-law” which she has now become. Then the next generation does this again, on and on L’dor v’dor from generation to generation. With the feminization of Judaism this problem has become worse. Many men resent the ascendancy of women in the Jewish community. His professional wife may bring a lot of money home, but many a man resents it. So he uses the mother-in-law as a target for his hostility because he cannot target the wife. Many a wife, dissatisfied with her husband, blames the mother-in-law who bore him. This becomes particularly nasty after a divorce when both “ex’s” blame the in-laws and prevent the grandparents of the other side from visiting the grandchildren. This is now quite frequent and adds to the burden of the old.

   The old among us want to be part of the community and of the family. They fear being ignored. They too want to be loved. The old want recognition and new experience and above all they want to maintain that minimum of dignity to which we are all entitled only because we are human. We can give them that dignity and we can honor the old without any cost to us and with the certainty that what we do for “them” today will accrue to our benefit when we are old and our children act as we did. Keep it in mind and “rise before the hoary head” as the Torah commands and as kindness demands bimhayro v’yomenoo.

Shalom u’vracha.


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