Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s mother-in-law, whose experiences reflect the coming of age of the immigrant generation’s American-born children. The tenth part, “A Son Makes Aliyah,” appeared as the front-page essay in the Oct. 27 issue; the twelfth and concluding chapter will appear in December.
Life is a cycle of transitions and moves. Scholars of urban theory call it “the geography of aging”; poets call it “moves on the chessboard of life.”
Children are born, grow up, and leave home in order to spread their wings. Young people begin their professional lives and start their own families, often gravitating to areas where other young families live. During the middle years of professional and personal progress, some move to suburbia, to larger homes they now can afford.
Eventually they reach the years of winding down professionally; usually their parents have passed on and their children have started their own young families. Once again it is time to move, now from large empty houses in suburbia to apartments in the city or in warmer climates, often nearer to children and grandchildren. And thus the cycle continues.
At some point I asked my mother-in-law what her favorite book was, and to my surprise she answered Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).
“For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven,” she quoted chapter 8, verse 1.
“A wonderful philosophy, but how does that work in practice?” I countered.
“Just look at how we moved around,” she answered. “Each move had its purpose, lasted as long as it was supposed to, and came at just the right time.”
And so it was in their “Golden Years” that Arthur and Bernice Cohen Schwartz joined what was colloquially known as the “suburban exodus.”
Bernice had retired in the early 1980s and Arthur somewhat later. Now they could finally spend time doing what they wanted to do and when they wanted to do it: volunteering, shul involvement, cultural activities, and, most of all, spending time with their growing brood of grandchildren in New York and Israel.
Like many of their generation of American Jews, they had settled in suburbia, in their case Teaneck, New Jersey, close enough to keep a watchful eye on their elderly parents in the Bronx and Nyack but in an area affording their children a large house and wide open play spaces.
Now retired, with their parents long gone and all the children out of the house, it was time to re-evaluate. Teaneck had become a vibrant Jewish community but impossible to navigate by public transportation, requiring a car for even the smallest purchases.
“We knew it was time to move, but the question was where,” Bernice recalled.
Unlike other retirees of their generation, they never considered Florida a possible venue – despite the Northeast’s cold winters.
“With our frequent trips to Israel to see the grandchildren, and with our other grandsons in New York, it made no sense to move so far away,” she said. Moving to Israel permanently would put them in the same position of being 6,000 miles away from their grandchildren, this time from those in New York.
“Our first choice was Manhattan because with children and grandchildren there, along with all the centers of culture, why should we move elsewhere?”
But the available apartments were either too small or too expensive. Besides, Bernice’s sister Elaine and her husband, Morris, who lived around the corner in Teaneck, had one son in New Jersey and another one about to move to Israel. They certainly weren’t moving anywhere. “So we let it go for another two years.”
Bernice was well aware, however, of the passage of time and Arthur’s problematic eyesight. Their son Joshua, visiting from Israel, took several drives with his father at night on Route 4 during which Arthur, unable to see well, had driven the entire way using the car’s bright lights, blinding the other drivers.
“Each drive was a sakanat nefashot – life threatening,” Joshua said. “I was never sure we would make it home.” Driving would soon become an activity of the past for Arthur, and the Schwartzes knew it was time to move before they were stuck
* * * * *
Serendipity: a fortunate occurrence during which things fall into place. For several weeks Bernice had noticed an advertisement in the paper – an apartment for rent in Riverdale with “all conveniences, walking distance to houses of worship and transportation.” Calling the listed number, she learned the apartment was actually for sale.
Originally a 19th-century area of country estates, Riverdale during the 20th century had developed into an affluent enclave with smaller houses and apartment buildings. Bernice had grown up in a different part of the Bronx, when Riverdale was off limits to Jews, but by the time Bernice responded to the ad, a substantial portion of its population of close to 50,000 was of Jewish, Irish, and Russian extraction.
The apartment was in the older area of Riverdale, populated by a diverse ethnic group of middle-class and older residents. At first glance it looked promising (“it was indeed near the shul and had all the Jewish amenities within a few blocks”), and after a substantial investigation into its structural and financial suitability, Arthur and Bernice decided it would suit their needs. Now was the time to sell their Teaneck home of close to four decades. The next stage was to inform their friends and neighbors and look for a buyer.
As soon as they put the house on the market they received an offer from the son of good friends who was about to be married, and after brief negotiations the deal was closed.
* * * * *
How do you pack up the possessions of over half a lifetime when downsizing from a large suburban house to a small urban apartment? What do you take and what do you discard? How do you leave behind the memories, along with their tangible trappings – the yard your boys played in while growing up; the room in which you nursed your mother back to health; the lilac bush you planted in the garden in memory of your father, long gone, who used to buy lilacs, his favorite flower, for you and your sister to give your mother on Mother’s Day?
