Family & Education

The unexpected joys of turning fifty

Fifty is an interesting age - spiritually, sexually and in many other ways. Karen Glaser talked to Jewish women about an age of change


As she drove through Stamford Hill, Jo eased her foot off the pedal so she could look more closely at the frock-coated and shtreimel-wearing Chasidim hurrying along the pavement. “It was quite strange. I’ve often driven through the neighbourhood over the years, but that was the first time I’d ever felt connected to the Strictly Orthodox Jews who live there. The sensation was as moving as it was unexpected.”

Later that afternoon, Jo dug out her grandmother’s Shabbat candlesticks from the attic where they had been gathering dust for more years than she could remember and put them on her kitchen table for a rare Friday night dinner.

Over in Crouch End, north London, Rebecca was also getting ready for Shabbat. In her home Friday night with her husband and two daughters has been a weekly event for the past three years. In fact, it’s non-negotiable. Rebecca is a busy freelance television producer but industry colleagues know never to schedule meetings with her after midday on a Friday.

“I’ll be at home, cooking furiously,” she says. “My colleagues don’t really get it, but I don’t care. It’s because they don’t understand what being Jewish means. As I get older I am increasingly comfortable with my Jewishness, and increasingly aware of the value of tradition. We go to shul, we mark all the big festivals, we make a seder and both girls will have a batmitzvah.”

“Older” for Rebecca means that, like me, she has passed 50. As will 925,000 other people this year, according to the Office of National Statistics. When they reach the landmark, they also join the most populous age group in the country: around 4.6m of us are now aged between 50 and 54.

Since turning 50, both Rebecca and Jo say they treasure their Jewishness more than they did in their younger years. “I used to be much more blasé about my heritage,” says Jo. “In my youth, it was my work as an actor that drove me, but now I often find myself thinking more about community and the generations that have gone before me than I do about my next job. I am taking stock, I guess, realising what is actually important in life.

“I regularly tell my family that I love them. I walk my dog lots and don’t worry about the time it takes out of the day. My ego has shrunk. You start losing people in your 50s, and after the intensity and insecurity of youth, I feel I have finally got my priorities right.”

Single mum, Jane, 51, feels similarly. “I need community more than ever now. In fact, I’d say I’ve become quite obsessed by it. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but last year I joined a synagogue. I want my boys who are ten and 12 to have a barmitzvahs, for them to understand and feel the long lines of Jewish blood and family.”

Last week, Jane went to shul with half a batch of freshly made scones for the kiddush. She gave the other half to one of her neighbours in north Manchester. “I make time for things like that now. In my 30s and 40s, I probably wouldn’t have even made time for this interview. I have softened with the years, become less selfish. I now realise what life is actually all about.”

In my conversations with Jewish women who have hit the big five-oh I heard variations on this theme again and again. Yes, we still care about career goals, but being in the suburbs of our mortality has widened our perspective and lengthened our view. According to the Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 50 is the age of counsel: you need to have lived a few decades before you really understand what’s what, and are therefore qualified to give advice. And one piece of advice from Jewish women who have lived for half a century is value your heritage and community. What a cheering riposte to a society that emphasises the promise and excitement of youth over the wisdom of the middlepause.

Not that the middle years are necessarily shorn of promise and excitement. Six of the 12 women I interviewed are married, and five of them no longer have a physical relationship with their husbands. Conjugal duty as prescribed in the Torah is not, it seems, being taken entirely to heart by middle-aged Jewish couples in 2018. However, of those five Jewish women in sexless marriages, one is having an affair and two others have had similar experiences.

“He was 32-year-old Bulgarian labourer, we had absolutely nothing in common, but he was sexy and being fancied by him was exciting and rejuvenating,” says Emily. “Before we met, I was becoming preoccupied with my fading looks. You’re meant to care less about your appearance as you get older, but I was still a prisoner to my body image. Sex with a younger man made those fears vanish. Sex with my husband, on the other hand, felt like a chore.”

“I felt in lust two weeks before I hit 50,” says Jenny. “I went into menopause in my late 40s, put on a couple of stone in the same period, and my husband was pretty unkind about it. He made me lose the sense of being desirable, which was very upsetting. And then this wonderful Jewish guy came along whose marriage was also on the rocks and, bam, the sparks flew. Having an affair was my renaissance. It’s been over for a year now, but I don’t regret it. I still think about him every day.”

Susan, meanwhile, does feel guilty about the affair she’s having. “It’s obviously a pretty selfish thing to do, but the excitement is addictive. One of the unpleasant things about getting older is the fear that your options are reducing. A new relationship makes you believe in possibility again. It’s amazing to feel that hope again when you are perimenopausal.”

Menopause is of course key to turning 50 for most women. Biologically, men can almost glide through their middle years. But if menstruation has not already stopped, at 50 most of us are only a few summers away from the end of the cycles that have ruled our lives for most of the past four decades.

It’s a big transition for all women, but the central role that family plays in communal life means it is, perhaps, an even bigger deal for Jewish women who have never had children.

“I grew up in the heart of Hendon and was the only one of my girlfriends who didn’t have children. I never met the right guy,” says Anna. “When I was in my early forties I was almost looking forward to being 50 because then, I reasoned, my fertile years would be over and then I could park my desperate baby hopes forever. But when my big birthday came, I hit another hurdle. By then, some of my friends were in their late 50s and had started becoming grandparents, and I experienced the aching loss all over again. I think I will be rather lonely in my twilight years.”

Meanwhile, for those Jewish women who are mothers, a couple admit to challenges as their daughters blossom when their flower is fading. “It’s not exactly envy,” says Emma, “but when I look at my daughter’s firm, voluptuous body it’s a sharp reminder of what I have lost, of how fleeting youth is. My response is to tell her to squeeze the most out of every moment, to not waste time on the wrong things or the wrong people. But when I voice these thoughts she just rolls her eyes.”

If daughters won’t always listen, one consolation to being 50 is that fellow congregants often will. “Our shul has attracted a lot of young families in recent years and although I look at the world with the eyes of the person I have always been, I know they see me as a bit boring and middle-aged,” says Katy. “But the upside to being an older member is that I am listened to and respected.”

Television producer Rebecca concurs. “In terms of the community, we are now the grown-ups in the room. I might spend my Friday afternoon cooking kugel, but my peers are in positions of power and authority, they are running the show. And I suppose that ultimately is what being 50 is all about. It is a proper adult age.”

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