Last weekend was my birthday. A few days before, Josie asked me how old I was going to be and was gobsmacked when I had to think about it. For people who apportion their ages into fragments according to how close they are to the next candle-bedecked cake (“I’m 6 and almost three-quarters!” “I’ll be 8 in 364 days!”), the notion of not instantly recalling how old you are is akin to not knowing the four houses of Hogwarts.
But hey, once you’ve lived a certain number of revolutions around the sun, do you really care precisely how many? Sure, you note the years that end in 0 (and make people buy you cocktails). But for me, 39 was more disorienting than 40—our culture had told me that 40 was significant, so I was more unnerved by taking a step closer to the milestone than by actually getting there. (It’s like that research about how getting ready to step out of a plane makes skydivers’ hearts pound more rapidly than the jump itself.) Forty turned out to be no big deal. Besides, at this point, I’ve aged out of mandatory hotness, which is kind of a relief. I never lie about my age; I’ve never understood why people do. Wouldn’t you rather look like a fabulous 42 than a decrepit 36?
Judaism isn’t all that excitable about birthdays either. When your founding father lived to 175 and your founding mother had her first kid at 91, time kind of loses its significance. We ritually say, “May you live to be 120,” even though the odds are not ever in your favor, because hey, Moses lived that long, so sure, why not, go for it.
And Judaism has always been more concerned with death than birth. (We’re such a merry people.) A midrash says that King Solomon said, “The day of one’s death is better than that of his birth.” Why? Because no one knows how a baby will turn out—will he become a good person or a schmuck? will his life be happy or sad?—but when a good person dies, we can rejoice that he departed “leaving a good name, and has gone out of the world in peace.” The midrash draws a parallel to two ships setting forth: Everyone cheers when a ship leaves the dock, while no one celebrates the ship’s return. But a wise man pointed out, “You ought not to rejoice with the ship that is going out of the harbor, for no one knows what will be her fate; how many days she will have to spend on the voyage, and what storms and tempests she will encounter. But as to the ship that has arrived safely in port, all should rejoice with her, for she has returned in peace.”
Today, some ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t celebrate birthdays. They point out that the only birthday party mentioned in the Torah was Pharaoh’s. But Chabad suggests a number of ways Orthodox Jews can celebrate birthdays Jewishly, and I like many of their ideas for the rest of us, too. For instance, ponder all you’ve learned in the last year and all the ways you’d like to improve in your next year. Make a larger-than-usual charitable contribution. Study the psalm that corresponds to your new year; if you’re turning 24 (tiny baby!), you’d study Psalm 25. Taste a fruit you haven’t yet tasted during this season and say Shehechiyanu, the blessing for significant occasions.
All very nice. Still, I’ve found that becoming a parent means your kids’ birthdays are far more significant than your own. Unlike us olds, kids have no ambivalence about aging. And they can get weeks of entertainment from obsessing about cupcake options and making minute-by-minute party schedules. (7:15 p.m.: sundaes; 7:40 p.m.: presents; 9:45 p.m.: unroll sleeping bags; 11:15 p.m.: keep talking until Mom screams at us.)
My kids’ birthdays are three years apart almost to the day (yes, I planned this poorly) so for their early years they had a joint party. Because their birthdays are in mid-October, we sometimes had a Halloween-themed party and sometimes a Sukkot-themed party, and hey, what a delightful encapsulation of American Judaism today that is. Stringing Froot Loops on lanyards was always a big hit at the Sukkot party as well as a source of delight to disgusting urban wildlife that visited our sukkah all week long. At the Halloween-themed parties, kids bobbed for apples, got monster temporary tattoos, and painted pumpkins. There was always a piñata, because who does not love putting giant sticks in the hands of small blindfolded children with questionable balance and coordination? The piñatas were always made out of some miracle papier-mache that refused to yield and invariably resulted in it lying on the ground surrounded by a circle of dads pounding on it with bats like a scene out of Goodfellas. (I know there are piñatas with strings you pull, one at a time, in a civilized manner, one of which rips out the bottom of the piñata. This seems unsporting. If there is no potential for massive head injury, I’m not interested.)
It didn’t take long for Josie to figure out she was being robbed, what with half the guests at her party being Max’s. Which meant I started having to do two separate parties. Irksome. But soon both kids were old enough to have sleepovers, which meant only three or four kids instead of a dozen or more. (Easier gift-bag action, too.) I used to knock myself out baking for birthdays—one year I made a cake baked in two bowls and then stacked to make a globe and decorated to look like a pumpkin; another year I made spooky eyeball cupcakes. These were still less labor-intensive than my own mom’s amazing efforts using Baker’s Coconut recipe booklets. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with studying the instructions for how to cut sheet cakes, round cakes, and square cakes into various Tangrams-like permutations that, when frosted, suddenly looked miraculously like turtles, elephants, and rocking horses. (Come to think of it, my mom also made Mickey-Mouse- and snowman-shaped pancakes. She was a way better mother than me.) Now I order cupcakes online while drinking a glass of Pinot Grigio. (I did buy two vintage Baker’s Coconut booklets on eBay for more money than I care to tell you. They’re as adorable as I remembered. I’ve never used them.)
My own Hebrew birthday fell on Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the Trees (you can figure out your Hebrew birthday with Chabad’s Jewish Birthday Calculator). This meant that at my Jewish day school I got carob pods to nibble (it was the Orthodox equivalent of sucking on sugar cane at a Caribbean street fair) as well as a handful of dried fruit and an orange. Halloween and Sukkot are way better times for a birthday. (Though it could have been worse—my mom’s birthday often falls during Passover. And do not send me emails telling me about your delicious pareve Passover cake recipe, because it does not exist and you are a lying liar who lies. You know what, feel free to put your recipe in the comments, since that guarantees I’ll never read it.)
My point (and I do have one): Being preoccupied with birthdays is cute when you’re a kid. Continuing to obsess about them as an adult means you’re either too materialistic or too worried about aging. (And if you’re over 26 and your birthday means yelling woo-hoo while clutching a Solo cup, you might also be an alcoholic.) I like that these days my birthday means my kids fete me and let me sleep late, and now Josie is old enough to inform Daddy that I have an Etsy wish list. But it’s worth remembering that in our tradition, we memorize yahrzeit dates, not birthdates. And that’s the more important candle-lighting time.
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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.