Each time my Grandpa Morris visited us from Brooklyn, he'd grab my cheek and exclaim in his Old World accent, "Oy, let's have a look at you!" So I'd stand there, half-flattered and half-embarrassed by the attention, cheek held hostage, until with a sigh he let me go. Underneath, it seemed a little silly: How different could I be since the last visit?
During the High Holidays, I saw a whole host of friends and their children whom I hadn't seen in a while. The little boys I remembered had suddenly shot up, distributing their former pudginess over long, unaccustomed limbs. Girls who'd come to my third-grade Sunday-school class were wearing eye makeup. And those tentative teenagers who'd shuffled off to college were returning home as confident, good-looking young adults.
I didn't grab their cheeks, but I was tempted to yell "WAIT!" Here I have just been holding steady, and they've become plutsim oyfgevaksn — suddenly, and without warning, grown-up.
Having a daughter who just graduated college and one who is in her freshman year makes me particularly intrigued by those plutsim oyfgevaksn young adults. Previously, I just thought of them as somebody's kid. Now, sitting in shul, they take up a large physical presence, and actually have things to say about politics and the environment.
Even more surprising, somewhere out there are members of the opposite sex who didn't know them when they ran around like vilde chayes ("wild animals"), but who now find them interesting and attractive. Is that possible?
And when did it all happen? I can't determine if there's a definite turning point or just a continuum for these kids morphing into burgeoning adults.
Each stage of a child's life is miraculous. Yet there's something about that shift into manliness or womanliness that evokes a reaction from the community at large. In another era, it would herald the moment for an imminent marriage.
For most 22-year-olds today, that event lies in the future. But the potential hovers over them like a fine mist, adding to a sense of ripeness — or shining readiness — that they already exude.
I'm a little unclear how to respond to these oyfgevaksenes. Treating them like the children they once were won't work. Talking to them like peers isn't right either; I'm still 30 years older, and a veteran of much of what they're just embarking on.
Nevertheless, I want to lend my support because I remember how much I appreciated the nods and good wishes of my parents' friends as I barreled my own way through that tipsy whirlwind of finding myself as a young adult.
A Two-Way Street
Maybe it's time for the "Mid/ Yid Witness Protection Plan." We witness these young people, beaming admiration for their zesty, healthy selves. And we're quietly on call to provide protection — emotional, financial or medical — that might be beyond their current capabilities.
I sit and wonder at the reliable and relentless scheme of things that pushes these young people forward. Though those same forces drive me closer to mortality, I'm nonetheless determined to engage with all of that same youthful energy. In the best of worlds, it's a two-way street. We pass on to the next generation our collective wisdom and support. In return, some of their vitality passes back to us, rekindling memories and some of the dormant passions that might still burn within us.
Although we don't get a second chance at youth, we haven't lost our desire for love, satisfaction and adventure. The difference is that we have the weight of our years behind us. These oyfgevaksenes are lighter, and the weight of their years is yet to come. Soon enough, they will encounter potholes in that wide, open road before them.
In the meantime, our task is to pass on that mantle of encouragement from our forebears, and to send them off with some silent cheek-pinching.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I.