I met Jennifer Hall, grandmother and voluntary librarian, over lunch in her kitchen in Telzstone. She notices me gazing at her kitchen wall, covered with family pictures of children and grandchildren. "This is my jewelry," she says.
Reb Noach and Jennifer Hall made aliyah 14 years ago from Bournemouth, England. Mrs. Hall is the voluntary librarian of the Telzstone English Library, which has over 4000 books. In order to raise money to purchase new books for the library, she compiled, together with Rachel Greenblatt, an anthology entitled 'Library In a Book,' published by Targum Press.
Mrs. Hall is currently at work on another book of people's memories, and stories of their parents and grandparents, in the early part of the twentieth century. "Most of the contributors were born well before World War II, the prewashing machine times," says Mrs. Hall.
My mother would scrub the clothes clean on a scrubbing board and then put the clothes through a mangle to take out the excess water, before pegging them on the clothesline to dry. In the winter the clothes would freeze and when you brought them into the house they were as stiff as a board.
A young friend told me recently that her husband had just bought her a second washing machine, since one was simply not enough. Her girls only use a towel once before depositing it in the laundry basket. With six children living at home, if my friend doesn't do five washes one day, she does ten washes the next. How, I wondered would today's generation manage with a scrubbing board and a mangle?
(Excerpt by Jennifer Hall)
What gave you the idea for writing this book? I ask Mrs. Hall as we sip our tea.
"It was siata di'shmaya, there isn't any other explanation. The thought came into my mind that I could interview older people who would tell me about their childhood memories. The stories I heard exceeded my expectations. I thought I would get a whole series of stories about coal fires and stick telephones, instead I learned how the Jewish people survived the travails of the twentieth century, and how they were dispersed through wars and economic hardship all around the globe."
Did you have an organized way of finding these stories?
"No, they just came.
"I interviewed or received stories from over 100 people. The majority of stories I obtained in interviews in Jerusalem. The city is the melting pot for Jews from all over the world, and just hopping on a bus is sufficient to find stories from all over Europe, South Africa, Australia, India, America and anywhere else. Many of the stories were gathered in Telshestone, which is in itself a mini melting pot. One of the best places to get information is the makolet.
"My oldest story concerns Queen Victoria and Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler when he was Rabbi of Hanover in the early 1840s. I was told this story by the 6th generation down, the granddaughter of the granddaughter of Chief Rabbi Adler.
"My working title for this book is 'Mother Slept on the Stove'. This comes from a story set in the Hungarian countryside. Big stoves were fueled by wood collected from nearby forests. They were used to cook the food and heat the home. The storyteller recalls her mother telling how she climbed the steps to the top of the stove where a mattress was spread and, as a little girl, her mother slept with her grandmother.
Remembering the wartime, I never leave food on my plate. If the grandchildren complain about some trivial matter concerning food, I tell them about Ration Books.
My family does not understand my preoccupation with electric lights. I turn them off when I leave a room. If you had to put coins in a meter to buy electricity, you didn't waste it.
How would today's throwaway society have managed in an era when you didn't throw away even one piece of paper?
"I didn't realize the stories I would hear. In the first half of the twentieth century, Jews everywhere were on the run," Mrs. Hall says as she shows me a list of the stories she has compiled. Mrs. Hall has an eye for noticing the specific details that will resonate and enable the reader to experience Jewish world history on a personal level.
'I was twelve years old in March 1938 when Hitler came and occupied Eisenstadt. When I got up that morning, I looked out of the window. I saw white snow. In the white snow stood a row of black boots. I never wore black boots again.'
'Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld tried to persuade them to close the cinema on Shabbos, but to no avail. He then tied his peyos to the bars of the ticket counter.'
'As my father was davening the Shemoneh Esrei by the front door of the bunkers, the bombers came overhead. The other soldiers ran into the bunker. As he was walking backwards at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei, a bomb hit the bunker. He was the only one who was saved.'
As a bochur, the Steipler would come to our home where my mother would serve him food. If she was in the kitchen and I was in the crib crying the Steipler would take me out of the crib to quiet me.'
'I remember the day the First World War started. It was Shabbat and we were taking a walk in the fields. As we passed City Hall we saw, posted outside, the notice announcing the war.'
"I went to Yad Vashem yesterday to take photos of the cattle truck," says Mrs. Hall. "I have three contributors who used that form of transport, and if people haven't seen one, they can't visualize it.'
What can the younger generation learn from your book?
