Divinely determined and beloved dates
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Divinely determined and beloved dates

A meditation on the importance of marking birthdays

Above, the calendar that Ms. Bieler gave to her husband to help him remember birthdays; inset, Tzivia Bieler.
Above, the calendar that Ms. Bieler gave to her husband to help him remember birthdays; inset, Tzivia Bieler.

Memorizing telephone numbers is most definitely a thing of the past for me, particularly since that information sits so comfortably and securely in my cell phone contacts. And I’m not sure that I do that well remembering numbers in addresses either.

When I was a freshman in college, way back in 1965, studying for a final exam in world history, I created an acronym for the 14 points of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. To this day, I remember the acronym: FROGGI BIF BAT PN. Please do not ask me what any letter represents.

But remembering important family dates and particularly birth dates — now that’s a whole other story.

Perhaps you have heard of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Born in Poland in 1772, he was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and was the founder of the Breslov chasidic movement. His religious philosophy focused on man’s closeness to God. And so it makes perfect sense that he would say this: “The day you were born is the day God decided the world could not exist without you.”

Rabbi Nachman has my attention. True, my brain tells me perhaps this is no more than one young student’s idyllic view of the human connection to the Almighty. (Nachman died when he was only 38 years old.) My heart, on the other hand, embraces a whole other dynamic. There is nothing random or happenstance about the dates of birth of those I love. On those momentous occasions — the birth dates of my husband, my children, my children’s spouses, my grandchildren — the Almighty made a serious decision about how to better the world. (Well, all God’s decisions are serious, but these date decisions relate directly to me.) Does that not give enormous significance to the date of our birth? Can we ignore how much faith our Creator has in us when He chooses our arrival date with the hope that ultimately we might make a difference in His world? How can I not carry that critical information in my most treasured memory box?

I had no idea if my late husband, Bruno, z”l, grasped the world-altering significance of birth dates as much as I did. So one year I bought him a silver calendar for his birthday. It is artistically divided into 12 equal squares, one for each month, with room to engrave birthdays and anniversaries, and it sits like a picture frame on the living room coffee table. Each month allows for up to six entries. I engraved it with his name and added “With love, Tzivia.” But despite all my plans, he died far too young to watch the calendar fill up year after year, and in truth, the gift was mine rather than his. I must have known on some subconscious level that the remembrances were there for me.

I am not troubled at all by the number of birthdays I need to remember: four children, four in-law children, 15 grandchildren. (And since I write from a mother’s point of view, I am not including our parents, my brothers, and other dear relatives in this conversation.) Not so many, you say? Aaahhhh, let me explain further. The 11 grandchildren — as well as their parents — who live in Israel actually celebrate only their Hebrew dates of birth! And while the English dates are stored readily in my head, keeping those Hebrew dates (beginning the night before according to the lunar Jewish calendar) in my memory log add another 15 bits of information to the mix.

I confess my devotion to another category of dates: the yahrzeit dates of my dear parents, my beloved husband, my husband’s parents. The people for whom I light a memorial candle and for whom I recite Yizkor. The people whose lives are forever entwined in mine. The people who loved me, nurtured me, taught me, sometimes positively or negatively challenged me, laughed with me, and so much more. Those are momentous dates, decided by God. I could never forget them, nor do I want my children to forget them when I am no longer on this earth.

Here then was my maternal challenge: how do I successfully share the magic of Rabbi Nachman’s words with my family? How do I somehow instill in my children and their children the love of also remembering and acknowledging these dates without making them feel it is a chore and an obligation that their mother asks of them over and over and over again? How do they come to the conclusion all on their own that remembering and reaching out to a family member on their birthday is one simple, beautiful link of the family’s golden chain in which grandparents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins stay connected across oceans, express their love, and acknowledge the significance that God placed on each one’s arrival into the world?

So years ago, I came up with a plan. A day or two before any of those dates, I send an email to my kids and their spouses, minus the couple about whose birthday or child’s birthday to whom the email refers. The email never begins with “I want to remind you that tomorrow….” or “Please do not forget that….” I simply begin by sharing the English and Hebrew month, day, and year in question, followed by a recent or long ago memory related to that person, some event that occurred, some funny story, some piece of our family history connected to the celebrant, and sometimes just my own pondering. And I do the exact same thing when those yahrzeits are approaching. Occasionally, I add an old photo they may not recall seeing.

Now I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I am very careful, to the best of my ability, not to repeat a story. The last thing we mothers want to hear is “You told us that story already.” But here is where my still well-functioning memory (aside from telephone numbers) pays off — I can always find something new to tell.

After sending the email, I never ask anyone if they reached out or if they emailed or texted or called or in any way used the information I had placed before them. Sometimes I will get a response telling me what I wrote was so appreciated or meaningful. Sometimes I’ll have a child who is having a crazy week but knows a date is approaching and therefore asks me to be sure to remind them. And on the rare occasion when my life is crazy and I didn’t get to send that email and I very quickly sent a reminder text to some, I will be asked, “What, no email?”

When I celebrated my 70th birthday, my children presented me with a beautiful poster. Its title: Seventy Things We Love About You. It lists 70 sentences printed in an array of colors, with the name of the person who said it at the end of each sentence. I knew my email goals about dates were hitting the mark, so to speak, when one daughter wrote two things: “I love that she always remembers everyone’s birthdays.” And “I love that she tells memorable stories for every yahrzeit.” My eldest grandson wrote: “She remembers everything and always has a heartwarming memory to share.” And one of my sons-in-law wrote: “Birthday and yahrzeit emails (need I say more?).”

We teach our children well when we parent by example — perhaps not always, but hopefully often. And neither their age or ours actually matters. Somehow I think I’ve done this right, and inspired by Rabbi Nachman’s insight, I have been able to convey to my children and grandchildren some understanding of the significance of dates.

The additional reward, of course, is that hopefully they feel closer to each other. Whether or not they succeed in making the difference that God had hoped for when He did not want a world to exist without them rests in their hands. And whether or not someone will pick up the email banner when I am no longer able to do so is yet to be determined. I’m optimistic on both counts. How can I not have faith in those I love most of all?

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