Review of Number Our Days
Number Our Days is an ethnographic work on elderly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe living in a city in southern California. Barbara Myerhoff developed a rapport with the group through their Jewish Community Center, as they spend their days fraternizing and pontificating. The group is impoverished in terms of money, but immeasurably wealthy in terms of memory, perspective, and philosophy. More than an ethnography of the aging process, Myerhoff's study of the group's fears, joys, ceremonies, and life histories emerges as a testament not only to the strength of the Jewish people, but as a testament also to the enduring nature of the human spirit in the face of adversity. As Myerhoff takes one of her main informant, Schmuel's, advice, "Let people surprise you," (41) the individuals she studies offer brilliant and honest accounts of maintaining identity in the face of adversity.
Number Our Days contributes to studies of the Jewish people, the elderly, and the immigrant experience. She nimbly weaves perspectives pertaining to each of these points throughout her highly empathetic narrative and memoir-esque musings. By viewing the subjects of her ethnographic studies through a variety of theoretical gazes, she allows a holistic representation of the individuals to emerge. She did not approach her work with the intent of viewing the elders strictly through, per se, the gaze of the immigrant experience. She incorporates a variety of perspectives, allowing the intricate and resounding humanity of the elders to emerge, both individually and collectively. The undeniable humanity of the elders is perhaps represented in its truest and quirkiest light through Myerhoff's inclusion of the bobbe-mysehs (grandmother's tales). Each other the elder's individual personalities are allowed to shine, and a sense of their collective identity emerges. For instance, one of the elders, Jake, rattles off a list of curses from the Old World: "'May your teeth get mad and eat your head off.' 'May you inherit a hotel with one hundred rooms and be found dead in every one.' 'May you have ten sons and all your daughters-in-law hate you.' 'May all your teeth fall out but one, and that one has a cavity.' 'May the gypsies camp on your stomach and the bears do the kazotskhi in your liver'" (156). Myerhoff's inclusion of these phrases and squabbles is not merely 'for color,' but truly allows the elders an opportunity to leave their personal mark on her ethnographic work while representing some of the philosophies and perspectives of Judaism and their experience as immigrants.
Ultimately, Myerhoff's compassion for and dedication to these people shine through this work. The section dedicated to the retelling of her grandmother's tale, for instance, is markedly personal and reflexive, but represents the deep connection she felt with these people. "Sometimes she would awaken and we would begin whispering in the darkness, gathering in all our past, telling the stories again, forestalling everything that waited outside the room. When her eyes and legs were gone, in extreme old age, the stories were with her still, lasting as long as she needed them" (241). Myerhoff applied the same sensitive attention to detail to her subjects in the Center. She clearly strove to paint an accurate picture of these people lives, both in their similarities and their differences, but she eschewed objectivity in favor of a highly subjective and personal approach. If she had applied this same methodology to another subject, it perhaps would have lack authenticity, or been rendered flat or overreaching. However, due to her cultural connection to Judaism, the loving eye in which she gazed as her subjects, and the careful hand with which she penned their stories, the extreme subjectivity of the work allows Number Our Days to emerge as a genuine labor of love.
Though Myerhoff's reflections on and analysis of her subjects are fascinating, the most valuable segments of the work are the elder's monologues and dialogue. Each of their individual life stories could fill a lengthy tome. Though Myerhoff's memoir-esque reflections on her own Jewish identity and personal evolution are eloquent and enriching, she possibly could have offered more to the elder's community by strictly publishing their life histories. All of the individuals, from Schmuel to Rebekkah to Hannah to Nathan, have such intricate and compelling personalities and are veritable goldmines of stories and perspectives. The elders seem to have an innate trustworthiness. Their stories present a sort of timeless validity that transcends interpretation or analysis. Perhaps this trustworthiness is derived from the context of the lives' struggles - from poverty in the shtetl, to survivor's guilt, to their unrequited parental labors of love, to their languishing health. There is an undeniable trustworthiness, or authenticity, in the stories of these Jewish elders.