Friday, April 24, 2009
This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 25 September 2006.
I love birthdays. They represent our big chance to be royalty for a day. At our house, I go all out (some might say overboard) on birthdays. Yesterday, while celebrating a birthday of my own, I stopped to think about the way we celebrate birthdays here in Israel. Mostly, things aren't that different here.
As you can see in the photo, young children wear a crown of flowers on their birthdays. In preschools, birthday celebrants often sit on a special chair that has been decorated to look like a throne. In one preschool I know, the birthday kids rode in on a small wagon pulled by the teacher. There's lots of singing and music (note the cymbals). Israelis sing a Hebrew version of the ever popular Happy Birthday to You (the older kids even sing it in English, though it tends to come out "birzday", since they are unfamiliar with the "th" sound, which does not exist in Hebrew). However, there are several Israeli songs that are always sung on birthdays as well.
Of course, there's always a birthday cake and festive snacks. When my older daughter was in preschool, there seemed to be a competition amongst the mothers, who would prepare the fanciest cake. There were some amazing creations, adorned with marzipan, or small plastic animals. The snacks were almost always the same - and continued to be offered at all parties, whether in school or at home. They included toffees, marshmallows, small pretzels and the quintessential Israeli snack food, Bamba. Bamba is a peanut butter flavored snack that has the same shape and texture as the familiar cheese puff snacks available in the U.S. Practically everyone loves and eats Bamba, from toothless infants to doting grandparents.
In preschool, often it is the birthday child who gives a small gift to each classmate. We have a lifetime supply of floats suitable for use in a swimming pool, for example. Occasionally the teacher allows the class to give gifts to the celebrant. These are then dragged home in an industrial-sized garbage bag and sorted through. Some such gifts are still in use in our house, like the jump ropes and water pistols.
And then there are the special birthday wishes. In Hebrew, the word used for those special wishes is the same as the word for blessings (brachot, for those who know Hebrew). Indeed, someone celebrating a birthday will find him- or herself showered with blessings all day. In preschool, the children often draw pictures which are bound in a special cover and presented to the celebrant. Sometimes the teacher goes around the room, having the children offer their good wishes verbally. For a parent attending such parties, it can be tricky to hold back laughter at some of the blessings offered ("May you never break your leg falling off the swing during playtime," for example). It's the thought that counts.
As children grow older, they no longer need prompting to offer their good wishes. Here, people don't wish you a "Happy birthday!", they tell you "Congratulations!" (mazel tov) instead. Some kids will wish one another such things as success in their studies, and good health.
In the early years of elementary school, parents may bring cake or popsicles to school for the entire class to enjoy. Most teachers instruct students to invite all 35+ classmates to any birthday parties that take place out of school. Obviously, this can be an expensive proposition. It is common for parents hosting a party at home to hire an entertainer, such as a clown or a magician. Some offer craft-themed parties. Many parents, however, opt to hold the celebration elsewhere, such as a bowling alley or a place especially geared towards children's birthday parties. Several children I have known over the years have even held their birthday parties in restaurants or night clubs. As the kids get older, they begin to ignore the all-inclusive rule, and parties are often all-girl and boys-only affairs.
When my older daughter was in fifth grade, I learned of a new way of marking someone's birthday. I hope it is not a nation-wide custom. The kids in our neighborhood would buy a dozen eggs and a kilo of flour, and perform a modern-day tar and feathering of the celebrant. Throwing buckets of water over the birthday boy or girl was also popular. Fortunately, this type of behaviour usually only happened in the warmer months.
Starting around junior high school age, girls tend to buy one another helium balloon bouquets. These are often brought to school, though some girls wait until the afternoon to bring such offerings to their friends. Parties are once again coed, and often take place at night, rather than in the late afternoon and evening.
Most adults I know do not celebrate their birthdays with their friends. In over eleven years of living here, I recall attending only one birthday celebration for an adult who was not in my immediate family. It is customary, however, for friends to call with birthday wishes - blessings for a happy and healthy life. Another common saying on a birthday is "May you live to 120" (the age Moses was when he died).
Yesterday and today, I received e-mails, e-cards, telephone calls and even an old-fashioned greeting card, some from here and some from friends and family in the U.S. The sentiments expressed were all very much the same, no matter what the origin of the good wishes. I guess birthdays are pretty much the same, no matter where you celebrate them.