I’ve always had an eye for the elderly. Part of the reason is because I had older parents than most persons of my generation. My mother gave birth to me at the age of 42, which, though not uncommon today, was extremely rare in 1967. My father, four years her senior, was 46. But, to my young eyes, they seemed far older. Particularly in contrast to the parents of my friends, who, I can best remember in Israel, were usually between 30 and 35.
As a 52-year-old, reflecting back on my age consciousness, I often wonder how, if I had children, they would find me. I am often mistaken for someone in their thirties, and savour the irony, as much as the compliment. My parents were adults during WWII and lived with a level of stress I will never know. Though my childhood was deeply unstable, I left home when I was sixteen and never saw war like my parents did, as I refused to do my military service.
My mother lost her first husband as a teenager, at the very end of the war, and my father served in it, among other conflicts, starting out his college career as an undergraduate in London during the Blitz. All I ever recognised of him was as a grey-haired, heavily wrinkled older man. Because my mother passed away when I was eight, most of what I ascertained about age was derived from my father and his family.
I was similarly influenced by my late paternal grandmother, Leah, a Palestinian Jew, born in Rishon Le Zion in 1892, who came to live with us in Tel Aviv, in 1976. Having lived half her life in the United States, in the care of my aunt Bitia, my father had brought her back to Israel, to care for her, as Leah had begun displaying signs of mental ageing, though it was not clear how serious it was. She would, within a year, come to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
I was the one to find out, unfortunately. My father was in London for work, and he’d asked my grandmother to look after me while he was gone. Within a day of his departure, I’d been forbidden to go to school. Leah was convinced that Hitler had stationed Palestinian SS guards outside our house, with German Shephard attack dogs. If I as much as ventured outside, she’d warn me, I’d get eaten by the animals. So, I had to stay inside, until my dad got home.
Eventually, my father called from London, and I told him what was happening. Not long thereafter, a friend came over and took my grandmother away, I’m not sure to where, and I was allowed to go to school again. The next time I’d see her would be in an old age home, housed in a converted Jordanian army barracks, in East Jerusalem. Every time we’d go and visit her, I remember always being confused over whether it was an insane asylum or retirement home.
Nothing drove the ambiguity home more than the ritual we’d go through every time we’d arrive. Unable to identify my father and I, she’d greet us using German, not a language we initially knew she spoke. I can distinctly recall my father’s surprise at her fluency. Though I couldn’t parse what she said, it was clear she wasn’t being kind, and my father, who did speak German, confirmed that. Her eyes were always bloodshot, as though to mirror the rage she’d share with us.
The rest of the persons in her institution weren’t necessarily as proactive, but they weren’t our family either. I’d take notice of them, slumped in chairs, their eyes vacant, or shuffling aimlessly in the corridors, and note how many alien languages I was overhearing to my father. “Welcome to the shtetl,” he’d reply, sounding as though he couldn’t get out of there any faster. “This is what we were supposed to have left behind in Eastern Europe.”
It was a bitter remark, for sure, but typical of members of his generation, for whom Palestine, and later Israel, were all about self-reinvention and new, Hebrew-sounding last names. That was always the promise of nationalism, which, as it so turned out, didn’t deliver. At least not transcendence from being elderly Germans or Poles, or any of the obvious European points of departure.
Whenever I return to Israel, from Berlin, no less, I find myself continually drawn to photographing elderly people, precisely because of this. I am getting older, obviously, and look at them with myself in mind. I suppose I am concerned about ending up like my grandmother. Or my father, who also contracted Alzheimer’s, though not until the last two years of his life. The photos in this essay reflect the age and ill-health I encountered in them.
Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.