In a season in which 73-year-old Erica Jong has published “Fear of Dying,” 89-year-old Dick Van Dyke is launching “Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging,” and 76-year-old Lily Tomlin is starring in the film “Grandma,” the topic of aging is newly visible.
For many years, getting older wasn’t something that people wanted to admit to, let alone talk about, read about, or watch movies about, from any perspective. But two new books frame a new Jewish conversation, seeing aging as a time of growth and not diminishment: “Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, & Spirit” by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal (Behrman House) and “Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife” by Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman (Jewish Lights). (The three authors are speaking together in a Jewish Week-sponsored program about “Jewish spiritual resources for growing older” on Oct. 22, 7 p.m., at the JCC in Manhattan.)
Rabbi Cowan, an author and former executive director of The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, has been in the forefront of writing about particularly timely Jewish issues, whether interfaith marriage, healing, spirituality, meditation, and now, aging. Thal, a recipient of the Covenant Award, is a Jewish educator involved in Jewish spiritual direction.
Both are New Yorkers, and their book, “Wise Aging,” is positive and life affirming, steering clear of stereotypical views of aging. With faith in the resiliency of individuals at all ages, the authors guide readers along a path of mindful living, approaching physical, emotional and spiritual issues with creativity and sensitivity. While they emphasize stretching in the directions of gratitude, generosity, patience and forgiveness, they are grounded in the realities of daily life. They’re not reticent about addressing loss and death.
Like the widely read “The Jewish Catalog” series of the 1970s, the book helps seekers find deeper meaning with an approach that is similarly non-judgmental and participatory. While it doesn’t have do-it-yourself projects like those in the Catalogs, it offers lists of helpful practices, questions for reflection, and suggestions for activities like keeping a journal This is a book that can be read slowly, over time, perhaps with a partner or small group to encourage taking on the questions and exercises seriously.
To date, the authors have trained 180 people around the country to facilitate “Wise Aging” groups, and they expect there to be 250 trained leaders by the end of the calendar year.
Rabbi Friedman’s book, also written with warmth and wisdom and also grounded in Jewish sources, is more of a narrative than a resource book. She too suggests that readers form “Wisdom Circles” to take on the journey beyond midlife with company. Based in Philadelphia, Friedman has long been a pioneer in the world of spiritual eldercare, and has dedicated her career to working with this population.
Susie Kessler, program director of Makom: Center for Meditation and Spirituality at the JCC, and who co-leads a “Wise Aging” workshop at the JCC, says, “These days we are working more and staying healthier longer than ever before, so for many of us, our own aging seems to come as an unpleasant surprise. These beautiful books take the conversation public and give us the tools and spiritual resources we need to find meaning and joy in it.”