From “OK, Boomer!” To “Are You OK, Boomer?”

“The phrase ‘OK Boomer’ is a pejorative retort used to dismiss or mock the attitudes of older people, particularly baby boomers.”  —  Wikipedia

That’s what Wikipedia says about this relatively new phrase in the English language. Although I’ve been trained to not trust Wikipedia 100%, I know that this definition is true. How do I know it?  Because my wife Donna — who is a baby boomer like me — had one of her students say it to her several weeks ago before we all started living a “virtual” life. It’s as if he said: “Whatever, old lady!”

As the definition indicates, “OK, Boomer!” is a rude remark from someone who is not a Boomer, someone who is being disrespectful and dismissive. It is someone who is not following what most of us learned when we were younger — that you’re supposed to respect your elders, no matter what you think or how you feel about a particular person. It is someone who may have been taught by his/her parents what they felt was the proper way to behave. But by saying “OK, Boomer” meanly and with an attitude, he or she is ignoring that teaching defiantly, or simply trying to be cool for his or her peers, or just repeating something he or she heard someone else say.

In the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus, we are told: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old” (19:32). The JPS Commentary says:  “According to later rabbinic law, one was required to show deference to the elderly by caring for them.” Robert Alter states in his commentary: “…in everyday actions, an old person deserves deference.” W. Gunther Plaut writes: “Respect for age is demanded and praised in the Bible and in all ancient Oriental wisdom literature.” Richard Elliott Friedman doesn’t comment on the verse but changes its translation to “You shall get up in front of an aged person, and you shall show respect in front of an elderly person.” Everett Fox’s translation is: “In the face of the gray-hair, you are to rise, you are to honor the face of the elderly.” The text and the commentary make it clear that how the “aged,” the “old,” the “elderly,” the “old person,” the “aged person,” and the “gray-hair” should be treated is a Mitzvah, should be a priority, and involves actions as well as attitudes. And, being listed in the “Holiness Code” makes this behavior sacred.

I am turning 70 in November (God-willing!), but I don’t think of myself as aged or elderly. I have been a “gray-hair” for a number of years, and I used to tell people that I earned every one of them!  My status as a “senior citizen” has its benefits, of course — most of which are financial. Since my retirement six years ago, I mostly teach and speak to people my age and older as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York; as an instructor in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University; and as a speaker to groups at synagogues, churches and Jewish Community Centers. So, I know about Boomers and our elders.

Whether you are a Boomer or from the previous generation, most of us are in the high-risk category for the COVID-19 virus. It doesn’t respect us, honor us or show us any deference. It rises up against us and is in our face. And yet, we can have control over it. The scientific experts have made that clear, and it is, literally, in our hands as to how we respond. Our well-being does not have to be determined by forces beyond our control.

During the last two weeks of my self-imposed isolation, my wife has been the link to the outside world. And so have the family members, friends, colleagues, students, and former congregants who have contacted me in what I would call “Are you OK, Boomer?” outreach — without the use of the pejorative and without the attitude. I have been especially proactive, too, in reaching out to all of those people for their sake as well as mine. We do a “check-in” with each other, and ask “how are you?” sincerely, and really wait to hear the answer. We cherish the contact and do it more frequently than we did before this health crisis. And what I have noticed when I teach for the Temple and for OLLI is that, when people can see each other on Zoom, they are so happy!  We are a virtual community, but the feeling of community is not virtual at all. It’s very real. They care about each other.

For however long we have to “shelter in place,” I urge you to be holy, to elevate yourself emotionally and intellectually, physically and spiritually, to be caring in your everyday actions. Keep in touch with others, learn with others, exercise in your home or out in the beauty of Nature, and have faith that our collective efforts will have positive results. Most important — respect yourself, treat yourself well, ask yourself “Am I OK?,” and ask others (regardless of their age) “Are you OK?” We’re all in this together. Stay safe.


About Rabbi Stephen Karol 11 Articles
Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and also at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Stony Brook University. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson, New York, with his wife, Donna.

1 Comment

  1. One of the few silver linings of this pandemic is the concern shown by my children for the well-being of their parents. Although we always knew that our children love us and want us to be safe, having them forbid me to shop in person at a supermarket was a surprise. The reversal of roles in parenting has been very touching.

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