Celebrating at 60

Many are the tales of “lost” Jews who happen on a Chabad meal and end up donning long black cloaks and disappearing into yeshivot.

Birthday (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
I know nothing about numerology, so the information below could well be wrong, but according to unsubstantiated sources, 60 corresponds to the Hebrew letter samech, which for some reason is connected to the astral snake tempter of Eve in Karma cosmic.
It is also linked to the 15th Arcanum of the Tarot: the Devil. The significance of this is unclear: a woman completes six decades of clean living and becomes satanic?
Buddhists have a gentler association with the number: 60 disciples dispersed to evangelize the world. Buddhism embraces moral precepts, renounces cravings and attachment and cultivates wisdom, loving- kindness and compassion. Perhaps 60 signifies the end of longing for what is out of reach – who needs a Jaguar anyway, at any age? – and the wisdom to know that the end has already begun, making it pretty pointless to fuss and fight.
Having just reached that august age myself (oh-mygoodly-God), I did some research on the number. The distance from the Earth to the Moon, for example, is 60 times the terrestrial radius. Does that tidbit of information make life worth living?
Here’s another: Paul (Saul of Tarsus) preached that a woman can only be registered to a group of widows if she’s at least 60 years old. Ummm… not quite sure what to do with that one. Is that good news for me or bad?
Anyway, with too many of my beloved family members getting sick and dying as they hit their 60s, I decided to totally ignore the event in the hope of bamboozling the fates. But thank the Lord, there are so many reasons to celebrate, and so many blessings to count, that my lovely birthday festivities, despite my intentions, seem to have been going on for months and spanning continents.
That is how my closest family members and I found ourselves in Crete for Passover, armed with egg matzot and kippot, determined to combine some traditional ritual with sunshine and sea and celebrations. My resourceful sister-in-law did her research, got into heavy communication with a young Chabad rav and – no sweat! – we were booked into our first-ever Beit Chabad Seder. No kneidlach shlepped in suitcases, no chrein leaking over swim suits – life couldn’t get much easier. Or more kosher: we geared ourselves up for the most religious experience of our combined many, many years.
The sweet young rabbi who warmly greeted us looked about 22, but had too many kids for that to be true. He opened with a most moving account of how 70 years ago the Nazis, who had recently conquered Crete, rounded up the island’s some 300 terrified Jews who had gone into hiding, with offers of matzot for Passover. There were no free boxes of unleavened bread, of course, when the Jews reached the port; what the Nazis offered was a ship’s passage to Auschwitz. The vessel was sunk in the open sea, drowning all the prisoners on board. Our rabbi said the Germans bombed the ship, but it was probably actually torpedoed by the British; that, obviously, is not the point.
The mind just crashes trying to imagine the horrible scene that must have played out on the peaceful shoreline lapped by the gorgeous Aegean Sea. It could so easily have been us being herded onto that ship; in a way it was us. But the somber thoughts were offset by a feeling of wonder that here we were again, some 300 Jews in Crete, this time almost exclusively Israeli, celebrating the Festival of Freedom against all odds. No wonder some exuberant revelers, fortified by a few pre-Seder cups of wine, danced through the aisles bellowing “Hava Nagila,” in a new twist to an age-old ritual.
To our astonishment, the Beit Chabad Seder turned out to be the least traditional we had ever experienced – more of a “best of” than the real thing, although the chicken soup and haroset were as scrumptious as mass-produced meals can be. The proceedings kicked off with a general washing of the hands, but those who chose to ablute had to forgo “Ehad Mi Yode’a” which was sung simultaneously as an opening whammy. In a first for us, we were treated to a Yiddish version of “Ma Nishtana,” sung with aplomb by one of the rabbi’s sons. Alla nacht fun a ganz yar/Essen mir chametz u’matzah,/Uhbar d’nacht fun Pesach, essen mir matzah.
All four verses
That was the longest part of the evening. The rest of the Haggada was so abridged, in fact, that pretty soon various families, including ours, abandoned the communal prayer, and tucking into our plentiful and delicious food long before tradition allows, did our own reading and singing and dipping of fingers into wine. The young rabbi, passing by our group, gave us an approving, happy nod.
Chabad centers pull in unaffiliated Jews (and affiliated ones) in more than 1,000 cities in 80+ countries around the world. According to very non-academic sources (nephews and nieces and children of friends), at many of the Friday night dinners alcohol flows freely with the food, and the actual ritual is relaxed and embracing. At our Seder, iPhones were flashing throughout as proud parents documented their kids asking the Four Questions (in Hebrew) with the rabbi. Not a word of rebuke, not even a hint, was spoken.
Many are the tales of “lost” Jews who happen on a Chabad meal and end up donning long black cloaks and disappearing into yeshivot. The movement is focused on outreach, and the emissaries know their stuff. “Chabad” is a Hebrew acronym for hochmah, bina, da’at: “wisdom, understanding and knowledge,” representing the intellectual underpinnings of the movement. I have no doubt that in their wisdom they have the understanding and knowledge to appeal to the unaffiliated in the best way.
We, being affiliated, are not sure how soon we’ll hurry back to another such event. But, if we find ourselves living long enough to celebrate 70th or 80th birthdays together, I might just surprise my family by learning how to sing “Happy Birthday” in Yiddish.
A gutten Shabbos to us all.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. peledpam@gmail.com