Jewish Journal

Turning 60 with Israel—just Fed-Ex those Dead Sea anti-aging creams

by Jane Ulman

Posted on May. 15, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Bruce Powell, left, in Israel in summer 1975, pictured with his friend Ken Hailpern. Photo courtesy of Bruce Powell

Israel, girlfriend, what is your problem? Why all this hoopla and hype? Does the whole world have to know that you and I -- hey, break out the Botox -- are turning 60?

Born in May 1948, separated by only 13 days and some 6,000 miles, we're Jewish soul sisters, linked by lineage, language and lox. And in solidarity over the past six decades, we've both gained and lost girth, raised often quarrelsome children and benefited from those double-action, wrinkle-reversing Dead Sea serums.

But here is where we part ways:

You choose to celebrate this milestone by throwing more than a year's worth of festivities -- lasers, klezmers and dancing at the Kotel, picnicking and parachute jumping, the launching of a 60th anniversary logo-festooned satellite -- all coordinated by a 60th Anniversary Administration. Indeed, you're even hosting a mass bar mitzvah of 600 boys and sponsoring a national referendum to select an Israeli national bird.

Me, I'd like to cast a quick vote for the Palestine Sunbird and disappear. Unlike you, party girl, I'm skipping this sexagesimal celebration. Here's why.

Open your "Ethics of the Fathers" to chapter 5, verse 21. "Sixty is for old age," the ancient rabbis proclaimed. Old age? How ugly an expression is that? Just for fun, let's backtrack a decade. "Fifty is for counsel," those same sages said. Well, here's some advice. Sixty. Fuggetaboutit.

And take a look at how birthdays are traditionally treated in Judaism. The Bible's first -- in fact, only -- reference occurs in Genesis 40:20. It's Pharaoh's birthday. And how did he celebrate? He threw a party for all his incarcerated servants, pardoning the butler and promptly impaling the baker. Yep, maybe there's a reason we Jews mark a person's yahrzeit or day of death rather than the day of birth.

Look, I'm outing myself only because of a patriotic sense of duty -- and maybe a paycheck. And not to brag or anything, but my editor said to me, "You're turning 60? You look so much better than Israel."

And I'm possibly braver, as well. I could not find one other 60-year-old female in all of Jewish Los Angeles -- I'm not making this up -- willing to go public with her age.

"Are you kidding?" they said.

That is, if they even bothered responding to my request.

Guys are a different story.

"Israel has been omnipresent in my life," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who claims age doesn't bother him but who still values the seven-month lag between Israel's birthday and his Dec. 21 birthday.

Zev Yaroslavsky pointing to Katyusha rocket pellet damage in Haifa in November, 2006

Yaroslavsky, who grew up in a labor Zionist home in Los Angeles, attributes much of Israel's "profound, long-lasting influence" to a six-month family sojourn to Israel in 1954, when he was 5. He retains vivid memories of the trip, including staying with family friends who raised chickens in their backyard and traveling to Tiberius and Jerusalem.

On the 10th anniversary of Israel's founding, Yaroslavsky was pictured in the B'nai Brith Messenger measuring a Hebrew school classmate with a ruler, comparing their growth to that of Israel's.

On a more pedestrian level, whenever Israel hits a decade milestone, be it 10, 30 or 60 years, Yaroslavsky thinks, "Uh oh, that means me, too. I'm right around the corner."

He confessed that 60 has indeed entered his consciousness.

That's also true for radio talk show host Dennis Prager, who was born Aug. 2, 1948.

"Being the same age as Israel is like having a clock ticking next to you," he said.

The realization that he and Israel shared a birthday first hit Prager around age 13, when he saw a magazine cover showing Israel celebrating its bar mitzvah (hmm, not a bat mitzvah?) and thinking, wow, "I'm having a bar mitzvah, too."

Dennis Prager and his son Aaron at the Dead Sea on a 2004 trip to Israel. Photo courtesy of Dennis Prager

Since that time, Prager has been conscious of events in his life coinciding with those of Israel. He believes there really are parallels, such as being filled with hope when you're young and being more sober about your enemies when you're older, as Israelis are today.

Prager points out that what is most remarkable is that all of us born in 1948 are the first Jews in 2,000 years who have never known what it is like to live without Israel.

"We take it for granted, but, in fact, it's totally new," he said, expressing concern that the next generation of American Jews may not understand Israel's deep significance to their lives.

Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, has always felt honored to share his birthday with Israel.

"I found it extremely fortuitous. I found it a tremendous blessing," he said, explaining that, with an Aug. 7, 1948 birthday, he feels a deep sense of connectedness with the creation of Israel, one of the most important events in Jewish history.

Powell said he initially grasped the similarities at age 10. He was attending religious school at Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood when the teacher announced that Israel was turning 10.

"I probably thought, how cool is that," he said. "It felt really good."

Powell first traveled to Israel in 1972 and then spent a year there in 1975 with his wife, Debbie. He admits to a certain level of sadness or tension in not having made aliyah, wondering what might have happened if he had stayed and become permanently attached to the growing Jewish state.

But he continues to make comparisons, asking himself, "What has Israel accomplished, and what have I accomplished?" And although Israel is obviously a country with 6 million people and Powell is one person, he hopes countries have the capacity to self-reflect.

And that's exactly the purpose of these milestone birthdays, self-reflection. For an estimated 230,000 Jews born in 1948 worldwide, according to professor Sergio DellaPergola of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, that's a lot of pondering. Or should be. For me, turning 60 is proof positive that I'll never regain my lost brain cells or cellular elasticity; I'll forever be best friends with my hair colorist, and I'll always need to be vigilant about exercising my increasingly creaky body.

But I am the proud mother of four sons, all committed members of the tribe. And what I've done, along with my husband, Larry, is create a loving and stable home filled with Jewish observances, rituals and values, including "you shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old" (Leviticus 19:32).

And you, Israel, it's amazing what you've achieved in six decades.

You've provided a homeland for millions of displaced, destitute and disenfranchised refugees. You've revived a dead language, made the desert bloom and become an international high-tech powerhouse. And perhaps most important, you've developed the Gottex bathing suit with the industrial-strength tummy-control panel.

But the truth is, Israel, as Supervisor Yaroslavsky pointed out, you're not 60 at all; you're really 3,000 years old. Sure, you might get greener as we born in 1948 all get grayer but it's still, in Yaroslavsky's words, a "head fake."

So Israel, girlfriend, party on. Maybe I'll even join you for a hora or an Independence Day hike. After all, as Yaroslavsky said, "Sixty is really a very good number compared to 3,000."

Jane Ulman on a 1966 trip to Israel, dressed in her friend's army uniform
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