Our lives are measured in units of time: days, weeks, months, years. Science and religion have given us calendars to record the passage of time, to map out the seasons and to mark sacred, tragic and joyous events from the past. As citizens we must register every birth, death and marriage according to dates on the calendar and most of us do so, scrupulously and accurately.
Not Sarah Bloom, however. With magnificent disregard for conformity she chose to ignore such obligations and, when pressured by officialdom, insisted on following her own idiosyncratic logic about what had happened when, and invented the dates accordingly.
Her date of birth was one example. Anyone who ventured to ask her how old she was would be met with a dead bat. “Age is not important”, she would reply with a smile. “It’s how old you feel that matters”. This ploy, however, failed to put her son Lewis off the scent. Having been brought up in a family in which very little of personal import was ever talked about, he had developed an insatiable thirst for the truth. The discovery of his mother’s actual date of birth assumed the nature of a quest. Sarah’s husband, Wolf, was singularly unhelpful. A man of mild temperament, he gently reproached Sarah. “What’s the harm in telling the child?”, he asked.
“He’s a nosey parker”, she replied flatly. “Children don’t need to know one’s business. But afterwards she relented. “So alright,” she said. “You can simply tell him that I was born eight days after Lag B’Omer.” And that was where the matter rested. The year of her birth remained fixed in the family mythology as the same year in which her husband was born:1902. This was registered in her passport, along with the date, 28th April, a fiction concocted, as Lewis surmised, to satisfy those hateful officials who would not allow her to travel to and fro without this information. Celebrations of parents’ birthdays did not feature in the Bloom household.
Armed with the new information which tied Sarah’s birth date to Lag B’Omer, Lewis pursued his investigations further. However, this brought him up against a fresh obstacle – the Jewish religious calendar. Sarah had come from a world in which the months and years were named and counted in a very different way to those of the Gregorian calendar. He knew that Jewish tradition counted time from the creation of the world, not the birth of the Christian Saviour.
Lewis learnt that ‘Omer‘ meant a sheaf of grain, that sheaves were counted over a circumscribed sacred period of forty nine days, regarded, for obscure reasons, as a period of mourning, during which it was forbidden to marry. There was one day, however, the thirty third to be precise, on which this prohibition was lifted. Lag B’Omer was attached to the eighteenth day of of the Jewish month of Iyyar which ran across April and May in the Gregorian calendar. This discovery expanded Lewis’s knowledge of Jewish customs but did nothing to advance his research into his mother’s birthday. The Gregorian and Jewish calendars moved across each other like tectonic plates and the lack of information about which year she was born in made it impossible to arrive at a perfect match.
The problem was put on hold, but soon another battle arose between Sarah and the Gregorian calendar. Lewis’s sister, Lisa, was rapidly reaching marriageable age, but for one reason or another, no suitor was deemed suitable. Lisa’s biological clock soon began ticking loudly and Sarah, who had hitherto vetoed every potential groom, either with or without Lisa’s approval, began to realise that time was not on Lisa’s side. When at last someone who had the right religious, social and professional credentials presented himself, Sarah relaxed her criteria for acceptability and, one might say, threw in the towel.
As the wedding date approached, it emerged that the bride and groom were more or less of the same age. Horror upon horror, Lisa was even a few months older than her chosen one. Sarah went into action. She launched an attempt to adjust her daughter’s date of birth so as to reduce her age by approximately three years.
But what had been a simple matter at the turn of the Twentieth Century proved an impossible undertaking a generation later. Despite Lisa’s collusion in her mother’s fiction, the official record was immutable and it was no longer possible to perjure oneself with an affidavit after pleading lost or destroyed documents, as had been the case with Sarah’s own certificates. Fortunately a happy confluence of love and social pressure brought the wedding to fruition. The groom, on discovering the deception, reassured the bride that her chronological age did not matter in the slightest. Thereafter, only one riddle remained to be solved – the true date of Sarah Bloom’s birth.
This matter too was put to rest in due course. Some years later, Sarah’s husband, in a moment of weakness, or perhaps out of a deeply felt wish to announce the truth, revealed to his son that Sarah was actually two whole years older than him. The year of her birth was 1900, not 1902. The sky did not fall in at this disclosure and Lewis was left wondering what all the fuss had been about. For some strange reason it had apparently been crucial in the world from which Sarah had come for the bride to be cast as the younger of the couple.
There is a posthumous postscript to the saga. When Sarah passed on after a long and colorful life, her son was faced with a dilemma. Documents showing her fictitious date of birth could be safely ignored, but the thought of allowing the falsehood to be perpetuated in granite for all eternity was too much to contemplate. With the help of a friendly rabbi and some basic arithmetic, Lewis ascertained that Lag B’Omer in the year 1900 had fallen on 17th May, so Sarah Bloom now rests peacefully under a tombstone on which the date of her birth is correctly inscribed as 25th May, 1900. These things are important.