If there is a biblical definition of “mid-life,” it must, of course, be 60.
Indeed, the consensus in the Talmud is that one who lives to be less than 60 is
considered to have been taken before his time. Even in these heady days of
advanced medicine and increased longevity – Israel being among the world’s
leaders in average life span – 60 is by all accounts a milestone that makes us
at once thankful for that which has been, and somewhat apprehensive of the
diminishing time ahead (Ethics of the Fathers says 60 signals the onset of zikna
– old age – and King David remarks famously in his Psalms that “the days of our
life are 70; and, by virtue of greater strength, 80”).
of our 60th birthdays this year, a group of contemporaries recently got
Many of us have known each other since the first grade, back in
the “old country,” and have become even closer since making aliya. We chose to
mark the event by singing karaoke-style (a first for me), choosing songs from
the soundtrack of our lives. Since there basically hasn’t been any good music
since the ’60s and ’70s (yes, kids, you heard me right!) it was – as Bread so
perfectly put it – a “Sweet Surrender” to the nostalgia of those amazing
There was – and still is – a pervasive mood of optimism that
gripped all of us way back when, and never let us go. Perhaps that was what gave
us, early on, our innate feeling that we could do great things, even someday
come to a new land that was filled with great adventures; modern-day pioneers
who believed, perhaps naively, that we could change the world.
Stevie Wonder told us back in 1966 that there was a “Place in the Sun” with room
for everyone, while the Monkees encouraged us to proclaim, “I’m a Believer”
(sorry, kids, that hit did not originate with Shrek). We were the “Peace and
Love” generation, knowing full well, as Jackie DeShannon and Karen Carpenter put
it, respectively, that “Love Will Find a Way,” that “We’ve Only Just Begun” and
we’re on “Top of the World.”
We knew everything, we were supremely
confident; we had a twinkle in our eyes and a rather large chip on our
shoulders. We were the “Age of Aquarius,” ready and willing to let the sun shine
BUT US baby-boomers, for all our sunshine and light, were also the
anti-war generation. Our fathers had come home, battle-scarred but buoyant, from
the grim battlefields of World War II – my own dad had spent three years in the
Philippines, fighting the Japanese – determined to put the killing behind them
and get busy living life.
In the two decades between 1946 and 1966, they
made babies – lots of babies – and not war, as the population of the United
States jumped by more than 50 million people. We respected our parents for what
they had done, but we also had an acute perception of the difference between
wars that were necessary for humanity’s survival, and wars that were a waste of
human life – a trait that would later serve us well as we graduated into
citizens of a country perpetually in a state of war.
And so, when Vietnam
reared its ugly head, we had a visceral, almost violent antipathy for it, fueled
and/or echoed by songs like Edwin Starr’s “War – What Is It Good For?,” Buffalo
Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” and of
course, “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s haunting elegy prompted by
the shootings at Kent State. We showed off our youthful, anti-establishment
attitude by marching against the war, disrupting the Democratic National
Convention in Chicago in 1968, and letting our hair grow long (ah, to quote Mary
Hopkins, “Those Were the Days!”).
And we devoted no small share of our
exuberant energy to pleading for human rights as well, taking up all manner of
social causes – from poverty in Bangladesh to racial equality, to the wanton
killing of seals and whales, and finally to the desperate plea of our brothers
and sisters in Russia, struggling valiantly to break through the Iron Curtain to
freedom. It was, for many of us, that mighty effort to free Soviet Jewry that
served to crystallize perfectly our inner need to do something positive,
something beyond ourselves, with our equally intense desire to be more active,
involved, committed Jews.
Here, the Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” and
John Lennon’s “Imagine” neatly coalesced with “Am Yisrael Hai” and “Hatikva,” to
light that perpetual Jewish/idealist fire within us, a fire we never stopped
If the ’50s were personified by James Dean’s Rebel Without a
Cause, we became rebels with a cause. Three causes, actually, a kind of
three-pronged stool upon which our world rests: the Jewish people, the Torah and
the Land of Israel. Reaching God – the ultimate goal, after all – by connecting
to ourselves, to our surrounding community and to global Jewry. Each one alone
proved insufficient, unfulfilling, perhaps even hypocritical.
combination of all three was irresistible.
And so, when our lives turned
the corner toward middle age, we joined the movement to build our own state and
forge our own destiny. After climbing, literally, the “Stairway to Heaven” that
was our huppa, we were on our way; Israel became the most fertile soil in which
to grow our Jewish souls.
THE TALMUD records that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua
lived to a very old age. When his students asked him for the secret of his
longevity, he began by saying, “I never took a shortcut through the synagogue.”
A bit of an oblique answer, but I suggest the sage was implying that while
others may have cut corners and traded exertion for expediency, he took no
shortcuts. He made no excuses. He did the hard work and made the tough choices,
which is the essential formula for success in eliciting God’s blessing while
living in this country.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Adda bar Ahava (Ta’anit
20b) was asked the secret of his survival, and he replied, “I never displayed
impatience in my house, nor walked in front of one greater than
never neglected the Torah nor fell asleep in the house of study
– even for moment – nor did I rejoice at the misfortune of my friend or call him
by a derogatory name.” Here, the qualities of patience, humility, diligence and
courtesy shine forth – all challenges that life in this state present to us on a
These 60 years have seen for us the highest highs and the
lowest lows any human being can experience.
The birth of children and
grandchildren, the death of a child. Falling missiles and a skyrocketing
economy. A war that was miraculously won in just six days, and a peace that
seems light years away from being realized. Friends that have come, and gone;
but many others who stayed to cast their lot with their fellow Zionists and
Dreamers who dream the words of “Mahar” – “Tomorrow” – Naomi
Shemer’s evocative ode to optimism: Tomorrow, when the army finally removes its
uniform, our hearts will stand at attention.
And then we shall build with
our own two hands that which we only dream of today.
All this is no
fable, no illusion, it is as clear as the light of day.
And if it will
not happen tomorrow, then surely the day after.
FRANK SINATRA sang,
“There isn’t much that I have learned / Through all my foolish years. / Except
that life keeps runnin’ in cycles / First there’s laughter, then those
But the rabbis summed it up a bit differently. They coined two
Hebrew phrases that we traditionally tack on to our greetings. The first, for
the average person, is “amush,” the abbreviation for “May you live until 120
years.” But for someone of exceptional wisdom, who understands that quality
trumps quantity, we bestow the title “shlita,” which means, “May you live many
At the ripe old age of 60 – a number considered absolutely
ancient back when I was a teenager – it seems clearer and clearer that it is the
life within our years, rather than the years within our life, that ultimately
writes our legacy.
So many songs to sing. But if there are any lyrics,
any one tune that I would choose as a theme song, it would have to be that
classic, “The Boxer,” from those two wonderful Jewish boys Simon and Garfunkel:
In the clearing stands a boxer And a fighter by his trade; And he carries the
reminders, Of ev’ry glove that laid him down Or cut him till he cried out In his
anger and his shame, “I am leaving, I am leaving,” But the fighter still
Scientists tell us that there are stars in the heavens whose
light only reaches the earth after that star has ceased to be. The hope of
anyone who is growing old is that he or she can also cast a light far beyond his
years, a light so bright that somewhere, in some dark place, it will illuminate
the road and show others the way to go.
Wishing you all a long – and good
– life. ■
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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