‘The young person here is me,” says 73-year-old Emanuel Dudai, pointing to photographs of himself standing beside politicians David Ben- Gurion and Menachem Begin.“Believe it or not, that’s me.”He points out how rare it was to see either leader smile in public, and happily notes their broad grins in his photos.
The vivacious septuagenarian with a deep, resounding voice reminiscent of Topol in Fiddler on the Roof is one of 50 guides who leads groups through the Holon Children’s Museum’s latest socially conscious exhibition, “Dialogue with Time,” an hour-and-a-half experiential encounter with aging.As Dudai continues to show photographs projected on a screen from his childhood in Tel Aviv, the religious boys’ school he attended and his family, he talks about losing his brother in the 1948 War of Independence and most of his relatives in the Holocaust; his illustrious career as a journalist, including covering the First Lebanon War; his years of military service; working in the government and collecting documentation on the Six Day War.“I love this country,” says the Tel Aviv native. I love Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], which is more than Israel. More than I love Israel, I love those two kids, my grandchildren.”Dudai, showing photos of himself with his grandsons, speaks glowingly of the 10-year-old soccer player and the seven-year-old who recently declared sweetly to his parents after first grade that one year of school had been enough for him. The small group of reporters, sitting in a “gather round” formation in a room designed for story-telling, with Dudai at the center and the crowd on seats before him, is enraptured.“Dialogue with Time,” which took three years to complete and opened this month, takes visitors ages 12 and up on a thought-provoking journey about aging – what it means to each of us to age versus how society views and treats the elderly, how ageism manifests itself, what stereotypes about the elderly exist, what added challenges we face in daily life as we age and how we do (or do not) not feel our age.The exhibition follows two highly successful experiential exhibitions at the museum on blindness and deafness by the same designer, Golan Levy – “Invitation to Silence” and “Dialogue in the Dark,” the latter which was only meant to run for six months but has been open for eight years, welcoming over 200,000 visitors and wildly exceeding the museum’s expectations, according to museum director Gil Omer. “Dialogue in the Dark” has traveled to 16 countries and 100 cities worldwide.In “Invitation to Silence,” deaf guides lead groups through an experience of non-verbal communication, while in “Dialogue in the Dark,” blind guides lead groups in total darkness through created settings like a park or the city, showing them how to rely on senses other than sight. The museum employs 35 blind and 35 deaf guides, making it one of the greatest employers of the blind and deaf in Israel.“Dialogue with Time,” whose volunteer guides are all at least 70 years old, hopes to repeat the successful hands-on model of placing visitors into the shoes of a misunderstood segment of society.Omer also wants it to serve as a platform for inter-generational dialogue.“Each of us has a dialogue with time,” he says. At three, at 45 and at 90; it is universal to think about one’s future, to long for another age or to feel different from one’s biological age. “It relates to anybody at any age.”The director recalls a girl who, after visiting “Dialogue with Time,” burst into tears. She told her guide the exhibition had made her want to call her grandparents every Friday, and she planned to mark it in her iPhone. “I want to know them more, as I learned to know you. And one day I want my grandson to know more about me,” she told her guide.On another occasion, Omer says a group of 15-year-olds who had visited were so taken with their guide that they waited outside the exhibition hall for him to come out so they could continue talking to him. “I thought to myself, the last time I saw people chasing after an old person it was in a brutal way and not in such a nice way,” he says.The first stop in the exhibition is at a booth to take passport photos, as our group of reporters ranging in age from 26 to 70+ are told that we’ll be doing a little time traveling.“You don’t want to get lost in time,” says Moran, a museum staff member, forebodingly. Next we enter a hallway filled with the sounds of clocks ticking and questions posed on the wall in English, Hebrew and Arabic, such as “Are you afraid to be old?” “Did you think you’d feel this way at your age?” “At what age will you be old?” and “Would you like to go back in time?” The uncomfortable universal questions and pressurized ticktock envelop the viewer as the narrow hallway leads into a head-on confrontation with the future – or the present, for some – of a daily life confronting physical frailties.A small room with stations presenting activities made much more difficult by physical barriers becomes overwhelming and intimidating. At one station, I have to correctly put pills in a specific order for the week according to speedy voice directions.At another, I struggle to open a door with a shaky hand. At yet another, I strain to hear a voice over the phone – as it fades in and out – to order tickets to a movie, and at another I climb up and down stairs while wearing heavy shoes. Still other stations present the task of sending a simple text message, but with heavy gloves on, a memory and response-time test and a vision challenge.Most of us feel pretty defeated. Being in my 20s, though, I was able to perform some of the tasks with little trouble, whereas I heard people in their 70s and 80s complaining that certain machines must have been broken.Coming to terms with the fact that age will eventually make daily tasks more physically taxing is not easy. A loss of independence terrifies most people.The room of activities though also inspired compassion for those already struggling. Facts and statistics on the wall reinforce the message. For instance, a sign states that between the ages of 20 and 80, most people experience a 30-percent loss in handeye coordination.When the voice stops calling out pill instructions and seemingly no successful text message has been sent, we are ushered into a story-telling space to meet Dudai, who will be our warm and charismatic guide for the rest of the tour. As I settle into my seat, all of a sudden, in front of the whole group, those long-forgotten passport photos are displayed. I do not see myself staring back at me. Instead, I see a terrified mummy I barely recognize.A photo of me 30 years from now, Dudai announces, according to their technology. As I wonder (panic) about how accurate these images could possibly be, our sage guide thankfully redirects the message.