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Suffice it to say that when I moved in with Dorothy, my friends were in shock. Most of them were planning to live in the more popular Washington Heights, whereas I had decided to remain in midtown Manhattan. Mostly, however, most of their astonishment was because I was 22, and Dorothy, or Mrs. Hilf, as I call her, was 95.
Let me explain. I met Mrs. Hilf through my good friend and college roommate Melissa. Mrs. Hilf and Melissa were learning partners at Congregation Adereth El (in midtown Manhattan, near Stern), and Melissa thought I would enjoy meeting her. She was right. We hit it off right away, and I began visiting her weekly. We usually planned to do some religious learning at our meetings, perhaps review the siddur or study the parshat hashavua, the weekly Torah portion, but more often than not, we just schmoozed.
After graduating from Stern College and receiving an invitation from Mrs. Hilf to share her one-bedroom apartment, I’ll admit I was hesitant to accept. My mother urged me to say yes, while my good friends could not even imagine why I would consider the very generous offer. (I did share the rent, but then again, we were rent controlled.)
While I would be at a distance from my friends, there were significant advantages to the proposal, and I eventually decided to move in. My boyfriend Moshe (now my husband) worked a block away, the commute to my graduate school was convenient, and I absolutely loved the bustle and convenience of New York City.
Mrs. Hilf and I talked about politics, literature, and life. I confided in her about my personal life, and she, in turn, offered me sage advice. After one particularly upsetting incident with Moshe, I recall coming home in a rage, ready to have it out with him and give him a piece of my mind. Mrs. Hilf talked with me, calmed me down and told me, in a very matter-of-fact way, to get over it. I have a hunch that if not for Mrs. Hilf soothing me, my relationship with Moshe would not be where it is today.
Dorothy Hilf and Little Leeba
Mrs. Hilf tells it like it is. When I ask for her opinion, I know that I’ll get the unadulterated truth. And I love that. In a world where everyone is concerned with being politically correct, Mrs. Hilf prizes honesty and sincerity.
But more than that, Mrs. Hilf taught me that age doesn’t matter. She showed me that a positive attitude and a deep thankfulness for all we have are most important. She is a paragon of what it means to be self-sufficient. Now 102, may she live and be well, she lives alone, does her own marketing, emails her friends, and volunteers weekly at a soup kitchen. She even hosts Sabbath meals in her apartment from time to time. She appreciates when I stock her up on groceries and when Melissa delivers home-cooked meals, but she is always surprised.
Since getting married, I’ve made some new friends; they are not quite like Mrs. Hilf – they’re only in their eighties. Before we moved to our current location, we lived down the hall from Mollie and Leah. For five years we shared in each other’s joys and bonded over tragedies. I borrowed onions and delivered chicken soup, and they played with my three-year-old daughter Leba and introduced her to the piano.
My mother taught me that we can learn much from our seniors. My mother visited the nursing home and made time to call on relatives and older friends who were ill. For years, my mother had a study partner who was in his eighties. To this day, she reads aloud her notes from those sessions and reminisces with fondness over the erudition he displayed and the thoughts he shared with her.
I suppose growing up in a home with grandparents helped establish my love and respect for the older generation. I miss them terribly now that they have passed on, and am sorry that I didn’t appreciate their presence even more. They cared for me with so much love and, like Mrs. Hilf, never asked for anything in return.
I continue to visit Mrs. Hilf most weeks, and try to bring Leba along with me when I can. If I can instill within my daughter a respect and admiration for our elders, perhaps she too will look to those before us for guidance and love. And when I see her greeting Mrs. Hilf with a hug and a kiss, I know we’re on the right track.