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Emancipation Day

Certain dates on the calendar, both the Gregorian and Jewish, forever retain significance. Birthdays are one and wedding anniversaries are another.

The first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, is a good example, as is the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur.

For Americans, the fourth of July will always retain significance; for socialists, May 1.

These days hold a place of profound importance in the hearts and minds of those who mark them, reminders of moments that shaped lives, cultures and beliefs.

Other dates have tremendous importance for us at one time of our lives, but almost none at another. These are dates whose significance shifts as we move through different stages of our lives.

September 1, Israel’s traditional Back to School Day, is the best example.

I’m not thinking here about the first day of school from the child’s perspective and all the excitement or dread that may bring. Instead, I’m considering it from the perspective of parents of daycare, preschool and school-aged kids; parents who have longed for September 1 for weeks — or at least since the end of the last school year or the last day of their last child’s summer day camp.

Why? Because September 1 is the day when the kids finally return to an organized framework and structured routine (except, of course, for those years — not all that infrequent — when the school year doesn’t begin on time because of a strike).

I remember, as a parent with kids under 16, awaiting this day with bated breath. August was always a killer. Not only was the heat unrelenting, but every day The Wife and I would wake up and worry about how to keep the kids busy, who would watch them, how we would juggle our work schedules, and how much television it is healthy for one child to watch in one sitting. September 1 could never come fast enough.

The term “vacation” in the context of the kids out of school always struck me as a mocking misnomer. For the kids, sure, August is a vacation from school. But for the parents, even if they take “vacation” days off from work to be with their kids, it is no vacation.

When I think of vacation, I’m thinking afternoon naps in an air-conditioned room. I’m not thinking about turning around and screaming at kids fighting in the back seat while stuck in traffic on the way to a crowded camping site in the north. This is family time, important time, meaningful time, the time of which memories are made — but it isn’t vacation time.

Then the kids grow up and move out — they might even have children of their own — and September 1 loses its meaning.

Its arrival is no longer marked by a heartfelt singing of that old American spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank G-d Alm-ghty I’m free at last.” September 1 ceases to be Emancipation Day. Instead, it becomes once again just an ordinary day like any other: the day after August 30, the day before September 2.

Just like that, September 1 loses its importance.

However, for two of my kids who have small children of their own, September 1 remains a profoundly special and meaningful day. Being a responsible parent, I empathize with them as they await its always slow arrival. I can understand their feelings, feel their frustration, and listen to them complain — but that’s about it.

I’m relieved that the day no longer holds any unique significance for me, that September 1 no longer holds any particular distinction.

My sister doesn’t live here (though one of her daughters does) so the importance to Israelis of September 1 always eluded her. Yet her daughter, with four kids, grasps its significance fully. She is understandably thrilled when her mother and father decide to come here in August to help with her children and bridge the days until September 1 finally does arrive.

During their visit here, I recently spent some time with my sister and brother-in-law and walked away with newfound respect.

First, since they want to help their kids with their kids, they always come in August — the absolute hottest month of the year and not necessarily the month they would select if they had their druthers about when to make an Israel trip.

Second, they have one kid living here, another in New Jersey, and the third where they live in Denver.

What that means is that all the vacations they take — all their time off — are spent visiting children, which essentially means they spend a good part of every holiday babysitting their grandchildren.

Now babysitting grandchildren is great, it’s family time, important time, meaningful time, the time of which memories are made — but it, too, is not exactly a vacation.

Talking to my sister, I became mindful of my own good fortune. With all my kids living nearby, the farthest just two-and-a-half hours away, I see them regularly. And when I do see them, and the grandchildren, I see them in normal and natural chunks of time — an hour or two here, a day or two there, not all smooshed together day after day, for two weeks at a time, forced to feel that every minute must count.

In addition, having the children nearby and seeing them every few weeks means that when I do take a vacation, I can take a vacation. I can go to a place where I can nap in an air-conditioned room in the afternoon. I don’t have to spend every holiday with the kids and grandkids — with all the work and physical effort that entails — because I do get to see them regularly,

And so, as the seasons turn and the years roll on, September 1 has morphed from a day of eager anticipation, symbolizing hope and respite, to a reminder of a chapter of life now closed. The day’s great significance has faded, much like the memories of disciplining bored and restless kids on sweltering hot August afternoons.

Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post.

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Herb Keinon, a Denver native, interned at the IJN before going on to a career at the Jerusalem Post, where he is a senior contributing editor.

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