Eliezer Sobel is a very complicated man who has written two very simple books.
That is not accidental.
Mr. Sobel, who grew up in Fair Lawn and whose mother still lives there, is a writer, a depressive with a wild, prototypically baby-boomer-Jewish sense of humor, heavily influenced by Woody Allen but deeply original nonetheless. His mother suffers from Alzheimer’s, and Mr. Sobel, using his writer’s eye and imagination, figured out a way to help her.
His books, the general “Blue Sky White Clouds: A Book for Memory-Challenged Adults,” and the more specifically targeted “L’Chaim! Pictures to Evoke Memories of Jewish Life,” are collections of large, brightly colored photographs, with simple captions in large type underneath them. There is no story. Each page is self-contained. Even the caption is not necessary. The delight is in the picture.
The books were born out of Mr. Sobel’s parents’ needs.
First, meet Max and Manya Lerner Sobel as they once were. Manya was a German Holocaust refugee who arrived in New York in 1939, on the Bremen, the last ship that Hitler permitted to leave Germany. She settled in Paterson. Max, who was born in Manhattan and lived in the Bronx, moved to Paterson too; that’s where the two met.
Max Sobel fought in the Battle of the Bulge and came home from World War II with a Purple Heart. The Sobels moved to Fair Lawn before their children were born. “They lived there for at least 67 years,” Mr. Sobel said. “And they were in the same house for 59 years.”
Manya Sobel was a homemaker. Dr. Max Sobel, who earned a doctorate in math education from Columbia and taught at Montclair State for about 50 years, was a pre-eminent math educator. “He published more than 60 math textbooks, on every level from kindergarten through postgraduate,” Eliezer said. “He was famous in the field; he lectured all over the country, his books were translated into many languages and used internationally.
“I had him as a teacher,” he continued. “It was weird. We were using his textbook, and the verbal problems in the book used our names. I grew up as Elliot, and my brother is Harry. The book would say something like, “If it took Elliot three hours to mow the lawn…
“And I got married late, and before that I was a serial monogamist. So every time a new book came out, he’d have to change the name of the girlfriends. Karen and Sharon and…
“When I finally got married, it was days after he retired, and it looked like my wife, Shari” — her full name is Shari Cordon — “wasn’t going to make it into a verbal problem. But then one of his publishers asked him to do just one more edition.” He did, and Shari’s in.
About 17 years ago, Manya developed Alzheimer’s, which worsened as time passed. Eliezer and Shari lived in Virginia. “Three years ago, this time of year, we happened to be in New Jersey for my parents’ 67th anniversary,” Eliezer said. “My father was 90. He was running the household, caring for mom at home, with a staff of aides.
“It was always scary to watch him go upstairs. He was always teetering off balance, carrying coffee. We begged him to hold onto the bannister. One day he decided to carry groceries. The grapes and yogurt made it into the kitchen, but he fell backwards and landed on his head. He had a near-traumatic brain injury. I spent the night in the ICU.
“And suddenly we had two dementia patients.”
At first, his doctors were sure that Max was about to die. “They told us to say our goodbyes,” Eliezer said. “He ended up living another three years, including some good years. He recovered about 75 percent of his mind, and he was able to walk with a walker and someone holding onto his waist. But he was a constant fall risk — he got kicked out of rehab because they kept finding him wandering on his own.”
Eliezer is a writer, and Shari, who was running a research lab at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, was ready to give up her job, so the couple moved back to Fair Lawn. “We ended up living back in my childhood home,” he said. “The bed that I had been in at age 5 I was back in at age 61.
“We lived with them for 10 months, while we got the systems and the right aides in place. Then we moved out, but we never made it home. We have been in New Jersey ever since.” They now live in Red Bank, in Shari’s parents’ house; her mother died after suffering from another form of dementia. Her father, Eliezer reports, is fine.
Dr. Max Sobel died on November 11.
The book grew out of Eliezer’s relationship with his mother. He watched her as she lost her language. “My brother, who is a psychologist, explained that often people with dementia lose language in the reverse order that they learned it as children. Children learn categories.” They classify all things with fur and four legs as animals; they might call all animals cats or dogs or cows or lions. “And then they can distinguish a dog from a cat, and then, at the next level of sophistication, they can distinguish a collie from a German shepherd.
“We noticed that my mother was starting to refer to all mechanical things as machines. She was able to recognize that they all were mechanical objects, but she no longer could differentiate them. And from there she devolved to word salad, where it sounded like English, like she had some thoughts in mind, but it gets out of kilter about three or four words in.
“She’d say something like, ‘Well, I have the pictures and if someone doesn’t come tomorrow then there is nothing I can do. I will have to tell someone to fix it and I have the blue one and the red one.’
“And she picked up a random piece of paper from my father’s desk, and she said, ‘Here it says to call Irv, but I can’t really help these people.’
“She was still speaking English, and in phrases, but it didn’t have any meaning. And then the English went, but she still made sounds. She could speak in gibberish, and I would too, and we’d have long conversations. We’d say, ‘I can’t make the calendalish’ or ‘We’ll buy another barospamat’ or ‘You need to noodle needle the mendel man and we will bendle bishen.’
“It was all with a conversational cadence, and we would go back and forth as if we understood each other.
“And then we assumed that English was gone.
“But then one day I walked into the living room, and she was flipping through the magazines, looking at the headlines, and reading them out loud. Short ones, but still. I was floored. I said, ‘Mom could still read!’ I’d had no idea.
