At Akiva School in Montreal, for each grade there is a Chagigah, a celebration. My wife and I are seasoned pros at all these events and presentations. We’ve seen them all, lots of times: The Life of Moses, Kabbalat Siddur, Chagigat B’reisheet, Lech Lecha, Havdalah. Each year we charge our cameras, dash for seats, hum along with the songs, enjoy the dances and smile with tremendous pride when our child comes to the front to recite his or her lines. In Grade 5, the children present “M’Dor Le Dor,” a beautiful project exploring family history, stories, relics and traditions. Our kids have taken turns preparing and presenting with each grandparent choosing different heirlooms: a shovel, samovar, challah tray, chanukiah and dictionary. Eytan, our sixth and youngest child at Akiva is no exception. His first assignment of the school year: interview a grandparent and learn about some key aspects of their life.
Eytan chose to call my father in Ottawa. However, Eytan decided to ask about my father’s father, Reuben, after whom he is named. My father answered the questions diligently, careful to spell names and sites, each to my son’s satisfaction. The answers were familiar to me: my zaide was born in Chojniki, Belarus; he was one of 7 children; he spoke Russian and Yiddish. Then, my son recorded a fact that I had somehow never known or overlooked: on September 22, 1922 my grandfather arrived in Canada.
September 22 is my birthday. Frankly, I am not a big fan of birthdays. I do look forward to the day; I love receiving cards and warm wishes, but truthfully, it is near impossible for the day to live up to all the hype or expectations. Maybe I am reminded of the quote from Talmud Sanhedrin, Bishvili nivra ha’olam – the world was created for me, and my birthday reminds me not only of my accomplishments but of what I have yet to learn, experience, achieve or complete.
Growing up, my friends and I would compare our birthdays: the season, timing, and whether anyone famous shared our date. The most prominent person I could come up with was Michael Farady, a fairly accomplished scientist, but not particularly impressive compared to sports stars or movie celebrities. However, discovering from my 10 year old son that my 11 year old zaide arrived in Canada almost a half century earlier instantly elevated the value and significance of the date.
I remember my grandfather telling me the story of when he arrived by train to Montreal. A man was jumping up and down excitedly on the platform. My zaide did not recognize him, but the man was his father. He had left years earlier to find a job, earn money and prepare for his family’s eventual and progressive arrival to Canada. I recall my zaide talking about the embarrassment of starting Grade 1 when he was 5 years older than his classmates. This only motivated him to study harder, learn a new language, and he quickly caught up to his peers.
Looking at my own son, I cannot begin to fathom the fear or comprehend the confusion of another child, almost the same age, arriving in a new country with barely any possessions, ignorant of the land, people and language. My zaide did not know his English birthdate, only that he was born on the first day of Shavuot. The family name needed to be changed because it was too long, too different and too difficult to pronounce. My zaide knew little of where he had landed and even less of where he was going, but he did know that his family was reunited.
Growing up, I loved hearing my zaide’s stories about his childhood before coming to Canada. Despite the poverty and the desolation, Chojniki seemed special, if not magical. I remember my zaide telling me about a prolonged drought in Chojniki. It had not rained in weeks; the ground was dry and the crops were wilted. The Rabbi declared a fast day and called for a full day of study and prayer. That evening, my zaide recalls witnessing the biggest rainstorm of his life.
He also spoke of the exciting news when Chojniki announced that the first street lamp would be installed in the center of his village. My zaide’s family met around the kitchen table to discuss how this single bulb would illuminate the entire shtetl as well as their home. I can only imagine his amazement when the ship docked in the Halifax Harbour or his train arrived at the Montreal station.
With the help of a simple, free internet calendar converter, I know now the exact date when my zaide, along with his sister and mother, disembarked from his boat in Canada: September 22, 1922 was the 29th day of Elul 5682; it was Erev Shabbat and Erev Rosh Hashana.
We sometimes forget that Rosh Hashana was not the first day of Creation. The first work of creation, ma’ase b’reisheet, actually began on the 25th of Elul. Only after the world was complete, on the sixth day, did Hashem create the first person. The following evening was Erev Shabbat.
Returning to Talmud Sanhedrin, our role in Rosh Hashana becomes clear:
L’fikhakh nivra’ adam y’hidi
L’lamedkha shekol ham’abed nefesh ahat miyisra’el
Ma`le `alav hakatuv k’ilu ibed `olam male’
V’khol ham’qayem nefesh ahat miyisra’el
Ma`ale `alav hakatuv k’ilu kiyem `olam male’…
L’fikhakh kol ehad v’ehad hayav lomar
bishvili nivra’ ha`olam
For this reason a single person was created
To teach you that anyone who kills one soul
Is considered as if he has killed an entire world
And anyone who sustains one soul
Is considered as if he has sustained an entire world…
For this reason every single person must say
The world was created for me
Rosh Hashana, like our birthday, represents a beginning. Like Adam, we were not created into a void. We were born into a family and community. As the Gemara teaches, we have ability to either destroy or save the world. We are given tools and ingredients; however, we are responsible for how we choose to use them and we are accountable for our results. We are reminded on Rosh Hashana of this great honour and duty – the world was created for me.
This birthday, I will still reflect on the year that passed and make wishes for the year to come. I will continue to pray for health, happiness, success and peace. I am, however, deeply comforted and relieved that my birthdate is shared with my zaide’s arrival in Canada. The day means so much more, and above all else, reminds us to appreciate what we have and who we love – and I thank my son for reminding me of this timeless lesson.