At 50, Israels getting greener but writer grows grayer

ENCINO — 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.

In Israel, over 100 celebratory events, including marches, memorials and marathons, parades and parties, seminars and ceremonies, will occur throughout the year.

I, however, am seeking a more co ntemplative 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, the 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.

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 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 billion. My husband and I aren't far behind, faced with four yearly tuitions for Jewish day school, four b'nai mitzvah and, God willing, four prenuptial dinners.

In addition to releasing debts, the jubilee commands us to let the land lie fallow. In Southern California, however, if I stop cultivating my backyard, it will quickly take a downhill dive through my neighbor's back door.

But whether you call it a jubilee or a 50th birthday, this midcentury milestone certainly has me wondering why Israel gets greener and I get grayer.

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 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 fortunate to have reached this juncture. To Israel and me, two proud, 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."