I was born in 1936. That year, the birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 2.1 children per mother, a drop perhaps best explained by the financial hardships of The Great Depression. I suspect that expectant parents of 1936 felt trepidation along with their joy – and in my experience, we few who entered the world that year often feel alone.
At a recent Torah study, my rabbi mentioned the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, “righteous ones,” and the significance of the number 36 in Judaism. She had my attention. Could there be something special about my birth year? I wanted to know more.
In my quest, I learned that the Lamed Vav Tzadikim are 36 righteous people in whose merit the world continues to exist. They often show up in Jewish folklore.
For example, author Francine Prose tells the story of a humble bumbling shoemaker in her book You Never Know: A Legend of the Lamed-vavniks. In one town, the local cobbler is viewed as foolish – a little-noticed man who, to everyone’s surprise, says prayers that ultimately save the town from both drought and flood. This is all the more remarkable given that the prayers of the town’s most notable individuals went unanswered.
The cobbler’s status as a Lamed Vav Tzadikim is revealed to the town rabbi in a dream – but because the presence of the 36 “Lamed-vavniks” can’t be known, the cobbler, once outed, disappears.
I’ve always felt that, like the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, those of us born in 1936 are little-noticed. We were assigned to the Silent Generation, squeezed between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers. We lacked the numbers to ban together to be heard; demographers showed little interest in us.
In my experience, we are scattered among the general population and as members of organizations, often feel isolated. Our ideas are challenged by members whose life experience differs from ours and, as a result, we’ve learned that an initial proposal is just a starting point. We listen, hear, and discover how the thoughts of others may improve our ideas – no matter how right, how sound, or how important we believe our proposals to be. We guide the progress of our proposals as they change and improve, until agreement is accomplished.
We settle for incremental progress, recognizing that it is better to compromise and move ahead a short distance than not to move ahead at all. We do not send opponents to the highway. We hang in with them to resolve differences.
The Lamed Vav Tzadikim possess mystical powers that enable them to avert threatened disasters – and while I’m not proposing that compromise is a mystical power, I do suggest that recognizing the value of the ideas of others has unique merit.
In the years since our births, we born in 1936 have seen amazing progress: The black bag of the doctor who visited us when we were sick didn’t hold antibiotics, so we experienced the childhood diseases of measles, mumps, and chicken pox. We stopped our play to look up in the sky when we heard a plane flying overhead. Television entered our family living rooms in our early teens. The many innovations in medicine, travel, and entertainment that we enjoy today were born of exploration.
We know, then, that to hold onto one point of view as the right and true view stops progress. Today, for example, our planet is threatened by pollution – and perhaps the needed miracle could be an openness to exploring all potential solutions, setting aside self-interest and focusing on the common good.
Like the shoemaker, my 1936 peers and I have received little recognition – but this may not be of much concern to us. Quietly, when we meet at events like class reunions, we say to each other that life is good.
We were just 5 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 1941, and the war effort that followed dominated our lives. Paper drives were a frequent school event, and while money increased, goods were in short supply.
In our earliest year, the Great Depression limited buying power. The concept of “waste not, want not” is part of our DNA. “Do you have a string ball?” is a question we ask each other symbolic of our thriftiness. A rubber ball was a treasure.
But then victory was achieved. Optimism replaced pessimism. We were grateful that affordable higher education allowed many of us to be the first in our families to graduate from college. We were content to marry, start families, purchase our first homes. Ordinary accomplishments satisfied us.
Twenty years ago, we started to retire, and now, statistically, we exceed life expectancy. Our final departure occurs as the noise in the world increases to a deafening level. I don’t know whether there is a connection between our leaving and the increase in noise, or if it is simply a coincidence.
What I do know is that silence allows the quiet voice to be heard – that democracy cannot survive without compromise, and that the world is, in turn, a better place because of democratic principles.
I’d like to believe that although unnoticed, those of us born in 1936 have indeed made a quiet difference in the world – and perhaps, like the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, the world will never really know.