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Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director

A Big Deal

June 15, 2022 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

This I have learned: the world is divided between two types of people, birthday people and non-birthday people. 

I, naturally, am all about birthdays. As in, blow-out celebrations. As in, “go big or go home.” As in, lots of presents, please! As in, I plan my own birthday parties because everyone else is afraid to plan one for me (there is a reason I owned a catering and event planning business and threw parties for a living for ten years!). Birthday weeks? Fuhgetaboutit – I believe in celebrating birthday MONTHS!

Alas, in one life’s great ironies, I live in a family of non-birthday people. My husband, Nick, claims this birthday thing is not in his DNA. His dad was notorious for forgetting birthdays, though there was the one year when, determined to make up for all the lapses of previous years, he used his entire work bonus to buy my mother-in-law a new car and left it for her to find on the driveway, wrapped in a red bow, on her milestone birthday. When she saw the car, my mother-in-law was surprised and delighted – and said she was keeping it even though her birthday wasn’t for another 3 ½ months! My sons, meanwhile, outgrew birthday parties by the time they were in middle school. To my chagrin, they just don’t understand what the Big Deal is.

But on June 26, Etz Chaim will be celebrating its 100th birthday, and this is a Big Deal to me. One of the many things that makes the Maine Jewish Museum unique is that it shares space and history with a working synagogue. Museums are all about stories, and the stories that punctuate Etz Chaim’s centurium help shape and inform the Maine Jewish Museum’s own story, adding color and depth and context. Composer Leonard Bernstein described the composition of music as “one note that follows another with complete inevitability.” Similarly, the fire that ignited behind the ark in the Etz Chaim sanctuary in May 2020 wreaked destruction on the Museum as well as the shul, and the outpouring of generosity from the community in the aftermath of the fire breathed new life into the Museum as well as the shul. It is a reminder that no individual and no institution lives in a vacuum, and that in our connectivity to those that preceded us and those that will come after, we become part of something larger than ourselves.

So, when my sons push me, seder-style, to explain why this day is different from all other days, I will tell them that part of our human responsibilities and part of the joy of museum stewardship is participating in living traditions like milestone birthdays. As we honor living traditions, we honor ourselves, and in the final analysis, each other. And the ceremonies we create to mark those traditions outlive us, giving us the only true immortality.  

Enjoy an extra-large piece of birthday cake (with lots of frosting, of course!) on June 26, and on all the other birthdays in your life. They, and you, are indeed a Big Deal.