Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Sivan 5766 - June 14, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

Make a Happy Birthday!
by Dena Newman

When I was a little girl, birthdays were very important to me. Some years I enjoyed a party, other years a nice gift, but there was always something to remind me that my parents loved me, and that I was their treasure. Occasionally, my mother laughs and reminds me of a conversation we had when I was young.

My mother, who grew up in a small town in Romania, confessed to never having had a birthday party. My first shocked response was — but then how did you get older? When I myself got a little older, I decided to take matters into my own hands. My mother was home all the time, so planning a surprise was quite an effort, but one Shabbos I told my mother I had to leave shul early — something I never did. When she and my father and brother came home, the table was decorated and a birthday cake was on the table. It was a big surprise for her and it became a happy, warm memory we share.

As I matured, and listened to Torah tapes, I discovered that birthday celebrations were somewhat frowned upon. Since they are not out-and-out forbidden, I hope it is OK to plead their cause.

It is true that each birthday brings a person closer to their death. One speaker I heard said, 'Imagine being on a train that is hurtling along the tracks, bringing passengers to their grave. Would they celebrate each stop at each station?' But to accept this viewpoint in its extremity, we could mourn the birth of a child, realizing that eventually his life here will end.

Hashem has put us here for however many years he allots to us. We are commanded to serve Him in joy. Perhaps in years past when people led much more austere lives and were more serious about life, birthday celebrations were a distraction that they didn't need and probably couldn't afford. Today, when we live in an era where most people have plenty of things, but suffer from lack of attention, celebrating a birthday can serve as another tool to introspect and grow in our avodas Hashem.

Somehow, many children feel overlooked in their families, or suffer from lack of recognition. Being fussed over can have long-term positive effects on their self-esteem. As a child enjoys a 'day in the sun,' s/he can better accept and share in the joy of others. Children can learn that rejoicing with another person's happiness allows us infinite opportunities for joy. As a Rebbetzin-friend of mine confided to me, 'In my husband's family there was a rule — if there is some reason to celebrate, celebrate!'

Warning: going 'overboard' can have deleterious ramifications! Spending a lot on special paper goods, expensive food, costly entertainment, party favors, etc., can have the opposite effect, and cause a child to become self- centered and spoiled. In some communities this can be a very fine line, but following the rule of 'Don't be first, don't be last' can help parents keep things in perspective. Keep in mind as well that we want to avoid spiraling celebrations.

When my oldest was in second grade, she came home upset that a classmate was having a sleepover party, and that she wasn't invited. I didn't realize that the girl's parents were trying to minimize, I only saw that my daughter was left out. I told her that she could invite her entire class to come over Motzei Shabbos for a sleepover party. I thought that such an oral invitation, issued Erev Shabbos would have very few takers. Boy was I wrong. Her whole class showed up!

It's a night I'll probably never forget! And a few days later, the father of her friend who had made the small party said to my husband, 'Upping the ante?' We realized that we had not given enough thought to the entire situation. So, when planning your child's special day, try to make it a unique event that will become a cherished memory, without arousing jealousy. This includes among the immediate family as well — if you decide to splurge one time, you had better explain well, or you will be on the hook for future events! A one-time overindulgence will become the future norm.

Here are some ideas for making a birthday special, while hopefully avoiding the above referenced pitfalls.

1. Lots of birthdays to remember? My aunt, a great grandmother (and a great aunt!) likes to send everyone a card and a small gift. She sits down on the first of each month and mails out the entire months' worth of birthdays! No one is forgotten, and she avoids having to check her calendar on a daily basis. Setting up such a calendar takes some amount of work, but is well worth it. Let one person be in charge, and make sure to update anyone with a copy (grandparents, married siblings, cousins etc.) with all new additions. If nicely done, perhaps with snapshots, it can be a thoughtful and appreciated gift to older relatives, and it's also another way to keep in touch!

2. Making a party for just the immediate family? Let the birthday child select all or at least part of the menu. You can get a cute tablecloth and keep it under a plastic, so that it can be reused for future parties . . . it can be a family tradition! Alternatively, arrange photos, or pictures that the children have drawn, or cut out letters spelling their name and tape it onto a paper tablecloth. Scatter confetti or metallic shreds, cover with plastic, and it can look very distinctive.

