39 JSL Residents eloquently express why we should not write them off.
People who don’t know me very well always ask where I got the idea to do a book with the residents of Jewish Senior Life of Metropolitan Detroit (JSL). The answer is that I was practically born with the idea that every story belongs between the covers of a book. Prior to the age of ten, that’s where I found all my friends. And even after I started talking to real human beings, I pretty much preferred books.
So, when I came to JSL last year — and there were all these people living here — what I saw were 800 or so stories waiting to be told. I had already put together one such anthology with my writers’ group, so I knew the mechanics. I also knew that this would be an order of magnitude more difficult given the gap between the technology needed for the project and the digital capabilities of the average 90-year-old.
It was clear that I would need help. My first thought was Shari Cohen, who leads a very special writers’ group at Meer Independent Living Apartments. Then, I called my friend Kim Lifton. Kim is a great writer herself, and she knows everyone in town. If you don’t know her, you must be new here. She started reeling off names of people who could do what needed to be done. Alan Hitsky, Elizabeth Applebaum, Shelli Dorfman, and Sy Manello (all former writers and editors for the Detroit Jewish News) all agreed to assist. Also, as some people come from families of doctors or lawyers, I come from a family of writers, so I recruited my cousin Wendy Robins.
There are several capable interviewers on our JSL staff, so Jo Rosen and Nicole Lupiloff joined this glorious quest. I also roped in Charley Silow, director of the Holocaust Program, partly because we needed expert eyes on survivor stories, and partly because Charley’s just a really cool dude. Hannah Moss, who chairs FRIENDS of JSL’s Lives Well Lived event is also a writer, so she jumped in. And God bless whoever connected us to Phyllis Schwartz, who rounded out the group.
In my fiction-addled mind this was becoming the fellowship of the ring — well, the fellowship of the book anyways. Pen mightier than sword … okay, never mind.
We sent a flyer to the residents of each of our six buildings on our Oak Park and West Bloomfield campuses and got a tremendous response. I went to the buildings and met with those who were interested. The vision was illuminating older adulthood, rather than recounting the adventures of youth. Sadly, one of the gentlemen bowed out, saying, “there’s nothing interesting in my life anymore.” I was heartbroken he felt that way, as I rather hoped he would write about it. But that’s me. Everything’s a story.
Then I got the first first draft. It was from Diane Pliskow, a Prentis Apartments resident, and was written from the point of view of Timothy, her cat. I was surprised and delighted.
Next came a funny short piece from Sheba Zietchick at Meer about falling and breaking her wrist, and the challenges of being temporarily one-handed.
Nancy Kalef took a light look at anal cancer (a pain in the butt, according to her).
And then there was a powerful, anthemic piece from Jill Messinger about having her leg amputated.
And Edith Maniker reflected on sharing her story of being a Kindertransport child with school groups at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
As I knew it would, this collection had become a living thing, growing in all directions, taking on the depth and breadth of human experience.
This, I thought, was going to be some book.
This project has been blessed by so many moments of kismet. Early in the project, portrait photographer Ira Goldberg, inspired by our annual Eight Over Eighty event, reached out with the most incredible offer. He wanted to do a portrait of every JSL resident. This happened just as the editorial team was starting to send cell phone shots of the writers, and I thought, wow, it would be great to have Ira’s photographs in our book.
Ira approaches portraiture the way I approach writing a profile, so we hit it off right away. He sat with each of our writers, asked them about their pieces and got to know them a bit before creating the beautiful portraits that grace the book. Each one is worth at least a thousand words.
And then, Brett Panter, graphic designer extraordinaire, combined the portraits into a beautiful cover for the collection.
I had assigned myself to work with several of the writers and I had the genius idea of having them dictate their stories into a Google document via the voice-to-text function. That worked pretty well with Ada Bandalene, a Meer resident with a USO past and a lively stage voice, but not at all with a resident who had an accent Google docs couldn’t make any sense of (I had to reinterview her). I employed Chat GPT to add punctuation to the Google docs, also a largely failed experiment. AI may take over the world one day, but Chat GPT still needs to go to grammar school.
