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Gray Matters

Hot topics and harangues in a 'World Events for Seniors' class

February 06, 2005|Idelle Davidson | Idelle Davidson last wrote for the magazine about Korean grocers in Echo Park.

A few hobble in with canes or walkers. One sits in a wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank. You can spot several hearing aids. But forget the body. Margot Reiner's "World Events For Seniors" class, which meets every Tuesday at the Roxbury Park Auditorium in Beverly Hills, is for sharpening the mind. Never heard of India's Sonia Gandhi? Not up to speed on the European Union? Confused as to which executive powers are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution? Haven't read your national newspapers, listened to public radio or watched political TV news shows? Can't substantiate your views? Then don't even think about raising your hand.

Over there on the right is Evelyn Zuckerman, wearing her black felt beret. At 97, she's the oldest and quite possibly the smartest, once filling in during Reiner's vacation. She was born in New York and earned a master's degree from Columbia University in 1931. Don't mess with her. She'll giggle, then tell you exactly why you're wrong.

Behind Zuckerman, near the paneled wall, are three cranky men who harangue about the stock market. Rumor has it in this sea of mostly liberal Westsiders that the trio are closet Republicans.

Across from Zuckerman, facing the American flag, is Julius Bendorf, age 90, a sweet-natured man with snowy hair who chuckles constantly at the lively exchanges in class. Only reluctantly does he mention growing up in Germany and surviving six years in concentration camps. To his side is Jack Silvers, 79, who quit school at 14 in Belgium when the Nazis rounded up Jewish families. He hid in attics, safe but robbed of an education. He and his 81-year-old brother, Harry, never miss a class, unless they're sick. They could be twins, both athletic looking, with gray mustaches. Harry attends with his girlfriend, an elegantly dressed woman with manicured nails and matching pumps and handbag. She's eight years his senior. The two met in a gym class. Behind them are Stan Bernson, 78, and his wife, Lenore, 75, who grew up across the street from each other in Beverly Hills.

Bendorf, Jack Silvers and Stan Bernson form their own triumvirate. Nothing pumps their electrolytes more than proving Reiner wrong. They're rarely successful. "She thinks the middle class pays more than 50% of the taxes," Bernson says. "But I found facts and figures that say that isn't so. I presented them and she says, 'Well, what's your source?' You have to be able to document everything."

The Bernsons are relatively new kids in class. This is their fifth year. Zuckerman is pushing 10 years, and it's close to 20 years for Jack Silvers and Bendorf.

"I'm madly in love with her," Bernson says.

Reiner ignores their chatter for a moment. She sweeps her unruly hair out of her eyes and draws a loose representation of bricks on the blackboard. Then she pops up onto her stool. Hers is the Socratic method: teaching through questions and a healthy portion of provocation.

"People! People!" she screams, relying on volume and the sheer force of her personality to control this rowdy crowd. "Today I am speaking to you as a representative of the Capitol Brick Company, like building the cabinet, building new regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and the United States. Well, as President Bush says, he has a mandate, he has some capital. Did he say anything that surprised you? That encouraged you?" She cocks an eyebrow, steadying herself for the onslaught.

"He said that the Social Security system is running out of money and privatizing is his way to save it," says a man in the back row.

Reiner corrects him. "He said for the next generation. Singular," she says. "Does that communicate anything to you? Does that mean that Social Security may no longer be an appropriate activity for the federal government? Is it your perception that the incumbent labor force could be filled with angst?"

"That's quibbling," says Zuckerman, forgetting to raise her hand. "This is not a guy who carries the Webster under his shirt. And so if he says one generation, he could mean three for all we know!"

"I heard him say generation too, the singular," says a blond woman who could pass for 40. "He said it very clearly. It's very upsetting. It's like 'starve the beast.' "

"It's opposite what Hoover promised--a chicken in every pot," says someone else.

Then Reiner baits them. "Is the nation not listening to the president?"

"Society very often doesn't listen to itself," Zuckerman says.

"Is that good?" Reiner asks.

"No!" Zuckerman answers. "That's why we had the kind of election that we had. Because they don't listen to themselves. This is it: We know that Bush wants to take care of big business in the United States. There's nothing wrong with big business. It has brought this country to where it is, and we thank God for it!"

"God brought us big business?" Reiner mocks, hand on hip.

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