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Sixty-fourth Birthday Musings

When you arrive to middle-age, wherever that starts -- or ends -- am I well past it? -- does it change generationally, e.g. sixty is the new forty? they try to tell us that -- they? there's always a they as opposed to a we. Must we need another to blame  . . . .

At that point of time you begin reflecting on what life has been all about, was it good, worthwhile? -- was it bad? -- cf forefather Ya'akov avinu's answer in a recent Torah reading, when Pharaoh, on meeting him for the first and perhaps only time, asks him how old he is. Ya'akov's answer is quite shocking, provoking, disquieting, "The years of my life on this earth are a hundred and thirty, my life's years have been few and bad; I have not anywhere near reached my fathers' age". His saving grace, I believe, is that seventeen years later, ironically on his deathbed, he speaks of "the angel who redeemed me from all evil". Is he now viewing his time on earth with a new perspective, or is he saying that within all those years of bad experiences, of dealing in the face of real evil, he always managed to come out unscathed, but only as a result of supernatural intervention?

As my regular readers know, each year I write an essay rounding off my previous year, outlining my expectations for the following, what I did -- and did not do -- or achieve, the direction in which I would like to move ahead from here, how my thinking and attitudes may have changed. Sometimes I have more questions than answers. Perhaps you, my dear readers, can provide the answers that I am unable, that I do not want to hear.

This birthday I reach a milestone, not in any biblical or classical sense, but based on words penned during my earthly sojourn. I refer to Lennon-McCartney's immortal When I'm sixty-four. (Cf Que Sera, Sera, from Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. In every generation everyone ponders what will the future bring.)

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now

They start with the crux of their fears. This is a quartet that made its reputation on the length of their hair -- of course their music too. Informally they were the moptops. Their hair really wasn't that long, but nearly everyone thought it was back then. So to think about the time you would balding must have been painful.

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out 'til quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?

You'll be older too

Lennon and McCartney wrote their song when the former was 27 years old, the latter 25. What were they thinking when they chose this number, many years from now? McCartney's father was 64 at the time, his mother younger; both Lennon's parents were still in their fifties. Or was their choice because they needed a number to rhyme with door and more?

In 1981 Gates and Allen produced -- bought -- the first mass selling desktop computer operating system, initially running the IBM PC. Later it ran on what we used to call compatible computers. In those days memory was expensive so the computer was supplied with a meagre 16 kB. No-one was certain then where the PC would go, if at all -- IBM were themselves amongst the biggest doubters, just hoping it would help sell more of their mainframes.

But the PC changed all our lives, forever, and in a very short time. Problems arose as the price of memory, and computers, dropped; programs quickly became more and more memory hungry. Then we hit a fabricated limit that had, unknown to almost everyone, been built into the operating system -- it could not address more than 640 kB! For the machines to be truly useful to us we soon discovered, we needed lots more memory. We daily found new uses for these desktop machines. Why this memory limit? It seems the designers had arbitrarily decided that no-one would ever need SO much memory. This simplified the developer's life. A new industry of expansion memory cards quickly grew up to work around the restriction. Until new versions of the operating system managed to break through the artificial 640 kB limit -- and the expansion card business died overnight.

When Lennon and McCartney looked around themselves in 1967, I assume they didn't see too many people living much past sixty-four -- so maybe it wasn't such an arbitrary value. English male life expectancy then was 72. In my twenties I thought people in their forties were old. And in their fifties?! Of course when I reached the maturity of forty, according to the mishna the age of understanding, I thought sixty year olds were OLD, really old. The same mishna even implies as much, "sixty years old for zikna", often translated as old. I now believe it means the age of being able to judge fairly. Zikna is the biblical term used to describe the sages, the wise elders; age was not necessarily part of their formula, the sages were seeking maturity.

To whom were Lennon and McCartney writing these lines? "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?" and the strange coda, "You'll be older too". Both songsters were first married in 1969.  Back in 1967 did they expect their then girlfriends to stay with them for another forty years? For them to become their wives and stay with them forever? You'll be older too? meaning when you get to 64 and you think you are the same you you were all those years earlier, just remember, only you internalise you as the same you -- you'll be older too. Everyone else sees what you would see if you take the trouble to look in a mirror. Take my advice -- don't. Because you'll be older too. It's part of life. Beats the alternative.

How responsible did the pair see themselves? "If I'd been out 'til quarter to three, would you lock the door?" This is the embodiment of the relationship they expected to last all those decades? Your girlfriend stays home while you go out on the town with the boys? with other girls? And even if you do lock me out, will you still feed me?

And, if you say the word, I could stay with you
I could be handy, mending a fuse, when your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside, Sunday mornings, go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?

Their first bit of honesty. You have to want me to stay, "if you say the word, I could stay with you", but only could, no definite promises on the narrator's side. And what does he promise in return? Some trivial task that in the sixties no woman would consider doing, because of the danger involved, "I could be handy, mending a fuse, when your lights have gone" And add to that "Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?" Useful! Surely no-one could ask for more.

And I expect in return, "will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?"

Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight if it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save

By the time they wrote this the Beatles had no need to scrimp and save. They were on top of the world.

Ya'akov too was not a pauper on arriving to Egypt with 69 descendants. They have sheep and cattle and possessions. "And they took their cattle, and all the worldly possessions they had accumulated in the land of Canaan. They came to Egypt, Ya'akov accompanied by all his descendants". Was he really on the verge of starvation? Why had he not followed his father's experience, "And there was a famine in the land, not the same famine that occurred in the days of Avraham. And Yitshak went to Avimelech the Philistine king in G'rar". This was surely sound advice, but how did it solve the problem of famine?

A move of tens of kilometres magically ends a drought? The similar story recurs about a 1,000 years later when Elisha advises the Shunamite lady to move from the mountain area, near today's city of Afula, to the coastal plain during another of Israel's incessant drought years.

The bible itself gives us a clue in the Yitshak narrative. The coastal aquifer is just below ground level, meaning that digging shallow wells guarantees you will hit water quickly, easily, unlike the abysmal mountain aquifers. As such in ancient times all mountain agriculture depended on good winter rains and the natural springs that fed off them.

HaShem prevented Yitshak from going to Egypt, but encouraged Ya'akov to go there. He was lulled into thinking he and his clan would be there for a few short years. Why the difference between father and son's heavenly advice? Ah divine plans. Isn't Ya'akov counted amongst the prophets? . . . a few short years? the future is not ours to see. Elisha reveals to us, again in a previous episode with the Shunamite lady, that haShem does not reveal the full story, the entire divine plan, even to his prophets.

Did Lennon and McCartney envisage having just three grandchildren, each? Look at the English names they envisage their yet unborn children giving their next generation: Vera, Chuck and Dave? Chuck? in England? Prophesy? Lennon knew he would be stuck in the US and adopting American custom?

Grandchildren on your knee
Gilad, Erez, Yehuda, Inbal, Alma, Amichai, Alon, Ayala, Miley and Dagan

The punch line? Did they see "on your knee" as old men leaning on their canes, crouched over, the only activity of which they by then were capable was sitting with their grandchildren the couch?

Or Ya'akov's contented closure; he certainly knew his great-grandchild if not a further generation. More so, Yosef's are explicitly mentioned, "And Yosef saw Ephrayim's third generation children; also the children of Machir the son of Menashe were born upon Yosef's knees".

We take the biblical account literally, along with allowing ourselves to read between the lines. There are many things we can only know by reading between the lines. This is the basis of rabbinical interpretation.

And the Beatles? Imaginary, fiction? Are there meaningful narratives in their poetry or are they just fancifulness to fit with their wonderful music? Is there hidden meaning or are they mere words? I think some of their work has meaning, some deep, but largely shallow. Who decides the meaning? Can I discover meaning in literature, especially poetry, or in visual art for that matter, that the creator did not consciously intend? A friend told me that he and two classmates were, in the sixties, discussing a work by Nobel prize winner, Shai Agnon, for a school assignment. They each had different opinions on the meaning of his text. One said, let's phone Agnon and ask him what he meant. Ah the innocent days of Yerushalayim. They phone. Agnon's response, "after I finish writing a piece, I no longer have any input". It's all yours now, and Vera, Chuck and Dave's too.

When is a work of poetry or prose a narrative? Is narrative a more fulfilling form of literature than rambling? Either can be entertaining. After all art forms are intended to provide a level of delight, even non-fiction writing.

Collins English Dictionary defines narrator as "A person who tells a story or gives an account of something".

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy -- long title for a book -- defines narrator as "A person who tells a story; in literature, the voice that an author takes on to tell a story. This voice can have a
personality quite different from the author's".

The implication in these definitions is fiction, invention, made-up, fantasy stories. Is such a definition true or necessary? In all the time I have been writing I have never successfully written fiction. Perhaps I lack imagination. My writing is generally strongly based on true events, I say "based" because I am able, on occasion, to stretch, embellish and enhance the truth.

