A book club at the Riverdale Y older adult center celebrated the reading of its 100th book on Jan. 18. The members of New Beginnings at the Y’s Center for Contemporary Adults 60+ marked the occasion with a much-needed in-person gathering after years of online meetings necessitated by the pandemic.
“The celebration was lovely — it was like a love fest,” Adele Schwartz, leader of the book club and a volunteer at the Y, said. “So many of us haven’t been together for three years except online. It was just nice to look at each other and see each other. People got dressed up, put o Book club at Riverdale Y’s older adult center celebrates a milestone n makeup for the occasion, and it was just nice to see people in person.”
Members reflected on some of the 100 works they’ve read, whose subjects ranged from a group of women who provided books to people in the Kentucky Appalachians, to a matriarchal society on a Korean island, to the Underground Railroad. The landmark 100th tome, which they read and discussed last month, was “The Magician,” by Colm Tóibín, a work of historical fiction about the German novelist Thomas Mann.
The club has more than three dozen members — former attorneys, publication managers, educators and others. Many had high praise for Schwartz, saying they likely never would have read so many books of such high quality were it not for her.
“She makes the book club something special,” said member Carole Oshinsky. “I’m a book club leader too, in Florida — I know it’s a challenge. It’s hard to maintain order, to let people speak, to be sensitive to different people’s points of views, and she does a wonderful job. She’s very respectful, she comes up with wonderful questions and she keeps us on our toes intellectually. And it’s also an emotional gathering, because the books we choose have something to say to us. They’re not just summer reading; they’re quite sophisticated.”
Members devote much thought to choosing books, because they want to read work they deem quality fiction and non-fiction and intellectually challenging. Their choices are often critically acclaimed recipients of National Book Awards, Pulitzers or Booker Prizes.
Once a year, Schwartz assembles a packet with synopses of 25 to 30 books, and members vote on them. The 12 with the most votes are assigned for the upcoming year. She sends members a discussion guide a week before each meeting, to get them thinking about the chosen work’s structure and character development, and the author’s intent.
“She knows how to include everyone in the discussion,” Lynn Shaw, a member since 2015, said of Schwartz. “She knows when to cut off something and go on to something else. She’s just a terrific facilitator, and very respectful, no matter what anybody else has to tell. And very democratic in the choice of books.”
While the club launched in 2015, Schwartz was not its leader. Sandy Eurlick, the Y’s program coordinator at the time, asked Schwartz, a former college professor, if she could attend a session — despite the fact that she hadn’t read the book the group was discussing.
“I said, ‘Oh, I liked this, I’m going to join,’” Schwartz recalled. “(Sandy) said, ‘Well, actually, I have something else in mind for you. I’d really like for you to lead it. And I said, ‘I wasn’t a literature professor; I work in disability.’ She said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re a good, strong leader and you’re a teacher. So I would love it if you would volunteer to lead it.’ And I said, ‘I’ll try it, sure. I would be happy to do that,’ and that was eight years ago. And I haven’t stopped since.”
One of the most memorable moments in the club’s eight-year history happened last year when Jessica Jiji,
author of “Sweet Dates in Basara” — which takes place in Iraq in the 1940s — visited the group. A member happened to know the author and persuaded her to come, alongside her father, whose stories made up much of the book. Members agreed that the visit gave them invaluable insight into the writing process.
Another extraordinary moment came when they read a book about the last ship to rescue Jews from Germany. While members were discussing the book, a woman raised her hand and said the reason she hadn’t said anything was because she had been a 5-year-old girl on that ship.
“I thought people were going to weep,” Schwartz recounted. “Then we spent the next 15 minutes asking her questions about her life experiences from then on, what that felt like, what the reception was, what happened to her family, how they wound up in the U.S. and back and forth.
“And she was extremely forthcoming,” Schwartz added, “because I think she trusts this group, and I think they’ve come to trust each other in a way that they talk about personal things that they might not talk about in other activities in the Y.”
The club became even more valuable to its members during the pandemic. One, Elaine Jordan, said that meeting online helped them cope with feelings of isolation and gave them a lift. And of course, they had to contend with what they would read in a time of despair.
“I said to them, ‘Would you like to go a little lighter and do a few beach reads while people are dying left and right around us?’ Schwartz recalled. “And they said absolutely not. That what we really need to do is to be distracted, and to read good-quality, beautiful writing and stories to think about, and take us away from some of the horrors that go on around us.”
The new year will mark a new era for the club, as it returns to in-person meetings for the first time in three years, with the option to meet virtually. The club continues to keep members sharp, defying the stereotype of less intellectually engaged older people.
“There are people in this group that have enormous experiences, and if you look at them on the (Zoom) screen, they’re what I call invisible people,” said member Sara Klebanoff. “You get to a certain age and people in our culture just look through you … These people really have a wealth of knowledge, and if you tap into it, it’s fascinating. There’s great depth in the club.”
“For me it has really been a labor of love,” Schwartz said. “I so admire these people. I enjoy their company. It gives me a chance to use my teaching chops once a month, which is nice. And a lot of my administrative experience comes in very handy from my own background. so it keeps my mind vital.
“I’m in good shape,” she added. “Mentally, things are good. And what I see in these folks is that this keeps them sharp, and they’re committed to staying on top of things.”