Age just a number, but birthdays a journey through time

Age just a number, but birthdays a journey through time

Annual milestone revisits person you were, who you’ve become

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Well, another birthday come and gone and, like you, I’m assuming, all I can do is wonder where the years have gone.

Birthdays used to be the greatest day of the year, when everyone was nice and reinforced my perception that the world revolved around me, when my mother served the dinner of my choice (pea soup and roast beef), and, of course, when I could expect the gifts I’d been begging for ever since Chanukah ended. Some years later when I saw my presents neatly arranged on the kitchen table, my eyes veered toward the smaller boxes, praying one would contain keys to a new car —but  my prayers were never answered. And eventually, birthdays lost their luster when I left home and didn’t have my parents around to make a big deal about something that everyone, save those poor Feb. 29-ers, experience every year.

Now it’s a day I would gladly do without. There’s no longer any benefit from getting older (other than wisdom gained and, well, not dying). Material possessions I covet arrive shortly after my Amazon order is processed instead of a few days a year, and I’ve long-since passed virtually every age requirement besides Social Security: I can drive, see an R-rated movie, vote, buy alcohol, rent a car, and even run for president. The rabbinic prohibition for individuals under 40 to study the Zohar, the central text on Kabbalah, no longer applies to me.

It’s odd, because not only don’t I feel old, most times I hardly even consider myself an adult. I’m still getting used to the idea that I get paid for a job that doesn’t entail shoveling a driveway; that my wedding is well in the rearview mirror; that anyone would trust me to take care of children for more than a few hours on a Saturday night. Yet here I am, inching closer to the end than to the beginning.

My iPhone automatically collated photos from the past 10 years of birthdays, which allows me to track the amount of gray in my hair (early photos: none. Since I had kids: like I forgot my hat in a snowstorm). Frankly, the technical assistance is unnecessary, as I can vividly remember birthdays since I turned 4 (presents: mop, pail, broom, toy vacuum, and other cleaning supplies to encourage my passion at that young age. Much to my parents’, and my wife’s, chagrin, I grew out of that phase).

It’s hard not to feel wistful when thinking of birthdays past, snapshots of your life and those who celebrated with you. There was my 6th birthday, when I was allowed to stay up late and watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The wrestling match at the old Boston Garden when I turned 12 and witnessed the Ultimate Warrior body-slamming Andre the Giant (both since deceased). The one my family celebrated in the hospital where my brother was recovering from surgery, and the time I got to spend my birthday with the entire community … as it fell on Yom Kippur. Had to wait awhile for my cake that year.

The unofficial switch from youthful celebrations to grown-up reality came between birthdays 30 and 31. One year I hosted a loud, boisterous party attended by dozens of friends (if I ever have to testify before Congress about my state of mind that evening, I know to respond, “I like beer”). The next year I stayed past 10 p.m. in a windowless office in the Boston Globe, none of my coworkers aware that it was anything but a busy production day. The dichotomy between those respective birthdays was noticeable — and a bit depressing.

Since then two celebrations in particular stand out: The first came days after an emergency appendectomy. I couldn’t go out so a few friends came over, and my wife taped my picture on the wall and had everyone play “Pin the appendix on Gabe.” One attendee baked an appendix-shaped cake; it looked gross and probably tasted great, but surgery had squelched my appetite.

And a couple of years ago my wife surprised me with a shark dive in a Long Island aquarium. Wearing a wetsuit and an underwater mask that allowed me to breathe and speak, I stepped into a steel cage with a diving instructor and was lowered into a massive underwater tank surrounded by several nurse and sand sharks, docile but suddenly excited by our presence. Adrenaline kept me from being scared during the 20-minute dive, but it was startling to see that seven-foot sharks, which seems small on TV, appear far larger and more menacing when they are swimming next to you.

Such unique experiences are wonderful at this stage of my life because now even my own birthday isn’t about me. As a dad with young children, I feel like my birthdays have become an opportunity to teach the kids that it’s not always about them. So they can write cards, hang decorations, stir cake batter, and give home-made paper weights to make someone else feel special: me.

I guess that proves what the poet Ogden Nash said is true: “You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely.”

Gabe Kahn can be reached via email:, or Twitter: @sgabekahn 

read more: