Turning to the wisdom of the ages to understand our unwise age can be a challenge. Given that the Talmud’s 2 million words are written in archaic Hebrew and Aramaic, how is one to follow Ben Bag-Bag’s adage “turn it over and over for everything is in it?” (Avot 5:27.) For those seeking, if not absolute answers, a rabbinic perspective on the questions of our day, Jeffrey L. Rubenstein’s “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teaching” (JPS) is a great place to start. Rubenstein, the Skirball Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature at New York University, handles a broad range of subjects, from confronting political power to the nuances of truth; they are presented with originality, verve and a ready grasp of Jewish and non-Jewish sources that would be downright intimidating were it not conveyed in such a breezy and engaging manner. The book, with a powerful introduction and close perusals of a variety of texts, is eminently readable while it avoids easy answers. Many contemporary studies, for example, extol Judaism’s celebration of sex, at least the marital variety, but Rubenstein does not hesitate to note the rabbis’ concern for sex as a potentially disruptive force. He presents the “rabbinic worldview in its wider sense: to always act with sensitivity, forethought, and understanding.”
In “Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs” (Toby Press), Rabbi Pini Dunner provides new insight into Jewish history; in a series of profiles of uncommon individuals he explains the influence they may have had during their lifetimes and beyond. He looks at personalities like Shabbetai Tsvi and also at controversial moments and unusual historical episodes and their reverberations across time. Rabbi Dunner serves as senior rabbi at Beverly Hills Synagogue in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Two new non-fiction books on aging are very well written and life-affirming. John Leland’s “Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is based upon a series of profiles Leland did for The New York Times about New Yorkers ages 85 and up. While he expected to encounter people struggling, complaining and facing loneliness, he instead found resiliency, even happiness and important lessons, both bold and subtle, for his own life. Among the six people he follows are a couple who find a second chance for love at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, and a Jewish woman starting over in an assisted living facility in Brooklyn, at age 91, after the facility where she had been living closed down. With her extended, warm family clan, she leads a life of interdependence.
Leland, who was 55 when he began this project, is open about his own life and his challenges in caregiving for his 86-year-old mother. The six became his surrogate elders, teachers and new friends, who chided him to visit more, fed him, asked for his help in changing light bulbs, and inspired him to think anew about choices in life. In their presence — and in their memory, as two of the elders have passed away — he is humbled, energized and grateful.
Madeleine May Kunin’s memoir “Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties” (Green Writers Press) introduces its chapters with brief poems based on themes like downsizing, independence, love late in life, being alone and “How will I die?” Kunin was the first woman elected governor of Vermont, former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and U.S. deputy secretary of education — and the first Jewish woman to be elected governor of any U.S. state. Now a professor-at-large at the University of Vermont and activist on behalf of women in politics, she is feisty, funny, introspective, unafraid and wise as she adjusts to what she calls old age, looking both back and ahead at her future. She is a most appealing guide through this territory. While she doesn’t glorify old age, she proceeds thinking “the more life, the better,” seeing aging as a new stage of development in which she continues to learn and find joy.
Another unusual book of lessons, stories laced with humor and good advice, Peter Sagal’s
“The Incomplete Book of Running” (Simon & Schuster) is a memoir and meditation. Sagal, the longtime host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” started running at age 15, wearing a pair of orange Keds.
Inspired in part by his Brooklyn-born father, who read Jim Fixx’s “The Complete Book of Running” in the 1970s, Sagal began running seven miles a day over suburban pavement, somewhat obsessively. He writes, “I looked into the mirror and saw somebody I didn’t like, so I started to run away from him.”
He ran persistently through his life, but only became a serious runner at age 40. By now, he has run a lifetime total of 25,000 miles, more than once around the world, including 14 marathons. He ran as his marriage of 20 years was ending and he tried to remain close with his three teenage daughters. A self-described midlife crisis runner, he takes steps back toward Jewish practice.
More than strength or cardiovascular fitness, what he has gained in his running career is the “patience and focus to stay in the mile I’m in.”
“Run long enough,” he writes, “and everything comes into view, be it a finish line of a home, a new one or one remade. What running has given me, most of all, is the practice of persistence. And maybe, too, a habit of hope.”
He begins the memoir at the 2013 Boston Marathon, when he is accompanying a blind runner on the trail and they finish the race quite close to the bombing. He was determined to run that marathon again, and he did so with another blind runner.
His brother, Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Westfield, N.J., makes a cameo appearance when the author consults him on an ethical question, after having been criticized in running spheres for admitting that he ran unregistered in a marathon. His brother reassures him that he’s OK.
To anyone considering running, Sagal sounds like one of Leland’s elders, whose recommendation to anyone who wants to be a filmmaker is “get a camera.”
Sagal’s advice: Get up. Start. Go. Move. Take a rusty first step, like the Tin Man. You will squeak. Go.”
Barry Lichtenberg contributed to this article.