If Irving I. Silverman had not been born legally blind 97 years ago, he probably wouldn’t be making news today.
Silverman recently published “Aging Wisely … Wisdom of Our Elders,” a nearly 500-page anthology of essays by more than 75 seniors and experts in aging.
This is just the latest in a series of accomplishments by a man who managed a major trade association publication; founded the annual Kosher Food and Jewish Life Expo; headed up the New York region of United Synagogue, the governing body of the Conservative movement; transformed a Maine lighthouse into a synagogue/wedding chapel; and collected a million pieces of wood type. Oh, he’s also the godfather to a giraffe.
What if he had been born without a handicap?
“That’s probably the most important question that relates to who I am,” Silverman said. “I don’t think I would have achieved as much as I have achieved if I wasn’t handicapped. I was trying to prove something.”
Released in June by Jones & Bartlett Learning of Burlington, Massachusetts, “Aging Wisely” combines personal stories with professional insights. It ranges from practical information about managing money and the biology of aging to poignant accounts of confronting disease and a sudden divorce or death.
The book’s audience includes college students preparing for the health professions, seniors navigating their later years, and adult children seeking to better understand and relate to their aging parents.
Silverman, who for many years divided his time between homes in Tucson and Maine, co-authored the book with his daughter, Ellen Beth Siegel, a clinical psychologist and a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School.
Many of the personal essays are by residents of NewBridge on the Charles, a Boston-area retirement community where Silverman now lives. Among them are a former deputy superintendent of Newton, Massachussetts, schools, a Harvard biophysicist, and a published novelist.
“You’re getting a strong perspective on not only the aging process but what it’s like to have loss, what it’s like to be an invisible person, what it’s like to have led an incredible life and lived such a long time,” said Cathy Esperti, who shepherded the book for Jones & Bartlett.
As his publisher, daughter, and many contributors can attest, you can’t say no to Silverman. And you can’t write about his book without first writing about him.
The youngest of five children of Polish immigrants, Silverman grew up in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York. He shared a bed with a boarder who worked nights in a bakery. His father was a shirt maker.
Unable to read normal text, Silverman was placed in a sight conservation class at his elementary school with 10-20 other students of different grades. It was like a one-room schoolhouse, and the teacher was the first of what Silverman calls his many “guardian angels” — people who would on their own, or at his urging, become his champion.
After he finished grade school, Silverman was sent to a vocational school. Because of his impaired eyesight, administrators ruled out trades like radio repair and auto mechanics. Instead, they assigned him to home economics, the only boy in a class of 40 girls. “At 13, I wasn’t ready to understand the benefit of that,” he said.
Rather than go to school, he would leave each morning and unbeknownst to his parents wander as far as Chinatown.
Eventually, a truant officer caught him. Then, a second guardian angel came to his rescue, a school nurse, who saw to it that he was enrolled in a regular high school the next day.
While he befriended a close band of protectors, he also encountered anti-Semitic bullies. They called him “cock-eye Irving,” he recalled, barking out an imitation of their taunts. And they beat him up. “In one month, they broke my glasses three times,” he said.
After graduating from City College, Silverman went on to a 45-year career selling ads and managing the business side of the National Knitwear Association’s magazine. At 65, he embarked on a second career, launching an annual expo in New York and other cities for makers of kosher food and other Jewish-themed products.
Meanwhile, he was widowed twice, the first time at age 36 when he was left to care for then 9-year-old Ellen and her 5-year-old brother, Bill. Living in Long Island, New York, he helped the fledgling Parents Without Partners get off the ground and fell in love with the woman who drove him to meetings. They wed, and he raised her two daughters like his own children. The marriage lasted 43 years.
At 92, Silverman moved to NewBridge, where he founded a nonagenarian club and quickly led a fund-raising drive to install a wireless audio system in the auditorium that loops into residents’ hearing aids.
At 95, he began work on what would become “Aging Wisely.”
“I just thought this was going to be a project that was going to keep him busy,” said Siegel.
At the suggestion of a fellow resident (one of many published authors at NewBridge), Silverman sent his book to Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Esperti initially turned him down, suggesting that he self-publish. That didn’t stop him.
“I have been in this business for 30 years and have never run into an author as persistent as Irving,” she said.
Esperti agreed to send the manuscript out for comment. The response: It should be expanded to include the voices of more diverse elders and those of authorities in aging.
After much back and forth, Silverman agreed. His daughter tapped her extensive network of experts to solicit submissions from all over the country.
“Ellen is really the glue that held it all together,” Esperti said. “She was the one who logistically had to manage all of it and edit all of the project. But the brainchild was Irving’s.”
In one of the 15 chapters he contributed, Silverman describes how he enriched his life through hobbies. His apartment at NewBridge is filled with themed collectibles: Judaica (including an eye chart in Hebrew), African masks, lighthouses, and giraffes. He helps support a real giraffe named for his first wife, Henrietta; if she has a baby, he hopes the name will be Nancy, after his second wife.
“Aging Wisely” is available in paperback and as an e-book through online booksellers. Silverman says he will donate his proceeds to charity.
He’s already thinking about his next project — how to live as a widowed person — and was thrilled to learn that the Perkins School for the Blind plans to record “Aging Wisely” as an audiobook for patrons of libraries for the visually impaired.
“I’ve received books on tape for 50 years,” he said. “I now have been privileged to be a contributor to the program instead of just a recipient.”
This article first appeared in the Boston Globe. Steve Maas can be reached at [email protected]
Click here for excerpts from “Aging Wisely.”