Famed scientists like Margaret Mead and the Leakeys have created the popular notion that anthropologists spend their lives roaming exotic countries in search of primitive tribes and artifacts. But Dr. Barbara Myerhoff of the University of Southern California is one anthropologist who dug up her subjects, in a manner of speaking, right in her own backyard. Her achievement has been no less rewarding. After all, how many other college professors have made an Academy Award-winning film?
The Oscar was awarded in 1977 to her and producer Lynne Littman for a documentary called Number Our Days, originally made for public TV. Its “stars” were some 300 elderly Jews at the Israel Levin Senior Adult Center in Venice, Calif. Myerhoff and Littman shot the poignant, often humorous 30-minute film on a budget of $33,000—hardly sandwich money by Hollywood standards. A book based on Myerhoff’s studies is due next February.
The theme of the film is survival—of the group and its heritage. Most of the regulars at the Israel Levin Center are in their 80s and 90s. They gather to worship, eat and socialize in a racially mixed, often hostile neighborhood. Almost all emigrated in childhood or adolescence from the shtetls (villages) of Eastern Europe to escape anti-Semitism. Many settled in Chicago or New York and found work in the garment district before retiring to Southern California. Most sacrificed all their lives to provide their children with opportunities they themselves never had.
In their final years, however, they have wound up poor and nearly forgotten. “Most of their children don’t pay much attention to them,” says Myerhoff. “There’s an almost unbridgeable chasm between the generations.”
Until she began her project, Myerhoff, 43, gave little thought to her own “Jewishness.” Her divorced mother, a clarinetist in an all-woman band, was often on the road, so Barbara was reared by a Yiddish-speaking grandmother in Ohio. There was a time, she admits, when “Jews to me were just old men who shuffled around Cleveland.”
Barbara moved to California at the age of 12, and married high school sweetheart Lee Myerhoff when she was 19. They put off having children for 14 years while each pursued advanced degrees (his is in clinical psychology). Barbara, who is head of the USC anthropology department and the mother of two young sons, admits that combining an academic career with parenthood is “very bloody hard.” She adds, “My husband is a winner—he’s a better mother than I am.” (The old Jewish mothers at the center often asked Barbara when she showed up to film an interview, “Who’s with your children?”)
While Myerhoff says her research has made her more conscious that “someday I’ll be a little old Jewish lady too,” her concern for the problems of aging is not limited to a particular ethnic group. “I’ve watched people shoo their kids away from senior citizens in the park, saying, ‘Don’t bother them,’ when the old people clearly are not bothered,” Myerhoff says. “Our conceptions of the old are so crude, so degrading. How to give these people protection without demeaning them is a question that still needs to be answered.”