Lunch With The Yentas

Since moving to Savannah, my social life has taken a decidedly truncated turn. So much so that the Jewish Family Services senior lunch has become the highlight of my week because I get to ditch the 2 year-old and spend some time with other adults. Sure, some of them were already retired when I was born, but it’s a surprisingly convivial scene for the all the walkers lined up against the wall.

I started taking my mother-in-law to the luncheons to keep her spirits up. She was diagnosed with fronto-temporal dementia a few years ago, and left to her own devices she tends to sit in the house all day counting buttons and talking to the dog. However, when we go out she may do things like count cracker boxes at the grocery store and talk to mannequins at the mall; once she sat down on the floor in the middle of a busy restaurant because it was taking too long to seat us. The JFS lunch is a place where her sometimes odd behavior is understood, even met with affection.

That’s why the JFS director suggested I bring here even though she’s barely 63 — a good 25 years younger than our usual group we sit with. Most of them are sharp as a new needle when it comes to mental acuity: there’s Dorothy, who’s 89 and likes to tell me about the dances she used to attend as a teenager in this very building; and Beezy, an 81-year-old firecracker in red lipstick who knows all the scoop on everyone over 65 and their kids. Oh, and Anne, 91, dressed to the nines (our people say farpitzed, honey) and still getting a manicure every two weeks. There’s also the men’s table, a minyan of age spots and bald keppes in kippot cracking dirty Yiddish jokes.

Everyone susses out what’s going on with my mother-in-law much more quickly than most; they’ve seen plenty of their friends’ and spouses’ minds turn to Swiss cheese. They cluck over her while mouthing to me “Such a shanda, she’s so young.”

After lunch there’s usually a program short enough to keep everyone’s interest, though only half the men’s table usually makes it through and the other half’s snoring can drown out the speaker. One week a woman showed her slides of Africa, another time a Hadassah balabusta came with a Powerpoint presentation of her recent trip to support Israel during the war. Last week a very young rabbi (and I mean younger than me) attempted to share his thoughts on preparing for Rosh Hashanah during these days of Elul with good deeds and Torah learning. Our table shouted him down when he suggested that they keep a notebook of said good deeds.

“That’s ridiculous!” yelled Beezy. “You do good deeds for others, not to keep track!”

“That’s right,” nodded Dorothy sagely. “God keeps track. No need for a notebook.”

“I’m not keeping track of a notebook, I can’t even find my glasses,” said Anne, waving her pearly pink fingernails.

The poor rabbi finally gave up and wished everyone a good week. I hope he comes back — I had a question about the psalms, but between the snoring and the yelling, who could get a word in edgewise?

Many of these folks — who built Savannah’s reputation as a strong Jewish nexus — remember my mother-in-law from her 30 years of service to the reform synagogue and her job docenting at the historic temple. But of course, she doesn’t have a clue who they are anymore, but she smiles big when she tells them so because they’re all so kind. She likes the food — always some form of chicken, rice and vegetable served with unsweetened iced tea — and I can tell she’s enjoying herself, listening to the Southern Yenta mafia grill me about where we’re sending our kids to school and what neighborhoods we’re shopping.

The whole scene is starting to grow on me, too. So it’s cafeteria grub with the USY class of ’38 instead of blackened chicken ceasar in downtown Berkeley with my best girlfriend Keri, but it’s the kind of kibbitzing and companionship that I need right now.

Bless Jewish Family Services for all they do — feeding our elders, counseling the sad, helping emigrés settle, educating parents, connecting a lost Yenta with some who know the territory. If you have a spare minute, they always need volunteers.

6 thoughts on “Lunch With The Yentas

  1. Y’all are too kind. Believe me, I’m no saint – we all went out to dinner last night and Mum-in-law starting screaming at the waitress because the A/C vent was blowing on our table. “It’s really cold! It’s too cold! I’m cold!” My father-in-law shushed her down, but I got the gigggles so bad I had to excuse myself to the bathroom because I didn’t want my kids to see me laughing at Grandma. Between her and this whole Southern thing, I feel like I’m trapped in some absurdist play written by the love child of Tennessee Williams and Bertolt Brecht.

  2. I just saw an interview with Nora Ephron, and she said that when she was growing up and something weird or scary or disappointing happened, her parents would comfort her with “Everything’s copy.” Not very parental IMHO, but that’s certainly one way to look at things, and for writers, it certainly becomes true…

  3. You’re doing a mitzvot by teaching your children how to care for the elderly or infirm, something our society doesn’t show us with great examples. Aging happens to all of us and we want to be cared for by people who have empathy. I applaud you…and Beezy sounds very entertaining!

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