For her upcoming 70th birthday, artist Miriam Stern’s family is planning to publish a book about her artistic career, with essays about her work and color images. The idea was a surprise to her when they told her of their plans last year. Her family knew that she did not like parties with her as the center of attention and thought of this meaningful tribute in her honor. She was delighted, and is now involved in the process of selecting images and working with the writers (miriamstern.net).
In recent times, I’ve helped several friends to celebrate milestone birthdays — the beginnings of new decades. Other friends have personal rituals that might include going to synagogue or the cemetery, visiting relatives who are much older or much younger, pursuing new adventure, new restaurants or simply a blast of fun.
I like to think of birthdays as times of celebration and reflection and turn to the words of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson: “Because time is like a spiral, something special happens on your birthday each year: The same energy that God invested in you at birth is present again.”
Facing her 60th birthday, another friend wanted to mark the milestone by learning something new that could both be used as a volunteer skill and keep her physically active. She learned massage therapy and is raising funds for a local women’s shelter. She has asked a circle of friends, and I’m happily included, to become her monthly “clients.” We write the checks directly to the shelter. Additionally, she goes there weekly to do chair massage for the residents. My friend, who prefers to remain nameless for this article, has raised, in the first 12 months of this project, $8,500.
No traditional birthday party for Micki Kaplan Reiss either. Reiss, who loves to dance, marked her recent milestone birthday in a dramatic flourish: She gave a flamenco performance. Reiss was dressed in flowing skirts with a marked flounce, and her more than 20 years of studying this type of Spanish dance were evident in her graceful stance, artful footwork, traditional arm movements and overall flair. While she has given studio performances, this was the largest ever, with almost 100 family members and friends present.
“When you study dance,” she explained, “it’s always good to have a goal to work toward. These are dances I’ve been studying for years. I wanted to do them well.” Her longtime dance teacher and choreographer was present, seated on stage doing rhythmic clapping along with a singer and two musicians. The January 2015 concert was at her shul, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the synagogue’s Moorish-inspired designs a perfect backdrop. Some musicologists and historians point to the Jewish origins of flamenco.
Reiss, whose performance name is Mikaela, didn’t bill the event as a birthday party, and many didn’t know. But old friends, and I’m one, knew what this was as soon as the invitation arrived.
“This was definitely my way of marking the day and sharing my joy of dance, and being with family and friends,” she said. “That’s what makes me happy. As I get older, I appreciate so much that I’m here and so fortunate.” Maybe she’ll do it again at her next milestone.
In Rena Schnaidman’s Teaneck home, they usually make birthdays on a Shabbat near the date, with a celebratory cake. For Rena’s 50th birthday, her family planned their own version of the Food Network’s hit show Chopped. They brought in a professional chef, Zissie Spivak. The six participants on a Sunday afternoon in 2013 were Schnaidman and her husband Menachem, their three daughters and one son-in-law. Together, they learned to make a Thai meal in several courses, — and they got to sit down and enjoy their creations.
While she knew of the event ahead of time, Schnaidman was still surprised to walk into her home on the appointed day to find her dining room festooned with Thai decorations; paper lanterns were strung across the kitchen. All of the ingredients were assembled for them in baskets at three stations.
Schnaidman is someone who puts a lot of effort into her cooking, so the celebratory lesson was particularly meaningful. “I’m in love with cooking,” she said. I think of my late mother a lot when I cook – she was a fantastic cook.”
Minna Heilpern’s unusual 50th birthday celebration involved a horse. In 2002, her birthday party was a fundraiser for INTRA – Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association, an organization that teaches equine skills and horseback riding to people with a range of disabilities.
A self-described “huge animal lover,” Heilpern, an assistant principal at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, New Jersey, first visited INTRA (INTRA.org.il) in 2001, and was moved by the work they did with children with challenges and also with adult war veterans. “They said that they needed a new horse, and that gave me the idea,” she said.
Together with a close friend from Chicago who also had a major birthday, they raised $6,000, which enabled them to buy a horse named Pocahontas (aka Pokey) as well as her first saddle and set of reigns. She had been a neglected horse and was then trained to become a therapeutic horse. “She has a gentle soul,” Heilpern said. “Not every horse can be a therapy horse.”
To Heilpern’s delight, they soon discovered that Pokey was pregnant, that they got two horses for one. They named the foal Siegel, after Danny Siegel, who has long been involved in innovative tzedekah projects, and had introduced Heilpern to INTRA. “He’s my tzedekah rabbi,” she said. She tries to volunteer at the farm in Bnai Tzion, near Ra’anana, during the summers.
For her more recent 60th birthday, Heilpern again raised funds, this time to support a program that introduces soldiers with PTSD to the care of horses and riding.
Artist Tobi Kahn loves birthdays. He has marked his decade birthdays with parties, most recently his 60th, which brought together 120 family members and friends (120 for the expression “ad meah v’esrim” — suggesting you should live until 120).
I’ve always liked Tobi’s philosophy of birthdays, gleaned from his parents and grandparents, who all took birthdays seriously. (In fact, his grandfather would take out his daughter, Tobi’s mother, to celebrate Tobi’s birthday.) For Tobi Kahn, a birthday is something of a personal Rosh HaShanah, a time of taking stock. “It’s the holy day that you came into the world. You have to leave the world a better place,” he said. “For me, it’s a day that I only do things I want to do.”
He makes a point of speaking to people closest to him, and also to making art and has a strong sense that the way he spends the day will be reflective of the year.
At birthdays, it’s good to remember these words of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: “I bless you that through your acts of good deeds, on each birthday you should be able to reflect on all the good you have done to make this world a better place to live in, and a more peaceful one …”