The calendar that hangs in my parents’ kitchen counts time according to two different measures. The Gregorian (secular) calendar sits alongside the Hebrew calendar. It’s how I know that this Shabbat is the 21st of Tevet. I checked this by looking at my Google Calendar, which I’ve programmed to be just as indecisive as the calendar with which I grew up.
This duality of time imbues each calendar with a different purpose. The Gregorian calendar is one of action: it’s where I make arrangements, where I set deadlines. Meanwhile the Hebrew calendar is one of meaning: it’s where I mark yahrtzeits, and where I celebrate festivals. This is revealed in the conversations around each respective New Year. Rosh Hashanah is a moment for reflection, where one considers past action and asks to be placed in the Book of Life. Meanwhile the New Year we’re enjoying now is one of resolution and remarking on how quickly time goes by these days.
Such uncertainty in time is, despite the Jewish year’s agricultural cycle, embedded into our tradition. Noah was said to have lived to 950, while his grandfather Methuselah was famed for living to a princely 969-years-old. Some Rabbinic texts call this a mistranslation, although many leave such biblical longevity unchallenged. The lifespan of Moses, 120, may be seen modest and achievable in comparison, but such a long stint would rank him as the second longest living person in recorded history, behind Jeanne Calment who died in 1997 at the age of 122. This does, of course, mean that Mrs Calment is the only person known to live ad me’ah ve-esrim shannah.
While the notion of someone living out a millennium is typically reserved for science fiction or the outer reaches of medicine, it hints at a deeper question. How do we measure and mark time? Time is a relational concept, and we consider what we’re doing a week from now or hold aspirations for ourselves in five years’ time. We mark anniversaries and birthdays meticulously and ascribe clear meaning to the progression we’ve made personally and collectively. I recently marked seven years since I became an uncle and five years since my grandfather passed away. How did I see those moments changing me back then? How did I actually change? This year was also 100 years since the end of World War I and, closer to home, 30 years since the founding of our youth movement Noam. How have those moments shaped us and our community? How do those moments speak to our sense of being a community that is both profoundly Jewish and resolutely British?
But does time look the same to everyone around us? The refugees and asylum seekers I’ve worked with in the youth movement Our Second Home, which I founded last year with the help of Noam and Masorti Judaism, conceive of time very differently. The rupture they experienced in their journeys to the UK means that they count months and years from their arrival as a rebirth, but their past is always contested. Many refugees are about to have their ‘birthday’, which is set at 1st January because the Home Office don’t have proof. More seriously, these young people will often have their age assessed, as their youth is not believed. One young man I met, a teenager, is age assessed as being older than me. Having your very reality challenged in this way is deeply unnerving.
Here at the end of the Gregorian calendar, we have just passed the longest nights of the year. So while it feels like times are dark, I hope for us that, whether through sheer effort, stubbornness or patience, we will see brighter days soon.
Amos Schonfield is the Founder of Our Second Home, the youth movement for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. He is chair of Noam’s Steering Committee, and a current MSc student in Migration Studies at Oxford University.