Bernice put her mind to the task as she always had when facing a challenge: with great practicality and little sentiment. “I won’t cry for walls, and I won’t cry for my garden, because I’m not getting hysterical about a room,” she said at the time.
But even the practicalities were daunting. Some things were immediately given away; a librarian friend came over to go through the books; and the children were told it was time to take anything they had stored in the basement. The case with Arthur’s father’s chalafim (ritual knives used for slaughtering fowl), a memento of his first years in America as a shochet (ritual slaughterer), was given to the Teaneck shul for its Judaica museum.
Eventually, the house was packed up and 72 boxes were moved to Riverdale.
Initially Bernice and Arthur had kept their car but they soon gave it up, not only because of Arthur’s eyesight but also due to the unfamiliar alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules. The car was sold to a distant family member “and the next thing we applied for was an MTA card.” They were now officially New Yorkers.
Bernice and Arthur always enjoyed new opportunities, and the move to Riverdale provided them with quite an assortment. On the physical level, they quickly began to make their apartment both comfortable and functional, explored their new neighborhood, and mastered the public transportation system. Other changes were somewhat more demanding.
After many years of being active in the Teaneck Jewish community, they needed to find a suitable shul within easy walking distance that would fit their spiritual needs.
The choice was the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), led by activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, well known for his protests on behalf of Soviet Jewry and his staunch pro-Israel stance.
Arthur was immediately comfortable in his new shul, having found a former youth group protégé there who for a short time had been a co-worker and now was a lawyer. Within a short time he was co-opted into the “back window group,” an entire row of men who became fast friends. For Bernice, the social transition from the Teaneck shul to HIR took a bit longer but she, too, eventually created new friendships.
“The best way to survive aging is to keep your body and mind active,” Bernice often said, and the lives of the senior Schwartzes indeed mirrored that dictum. Avid fans of cultural events, they quickly learned where to find inexpensive and free cultural activities, particularly during the daytime, frequented by retirees.
“We would go down to Lincoln Center for rehearsals and Master Classes, we went to the theater, to the Village, and began exploring downtown as we had fifty years earlier when we were newly married.”
Firm believers in the idea that one should give back to one’s community, Bernice and Arthur continued to volunteer. Both worked with youth at Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR); Arthur regularly read the newspaper to a retired state judge whose eyesight was nearly gone; and Bernice joined a friend in fulfilling the mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick).
As time passed the Schwartzes grew ever more certain they had made a good decision, both in terms of moving and in the quality of their new neighbors. (“Our building had a unique multi-ethnic group of people who looked out for each other.”).
And by then their Israeli grandchildren were old enough to visit on their own, coming to spend parts of the summer with their grandparents in Riverdale.
Just when they thought that life had settled into a pattern, however, they were in for a number of surprises. Within several weeks of each other, two of their sons married, one for the first time, the other for the second. Several months later their oldest granddaughter married in Israel and two years after that their oldest grandson there married as well. In addition to the great-grandchildren who were added to the family, they had another unexpected joy in their late 80s: the birth of two additional grandchildren in New York, younger than some of their great-grandchildren, who became the delight of their daily lives.
In time, both Arthur and Bernice faced various health challenges but were blessed with the luck and strength that enabled them to overcome those they could and live with the ones they couldn’t.
“Being together was our greatest blessing,” Bernice declared.
* * * * *
In late 2010, much of the family got together to celebrate Bernice and Arthur’s 60th wedding anniversary, and in early 2013 they gathered again to mark “Bernice and Arthur’s 90th year.” (Bernice’s 90th birthday had occurred a few days earlier and Arthur’s would come in a few months; the celebration was given its title, Bernice quipped, in order not to tempt fate.)
“What is this getting older? Who are you and what becomes of you?” Bernice asked the family members assembled at the party.
“You are getting on, you are a ‘Golden Ager,’ you are a statistic, you are a study. You get up in the morning, put your feet on the ground and say ‘Thank God, another day.’ You also think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have quit my job, maybe I shouldn’t have retired.’ But then, if the weather is bad and you don’t feel so great, you turn around and go back to sleep.”
She continued: “There were three things that made me determine I was getting older. One was that I looked in the mirror. The second was that you walk onto the subway or bus and someone will get up, even though you may be stronger than the person giving you the seat. The third is the realization that your children are as eligible as you for AARP…. And that’s the clincher that all of a sudden you are not the same.
“My brother-in-law Morris’s father used to say ‘We aren’t golden age, we are brass.’ But as I was polishing my brass Shabbos candles I realized that brass isn’t bad. You polish it and it glows just like it did when it was new. And that’s true for us as well.”
It was a beautiful look back at a unique and special life. But our story does not end here, as we will see next month in our concluding chapter.
This installment of The Bernice Chronicles is dedicated to the memory of Bernice’s grandfather Victor Sheidler (Avigdor Yisrael ben Meir Pinchas and Rochel Baila), whose yahrzeit is 29 Cheshvan (Nov. 18 this year).