With the Gil Pensioners party's surprising swing into public service, the life of senior citizens in Israel seems to be in the process of positive change. This was apparent at the opening of Art of Aging, a photography exhibit focusing on images of seniors in Israeli life currently on display at the Jerusalem Theater. Sponsored jointly by Eshel, an organization that provides services and programming for Israel's seniors, the Joint Distribution Committee and Reshet television, last week's event provided a forum for the seemingly unlikely connection between avant-garde artists and Israel's elderly community, as young photographers were awarded prizes for their original work depicting senior life. On hand to distribute the prizes and officially introduce the exhibit was leader of the Gil party, MK Rafi Eitan, wearing his trademark - and perhaps unwittingly arty - black glasses. He spoke passionately about the struggle to ensure quality of life for seniors in Israel, acknowledging that he only recently became acquainted with the artistic strides within the senior community. He also mentioned the importance of staying active in the lives of all people - including the elderly. The National Pensioners' Choir, representing the growing numbers of busy seniors that Eitan described, also opened the event. Composed of smaller choirs from Ashdod, Afula and Holon, the group sang tunes ranging from hassidic favorites to up-tempo Hebrew standards. "When you are busy, you are busy. You forget your pains and concentrate on your day," Eitan said, adding that he was speaking from experience. "Being productive heals the body and the soul," he continued. About 1,000 photographers all over the country were inspired to compete in the homage to the senior community. A body of judges - including noted personalities from the worlds of art, media and academia - chose work that combined creative excellence with a realistic representation of today's seniors, resulting in a display of 20 chosen pieces with three designated for first prize. Many of the photographs show the peaceful, relaxing aspect of being an elder relieved of the need to rush the joys of living. In these selections, some of which were chosen to be a part of a Joint Distribution Committee-Eshel calendar, older couples stroll down a street as the sun sets or friends gather for a meeting at Dizengoff Square. In one colorful photo by Liron Rov, three friends bathe at the beach on a sunny day, the color of the water matching their bright bathing suits. Yet some of the photographs depict the hardships often silently suffered by the elderly. In Eti Alfala's photograph - one of the three winning photos - an older, homeless man sleeps on the street under the shade of a political poster urging social welfare for the aged. Tsofit Shemer's picture of her resting grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, conveys the mix of sadness and resilience exemplified by survivors who started life again in Israel. Other photographs take a witty, ironic approach to aging, raising questions for the viewer about what maturing really means, both personally and socially. Bartzi Goldblat's winning picture of his grandmother drinking coffee features a wide, almost empty blue background with a long, practically bare table. Drinking coffee from a perfect cup and saucer is his tiny grandmother, taking up almost no space at the very corner of the picture. "She is so small in the frame to show how alone she is, how empty the house is," explained Goldblat, who was raised by his photograph's subject. Goldblat began to photograph his grandmother in order to assess her complaints about aging, but he said the series of pictures emerged as a way for him to rethink his own attitudes about the life cycle. "Her fear of old age made me consider my own fear of aging - and of living," he said. "It made me ask questions like, am I wasting my life? Should I go to law school and forget about photography?" Anat Wolfson's photograph of an older friend - heavily made-up and covered in ornate plastic jewelry - stringing beaded necklaces also takes a multi-faceted approach to the question of aging. "She can't leave anything unadorned. The picture displays her obsession with adorning herself, perhaps to cover her loneliness," explained Wolfson. Yet, Wolfson asked, who is to say that the photograph's subject shouldn't wear heavy make-up and dress in the eccentric, colorful way she chooses? Indeed, Wolfson's piece seems to suggest how aging works to reveal eccentricities, often hidden by years of social conditioning. Using the camera, Wolfson sees the vulnerability of an aged woman in a compassionate way, not as something to pity but as a kind of wisdom to be gleaned by younger people. For Wolfson, who works in research and production for Eshel and is pursuing her MA in gerontology at Haifa University, visual art about aging is a powerful tool for social change. "Visual art has the unique ability to speak directly to people on a purely emotional level," she explained. Because so many images - newspaper caricatures, children's books and even a popular road sign depicting elderly people crossing the street - display the stereotypical face of old age, art has the power to present a counter-face, an old age that is "fulfilling and creative," she said. The atmosphere at the exhibit on opening day reflected that ideal, as art lovers of every age group gathered to view the new display. Youthful, trendily-attired photographers spoke proudly about their creations, which often featured their grandparents or other important elders in their lives. A small crowd gathered around Abir Sultan's close-up photograph of an older woman doing the backstroke. Something about the way the water is depicted surrounding a swimmer amid powerful athletic movement seems to question the whole concept of age as decline. "Traditionally, the tribe elders were the cornerstone of the community," said Yochanan Tsengen, director of Reshet, in his remarks at the event. "We are bringing that spirit to this exhibit." The exhibit will be open to the public until September 19. For more information, contact Eshel at 655-7551.

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