Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barbara Streisand jetted in to Israel last week to join Shimon Peres' mega birthday-bash. Some Israelis feel that Peres' $11 million party is overkill and that the money could be better spent on the poor. But, the taxpayer isn't footing the bill and, I guess donors can give money wherever they choose. Besides, anyone who makes it to the nine-decade mark deserves a good party, right?
And Peres isn't just an ordinary nonagenarian. The man has been a politician for 66 years and been a member 12 cabinets (to have survived that much time in Knesset is surely miraculous). In typically Jewish fashion, he has represented five different political parties over that time. He is also the oldest living head of state, which is remarkable.
Next week, there will be another 90th celebration happening overseas, but it won't make the news and won't attract heads of state. Emil Sassover (affectionately known in our family simply as "Saba"), my wife's grandfather, turns 90 ka"h and will celebrate with his family in L.A. While he may not have dignitaries on his guest-list, he certainly will have representation from around the world. Naomi will represent the African continent, while her siblings will fly in from Australia, Canada and the East Coast and Midwestern USA (only one brother can't get there, he'll be holding the fort in London).
"Saba" doesn't have an entry in Wikipedia, so nobody will ever know that he was one of the handful of Russian officers who survived the Nazi onslaught in Stalingrad. Nor will they find our about his years of dedicated service in the Israeli underground, because he still maintains that his missions are state secrets.
Perhaps more heroic than any military service he may have performed was the decision he and hundreds like him made- to choose to build a family, despite having lived through the harshest cruelty that humans can inflict on each other. At the age when our kids will stress over passing matric and getting a driver's license, Saba stressed over survival. Children were a dream he dared not indulge in. His whole family- save for one brother- was murdered by the Nazis as were just about every Jew in his shtetl. Who knows what sort of fortitude those people had to walk out of the inferno and commit to the future.
Next week, Saba will celebrate with his children and 14 grandchildren. He will enjoy wishes from over twenty great-grandchildren, scattered across the world in defiance of Hitler's purported Final Solution.
We've just read the Torah's story of one of history's greatest anti-Semites, Bilam. Bilam spurted anti-Jewish vitriole at every opportunity. But, when he came face to face with the Jews themselves, he gushed blessings. After expressing some of the greatest blessings on record, Bilam foretold his own downfall and that of every rogue who would attempt to harm G-d's chosen.
Saba and his generation of gallant Jews had the guts to emerge from the ashes and launch a fresh generation of Jews who would work to conquer the world with goodness. People like him are true heroes. Perhaps not vaunted in the public eye, but respected and loved in their families and communities. They deserve the nachas they enjoy from their offspring and the satisfaction of seeing another chapter of Jews outliving their enemies and building a strong Jewish future. May Hashem bless these great people with more healthy, good years of sharing their wisdom and experience and enjoying the fruit of their courageous optimism.
And we should stand inspired by them to produce large families who are dedicated to true Jewish values.