Mrs. Hall thinks for a moment. "I will answer you with a story from the book. A mother and her three children are in a Displaced Person's camp in Holland after the war. The baker came, every day, pedaling his bicycle, selling bread. Sometimes the mother would say that she didn't have money to buy bread. I asked the storyteller, 'what did you do when you didn't have bread?' He replied, 'we didn't eat if she had no money. In the war, do you think we ate every day?'
"We don't need so much. Do we have to eat everyday?" comments Mrs. Hall.
"When you read these stories, when you see what people went through, today's problems are miniscule compared to the problems that the people had to cope with then. As a librarian I have seen how a book or article can inspire and change a person's life. Readers donate copies of Mishpacha Magazine to the library for other people to read. The articles are wonderful, even if they do provoke controversy!
Can a book or article really change someone's life?
"Each time someone reads something that touches or inspires them, it's another step."
When my mother took the children on a picnic to Bradgate Park, it was the pinnacle of excitement. Unfortunately, the eight horsepower engine was not always strong enough to climb the hill. Thereupon, all the children would get out and walk.
As I was gardening recently, I notice a friend sitting disconsolately on a nearby bench. She was sitting next to a gleaming new, white car. The kind that still has the smell of expensive leather when you sneak a look inside
She passed me a black plastic keypad and said, 'I can't turn the alarm off and without doing that first I can't start the car. '
I suggested pushing the car to an incline, putting it into gear and away she would go. She looked a t me with total incomprehension, 'the car won't start if I can't turn the alarm off.' She cradled the keypad in her arms and eventually she was able to turn off the alarm and start the car. (Ibid)
What do you see as the benefits of aging?"
"Wait and ask my husband that question, " she says.
A few minutes later, as if on cue, Reb Noach Hall, enters the kitchen.
"Mrs. Heller has a question for you, she wants to know the benefits of aging.'
Reb Noach walks over to the wall of family pictures. "In England when you retire from work you receive a clock with a Big Ben chime to put on the mantlepiece. You spend the rest of your life watching the minutes tick by. The secular world views aging as the winter of life. The leaves have fallen and only the bare branches remain. The Torah view is 100% the opposite. In the winter the trees look almost dead, like sticks in the ground. However beneath the ground the tree is putting down roots that will nourish it, and in the spring it bursts into flower. Old age is the springtime of life, all that you've learned bursts into blossom. It is the time that you, as well as others, can benefit from your years of knowledge and experience."
Reb Noach volunteers at Yeshiva Neveh Tzion in Telzstone. He learns and talks with the American boys there who are faraway from their families.
"I'll give you an example," Reb Noach continues. "There was a boy who didn't want to learn anymore. He was on the way to leaving the Yeshiva. Before he came here he worked as an assistant in a shoe shop. Fifty years ago, as part of my training I worked in a large department store in the East End of London, in the shoe department; I know how shoes were coded to describe their style and heel and what it was like to sit and pull shoes off someone and put on the ones they selected to try. I was able to discuss the ins and outs of working in a shoe store. This was a source of amazement to him. He had never met a gray haired Rabbi teaching in a Yeshiva with such knowledge."
The relationship that Reb Noach was able to form with the boy was strong. The boy remained in Yeshiva and when he made a siyum, Reb Noach was invited to say a few words. "Hakodesh Boruch Hu works in wondrous ways indeed, after fifty years I finally found a good use for my useless knowledge of shoes that created a kesher between this young man and me and was not useless at all!"
Reb Noach relates another example. "My son and I once went to the opening of the Yarchei Kalloh in Ponovezeh Yeshiva. We were sitting across from Rav Shach tzl who was sitting and learning. Just imagine, if you can, how many times Rav Shach must have learned Shas. The beauty of old age is that you continue to learn; knowledge is the power of the mind, you never know when you can apply the knowledge that you have acquired. This is what makes life so exciting and every day so exhilarating "
The excitement and vitality in The Halls' faces as they speak, transcends all preconceptions of age or time. They appear ageless, vessels for living purposeful lives in the service of Hashem.
Since both are filled with vigor, one might think, well, it's easy for them to be enthusiastic about getting older; they're just fortunate not to suffer from any of the aches and ailments that most older people experience.
Appearances can be deceptive, however. Between the two of them they have undergone six hip and knee replacement surgeries. However for them, even surgery is not a time for self-absorption or feelings of uselessness. In the course of their surgeries they have offered their constructive suggestions to the hospital for improving facilities for patients, one of which was the suggestion to provide a therapeutically beneficial chair for postoperative recuperation for orthopaedic patients. The recommendation was implemented by the hospital and the chair is now known as Jennifer's Chair. Additional safety bars in bathrooms have also been provided at their behest.
"It's worth going to the trouble of complaining in order to improve conditions. Others will benefit from your efforts," says Mrs. Hall.
