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ISRAEL AT 50 Break out the Manischewitz: Personal reflections on the jubilee

ENCINO, Calif., March 30 (JTA) — We’re both mothers of quarrelsome children, we’ve both gained and lost girth over the years and we’re both — break out the Manischewitz! — about to turn 50. Yes, I’m talking about Israel and me. Born in May 1948, 13 days and more than 6,000 miles apart, we are Jewish soul sisters, linked spiritually, culturally and culinarily. In Israel, thanks to the Ministerial Committee on Ceremonies and Symbols, the birthday bash has already begun. Over 100 celebratory events, including marches, memorials and marathons, parades and parties, seminars and ceremonies, will occur throughout the year. As an additional highlight, the committee has instructed all government agencies to greet telephone callers with Israel’s official 50th birthday jingle (assuming, of course, that callers aren’t first greeted with the traditional busy signal). I, however, am seeking a more contemplative celebration. I have already consulted the Bible, in which the first — and only — mention of a birthday occurs in Genesis 40:20. Unfortunately, it’s the birthday of the infamous Pharaoh, and who wants a party filled with frogs, flies and mad cow disease? Perhaps because of this reference to Pharaoh, Judaism traditionally ignores anniversaries of births and far more enthusiastically observes yahrzeits, anniversaries of deaths. This elegiac emphasis is actually appropriate as my 50th birthday signifies the death of many of my long-held dreams. Now I can, conclusively and inconsolably, say Kaddish over the fact that: I will never be a mouseketeer; I will never again wear sleeveless shirts; I will never stop losing fewer than 50,000 brain cells every day for the rest of my life. But while Judaism frowns on birthday celebrations, Leviticus 25:10 proclaims, “And ye shall hallow the 50th year … it shall be a jubilee unto you.” This enlightened and compassionate concept of a jubilee, a first in the barbarous ancient world, is actually aimed at forgiving debts and eradicating endless cycles of poverty. This may have worked 3,000 years ago, when a large debt consisted of a few shekels and resulted in the repossession of your camel. But today Israel is looking at a national debt of more than $19 million. And my husband and I aren’t far behind, faced with four yearly tuitions for Jewish day school, four Bar Mitzvahs and, God willing, four prenuptial dinners. In addition to releasing debts, the jubilee exhorts us to free the slaves. This is an excellent idea but would render my children orphans. The jubilee also commands us to let the land lie fallow. In Southern California, however, if I stop cultivating my back yard, it will quickly take a downhill dive through my neighbor’s backdoor. But whether you call it a jubilee or a 50th birthday, this mid-century milestone certainly has me wondering why Israel gets greener and I get grayer. I also find myself pondering the epistemological meaning of the universe and calculating the cost of room and board at the Jewish Home for the Aging. And while I admire and seek to emulate the life spans of Sarah (127 years), Moses (120 years) and Methuselah (969 years), I realize that in Judaism it is not the number of years but the way in which you live your life that is important. There is no question that Israel is indeed following a noble and righteous path. Since 1948, the State of Israel has provided a welcome homeland to almost 3 million displaced, disenfranchised and destitute refugees. It has turned malaria-ridden swamps and bone-dry deserts into magnificent oranges and grapefruits that are exported worldwide. And, perhaps most importantly, it has invented the Gottex bathing suit with industrial-strength Lycra. My husband and I have also tried to live as solid Jewish citizens. We have dutifully, and perhaps a little carelessly, carried out the biblical injunction to “multiply and replenish the earth.” We have created a loving home for our four sons that is filled with Jewish values, observances and fresh bagels. And just recently, I have begun teaching my sons the imminently important mitzvah “hidur penei zaken,” the commandment to honor the elderly. And so, while I wait for my membership card from the American Association of Retired Persons and my case of anti-aging creams from the Dead Sea, I know that both Israel and I are indeed fortunate to have reached this juncture in our lives. To Israel and me, two proud and productive Jewish mothers, I say the Shehecheyanu: “Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the World, who has granted us life, sustained us and permitted us to reach this moment.”