As I grow older, I sometimes find myself attempting to compare the way I am now with how I remember my father when he was around my age. Of course, I can only speculate what was in my father’s head when he was in his upper 70s. But my fellow seniors and I all marvel at how young we feel, and it’s undeniable that our generation is far fitter and far more active than our parents were at this stage of life.
That’s not to say aging today is easy. My calendar lists many more doctors’ appointments than it used to, and my daily “Things to Do” list seems to grow rather than contract as tiredness sets in and more and more items get pushed to tomorrow. Names that I know I know well hover just beyond reach until I go through the alphabet in my mind in search of a hint. The perfect word to complete my sentence remains obstinately elusive until I rediscover it in my online thesaurus.
Growing old is the theme of one of my favorite poems. Although I’ve never really loved poetry, nor do I find it as uplifting as many others do, I enjoy reading the works of Robert Browning (1812–1889). His celebrated dramatic monologue, Rabbi Ben Ezra, was among the first poems I had to study in my British school. Its very opening lines, which have taken on a life of their own throughout the English-speaking world, immediately lodged themselves in my mind:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
Even though close to half of my classmates were Jewish, I don’t recall the question being raised as to why this Victorian poet chose Avraham Ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century paytan and author of one of the classic commentaries on Tanach, as the narrator of his poem. So as I reread it more recently, and found myself identifying more closely with its theme of aging, I became curious and set out to discover what Browning’s connection with Judaism was.
In fact, there are frequent references to Judaism and to rabbinic literature in [Robert] Browning’s work.
In fact, there are frequent references to Judaism and to rabbinic literature in Browning’s work, and online I discovered many scholarly attempts to trace the influences that triggered his interest. It seems, first of all, that his father’s huge personal library of over 6,000 volumes included some rabbinic works and Hebrew grammars. These must have fascinated him, because he went on to study Hebrew and could read and understand it with considerable ease.
Later in life, Browning spent several winters living very near the Jewish ghetto in Rome and became familiar with its population and its deplorable conditions. In his poem Holy Cross Day, the poet imagines and voices the defiant inner thoughts of a Jew in the Roman ghetto who is forced to listen to the conversionist sermon of a Dominican friar, a hateful practice that was imposed on the Jewish community well into the nineteenth century.
Also, Browning struck up a friendship with the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus during her 1883 visit to London, and they reportedly discussed the meaning of various Hebrew words in the Bible. He displayed his empathy with the Jewish community by joining an 1881 protest against the treatment of the Jews in Russia, and by becoming a member of the committee of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition held in London in 1887.
I also learned a little more about Ibn Ezra and was intrigued to discover that during his many travels, he apparently visited England at least once, in 1158, though it is uncertain if Browning would have known this.
As I reread Rabbi Ben Ezra, I couldn’t identify any specifically Jewish content, but it has been described as setting out a typically optimistic Jewish perspective, in direct contrast to the generally negative concept of old age in Victorian society. A line in the very first stanza, for example, Our times are in His hand, is a reference to Tehillim (31:16), be’yadcha itotai. Checking the original Hebrew, I saw that the context is David Hamelech’s personal plea and confidence in G-d that He will save him from his enemies. But Browning takes it as a statement of confidence in G-d’s plan for each and every individual in each stage of life, right up to the very last.
And so as I myself advance in age, and every now and then experience some of the more disquieting annoyances that the creeping years inevitably bring, I reflect on Browning’s (or should I say Ibn Ezra’s?) assurance that “the best is yet to be,” and on the prayerful words that follow:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust G-d: see all, nor be afraid!”
David Olivestone, an award-winning writer and a member of Jewish Action’s Editorial Committee, retired as the OU’s director of communications in 2013. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Ceil.