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What Do a Bunch of Old Jews Know About Living Forever?


Mrs. Radosh says to the rabbi, “My husband keeps shrinking! When we married he was five foot eight, and now he’s five foot four. Can you say a blessing for him?”
“Of course: May he live to be four foot ten.”

Peter Keane, the baby of the family at 101, lives with his wife, Elisabeth, called Beth, in Westport, Connecticut, on a pleasant suburban street filled with mature shrubs and trees, including a huge weeping cherry by the driveway. Peter was pretty much fine until 2007, when the glaucoma and macular degeneration that had been under control for years suddenly turned catastrophically worse. Within months he was blind. Now his eyes often weep of their own accord; Beth, always noticing, subtly tucks a tissue in Peter’s fist to cue him.

Aside from that, and a general weakness that makes his cushioned wheelchair useful, he looks to be in great shape. He has a lot of hair, not even all gray; his voice is clear and expressive. Like most old or even middle-aged people, he can lose track or forget a word he’s looking for; the only odd thing about it is how upset he gets when this happens. He’ll stammer on a syllable, fighting to get it out, or give up with a pained cry of “Shit!” Or he’ll bicker with Beth. “If you’d just let me say it!” he yelps occasionally, to which she always responds, “Yes, dear.”

Beth is 67; they met in 1984, when she was 40 and Peter a very youthful divorcé of 73. “He was charming and delightful and fun to be with, and he remains so,” Beth says; when Peter starts telling the story of his life, in vivid and sometimes bawdy detail, you can see what she means. A cross between Zelig and Douglas Fairbanks, he seems to turn up everywhere in the last century’s book of glamorous pursuits, then disappear and pop up again somewhere else.

It does not make his blindness any less painful that most of these exploits involved a camera. After graduating from Cornell with a degree in ornithology in 1932, he went to work, at $17 a week, for Margaret Bourke-White, developing film and assisting on location. “When she went out on the gargoyles”—for her famous shots of the Chrysler Building—“I went too.” Next he’s in Hollywood, an assistant cameraman on the sets of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, shooting Vivien Leigh as she escapes from Atlanta in a buggy and watching Judy Garland lip-synch “Over the Rainbow.” Two tours of the Pacific in the Signal Corps with Frank Capra; work on the development of Technicolor; a stint at Screen Gems; and then the balance of his career, until his retirement at 81, in video technology at HBO: All rush forth with a young man’s gusto.

But when he pauses, the stories gutter. Beth restarts him, subtly, with a prompt. Still, his memories, however merry, are soon revealed to be merely dutiful, dragged out for my benefit. If they are worth the effort, Peter admits, “it’s news to me.”

Inanely, I seek refuge from this sadness by exclaiming over a doe snitching birdseed from a feeder outside the window. But of course Peter can’t see that. The gorgeous weeping cherry is someone else’s joy.

“I can’t do much now, really,” he says equably. “I talk to people I used to know on the phone. They ask me how the weather is, and I don’t know. I tell them I never get out. Is that depressing? Very. No cure for it, though. I said when it happened that if you lose your eyesight, you are 99 percent dead. The other one percent, that’s a matter of habit. Except for other”—he struggles to find the word but makes do with an approximation—“instances, I still feel that way: I’d rather die. The other instances are family, Bethy. That’s enough.”

He does not feel the need to adjust either side of this statement, but simply sits with it. So does Beth, her hands folded.

“It also depends on how you decide to go.”

And here Beth changes the subject to happier things: Peter’s two children from his first marriage, his two grandchildren, the time ten years ago when all four Kahns spent a day on the terrace. Everyone seemed so young then, she says. “I’m not sure I even know what old is now.”

Peter does: “Dumb luck.”

At his checkup, Schwartz asks the doctor, “Do you think I’ll live to 100? I don’t smoke or drink or eat rich food or have sex with loose women.”
“So why do you want to live to 100?”


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