About four of the 39 participants have computers and know how to use them. So, I spent a good bit of time running to writers’ apartments to send myself documents from their digital devices. I typed up a bunch of handwritten submissions, along with one plunked out on a typewriter we dug up for Teitel resident Al Zlatkin.
Anyway, while all this was going on, the annual fundraising event where we would launch the book was taking on a life of its own. We knew we wanted to focus on storytelling. Did we want to do a reading from the book, engage the Readers Theatre groups at Meer and Hechtman, program around a film like we did last year
, with the film Iris, about fashion icon Iris Apfel? We had a fashion show featuring JSL residents, and everyone wore big glasses and boas, and it was a blast. As former director of the Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival at The J, I love presenting films. One of my favorite things to do is sit at the back of a theater watching people enjoy a film I picked.
So, we decided on Young at Heart, the Academy Award-winning short documentary by Detroiter Sue Marx, who we sadly lost earlier this year. More kismet — Jo Rosen, JSL’s Executive Director of Development — knows journalist Jack Lessenberry, a good friend of Sue Marx. He introduced us to another friend of Marx, author Bill Haney.
I had a great chat with Bill, and he was so passionate on the subject of listening to our elders, that I asked him to write the foreword for the book, which he did, elegantly and eloquently summing up its raison d'etre.
The cherry on the whole book/film sundae was that Haney and Lessenberry agreed to present a tribute to Sue Marx and introduce her film. To round out the program — which will include a dessert pre-glow and meet and greet with the Don’t Write Me Off! authors — I wanted a couple more short films. Actually, I just wanted to present the film Death Metal Grandma, because, I mean, Death Metal Grandma! Who wouldn’t? We also picked Wendy’s Shabbat because it fits perfectly with older adults living their best lives, not as mountain climbers or PhD candidates, but as older adults.
In the meantime, we got to the part of book creating that I dread a little — editing, proofreading and publishing. I don’t mind editing. I do it all the time. But wrangling 39 different drafts? Fortunately, on a past anthology, I learned that if I don’t tell writers to put their names in the file names, I am guaranteed dozens of docs unhelpfully named some variation on “book project,” or “essay.”
Anyway, I’m mostly going to skip over this part here because it’s best forgotten, kind of like childbirth. You have to forget in order to provide siblings. So, with the hopes that this book will have a sibling, I’m skipping ahead to all the nights I spent awake, trembling with anxiety that I spelled someone’s name wrong. No, wait, skip ahead further. Got the book up on Amazon, on the platform we order print copies from, more anxious nights worrying about spelling, and then the glorious moment when the book arrives. We’re not there yet, but it is the actual reason I did all this.
I have experienced the moment when my words came back to me between the covers of a book, and it is as thrilling as dropping the one ring into the fires of Mordor (and almost as hard to get to). The end of the journey brings me back to its beginning —giving older adults, who are so often overlooked, that glorious moment of holding a book with their name on the cover and knowing that someone would read it and see them.
I hope everyone will come out and meet our writers, see the films, have a cookie and coffee and a visit with friends. And support all that JSL does for Detroit’s older adults, including, and especially, giving them a voice.
JSL’s Lives Well Lived: Wrinkles in Time
Tuesday, November 14, at 7pm at The J
(6600 West Maple Road, West Bloomfield).
Tickets are a minimum donation of $75, and include pre-glow, program, and free valet parking. Tickets and sponsorship opportunities are available at jslmi.org.
Copies of Don’t Write Me Off! will be available for $18 at the event, in the boutiques in Meer Apartments and Fleischman Residence/Blumberg Plaza, and on Amazon.
Finally, big, big shoutout to our resident writers:
Larry L. Aronoff
Eleanor E. Johnson
Harry M. Krim
Regina L. Turner