I love learning new words. A while ago I used the word quotidian in a column. While I haven’t thought of that as a new word for years, I remember exactly when I first heard it — shortly after I moved to Teaneck, when a new young rabbi used it in a sermon. I figured out its meaning from context, and then, just to be sure, when I returned from shul I checked its definition in our large home dictionary (remember those from pre-smartphone days?). I was excited to have a new word in my lexicon and have used it ever since.
Another new word I just started hearing recently — and it’s sure to become ubiquitous as America’s 250th anniversary gets closer — is semiquincentennial. (Note: Our 200th anniversary only needed two letters — bi — to modify centennial but adding 50 years requires eight. There must be some lesson there.)
Which leads me to the word that really came to mind as I sat down to write this column: sesquicentennial; that is, one-and-a half centennials or 150th anniversary. I learned that word when sesquicentennials were running rampant over the course of several years a little more than a decade ago — first the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter, followed by those of Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, Appomattox Courthouse, and finally, and sadly, our first presidential assassination.
From a personal perspective, though, I’m thinking of the sesquicentennial of “I’ve Been Thinking”; that is, this is my 150th column written for the Jewish Standard. So I had planned on using it as a springboard for some introspection, and to discuss what this column and the Standard mean to me and how they helped me learn more about myself.
And then life, as it does so often, intervened, though this time in a most delightful way. On Shabbat, August 5,
2023, 18 Av 5823, at 9:44 a.m., my daughter Gabrielle and her husband Allen Glenn became parents again, this time to Devin Harry (in Hebrew, David Chen), a 6 lb., 12 oz. ridiculously adorable (really!!) baby boy. And Devin’s birth immediately rose to my number one topic for this column.
In one sense, though, writing only about Devin isn’t quite fair. Sharon and I have been blessed with five grandchildren, and they fall into two groups: the Goldbergs of Toronto, for whom a passport is needed for visits, and the Glenns of Brooklyn, where no passport is needed — though the trek, depending on traffic and construction, can sometimes seem almost as arduous as the one to Canada.
But there’s a difference beyond passports. All three Goldberg grandchildren — Ezra, Aviva, and Liora — were born before I started to write this column; the Glenn grandchildren came afterward. So while Devin’s older brother Aiden merited a column when he was born (“Our Thanksgiving Gift”), and this one was spurred by Devin’s birth, the births of their three Goldberg first cousins couldn’t be recognized in print by their Grandpa. I’ll try to rectify that a bit here without talking about births, but before I do so, another few words about the event at hand.
I’m sure Devin will be different from his older brother in many ways. One difference, however, has already manifested itself — Aiden was a covid baby and Devin is not. When Aiden was born, we weren’t allowed to visit him and Gabrielle in the hospital, and when we finally were able to do so in Brooklyn, everyone was masked, with no hugs or kisses allowed. And as necessary in the plague years, a covid brit followed — a small, socially distanced, masked morning minyan, followed by the brit itself, a short program, and for our very few immediate family guests, breakfast boxes and coffee to go.
Devin’s birth and brit were very different in many ways. A Sunday hospital visit followed the Shabbat birth, and both Sharon and I were able to hold and snuggle with the newborn until he was torn from our embrace so his mother could feed him. As for the brit, although it was on Shabbat, which still limited attendance somewhat, many family members and local friends — including (great) aunts and uncles, (great) nieces and nephews, all types of cousins, a friend of mine who goes back 73 years, and, most special, our wonderful mechutanim and Bubbie and Pop par excellence, Marla and Ray, and Allen’s beloved Zayde, Henry Glenn — were able to attend live and eat from a delicious buffet rather than take-home boxes. Hugs and kisses replaced masks.
Of the Toronto first cousins, only Liora was able to join; Ezra and Aviva were still in Camp Moshava. But they were there in spirit, have already Facetimed with their new cousin, and are busy planning their live visit with him during the chagim.
Spirit certainly is an appropriate word to use about these delicious Canadians, because they are, and have always been, quite spirited in everything they do. Ezra not only takes his limud Torah seriously, but the spirit and diligence he puts into it earned him first place in Canada’s Chidon HaTanach contest, and he will represent Canada in next year’s international contest in Israel on Yom HaAtzma’ut. Aviva not only eats with spirit, polishing off the ribs Savta makes specially for her like they were hot dogs in a Nathan’s July 4th contest (and eating them as quickly as she finishes the piles of books she takes out of the library), but she has taken that same spirit, combined with attention to detail, and brought it into the kitchen, where she cooks and bakes and banters with zest, like a junior Julia Child. And Liora’s spirited gymnastic feats not only amaze us every time we watch with bated breath, but she has transferred that spirit and exuberance to her reading as she, following her big sister’s lead, gobbles up books over Shabbat (sometimes, even, while doing cartwheels).
Where will Devin’s spirit shine through? How will he distinguish himself from his amazing sibling and cousins? Specific answers, of course, are blowin’ in the wind. But holding this new small bundle of pure joy and love, and cuddling with this brilliant, beautiful, bountiful blessing, I have no doubt, as I caress his incredibly soft baby’s skin and kiss his adorable baby cheeks, that he will find his own personal, unique way to stand out from the crowd as he grows and matures and his individual spirit manifests itself.
Upon further reflection, and with the help of Google and my nephew Avi, I realize there actually is a link between Devin’s birth and sesquicentennials. This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, known as Israel’s national poet. Bialik wrote many poems that have been put to music, like the well-known Shabbat HaMalka — the Sabbath Queen — which Sharon and I learned in camp and some still sing around their Friday night tables.
More poignantly, though, is a lovely lullaby he wrote, Hayesh Keollali — Is there One Such as My Child — in which a mother sings to her little one, and ends by cooing “fortunate am I that he is my son and I am his mother.” A touching thought that Sharon and I paraphrase, on Bialik’s sesquicentennial, as we sing to Devin and Aiden and Ezra and Aviva and Liora, “fortunate are we that they are our grandchildren and we are their grandparents.”
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.