Is there a need for truth, or do people want to be taken outside of truth in their reading? Do they desire to be transported to another world, a sphere they do not know, or that possibly can never experience or can exist? Do some prefer to remain anchored, even in invented narratives, to feasible realities?

What is non-fiction literature? For instance I have related many stories about my father's hometown. They are all based on what he, his holocaust-surviving relatives and friends recounted to me. At least that is what I am selling to my readers. Sometimes I probably melded what more than one person told me into a single, modified narrative. Let's even assume what I write is completely true. True for who? True for the people who related the events about which I write? Maybe. But true for me? True for the reader? True for any person to whom the reader further relates the story? I'm not talking about the broken telephone game where the original message becomes scrambled and garbled the further it travels. I'm referring to the fact that a reader, unless he is a student of history or sociology, probably doesn't know or care about the truth of narrative, nor does he possess the tools to know. Fiction and non-fiction in these cases meld into one. In either case the reader is successfully entertained.

There's another side to my narrationalability, viz. my photography. The answer to, "can [or does, though not the same question] the camera lie?" was answered early in the history of photography. The continuingly changing photograph of the first Soviet politburo as disgraced politicians were airbrushed out, in the photograph as well as in real life, is well known. Recently we added a new word to our lexicon, "to photoshop", an eponymous verb which can be used even if you work, like me, in other graphics programs. I've never used Photoshop.

I aspire to behold the world through my subjective eyes. I want to share with my reader/viewer/listener the feelings and emotions I sensed, perceived at the time of writing or photographing. Ansel Adams called this visualisation, or pre visualisation, not presenting his viewer with what the camera saw, but with what he saw, and not just with his eyes, but what he perceived within his spirituality, to share what he felt, what he wanted the viewer to see and feel, even if it was quite remote from the physical reality.

And as in a story, an unphotoshopped photograph can portray a reality non-existent. Without any manipulation making the camera a fibber, the camera stretches truth by removing context and unsplicing time, space and place. For a start there is a limiting frame. Additionally an unperceived small part of a second, fleeting, unnoticed, removes context. Is this the world you know? Is the written word too within the known universe? Each time Ansel produced another copy of Moonrise it was different, each time maybe slightly, but after over 900 reproductions over decades there are obvious shifts.

How much distortion is acceptable? Even academic writing, especially in the humanities, is very much dependant on the viewpoint of the author. How deep can an author delve into an interpretation until we refer to it as fiction, revisionism, reinterpretation, casting past events into modern eyes?

With my words and photographs, I can take you where you haven't been, or never will. Must I have been there?

I am about to publish a book which is narrational both in text and vision. It will probably be titled, "The Abayudaya: Judaism Emerging, A Spiritual Journey into Africa". I take you into Africa (and a little into Asia as well) allowing you to see, though my eyes, my experiences in the world of a universe into which I have become immersed over the past six years, the world of people discovering the God of Israel in a Jewish vacuum. I have written on the topic previously, but putting it all in one place is exciting. I think you will all find the book interesting -- stay tuned to my Facebook page for details.

In addition to our visit to our friends in Uganda in June, including a safari at Murchison Falls, Jill and I travelled to Iceland. An island of spectacular vistas, many unique on this globe. Wait for my photographs! A beautiful, but anti-Israel island in the middle of nowhere.

I thank Jill for joining my crazinesses and accompanying me, for helping me produce all my work, and even censoring and protecting me from my stupidity.

who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?

I will still need you, when I'm sixty-four.

I thank haShem for helping and guiding me through life, for the opportunities he has granted me, for the privilege of doing what I do, for the wonderful Torah teachers I have, for ability to see things in ways unlike many others, for putting me in the right place at the right time, for the merit of living in Israel after many hundreds of years of exile.

The years of my life on this earth are sixty-four,
my life's years have been many and great;
I have surpassed my father's years
but not anywhere near reached my grandfather's age

and dear haShem, please continue always to send me the angel who redeems me from all evil

And thanks to all my friends . . . "and thanks for all the fish",

and I'll take the chocolate and wine anytime you offer them, not just in February.

PS There are 69 question marks in this essay. Reminiscent of Israeli kindergarten. When your child turns three, and has a birthday party, you must have four candles on the cake you bring to the celebration. Why? One for next year silly they tell me! But I protest, my kid will have four next year when he turns four. No he won't; he'll have five then. Here, this year, I got greedy and grabbed an extra five for myself this time, for when I'm sixty-nine!

19th January, 2017 -- 21st Teveth, 5777    

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Previous birthday pieces are at 63 years old,   62 years old,   61,   60,   58,   57,   56.