What does my turning 80 actually feel like, after almost dying?
And what does Yom Kippur mean after that?
Exactly two years ago, just in time for Yom Kippur, I went through a body crisis — and a spirit crisis. Now I’m getting ready to celebrate Gloria Steinem’s and my turning 80. That celebration will be extraordinary –- music, artwork, a delicious dinner, an amazing dessert, and an interview of the two of us. Who is the “me” on the inside of our celebration?
Not just “me” is who. “We” is who.
I not only look forward to actually seeing you, but need to. Need a community for the celebration to be real. And I know Gloria does too. Both of us need to talk with you about how to keep full of life and hope through eight full decades.
There are three options: come as an individual or family, to the full dinner or the honor event; arrange for your organization to be a co-sponsor; and/ or buy space in the Tribute Book to honor your own Elder hero. To register and take part, you can click here: – https://theshalomcenter.org/80
So – what do I actually feel like, two years later, as the moment of turning 80 approaches?
Two things rise up for me. One is what it means to keep doing the work of social change, at this age. Walking into getting arrested –- with the help of a cane! Bringing fifty years of crafting public outcries into working with a group of much younger, feisty rabbis, to shape a statement about the emotionally heart-rending question of Syria. Evoking hope and activism among young people who see their Earth being scorched, their careers stunted, their futures haunted.
The other –- indeed, the strongest thing that arises for me right now -– is:–
Becoming 80 means I lived through a crisis – like many who get this far.
Two years ago, it wasn’t clear whether I’d make it to 80.
I was seriously sick from the effects of treatment for a throat cancer. Radiation wrecked my mouth -– made speaking, tasting, swallowing, drinking, eating impossible. I was “eating” what my life-partner Reb Phyllis estimated as 200 calories a day – what she called a starvation diet.
I was writing my “Shalom Reports” to you-all once or twice a week, and they were coherent and sometimes even smart -– but otherwise my friends say my eyes were glazed over, I literally lost my voice. I was able to spend an hour –- just an hour -– at Rosh Hashanah prayers before needing to rest.
So on the day after Rosh HaShanah I seriously considered just letting myself die. That, I thought, would be easy – I could just go on not doing what I was already not doing. I would nod off and peacefully die. Not scary.
And living was hard work. Why bother?
But I also thought how much I love Phyllis, my kids and grandkids, my brother and his wife, a few close friends —– and my work, which for me is filled with joy. (I can’t mention my brother without saying that while I was sick he seemed really healthy, but just a few months later died of a galloping cancer that began in his mouth, somewhat like mine. Never had I imagined he would die before me, after we had spent years learning to become real brothers. I ache, I miss him. That’s about getting to 80, too: People you love die.)
And living meant my beloved work: Drawing on Torah, playing with Torah, twirling Torah like a dreidl – all to heal the world. What could be more joyful? More filled with love?!
So I wasn’t afraid to die, but it seemed like much more fun to live – even though it was hard work.
So for the first time in my life, I actually made a conscious decision to live. My ruined mouth couldn’t speak, so I wrote Phyllis a love letter. I told her I had decided to live.
What to do?
We asked Einstein Medical Center to insert a feeding tube.
And it turned out it really was hard work to live.
On the day before the day before Yom Kippur, the doctors inserted the tube, and the nurses showed us how to use it to feed me. I say ”us,” but I wasn’t much use. Phyllis, really.
On the afternoon just before Kol Nidre night, the equipment arrived at home, from a medical supplies outfit.
But it didn’t look anything like the equipment at the hospital, and Phyllis was stunned to realize she had no idea how to feed me. If she couldn’t make it work, what then? And if she made a mistake, would it kill me?
We went off to Kol Nidrei in a wonderfully intimate and open-hearted davvening led by our friend Rabbi Jeff Roth for just eleven people. We knew nine of them.
Part-way through, as Phyllis felt me shivering from lack of food, she began to cry.
The service opened to her tears. She explained how frightened she was. And the tenth member of the minyan, whom we didn’t know, said, “Ohh! I’m a nurse. I’ll come home with you and do the feeding, teach you.”
She did. An angel, a messenger, an Elijah at the table!
She came again the next night, after Yom Kippur ended, to complete the classic medical process for really learning: She had Phyllis watch one, do one, teach one. Then Phyllis really knew.
But even that wasn’t enough. Phyllis could feed me at 5 am before she left for work in NYC, and again at 7 pm when she got back home. But I needed a mid-day feeding too.
And then, after Phyllis explained by email to the three synagogues in our neighborhood, the flow of lovingkindness came like a joyful stream. Dozens of people volunteered.
One of them came each noon, and as I regained my strength I had the joy of learning Torah together with these precious neighborly neighbors, many of whom we had not even known.
Weeks later, when my mouth had regained its ability to eat and drink and swallow –— even to taste (the first flavor to come back was dark chocolate!) -– Phyllis invited all those who had learned to feed me to a Havdalah of Thanksgiving, marking my transition which was also the transition for us all. Thanking them, thanking the Holy One Who is the Interbreath of life, Who is Compassion, Who was embodied in their compassion.
For weeks they had fed us physical food and the milk of human kindness. So that evening, we fed them, and together all of us shared the joyful stories of those weeks.
That is what 80 looks like from the inside. And as we stand on the brink of Yom Kippur two years later, three things I keep in mind:
The prayers for Yom Kippur include the verses:
“Who shall live, who shall die?
Who by hunger, who by thirst?”
For years I chanted those words as mere words. A formula. Now I know that Yom Kippur is really about life and death, hunger and thirst.
There is a pleasant Hassidic teaching that we do not eat or drink or have sex on Yom Kippur because on that day we are like angels: Who needs to eat?
I think there is a more awesome truth on this fulfillment of the Days of Awe:
On Yom Kippur, we test out dying. We choose: Shall I Live? Shall I Die?
I remember choosing. I try to remember every day that I chose to live. Not for grump and grouch, but for the sake of love. Love of my beloveds, love of Torah, love of the world which – as I so badly needed a healing community then – so badly needs a community of healing now.
That’s what 80 feels like, from the inside.
Why am I recalling all this right now? Because the danger of recurrence of this kind of cancer drops steeply, two years later.
Not that the danger ends entirely, but —-
A few days ago, I completed a rigorous check-up back at Einstein. No cancer.
Sheh’hekhianu, v’kimanu, v’higianu lazman haZEH.
Blessed is the One Who has breathed me into life, lifted me up in the winds of the world, and carried me to the moment of THIS.
And who lets me look forward also to the Moment of THAT –— the celebration of “what 80 looks like” for Gloria Steinem and me, on Sunday evening, November 3.
For me, turning 80 won’t be real unless it’s with people. With you, my friends, supporters, readers, challengers, wrestlers. I hope you’ll come and twirl the Torah with me, laugh and eat and drink together, share community together, heal each other and our world.
I need you. The Shalom Center needs you. Gloria needs you. Please click here, to join us that evening: https://theshalomcenter.org/80
Blessings of shalom, salaam, paz, peace – as we all move into a year that will certainly be new. –- May we act to make it good!