3. With young children, snack bags are often prepared so that everyone gets a treat, which is a fine idea. The birthday child should be allowed to select at least part of what goes in. To ensure that the birthday girl feels special, perhaps she can get one item that no one else got. A friend of mine who does this told me that the celebrant invariably gives a small piece to all attendees to share. A beautiful occasion for practicing good middos, and a great opportunity for parental follow up. 'You shared your special cupcake! I feel so good when I see that!'

4. Encourage family members (especially young ones) to think of homemade gifts. Consider making a collage or pretty message and turn it into a puzzle (a wrapped band-aid or tea box makes a pretty presentation!), sew a simple pocketbook, or water bottle holder, adorn a new towel with beads or with markers; there are many craft ideas around.

5. One of our favorite gifts, appreciated by any age and do- able by almost any age, is a coupon book. Write up five or ten coupons, that you know the recipient will appreciate. Try all kinds of brainstorms, such as "good for one time cleaning up your room." "Good for typing up three pages" "good for one trip to the store, buying up to ten things." "good for three times first choice of music to listen to." Everyone will have a good laugh and the present can be enjoyed for a long time.

6. At the party (or meal) let everyone bless the birthday celebrant. To make it more interesting, fill a bag with small toys and ask each person to take one randomly and make up a birthday blessing connected to the toy. Past brochohs include this gem, given by a seven-year-old boy, who took a toy bus and said, "May you have enough kinderlach to fill up a bus!"

7. Another favorite game in our home is 'hot potato.' The children gather up some small toys and prizes (or candies) and start wrapping. The first toy is wrapped up alone. The second toy is placed on top of the first and they are wrapped up together. Wrapping continues with a toy in each layer, until the finished product resembles a small pillow. During the party, the hot potato is passed around while music is played, or someone sings. When the music stops, the child holding the hot potato gets to unwrap one layer and keep the prize! (Feel free to cheat and stop the music so that everyone ends up with a prize!)

8. Scavenger hunts can be a lot of fun especially if done outside of the house. Children can work individually or in teams. Consider a store or park only if your crowd is mature enough to play without disturbing others. Experiment with putting creative things on your list such as 'cheapest dinner in the store' or 'smallest leaf/flower/bug found', etc. If playing in a store, think about giving each team a small amount to spend for the nosh afterwards.

9. If you have a camera handy, you can take pictures of the party, and a special picture of just the birthday boy. Later, he can get an album and relive his happiness. You can even use the same album each year, and use the special picture to record his growth.

10. If your family size and energy level allow it, consider a mini-celebration on 'half-birthdays'. We have found that the kids really enjoy it.

11. Give a lot of thought into deciding whether or not to make a surprise party. Anticipation is half the fun, and there is none of that with surprises. On the contrary, many children (and adults) get rather sulky as their birthday approaches and no one says a word. It may not be worth the brief wonderful experience of being surprised. The best of both worlds may be to do what a friend of ours did. She planned the party with her daughter, and then surprised her by having it a few days early! Any aspect of the party can be a surprise, while most of it is planned together. This way the birthday-person knows way ahead of time that you are thinking of them.

12. On the topic of anticipation, it can be a very good idea to take some private time with your birthday child, about a month before his birthday. Tell him you can't wait to celebrate it, and you are wondering what he wants, or how he would like to celebrate. If you are afraid he may come up with something out of bounds, offer choices right away. "Would you like to go to Bubby, or do you prefer the park?" "Do you want a new ball or jump rope?" That gives him the idea of what the limitations are. Hopefully, he won't respond with an outlandish request, but if he does, a bit of humor may rescue you. Something like, "I would love to get you a private helicopter to go to . . . ; but do you think it could fit in our garage?" may make him laugh and become more realistic. If you wait, and he comes to ask you first, the whole event can come off with your child believing that he got something out of you, without feeling that you wanted to give it.

13. I once read about a family planning a party. One of the parents said to the other, "Something may go wrong at this party; it happens sometimes. If you ignore it, no one will remember the mistake. But if you lose your temper, no one will ever forget it." It's a good idea to remind people that we plan, but Hashem decides what will actually happen. "Gam zu letovoh" is what we have to say.

As always, maintain flexibility, try to see it all from your child's point of view and you will create many happy memories.

Rabbi Schwab had a unique way of celebrating his birthday, I heard on a R' Pesach Krohn tape. During the year, he would give tzedaka, sometimes ahead of time, based on expected earnings. But every year on his birthday, he would declare, "Hashem gave me another year? I will just cross off the old balance of tzedaka given ahead of time, and start anew."


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