The Crown| July 26, 2022
Just once, I would have enjoyed being the boy who was cheered with, “Happy Birthday!”
IFyou read this on Rosh Chodesh Av, then you also read this on my birthday.
It’s not easy having your birthday at the beginning of the Nine Days. My birthday always fell smack in the middle of the summer, so I never had a birthday party in school. That may not sound like the greatest childhood trauma, and it’s not. However, since kindergarten and through elementary school and even high school, I would look on with envy as each birthday boy was publicly celebrated.
When I was in the lower grades, I wondered what it would be like to wear the crown the rebbi made for the birthday boy. The boy was always beaming with pride and joy. When it was time for him to distribute the pekelach, I could only imagine what it would feel like, just once, to be popular and the center of everyone’s attention.
Being portly and round and a redhead, I was more often the target of ridicule than the focus of friendship. Only two percent of the human population has red hair, and being a plump little carrot-top does not a popular child make. And although gingerphobia is not considered a hate crime, it’s not fun being called gingi all the time. Plus, I didn’t enjoy random people coming over and mussing my hair while saying, “You have such beautiful hair. Too bad it’s wasted on you.”
Just once, I would have enjoyed being the boy who was cheered with, “Happy Birthday!” But my secret dream of being the birthday boy with the special crown remained an unfulfilled fantasy. Even my bar mitzvah seudah couldn’t take place around my birthday. I had to wait until after the summer ended and everyone returned to the city from the country.
I do recall one Rosh Chodesh Av in particular, however. It was the summer before I was leaving for yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael. I was almost 18 years old, a yeshivah bochur. And although outwardly I carried myself like any other yeshivah bochur, inside, a pang of pain reminded me of yet another birthday and yet another lonely day.
Rosh Chodesh arrived, and we were home in Brooklyn that summer as money was tight and being saved to send me to learn in Eretz Yisrael.
That summer, I worked in a sweater factory in Williamsburg, packaging sweaters in an un-airconditioned, windowless factory to earn spending money for yeshivah. In the mornings, after davening, I would come home, eat a quick breakfast, change out of my yeshivah bochur clothing and into my sweater packer’s clothing, and head off toward the subway. The streets of Brooklyn in the summer, especially on Rosh Chodesh Av, are eerily quiet.
That Rosh Chodesh, when I arrived home, my mother asked if I could bring in the milk bottles that the milkman had dropped off that morning. It was a little strange that she hadn’t brought them in yet. However, of course, I complied.
As I reentered the house, carrying the milk bottles, I heard my brother and three friends shout, “Happy Birthday!”
My mother had prepared a special breakfast and had even made a crown with the number 18 on it.
It was my day to wear the crown.
I was surprised by the party and amazed by my mother’s sensitivity.
“How did you know how I felt all these years? I never said a word to you about it.”
“You didn’t have to say a word. A mother knows her son’s mind.”
Almost half a century has passed since that Rosh Chodesh Av in Brooklyn. More than seven years have passed since my mother is gone.
Yet, together with the memories, I still have that special crown.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 921)
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