Sad elderly lady in black with a handkerchief

Bioethics Forum Essay

Old Jews

Old Jews are why I am who I am. Not only the old Jews you’d expect–my grandparents and great-grandparents, who came here because, as I learned for a family history project in third grade, “it was bad in Russia.”

Also, the elderly couple who in 1992 shared a room at the Jewish Home. Holocaust survivors, she had been a dance teacher in Paris. With dementia, she danced in bed. I showed up for my volunteer job one day and found her bed stripped. The photographs of her studio taken down. Her obituary is on the bulletin board in my office still.

And the 101-year-old down the same nursing home hallway, who shared my Hebrew name and clasped my hand tight when I had to go home at the end of the day.

And the 85-year-old woman I cared for as a new attending geriatrician. She was dying from a massive stroke. Her two sons were so much like my father and uncle that I had to remind myself I wasn’t actually family. Her husband showed me photographs of the parade he and other Jews held after they returned to their town in Germany in 1945.

And others.

It is the honor of my work to bear witness to the deaths of these old Jews, to comfort them and their families. To love them. Natural deaths in old age. A triumph over hatred and evil.

Now it is bad here, in the United States of America. Old Jews shot to death with a machine gun in a neighborhood synagogue. Maybe where I’d go to shul if I happened to live in Pittsburgh instead of New York. You’re only supposed to see this in Holocaust memorials and museums.

I don’t know the victims’ stories, only their familiar names.

Joyce Fienberg, 75. Richard Gottfried, 65. Rose Mallinger, 97. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66. Cecil Rosenthal, 59. David Rosenthal, 54. Bernice Simon, 84. Sylvan Simon, 86. Daniel Stein, 71. Melvin Wax, 88. Irving Younger, 69.

I never thought I’d bear witness to this.

Hannah I. Lipman, MD, MS, is director of the Center for Bioethics at Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack Meridian Health, in New Jersey.

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Hastings Bioethics Forum essays are the opinions of the authors, not of The Hastings Center.

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