The phone rings and Mrs. Hall excuses herself to answer it. It's her daughter on the phone, it's Rosh Chodesh and the children have returned home from school early and they are anxious for ideas of how to find something interesting and exciting to do. She hands the phone over to her husband who invites their grandson to come over. We resume our conversation.
"A reader calls me and says, 'it's raining, and I can't come to the library.' Can't come to the library because of the rain? Mrs. Hall repeats incredously. She called me at the library. I was already there."
"And in the summer, people tell me, 'I can't go out, it's too hot.' What are they talking about?" She shakes her head.
"The problem today is materialism. Another problem is that grandparents live faraway from the children and grandchildren. When there are no older people around, there's no interplay between the generations" When my grandchildren run to their mother when I tell them not to do something, my daughter says,' You must listen to Granny.' When the grandchildren ask me to do something I say, 'I do what Mummy wants.' Both my daughter and I, in the interplay, try to teach the children derech Eretz
"Young people today are crushed. They can't take on anything else. There is poverty in Israel, overcrowding in the homes, many children to watch. In America also, both parents and children are crushed. The parents are working all day, and many children have to take the food out of the freezer and put it in the microwave."
"Generally speaking old people are not crushed. They can lighten the burden that's crushing the younger generation. It's not enough to ma'aser your money, you must also ma'aser your time. If every Jewish person would ma'aser their time, no one would have a crushing burden.
"Someone told me that she wanted to start a gemach, but didn't have money. I suggested that she have a gemach of smiling at people and to make sure that she was the first one to say hello. Everyone should have a gemach. You can pick up litter in the street. You can have a listening gemach, one in which you feel another person's pain. You can supply other people with helpful information about almost anything."
Mrs. Hall feels that what's missing nowadays is extended family support. All the material conveniences and time saving appliances do not compensate for the lack of extended family help in raising children.
An older person has the patience. "My mother used to spend hours on the phone with her grandchildren, helping them to do better at school. She had a law degree, and she once told me that she had taken the exam five times (since she had helped two other generations to pass the exam). A mother doesn't have the time to give children all the attention they need. And if the children aren't given the attention they need, they will find it somewhere else."
As if on cue, someone begins ringing the doorbell, incessantly, before giving anyone the chance to open the door. "That must be my grandson," Mrs. Hall says smiling, as Reb Noach hurries to answer the door. "A mother would be annoyed at the persistent ringing, but a grandparent understands."
Mrs. Hall isn't referring to only biological grand parenting. An older person can arrange with a mother to invite children into her home. They could play with toys or draw with crayons. Or it could be done in a more formal way by offering chugim (activity related clubs). They can teach gardening or knitting. It doesn't need to take up too much time.
"Everyone should be thinking: how do I want to improve the world. Older people are realistic; they know what can be changed.
"You asked before what are the benefits of aging- it's the wrong question. I prefer to answer the question, 'what do I have to offer at my age?' The answer is: time, wisdom and experience. Readers ask me to design their gardens, that is, to do the actual work. They ask me to knit sweaters for babies, to give as presents. I look at it as a way of raising money to purchase new books for the library. Readers phone me for advice or information on practically everything. The city council asked me recently if I would be the liason between the residents and the Council in the event of an emergency. Retirement? I have never been so busy!"
It's easy to get caught up in our own specific day to day challenges. It's natural, (and easier) to seek out the company of one's own age and peer group. The experiences of one generation are not so easily translated into the consciousness of another's. Misunderstandings can result. But age-segregation has serious drawbacks- it narrows our understanding of the world, ourselves and others. For younger people, it cuts them off from the meaning of the past. For older people it draws a curtain over the necessity of working for the future.
I once worked as a social worker in an amazing intergenerational program. Known as the Baby Brigade, it was the invention of Yocheved Ehrman, a social work supervisor in Chicago. Young mothers met weekly at local nursing homes with their young children in tow. The nursing home residents sat in a circle and in the middle was a blanket spread out on the floor with toys and - babies! Many of the mothers told me that their own children's grandparents lived faraway and they wanted their young children to have the experience of being around older people. Many of the residents lived faraway from their own grand or great grandchildren and they were thrilled to watch the babies crawl on the blanket or sit on their laps.
Mrs. Ehrman innovated another program called "Grandma Please" where school children who were alone at home after school without an adult present could call a phone number and talk to specially trained "grandparents". They would make small talk, go over homework etc. Many of the elderly volunteers were wheel chair bound; here was a way they could ease their own isolation and give to others despite their physical limitations.
With creativity and initiative, we all can reach over the generations join hearts and help one another.