Everyone in the Staum family knows that Uncle Yitz is 38 years old and is turning 39 on his birthday.
Uncle Yitz is my father’s older brother. He and my Aunt Chaya are blessed with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In my youth I couldn’t quite figure out how it was possible for my father’s older brother to be 38, especially when my father became older than that, but I just assumed it was another one of those mysteries of life.
It’s happened more than once that someone has told Uncle Yitz that he looks quite old for his age.
By now, Uncle Yitz’s children have well surpassed his age (though some of them may deny it) and he even has grandchildren who are not too far behind.
In fact, Uncle Yitz has been turning 39 for over 40 years now.
I have been thinking about this recently, because I just celebrated my 39th birthday. After all these years I finally caught up to Uncle Yitz.
I recently was informed that the source of the never-getting-older-than-39-years-old idea is not Uncle Yitz’s. It actually dates back to a Jewish fellow named Benjamin Kubelsky, who was the son of immigrants. During the early to mid-1900s he was known to the world as the popular comedian, Jack Benny.
It was well known that Jack Benny celebrated his 39th birthday every year. When Benny died in 1974, he had turned 39 a total of 41 times.
The question is why 39? If he wanted to be in denial about his age, why not choose 29 or 34?
The Mishnah (Avos 5:21) tells us the significance of 40 years old as being the age of wisdom.
At the end of their 40-year sojourn in the desert, Moshe tells B’nei Yisrael, “G-d did not grant you a heart of knowledge, and eyes that see, and ears that hear until this day” (D’varim 29:3). The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 5b) understands from this verse that a person doesn’t fully grasp the depth of the lessons of his rebbe until 40 years have elapsed.
Some commentaries explain that the arduous experiences of daily living help a person view life from a different perspective and vantage point. That allows him to understand the depth of the lessons his teachers sought to convey to him decades earlier, which in his callowness he may not have grasped, or was convinced that he knew better.
It seems that 40 years old is a dividing line between adult youth and adult-adulthood. Often, we are too jaded or biased to properly contemplate the messages of life or to think about our mortality and the legacy we wish to leave behind. Turning 40 seems to do wonders in helping cure those youthful illusions of immortality.
I think hitting 40 also gives you permission to drone on and on to the younger generation about how things were different back when you were a kid, and how kids today have no respect.
Added responsibility and wisdom are intimidating and anxiety-provoking. No wonder Peter Pan never wanted to grow up. And no wonder Jack Benny never wanted to hit the big 4-0.
Meanwhile I’m going to enjoy my last year below the summit, but I do look forward to becoming wise.
I should conclude by noting that Uncle Yitz is, and has always been, wise beyond his years and has always been an inspiration to all of us. No one can quite tell a story or a joke like he does. He is the true personification of the word avuncular. It’s just so sad that he turned all white before 40.
Hashem should grant him many more wonderful and healthy 38-years-old years.