Modern Mishpocha: The life-changing magic of turning 40

By Stephanie Shefrin

I ran into someone the other week who I went to high school with. I probably hadn’t seen him since graduation day.

When I called out his name, he turned and I could see that split second where he wasn’t sure who I was – but then recognition dawned. “Steph,” he said, “you look exactly the same.”

I’m 40. Do I look the same as I did then? For one thing, I had way nicer skin at 18. And for another, I’ve lived a half-dozen different lifetimes since prom at the Château Laurier. I like to think I’ve aged well and respectably since that time, and that I’m the very picture of wisdom and sophistication. Basically Meryl Streep. I don’t want to look like my 18-year-old self. I like who I am now much better.

But I suppose you could look at it another way, through the lens of the expression “life begins at 40.”

If that’s true, maybe I do look as I did on the cusp of adulthood and independence at 18, because my last birthday did feel like the start of a new phase of life.

Could be just the round number, the cultural zeitgeist connected with being a 40-something, etc. But there are tangible markers than I’m entering a new phase.

Take membership fees. While my salary is not a dollar higher at 40 than it was at 39, I’m suddenly above the cut-off age for all the young family/professional discounts on offer across the community.

More broadly, at 40, I am technically no longer part of the so-called “Emerging Generation (EG),” the name given to the division of Jewish Federation of Ottawa programming focused on young adults just finding their way into independent community life.

The name has always brought to mind caterpillars turning into butterflies, the idea that through its efforts with EG, Federation will help people find their Jewish wings and soar into community living and giving.

Perhaps we should have a bat mitzvah-type ceremony for this milestone. It makes me think of a great kids’ book, Zog, where a dragon learns to do things independently with a refrain, “Now that you’ve been shown, you can practice on your own.”

I may be 40, but on this, my second maternity leave, I find myself often in situations where many of the babies I meet have parents who are five or six years younger than me, sometimes even more. Yet, because of the age of our kids, we have a great deal in common.

Conversely, in my professional life, I’ve arrived at a stage in my career where my seniority and experience create different requirements than those of a newbie and I realize how apart our lives really all.

All of us need different things at different stages in our lives. How and what we are looking for from community isn’t static or attached to how old we are.

To borrow a phrase from the trend of the moment – what matters is finding ways to engage that spark joy.

And in the spirit of the magic of tidying up, I have some loose ends to mention when it comes to the Modern Mishpocha column.

First, I’m heartened by the feedback I receive. Whether you agree or disagree with what I say, I’m glad what I write sparks debate and dialogue.
Keep writing those letters to the editor ( or to me personally (

Second, to follow up on my November 12, 2018 column where I mused about Jewish education for parents, I’m pleased to let you know that wheels are turning to bring a popular course called “Foundations” to Ottawa. It is a curriculum that uses PJ Library and other resources to help educate parents about Jewish themes, so they can in turn talk about them with their kids. Stay tuned for more.

Finally, I bid a fond farewell to Emma Mallach, who wrote several interesting columns for Modern Mishpocha over the past year. I’ll miss her writing and insight. Over the course of the next year, I’ll be joined in this space by a variety of other members of our community, sharing their perspective on being a modern mishpocha with you. Happy reading.