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Happy Erev Birthday

Why my family starts celebrating the night before

Courtney Hazlett
March 17, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I come from a household where birthdays were a Very Big Deal. The countdown would begin six months prior, on our half-birthdays, and the excitement would ramp up until the date we burst into the world had finally arrived. Celebrations on the day began sometime around sunrise: A pre-breakfast scavenger hunt of gifts was followed by an in-school celebration, which was followed by dinner—and we haven’t even touched the birthday party itself.

I lived for that kind of birthday love and swore that my own children would experience the same. So it’s no surprise that 11 years into parenting, I’ve made sure that my kids have an incredible day on their birthdays. The surprise is that I don’t begin it on the date stamped onto their birth certificates, as was my tradition growing up. Instead, like the holidays of the Torah, their birthdays begin on the erev, the evening before.

I truly hadn’t given the erev aspect much thought until a few weeks back, when I posted a photo on Instagram that feted my daughter, along with the caption “Annual erev birthday manicure.”

The usual comments—about how cute she is, and how big she’s getting—rolled in, but there were also plenty of others about the erev of it all. “You celebrate erev birthday? Every year? This is a thing for you?”

Apparently, yes.

A quick refresher: Erev literally means “evening” but it is also used to mean “the day before,” which comes from the very beginning of the creation story in Genesis, with the Earth unformed, void of life, and sitting in darkness. God’s first big swing is to say, “Let there be light!” Once light is created and deemed good, the Torah explains, “There was evening and there was morning: the first day.” In fact, every day following that first one is listed in just that manner: “there was evening and then morning.”

We’ve hit on something important here, and what is probably the crux of the erev birthday wonderment. Yes, Genesis is the ur-explanation for the erev. But all days in the Hebrew calendar work like this—it’s not just a creation and holidays thing. In Israel, starting a birthday on the erev would make some sort of sense since that is literally how the Hebrew calendar works. And yet, here I am, starting a secular birthday on the Gregorian calendar with an erev. That’s what gives pause: I’m putting the square peg of a Gregorian date into the round hole of the Hebrew calendar.

I guess we all have our funny tics, and maybe this particular one comes with not being raised as Jewish as I am now.

We’ve got 12 erev birthdays under our belt. The very first came at the suggestion of my midwife, who thought I should treat myself to a big dinner out before being induced the following morning. “When you wake up, your world is going to change,” she said. “Might as well relax and be ready for it.”

So, I did. I got my nails done, went out for steak, and had a glass of wine. Went home, went to bed, woke up, had my baby. Well, there was a little more to it than that, but the important thing is that a tradition had begun. And then, as I moved into a deeper place of Judaism, this pre-birthday celebration became something else. It changed from a cute “’twas the night before” practice, into something fully Jewish: an erev mindset.

An erev mindset that seems to be completely self-imposed, I might add. The rabbis I talked to about this were quick to deem this “a Courtney thing,” with absolutely no halachic imperative attached. “That’s a really cute idea,” one said. “We start birthdays in our house with ice cream cake.” End of conversation.

I asked another friend about it, someone who’d grown up Orthodox in the U.S., with an Israeli mother. The erev birthday was a big nothing to her, but she was quick to point out my Hebrew birthday was getting short shrift. She always celebrated the day on both the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian one.

Do I feel a little silly? Eh, maybe. Should I give it up? Nope. Beginning the celebration the night before, as we do with every other holiday, sends a signal to my kids that we move about the world in a Jewish way, whether we’re doing something outwardly Jewish or not, on the Hebrew calendar or not. And as my kids get older, they want to spend more of their “actual” (shall we say “secular”) birthdays with their friends—something that is both very rude and very age-appropriate. So, the erev birthday has become a placeholder for our family celebration as well. Not to mention, the kids are used to it enough now that it’s become part of them, a tradition. I’ll take that.

Courtney Hazlett is the showrunner for Tablet Podcast Studios, in addition to being a TV/film producer and writer. She and her family live in Los Angeles.