Jewish Senior Living magazine   2017/2018


“Writing poetry is pretty natural,” says Phyllis Koestenbaum. “We speak to each other rhythmically. All you have to do is listen to yourself.”

Phyllis Koestenbaum particularly enjoys Rabbi Sheldon Marder’s programs. Rabbi Marder likewise takes pleasure in Phyllis’s accomplishments, which includes discussing her published works.

Phyllis believes everyone can write poetry. She should know. Now 87, she has been writing poetry since she was a child and discovered the form in the only books she could reach on the lowest shelf of her parents’ wall-to-wall bookcase. She has taught poetry at Stanford University, been awarded grants for her work, and has published a number of books, such as Doris Day and Kitschy Melodies in 2001 and Criminal Sonnets in 1997. She has twice had poems published in The Best American Poetry series.

Phyllis moved into the Jewish Home in June 2016. “I’d been living at another facility and was told about the Home. Everyone spoke glowingly of it,” she says.

It was a good move for her in many ways, particularly the religious aspect, which Phyllis says is her favorite part. “I’m filling in what I haven’t done with my life,” she tells. While she grew up in “a typical Jewish household,” she had not done much other than identify as Jewish in her adult life. At the Jewish Home, she participates in all Rabbi Sheldon Marder’s programs.

The physical therapy at the Home was likewise a big draw for Phyllis. The gym is well-equipped, she reports, and she has excellent coaches. She appreciates that they are flexible and open to schedule changes when she discovers a cultural or musical event that conflicts with her physical therapy appointment.

In fact, there are so many activities that interest Phyllis that “I’m doing as many things now as I did before,” she says. She is also pleased with the companionship from the other residents. “It’s exactly what I wanted. Intelligent, considerate, and generous human beings who happen to be Jewish.”

As for the Home’s staff, “they aim high,” she compliments them and the excellent care she receives. “They want to give you everything you’ve signed up for.”

In addition to staff’s skill sets, Phyllis admires their efficiency. Talking about what it was like to raise four children, she says she had to be similarly organized in order to make time for writing poetry. Feminist poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton had died and “that’s when I began writing vigorously,” she reflects. “The Women’s Liberation movement also helped poetry along. It used to be a private art, but with this activism, women started writing about their lives and it became more personal, and that’s what people like.”

Phyllis wrote her first poem when she was 8. “I didn’t feel it was good, but I got a lot of encouragement from my teacher.” She received encouragement later in her life, too, from many teachers, as well as United States poet laureate Robert Hass. “‘Do you know how good you are?’” were his words to me,” she recollects.

Phyllis has not yet written about aging. “I think it’s about time I did,” she declares.

A duet with Life Enrichment coordinator Kamran Sanei enlivens the creative spirit.

Eating in between meals is noshing, foods you nosh are nosherei,

I nosh pretzels and potato chips together. Children like to nosh

rather than eat meals, adults can do both, they know to save

room without being reminded.

From Hunger Food by Phyllis Koestenbaum; Jungle Garden Press, 1979.



Website content that still bears the names Jewish Home of San Francisco and Jewish Home reflects material that is in circulation or was published before we became San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living – on which Jewish Home & Rehab Center, our acute geriatric psychiatry hospital, and the new Lynne & Roy M. Frank Residences and Byer Square are located. Wherever possible, new and updated website content will bear our new names.

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