Kicking off cocoons in Tel Aviv

For ageing Tel Avivians, 60 is the new 40 and it's life as usual.

senior dancing 88 298 (photo credit: )
senior dancing 88 298
(photo credit: )
Sir Paul McCartney is considering changing the lyrics to the Beatles classic to read "when I'm 84" instead of "when I'm 64" because, he says, people no longer think of 64 as old. McCartney will turn 64 on June 18 this year. The people who defined "cool" in the Sixties are over 60 today, and still cool. There is no finer example of this than in Tel Aviv where more than 20 percent of the city's population is over 65. The Pensioners' Party (GIL - Gimla'ei Yisrael Laknesset), the surprise list in last month's national elections, reaped its greatest harvest among Tel Aviv residents, at 9.1 percent. In Tel Aviv, young and old live side-by-side harmoniously. Roaming the city's major byways such as Shenkein, Dizengoff and Ben Yehuda on a Friday afternoon, one is hard-pressed to find older residents acting the part of rocking-chair grandparents. When approached, the senior citizens out at that time react as though age has little to do with their social circles. They are most often found in mixed-aged groups. "Today people in their 60s are like what people used to be like at 40," explains Sharon Sleeper, 63, from Bat Yam, who travels to Tel Aviv daily to volunteer and enjoy the city's offerings. "You can't tell us [the over-60s] apart from anyone else, because we color our hair and stand taller than we used to," says Sleeper. The retired nurse keeps busy by volunteering, hiking and running a small bed and breakfast from her home. She can be spotted walking from Bat Yam to Rehov Bograshov every Shabbat, when she attends a conservative synagogue. Sleeper's friends range from 18-year-old Eilat who also volunteers at Physicians For Human Rights, to Elizabeth Kroo, who celebrated her 90th birthday this week. "I feel freedom and am only starting to grow up at 63," says Sleeper, a grandmother of three who made aliya and left her family behind in the US 10 years ago. "I am the one who left the nest - a grandma with frequent-flyer miles." In line with a general trend in the Western world, it appears that more elderly Tel Avivians are remaining active, and for longer. "I am continuing life as before. My days are filled with work and hobbies. There's no change in my lifestyle from before I was 60," says former MK Mordechai Virshubski, now a city councilor and chairman of a disabled people's organization, who will turn 76 in three weeks. "If you regard yourself as a 'senior citizen' and that is your mission in life, well then, I don't know anything about that. If you have too much leisure time and have a lot of time to think that you are not so young anymore, you start to feel pains and cranks in the body," adds Virshubski. He has lived in the same half kilometer radius of Sedrot Ben Gurion in central Tel Aviv since 1939. His wife of 51 years, Viola, has been a Tel Avivian since 1935. "We feel ourselves as part of the growing of Tel Aviv. It was a smaller and nicer city once, but now it's much more interesting." Younger residents of the city have noticed that their more senior counterparts are not only going out, but are also part of the in-crowd. After four on a Friday afternoon, a diverse crowd was hanging out at Caf Mersand on Rehov Ben Yehuda. Karen Anderson, a 60-something former Glaswegian dressed in a light-brown suede suit and with delicate make-up, was sitting outside on the patio with her friend Meira Erez. Anderson was asked how her life changed when she turned 60. "Nothing has changed in my life. I have just gone on and left another year behind," she replied. She has been working at the Scottish School in Jaffa as a teacher for the past 15 years. "I love being in Tel Aviv," says Anderson, who is not Jewish. "It hasn't the awesomeness of Jerusalem, but has just as much dignity." Anderson prefers Caf Mersand on Tuesday evenings, when the DJ plays music from a mix of decades - the 30s, 40s and 50s. Erez, her younger friend, likes Mersand for its lack of pomposity and the fact that the staff are mostly artists. When it comes to clothing, Erez, who operates a nearby second-hand clothing shop, thinks that most Israeli women are not really limited in their minds by their age when choosing what to wear, although she may occasionally meet an 80 year old who calls some of the clothing suggested to her "too-young." Sitting in front of Anderson and Erez are Danny and Kfir, both 30-year olds. "This was one of Tel Aviv's mythological coffee places," says Danny, adding that he is more of a regular at Bacho on Rehov King George. Bacho and Mersand both draw a mixed-ages crowd, he notes. "At Bacho the younger people are smoking pot and the older ones are just hanging out." Kfir, Danny's friend, said that he was one of the many young Tel Avivians who voted for the Pensioners' Party in last month's national election. "There was no alternative. I thought about Aleh Yarok (the pro-marijuana Green Leaf party) but the cause of the pensioners was more important. Besides, my parents are new pensioners." On the corner of Rehov Shenkein and Rehov Ahad Ha'am is Cafe Tamar, a notorious hangout for Tel Aviv's older left-wing intellectuals. Talking with them proved to be a harrowing experience. The caf 's powerhouse proprietor Sara Stern - who drives a Jeep and must be approaching her 80s - is getting ready to wrap up the week. "I'm too tired to