Naomi Zaslow looks straight into life and embraces it — not just the parts that bring joy, but all of it. Call it radical acceptance.
In the last five years, the 88-year-old resident of Lester Senior Housing in Whippany has had to cope not only with the ravages of age and the loss of her husband, but also the deaths of two of her four adult children. Jeffrey was in a fatal car accident in 2012, and Darryll succumbed to brain cancer in February. Darryll, who lived in Baltimore, was diagnosed just two weeks after he delivered his mother a copy of his just-published book, “The Approaching Year 6000: A History of the Jews from Pre-Time to the Sixth Millennium” (Esrogim Publications, 2016).
Sitting in the library of Lester Housing on a bright morning in early April, Naomi pointed out that when people offer condolences, they often say “Sorry for your loss.” Rather than ruminate on it, she takes a different approach: “I’m happy for what I had,” she said. “It’s too heavy otherwise to deal with it. I think of the good stuff.
“We don’t make the rules. You can’t obsess over what you cannot change. These are the cards you are dealt. I accept it.”
This is not a woman who gets lost in what might have been or what should have been. Instead, she makes things happen — it’s something she’s always done. She tried to be president of her class in elementary school, but girls weren’t allowed; so she agreed to be vice president until junior high school, “when things lightened up.” As an adult, many people her age feared technology, but she embraced it, becoming the first person in the Philadelphia school where she worked, and possibly in the entire district, to have a computer in her office. People came in so often to check out the computer, that she said, “I couldn’t get my work done!” And she embraced cable television in the 1990s, helping her students create their own soap opera, “General High School,” that brought the school some acclaim.
When she arrived at Lester, she wrote for The Lester Chronicle. “I’m drawn to being involved in every community in which I live,” she said. “I love watching people. If the opportunity arises to write about them and learn more about them, it pleases me and pleases others.”
And she realized that she could also teach Yiddish. Once a month, 15-20 people, by her estimate, join her, look at a saying or phrase or joke, translate it, and talk about life in the shtetl. “There was an emotional depth to Yiddish and a component of humor that really you don’t always get in a language,” she said.
There is also an intuitive value to the class.
“It makes us feel good to be together looking back at what made our lives what they were when Yiddish was a part of it.”
Though her parents spoke to each other in Yiddish, it wasn’t her native tongue; instead, she learned it at the age of 3, from a woman who only spoke Yiddish and rented a room in their home. “If I wanted to interact with Mrs. Feinstein, I had to learn Yiddish.”
She hasn’t led the Yiddish class since Darry, as she calls her son, died. Asked about his book, she called it “wonderful” but admitted she had to put it down after his diagnosis. “I started it but I feel so much sorrow, I’m not ready.” She said she’s unable to read the many books by her third son, Jeffrey, who died in 2012. A Wall Street Journal reporter, he wrote or co-authored “The Last Lecture” (with Randy Pausch); “Highest Duty” (with Chesley Sullenberger); “The Magic Room;” and “The Girls from Ames.”
Still, she smiles as she talks about her deceased sons. “I can still hear my Jeff on the phone,” she said, explaining that he often called as he finished a chapter. “‘Hi Mom. Take a look at this. See what you think.’”
And she describes Darry, an attorney, as someone with an infectious personality and positive energy that drew people to him. “He was so passionate about everything you sort of joined in.” That was true whether he was writing a book that took 10 years to complete or planting Etrog trees in Florida and the Caribbean, or building a shul. “Everything he did he did with such strength and vigor and enthusiasm.”
Because he became religious as an adult, she finds some solace in the decision to bury him in Jerusalem. “When I get feelings of sadness I think of him on the hill of green and I think my son is here looking out at Jerusalem — I think he’s in the right place.”
She also thinks about the family, together, spending summers in their home on the Jersey Shore in Ventnor. “We were such a close family,” she said. Referring to her many grandchildren, the youngest of whom are now in their late teens, she said, “When the kids were little everyone would come to the shore, and it was wall to wall mattresses and beds.” She added, “The children had each other, the adults had each other, and we had them all.”
She captured it all in her memoir, “Memories: Of a Life Well Loved” (AuthorHouse, 2006).
“Whatever we could get out of life or family, we did,” she said. Her daughter Lisa Zaslow Segelman is a former NJJN writer and communications specialist who lives in Randolph and her eldest, Michael, is a physician in Boston.
She’s honest about her stage in life, and joked that she’d love to create a show called “One Flew over Lester,” on the challenges of aging. “It’s a time of life when everyone has difficulties. It can be amusing. Or you might see someone do something and wonder, how long before you do it?” But, even with her experience with “General High School,” she said she won’t do it, because she lacks the energy of her younger self, though this visitor believes that she has more than most of her peers, if not of those many years younger. “Now I have to deal with the physical. I can see I’m not what I was physically,” she said.
As she waved goodbye, she called out, “Make sure you enjoy everything — everything.” I thought I heard her add, “And accept what is.”