Older Israelis Home Alone for Passover: ‘I’ve Lived Through Worse’

Residents of senior citizens’ homes and older people living on their own aren’t jumping for joy, but they’re muddling through

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Asher Cailingold, 90, at the Nofei Yerushalayim senior housing project, April 6, 2020.
Asher Cailingold, 90, at the Nofei Yerushalayim senior housing project, April 6, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In the senior housing project (“don’t call us an old-folks’ home!”) Nofei Yerushalayim, people have gotten used to the new reality of the coronavirus threat. The residents, mostly affluent people from pre-World War II Germany or from English-speaking countries, have been instructed to stay indoors and, obviously, not to receive guests, while maintaining a distance of six feet from each other. However, they still meet in the lobby.

“In the past, we sat wherever we felt like, and anyone who wanted to would come down here,” says Asher Cailingold, 90. “Now it’s more restricted and done only in accordance with the rules.” The cafeteria has also made some adjustments. “We’ve started offering coffee to go,” he explains. “You come and place an order. They put it in a closed cup and you leave.”

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Meeting with visiting family members has also changed. These meetings are held at the entrance to the complex. Cailingold keeps a safe distance, exchanging air kisses with his grandchildren, instead of the real thing. The rest of the time, they meet on Zoom.

The digital world is providing a temporary substitute in other ways as well. Lecturers, who no longer come every evening to the auditorium to entertain the project’s residents, now do their lectures over WhatsApp. Even communal singing is done through the phone, says Cailingold, instead of live with an audience in the lobby.

Sixty miles away, 80-year-old Kochava Gabbay sits in a small apartment in Hadera, living on a National Insurance Institute allowance. She is alone, far from her husband, who is hospitalized in an assisted-living home with Alzheimer’s disease. Her children are not close, either. One daughter became religious and is raising six children, while another is in a hostel for people with disabilities. “I’m totally alone” Gabbay says. “I’ve been closed indoors for a month without going out, without anything.”

More than anything else, she suffers from the separation from her husband who, despite his condition, can still express his love for her, needing her love in return. “Before the coronavirus I would visit him every day, without missing even one, except Yom Kippur. But now his institution is closed,” she says. “We’ve been married for 61 years, our connection is like the one you find in books, a wonderful love. His home says they’ve never seen anything like it.” In the absence of other options, they now meet on Zoom. “He looks at me from his wheelchair, telling people around him: That’s my pretty wife, she’s just mine, don’t be jealous. He might forget after five minutes, but he’s still happy to see me, and that tears me up.”

When Gabbay realized that she couldn’t afford her diabetes medication any longer, seeing that she couldn’t even pay for daily necessities either, she turned to her city’s welfare services. At the same time, she got some help from an unexpected source. She was contacted by Ina Lulkina, a 31-year-old resident of Herzliya, who had decided to use her free time during this epidemic for doing good deeds. Lulkina opened a Facebook page called “Assistance for the elderly across Israel,” which led to volunteers bringing a package of necessities to Gabbay’s apartment.

They also delivered a package to the Hatikva neighborhood in Tel Aviv. The recipient in this case was 68-year-old Mazal, who also lives alone. “I contacted a social worker, who told me that this year there was no distribution of food, and that if I wanted to, they could deliver food to my house for a fee,” said Mazal. “I told her that was difficult for me, but she said that this is what they could offer.”

Her son, who lives in the north, can’t visit her. An aide provided by the NII sometimes comes to help her shower. “I’m at home, I don’t go out and no one comes visiting. I sit and watch TV. So far, I’ve seen “Big Brother.” Now that it’s over I watch Channel 13,” she says. On Passover she’ll be alone, “in front of the television. What can I do?”