talk right now. There's a famous artist here. You can talk to him if you like," she says, motioning vaguely to a crowd of older people sitting outside. A small cluster of men, one resembling Willy Nelson, are singing in Hebrew as though they were in a Scottish pub. Tamar's crowd on average is older than Mersand's; Tamar's men are surlier and drunker too. Besides the cafes and watering holes, Tel Aviv also offers a spread of activities for the more traditionally-minded. One Tel Aviv resident pointed out that the rise of pensioners' activities in Israel may be due to Tel Aviv's deputy mayor, Nathan Wolloch, who for seven years has been heading the six-member Pensioners' faction (Siat Gimla'im) on the 31-strong municipal council. "Someone has to help them and we decided to do it," says Wolloch, 69, a veteran Mapainik. "Now, aged people have an address to turn to if they have any problems. We opened a cultural center on 9 Rehov Dizengoff where people can buy cheap tickets for theatre, bus tours and special trips abroad." Not that residents have to go far to enjoy life. "Tel Aviv is a cultural city with wonderful activities and a good climate. I believe [people over 60] are happy here. We can't forget that one million people are coming from the suburbs to Tel Aviv every day to work, study and be entertained. Many of them are seniors," says Wolloch. As part of his work, Wolloch sees to it that older students can study at Hashahar College in Tel Aviv, which over the past three years has accumulated 4,000 students and holds lectures at ZOA House, the Eretz Museum and six other venues around the city. "It's the cheapest college in the area. People are very satisfied," adds Wolloch, who also helped to reach special agreements with local hospitals to provide discounted check-ups. His office also helps older people with legal advice and personal issues such as drafting wills. Wolloch prefers the term "aged people" over "old people." "When an aged man or woman comes to a public office, the younger generation tends to look at him or her as a trouble-maker. You have to give them [aged people] respect." Besides, says Wolloch, it says so in the Bible. "Don't throw me out when I am growing old; and when my power is diminished, don't leave me," he paraphrases. "No, I'm not religious, but I have my own beliefs." As for fuelling the success of the Gil party, Wolloch responds, "We started and gave the motivation to the national Pensioners' Party. We need them to succeed [in the incoming Knesset] because if they will fail it can affect us too." David (not his real name), 72, a consultant living in Tel Aviv, responds to a query about pensioners in Tel Aviv on a newsgroup. "Tel Aviv is a city where large numbers of older people can live independent lives, with urban amenities within walking distance of many neighborhoods. As a result, these people mix into the general population [rather than] through the various Senior or Golden Age programs offered by the municipality, the AACI and the commercial and not-for-profit nursing home facilities." Senior citizens can be spotted playing backgammon on the beachside boardwalk at the foot of Rehov Allenby. They start playing together in the mornings and attract lots of pigeons. Other older folk can be found playing matkot - an Israeli version of paddle tennis without the net - on the beach. Gentleman are sometimes even found playing in their underwear. David has taken notice of some places where older people are studying. "Older people enrolled at the Kibbutz Seminar College in Ramat Aviv and the Goldstein-Goren Cultural Center on Rehov Lasalle study alongside younger classmates in the age brackets of their children or grandchildren." He points out another popular pastime for the elderly. "Some of the coffee places at Dizengoff Center seem to have become midday magnets for older people who don't seem to be shopping." Another Tel Avivian wrote that she likes to go down to the Gordon Beach promenade on a Saturday "where the age range is all over the place, for Israeli folk dancing. I love going to watch and am always impressed by the number of seniors dancing their tucheses off." A.M. from North Tel Aviv adds: "It's cool to be old in Tel Aviv because you can sit down and wait at the Post Office!" About 250 older folks averaging 75 to 80 are clearly not wasting their time in the Post Office. Instead the highlight of their week is Cafe Europa, where on Sunday afternoons they boogie, play the kissing dance and do the funky chicken to anything with a beat. Meant solely for Holocaust survivors and those in hiding during the war, it is an opportunity for a generation of people to reclaim a youth they never experienced. Marilyn Fefer, coordinator for Cafe Europa in Tel Aviv, says newcomers are welcome to show up at Rehov Rashi 48 around 5 p.m. At the very least, it offers a good reason to get out of the house; and at the very best, grandmothers and grandfathers will have something to dance about. "On the whole, Tel Aviv is a good place for all people to live," concludes Virshubski. "There are activities for young and old and many institutions for elderly people to find their place under the sun. You don't have to climb hills like in Haifa or Jerusalem, and you can go to the beach. July, August and September are not perfect months, but otherwise the climate is quite acceptable. I have been around the world to China, Russia and North America. To live, it only can be in Tel Aviv."