“She couldn’t read sentences or paragraphs, but she could read three words. So I figured that I could get a picture book designed for people with dementia, with beautiful, realistic photographs and simple captions.
“So I went to Barnes & Noble, but there was nothing. I looked in the children’s section, but my mother had an aversion to animation and caricatures and cartoons. She just didn’t like it. That’s the style of design of most children’s books. Also, most children’s books have story continuity.” Following a story was no longer possible for Manya Sobel.
“So I looked all over Amazon, and all over online, and I just couldn’t believe it, but there weren’t any books.
“I called the Alzheimer’s Association, and they put me in touch with the chief Alzheimer’s librarian. She was very snooty at first, and said they had thousands of books. They were all for caregivers. When I explained to her what I wanted, she was silent. I had stumped her.”
Eventually he found one book with a similar idea, but the style was cartoonish, and it was not what he or his mother wanted.
“I can’t believe that with the epidemic of Alzheimer’s, nobody’s thought of it yet, especially since people are struggling to come up with activities for people with dementia other than just sitting in front of TVs in nursing homes. They say they have activities, but often it’s people in wheelchairs nodding off while someone else is standing in front of the room trying desperately to engage them.
“So I came up with the idea.”
The Jewish book shows a wide range of people, all busy at identifiable Jewish activities. “I was looking for as much diversity as possible within the Jewish community,” Eliezer said. “There are kids, the elderly, men, women — I was definitely looking for that.
“I watched my mother with the first book. She seemed to zero in on three of the pictures immediately. One was of an elderly couple. She’d just stare at it for minutes, and touch their cheeks.”
Now, his mother is farther gone with Alzheimer’s. She no longer can decode photographs enough to gain any meaning from them at all. She no longer can recognize anything or anyone. But “even as recently as three to six months ago, if I would stand in front of her long enough, and look in her eyes, and wave, eventually she would notice that someone was there,” Eliezer said. “That moment of connection was sufficient. But now that seems to have gone.”
Despite the immense sadness of his mother’s long fall into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s, there was a sense in which both she and he gained from it, he said.
Manya had always been tight, clenched, rigid; she was, after all, a Holocaust refugee. When she developed Alzheimer’s, she became looser and all of a sudden was free to laugh. “At first, we didn’t recognize this woman, who seemed suddenly free to be herself,” Eliezer said. “As someone who had experienced the terror of Nazism, she raised us with a very us-vs.-them mentality. We never had friends in the house. And then I remember that one day we went out to eat in a restaurant, and when we realized that she wasn’t with us, we looked back through the window.
“We saw that she was going from table to table, striking up conversations with everyone, and they were loving it. She had been so private, and it changed her personality.”
It made her thinking childish, and often that means literal. “One day, she was outside the bathroom door, and she yelled, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ I said, ‘It’s directly to your right.’ She took me literally. There was a laundry hamper between her and the door, and she looked through the hamper, and said, ‘I don’t see a bathroom in here.’”
His father, a mathematician, was “very literal,” Eliezer said, so often he was not able to follow his wife’s thoughts. “The first rule of Alzheimer’s care is to go with their reality. Don’t try to correct them. We would explain that to my father, and he would seem to understand, and then my mother would get off the phone with her sister and say she couldn’t have been on the phone with her sister because she didn’t have a sister, and my dad couldn’t let it go. He’d explode. And then my mother would stare at him and wonder why this man was yelling at her.
“From her point of view, he was the crazy one.”
Eliezer, a writer, was more able to let himself join his mother’s new reality. “I called her on the phone, and she was so in the moment that I would say, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’ and she would say, ‘I’m sitting here with the phone in my hand.’ I’d say, ‘Me too,’ and she would marvel at the coincidence.”
His mother once had been a meticulous housekeeper, but that went too, as demonstrated by the Case of the Missing Brisket. “We went to the butcher and bought brisket, and then we went to the post office and ran some other errands,” Eliezer said. “We couldn’t find the brisket. We called the butcher, we went back to the post office, we scoured the car, searched under the seats.” Nothing.
“Eventually we found it in my mother’s pocketbook.
“One day my brother, who was visiting, told me, ‘I never thought I would hear myself utter this sentence, but, are you ready? Mom just blew her nose on a piece of salami.’”
All this was funny, but of course it also wasn’t funny at all. “And they weren’t funny to Dad, who was losing his partner of 60 years,” Eliezer said.
Funny and not-at-all funny both are modes to which Mr. Sobel keeps returning. “Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That Is Heartbroken” is a “semiautobiographical novel of growing up in Fair Lawn and living in New York as an adult.” Published in 2004, it won a prestigious Peter Taylor prize from the University of Tennessee Press.
Reading the novel is like listening to Eliezer Sobel talk, in that you hear both the raucous humor — sometimes funny, sometimes insanely second-grade, sometimes both — and the deep sadness. His characters — 10 men with intertwined lives — are a parade of almost indistinguishable middle-aged Jewish men, nudniks, foul-mouthed losers, with almost indistinguishably uber-Jewish names; friends since childhood, baby boomers to their core, with comic-book-Jewish parents and siblings and stories. Also — or at least this is true of the main character, who at least to some extent is him — deeply sad, deeply yearning, looking for God, looking for hope, looking for love. But going to make a series of very dumb sex and bathroom jokes before admitting it.
To a great extent, the two books for people with Alzheimer’s and “Minyan” are very clearly the product of the same mind. It takes a certain twist to be able to see clearly and head-on. Eliezer Sobel can do it.