Barbara and I have this on-going in-joke about her birthday: that every four years the American government throws her a big birthday bash. If you realize that her BD is on January 20, the point of our little joke becomes clear. This year not marked not only a presidential inauguration and the opening of a partly new road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it was also for Barbara a BIG BIRTHDAY, one that called for some sort of celebration.
The last such occasion, ten years ago, found us in Teaneck NJ, six months away from our aliyah date. With the help of our two daughters and the connivance of some friends, we managed to pull of a hugely successful surprise party, at which I said a few well-chosen words (no surprise!). After some consideration, I decided to host a party to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her sixtieth birthday, but making it a surprise was more than I had strength to do.
So….. with Barbara’s input, we started making up a list of whom to invite. Maybe you’ve been in this situation: “We’ll invite a few friends….,” and then you realize that if you invite the A’s, you have to invite the B’s. What about the C’s?; we’re not as close to them as we are to the A’s and the B’s, but they have invited us on more than one occasion, and it’s only right that we invite them. What about the D’s? They’re sure to hear about our little soirée, and they’ll feel left out if they don’t get invited. What about the E’s and the F’s, good friends from out of town. They would never know about the party if we don’t mention it to them, but they’re our good friends, and it wouldn’t be the same without them The point being that the guest list balloons out of control until you’d have to rent a hall to fit all the people you want to invite.
With a little judicious trimming (meaning leaving out a whole bunch of people we would have liked to invite), we created a manageable guest list and then create an official invitation to send out, which meant I had to create some semblance of a menu to include. Wine and cheese – in our situation, goat cheese. (Warning: do not stop at Burgers Bar on the way over.) Assorted salads. That’s vague enough, giving me time to decide what to make. Likewise, desserts.
Next on the agenda: lots of shopping at the shuk. Stop at Tzidkiyahu’s cheese store and drop a bundle on some gevaldig brie and some imported gouda and manchego. Down the block to Mesameyach for some carefully selected red, white, and rosé wines from the Teperberg and Galil Mountains wineries. Some pitas from Duvduvan and baguettes from Russell’s Bakery, more than I would wind up needing. Stop at Chofetz Chaim, which has the best price on the albacore tuna (the kind you in The States take for granted but is expensive and hard to find here in The Land). Roam around the shuk for strawberries, out-of-season grapes, kumquats, clementines, and exotic lettuces. Might as well get what we need for Shabbat while I’m there. Fortunately for all concerned, there is a limit how much I can stuff into two blue Ikea shopping bags and lug home on the light rail and the 174 bus.
By Thursday night, after a bunch of hours spent slaving over a hot stove in the kitchen, I was ready. We were ready. Taking pride of place on our dining room table was a large bowl of my ever-popular cold sesame noodles and a platter filled with an anchovy-less niçoise salad. On the kitchen table were the cakes that Natania and our friend Devorah had baked – plus the extra-gooey one that Barbara, fearful there wouldn’t be enough dessert-type stuff, had purchased. The white and rosé wines were getting their last chill in the refrigerator. And then at 7:30, our guests began drifting in. Let the party begin!
When you’ve organized a social gathering, there’s always this moment when you say to yourself: Please let it work! Are the folks gathered around sampling the refreshments with appropriate gusto; are they enjoying each other’s company – especially the ones who don’t know everyone else? And then you look around, and everyone seems to be having the most marvelous time. You can relax, heap some sesame noodles on a paper plate, and quaff some rosé in a plastic wine glass. Sooner or later, something will have to be replenished, but that’s OK. It’s all good.
Relax? It would shortly be 8:30, the time when somebody (guess who?) has to regale the assembled throng with a few choice remarks. Some people, when they have to speak in public, whip out sheets of paper filled with the results of long deliberation and occasional inspiration. I have trouble with that approach; reading is something I do to and for myself. I do think about what I’m going to say – usually in the shower, walking to the mall, or lying awake in bed at night while waiting for Lucky and Pooms to decide which one of them will be inside our bedroom and which one will be outside – with a closed door in between to keep them from expressing their mutual discontent.
What occurred to me, as I mulled it over in my mind, was that each of Barbara’s milestone birthdays could be described as an “almost” moment, that something important was going to happen soon (although “soon” is an elastic term). When Barbara was ten, her parents were still wandering hither and yon across the Great 48. They would eventually wind up on Goodman St. in Rochester, NY, where Barbara would go to high school and get involved with NCSY. Ten years later, she would be getting ready to head off to Israel, taking with her a list of people to contact once she got there. Two of them were a couple she had already met, who had come to The States on the first plane out of Ben-Gurion airport after the Six Day War to attend the wedding of their son to the daughter of Barbara’s neighbors down the block. From then on, whenever she or we went to Israel, we had places to stay; we never felt like tourists staying in hotels we couldn’t afford.
In 1977, Barbara was about to take a refresher course at the Ulpan at the Jewish Agency on Manhattan’s Fifth Ave. There she would meet a dashing not-so-young man who would sweep her off her feet (not exactly!), and whom she would marry two years later. January 1987? Natania was born on Sept. 5 of that year; so do the math. 1997? We were still stuck in Passaic, NJ, which I described as the east coast version of Cleveland (an allusion that everyone from The States appreciated). Three years later we would flee to Teaneck, a wonderful community if you simply must remain in Exile, and you can afford the cost of living in Bergen County.
That’s a whole lot of “almosts,” enough for a lifetime, because if you haven’t arrived at where you’re going by this time, you probably never will – which doesn’t mean that nothing else important will happen to you. But, as I said, pointing dramatically towards our living room windows, out at the view of the hills of Jerusalem, we indeed have arrived.
I should mention that all during my “few words,” I was competing with Lucky, who was on the floor right behind me, resolutely whacking at a bowl filled with his toys and making a racket. Despite this distraction, I soldiered on. There were only a few of our friends in the room who had experienced a seventieth birthday, so I could offer them a preview of what was in store for them – if things went well and G-d was good to them. Unless they really enjoyed what they were doing, they could stop going to work every day. They would still have the energy to do whatever it is they enjoy doing. They would have a passel of grandchildren and grand-nieces and nephews. (Can’t have everything, as I pointed to the recent portrait of Damon, our only grandson, that Tina and David just sent us.) And one other thing: a loving spouse.
With firmness of purpose, I averred that, in all due respect to the ladies present, I have the world’s best wife. (To my surprise, no one objected to my claim, although it was probably more out of respect than agreement.) The proof of the pudding: she has let me live these thirty eight years, something many women would not have. Furthermore, she never hassles me about the small stuff (well, almost never!), but she always gives me a hard time about something that’s important. I cannot imagine life without her – which is the absolute truth. And then, I thanked everyone for coming to help celebrate her big day.
At this point, a few people had to leave, bust most of the crowd remained. After all, there was still plenty of cake and a bottle or two of wine left to enjoy. And then, the evening was over. Lots to clean up; that would take a while. But the memories? Just as with the ones from ten years ago, these will remain with us until the next BIG DAY.