Not far from there, in Bat Yam, Jacques Rueff, 71, goes on his daily walk, wearing a mask and gloves. He’s had to change his usual itinerary, which before the coronavirus was just under four miles long, and now walks around the building. He’s switched off his TV. “All they talk about is 'corona,' it’s way too much, and about politics, which is worse than coronavirus. I even considered giving up cable,” he says, but he was persuaded that 200 shekels ($56) a month is worth it, even if he does see the same movie four times in one week. Rueff came from Morocco 56 years ago, and used to celebrate Passover with his expanded family of 40-50 people. This year, he already knows, “I won’t have an option, I’ll be alone.”

The Nofei Yerushaleim assisted living facility, Jerusalem, March 11, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Lipstick in the morning

In Ramat Gan, 85-year-old Yona Ehrlich begins her day by putting on lipstick in front of a mirror. “I’m okay even in these crazy days, so I don’t know if I’m a good example,” she says apologetically. “I get up every morning, I get dressed and organized so that I have some kind of schedule.” Ehrlich was born in Lisbon to parents who had emigrated from Poland. She came to Israel at the age of three weeks. (“Go figure how they did such a thing!”) She’s been homebound for five weeks, only going down to her yard. Nevertheless, she admits, she’s “managing just fine” even with anxiety-ridden sleepless nights.

“I’m being looked after,” she says happily, telling of the six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren who maintain daily contact by phone. They sent her some exercises on WhatsApp, and she is now busy preparing fish that the family will come and collect, maintaining the required distance. She even received a surprise cake from one of her granddaughters. “I won’t have a seder, what can I do,” she says. “Perhaps I’ll watch TV, I only want to eat something a little more festive. I’ll try not to cry.”

Khariton Greenblatt isn’t worried, at least not about himself. The 95-year-old Armored Corps veteran from Netanya, who in 1943 took part in the largest tank battle in history at Kursk, between the Soviets and the Nazis, saw “people disappearing every day, since life on the front was very short.”

Khariton Greenblatt outside his home in Netanya, April 7, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

For that reason, he’s not flustered by a mere virus. In the first days after the outbreak of the epidemic he continued with his routine, visiting his close friend, “an 86-year-old gal who needs my help,” after almost completely losing her eyesight. “I visit her, buying her food and medication. Who else will do it?” he wondered at a meeting with a volunteer from a nonprofit group advocating Israeli solidarity, who explained to him why he must stop going to the supermarket and the pharmacy, due to the risk to his health. Other volunteers are now looking after his friend.

His 28-year-old neighbor Eli Golossovsky, who has a Facebook page devoted to heroes of World War II, has used these days to document Greenblatt’s stories of heroism for the first time. Among other exploits, he learned about a suicide mission that Greenblatt survived through sheer luck. “Our tanks were supposed to move towards German positions in order to draw fire. We were supposed to expose their positions and allow our artillery to knock them out,” the veteran recalled. But his tank’s communication system broke down and he moved to another tank. Immediately after that, the tank he’d left exploded after being hit by a German shell. At the end of the war he received a medal for “unceasingly risking his life.”

Tivon resident Yitzhak Doron, 92, was born in Lodz and also survived the war. He was a prisoner in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau, Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen. “I’ve gone through more difficult things,” he says, referring to the virus. “I’m optimistic by nature.” He spends his time listening to the radio, maintaining ties with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren by phone “and with that software you use for exchanging photos over the internet,” he says. He will celebrate the seder with his Filipina caregiver, but says he’s made a deal with God: “After the coronavirus, we’ll hold a proper seder.”

Pamela Lovell, one of Asher Cailingold’s neighbors in Nofei Yerushalayim, is enjoying opera and movies that she connects to her smartphone so her husband, whose vision is impaired, can also enjoy them. She’ll hold the seder with a few other couples, after receiving permission to do so.

The uncertainty bothers her the most. “We need someone to inject some hope and encouragement.” She listened to Queen Elizabeth’s speech this week, and was encouraged by the words “we’ll meet again,” which for people from Britain recalls the famous morale-boosting WWII song by Vera Lynn, which Lovell promptly broke into.

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