“I am 73 but I feel young,” he says, sitting in an armchair. Don’t be fooled by the package. The way young people look at the elderly, he explains, as though “they are dissolving, that they are vanishing, that this is the end – and for me it’s not the end.”Dudai goes on to tell us about his life. Listening to an older person share his history is a crucial part of the exhibition’s goal to establish a personal connection between guide and viewer.The goal is for the viewer of any age to respect the guide and take in his life stories and lessons. The guide embodies the exhibition’s aspirations.“The important thing is not only to learn what it is to be old but to learn about the fact that the old person has a life story, that he went through the same stages that they’re going through,” says Omer.Once we have gotten acquainted with Dudai, he leads us to the “playground,” a cheery, grassy space with birds chirping. Each room of the exhibition is thoughtfully done, and the emotional experience and ideas the creators were aiming to inspire are clear but not heavy-handed.We sit around a picnic table and are handed a stack of wooden cards with images of elderly people on them; two girlfriends clinking cocktail glasses together, a couple walking on the beach with their arms around each other, a grandfather giving money to his grandchildren, a solitary man sitting and reading. Instructed first to choose a photo of how we would like to look in our old age, we then each choose a photo of how society views old people.It is interesting to notice the discrepancies between the categories and the different photos we all choose. For the societal topic, several people choose a photo of an elderly woman in a wheelchair with a nurse beside her.Dudai points out that society views old people as needing medical care and compassion, and being dependent on others. Transitioning into the next segment, I am left wondering how accurate my and society’s perceptions of the elderly are. It’s time to play ageism roulette.Dudai, skillfully tapping away on a computer, brings up a scenario on a large screen. We must each vote by pushing one of the three buttons in front of us, deciding whether we think the person in the scenario is too old for what he or she is doing, just the right age or too young. Roulette rolls.A 70-year-old male pilot. Too old, I think instinctively, with a twinge of guilt. After our votes are tallied, Dudai looks to the group for explanations on their voting.“Why?” Dudai asks me with a look in his eye that says I’m prime for a lesson.Hand-eye coordination, I say, and memory loss, now wondering just how prejudiced I am against 70-year-olds.The older group members respectfully disagree with me, as one of them, who is in his 70s, still flies his private plane.“You’re treating a person according to his age, not according to his capabilities, to his knowledge,” says Dudai.We try another scenario: a 24-year-old female mayor. The 65+ members of the group mostly choose “too young,” while I choose “right age,” thinking it’s possible to have enough experience and knowledge to run a small town at 24. Arguments ensue. She has no experience; being a commander in the army is very similar to/nothing like running a city; what does a 24- year-old know about life? Take our president for example, one elderly man argues. We conclude that not every 70-year-old can fly a plane and not every 24-year-old can be mayor.We discuss the ageism we have experienced professionally and the assumptions we make about others’ abilities based on age, pre-judging the skill set a person has before we get to know him. In short, age is just a number.Dudai ushers us over to another table in the playground and divides us into teams for a trivia quiz. As we buzz in to answer questions on a healthy lifestyle; what goes first – hearing or eyesight; and a question on depression among elderly people (it’s not more common among the elderly, I learn), Dudai periodically asks certain people to step out of the group, telling them they are no longer needed. We barely notice those who leave. He later explains that the exercise was meant to illustrate retirement. He tells us about how he was forced to retire from the army at the age of 50, when he was still very active.“What I wanted for you is to feel how it is to retire in the middle of life when you know so much and you’re so proficient... and you’re managing everything and I just said ‘I don’t need you anymore,’” he says. “People retire not because they want to retire, not because they’re fed up and not because they’re not capable of working.Because someone decided they have to go.”We enter a small space called the “crossroads” with two doors: one labeled “Looking Back” and the other “Looking Ahead.” Each person decides for himself which door to go through.Behind the forward-looking door, I watch an extraordinarily life-like elderly robot/puppet operate Facebook, video chat with her granddaughter about a school assignment and talk to us about her travels to Thailand and Afghanistan.“They took away my driver’s license,” she says. But she has not given up on life. “You know how you know you’re old?” she asks. “When your dreams are replaced by regret.”The tech-savvy robot continues: “I can’t drive anymore, but I can fly. Oh baby, I can fly.”“What’s old?” I ask Omer. There is no such number, he says. “It’s a completely personal and unique experience.”At long last we move into an Israeli living room circa 1975. Family photos adorn the walls and bookshelves. It is comforting to sit around the wooden table for a reflection on the full experience.Someone asks Dudai, who still writes stories and also about Israel’s history, if he has accomplished all that he set out to in his life.“I became a saba [grandfather]. For me, the word ‘saba’ means resurrection of my family,” he says. But it’s a complicated question. “For me it’s not the end. It’s only the beginning of another day.”