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by Bonnie Beth Chernin

Birthday Serenade

I had just finished listening to my daughter serenade me with Happy Birthday to You when I asked if she could sing the song again in Hebrew. Maybe it was because I didn’t want my birthday celebration to end, or maybe it was because I knew she could do it.

Rachel had learned the Hebrew version at her Jewish day school, a school under the auspices of the Conservative movement. I mention this only as a report released in 2008 about attitudes concerning Jewish days schools found that many people, at least in the New York City area, think a Jewish day school refers to an Orthodox yeshiva and are not aware that day schools can also encompass Conservative Judaism

At school Rachel learned Yom Huledet Same’ach, Happy Birthday, sung to the popular tune first composed by two sisters Mildred Hill and Patty Smith Hill in 1893. But Rachel’s 2011 Hebrew rendition took on a new twist, at least for me.

Just as I thought Rachel had finished and was about to thank her for indulging my request, she continued singing some more Hebrew words and then finished with a big smile.

“Thanks, honey. What was the extra part you added?”

She repeated the Hebrew again, and I asked for a translation.

“There’s two ways you could say it,” Rachel said. “One is, ‘Hope you have a good year and live until 120.’”

“Why 120?”

“Because Moses lived until 120, a long life,” she patiently tutored me. “But that’s not the version I sang. I like the other one better.”

“What’s the other one?”

“Hope you have a good year and live until 100 but you’ll feel like 20.” Rachel paused. “You know where that one comes from?”

I had no clue.

“Because when Sarah — you know Sarah of Abraham and Sarah in the Torah — when Sarah was 100, it was as though she was 20.”

“I see,” I said.

“I like that one better,” she said.

“I do too,” I agreed.

Living to 100 but feeling like 20 is a wish that lessens the test of aging. As I watch my parents and other family members grow older, I understand now more than ever such desire. And thanks to Rachel, I understand more fully what Happy Birthday can mean.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine