How do you feel about birthdays? Do you see them as a day to honor someone, to elevate them above the fray, to give them special presents, to celebrate them and their life, and to party like there’s no tomorrow?
Yeah, I kind of did, too.
But something got me thinking about the whole birthday thing a few months ago, and I started to feel like maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating those, after all.
A friend of mine pointed out that we as a nation celebrate those dates when special events that affected our destiny occurred, like Independence Day. As individuals, then, shouldn’t we celebrate those dates of personal significance? And what could be more significant than the day of your birth? Perhaps we should just celebrate in a different way from the rest of the world.
After getting my mother’s opinion (birthdays are a celebration of LIFE – what’s wrong with that?!), I decided that my birthday could be recognized, but that I would strive to make my celebration as unique as I could, possibly including some Jewish traditions.
So. For those of you who don’t know, my beloved brother’s birthday is two days after mine, on June 9. One warm afternoon, we sat down on the swing and concocted a birthday party idea to end all birthday party ideas.
This past Thursday, it finally rolled around, and we had a BLAST! As our good friend Monk says on so many of his TV shows, here’s what happened:
Everyone arrived around 5:30/6:00. We had about fifteen young people here, including Gregory & Morgan Bartos (married though they are now <wink>). The first thing we did was dessert. That one thing was what catapulted our party idea creativity to stardom and helped us come up with our Plan. Our family eats kosher, and we separate meat and dairy (we wait about 3 hours meat to dairy, more like 30 minutes or 1 hour dairy to meat, per traditional rulings). Since our menu for dinner was burgers & hot dogs, we had to have our very dairy-based dessert first, so that we could fit everything in.
From that point on, we turned a traditional birthday party on its head. We had dessert, and THEN we did the “Happy Birthday” song. Everything had a catch, though – the birthday song was *clapped*, not sung (“clappy birthday”, as Peter dubbed it). Hilarious!
We had asked people specifically to bring no gifts; I think that sometimes people look at a big birthday celebration as a way of raking in the gifts – what a terrible way of using your friends and their affection for you. Ok, I’m off that soapbox. After dessert, we told everyone it was “time for gifts”, and we all headed inside. I could hear the murmurings behind me of, “What gifts?” and “Didn’t they tell us not to bring any gifts?!”
And yet, when we all got inside, there was a whole stack of birthday gifts sitting there on the table, waiting to be opened. That’s because Peter and I had taken the traditional gift-giving of a birthday party and reversed it – we got our friends gifts, instead! On a side not, it was SUCH FUN shopping for everyone, walking around the Blakeney shopping center for an entire Sunday afternoon, trying to find the perfect item for each person. We didn’t come home until we had succeeded in that. Since I don’t particularly like opening presents (although there’s nothing wrong with receiving them – it’s really just the opening), this was a perfect way to slither out from under that pressure, and allow our friends to enjoy tearing paper and untying bows.
I think they were suitably surprised. 🙂
Then, we moved on to the activities of the evening. One of the Jewish traditions with regard to birthdays is to recite your birthday psalm. Actually, you’re supposed to do that every day all year. But on your birthday, you get a new psalm to start reciting. It’s traditionally your age +1, so Peter’s is Psalm 19 and mine is Psalm 23. Both of those are really great psalms, and Peter and I had come up with an activity for each of them to bring our party focus to the Scriptures.
We started with mine, since we already had everyone in a circle. Each person got a copy of Psalm 23, and Peter turned on our recorder. As fluidly as possible, we read the psalm around the room, one word at a time. So I said, “The,” and Morgan followed with, “L-rd,” and Gregory followed with “Is,” and so on. With only a few misspeaks (for which we started over, after loud bursts of laughter), we made it through the whole thing. I can’t wait to hear the recording. 😀
Then we split into two teams for Psalm 19. We had printed it off and cut it into one-line strips. Each team had to reassemble the psalm in the correct order before the other team could do it. Psalm 19 is longer than Psalm 23, and is filled with repetitive Hebrew poetry, so it was difficult to put things in their proper place. As I watched the hands of my friends rearrange little strips of the Bible, their heads bent to the table in dedication, I was awed by the favor of G-d toward us, in allowing us a group of close friends who would actually want to sit there and pore over a Scripture passage like that. What a privilege!
When one team had finally gotten things in order, we cheered and moved on to the next item on our agenda. Ignoring frequent comments from a few of our guests with regard to FOOD and DINNER, we took our friends on a walk down the sidewalk to the church right around the corner from The Residence. Our thought was to focus our minds and hearts on our mortality – we are here today and gone tomorrow. Shouldn’t we then strive to make every moment count? Shouldn’t we “repent the day before we die”, as Hillel says? The church down the road has a moderately-sized cemetery, and we wanted to go have a look, and at the same time, do a mini photo shoot. It’s not often that you have all your friends (ok, MOST of your friends) in one place. 😉 Peter, in keeping with our upside-down and totally-reversed theme for the evening, suggested we take pictures of backs rather than faces. It was a very interesting shoot…
Having promised everyone that food would be next, we walked home (some of our guys ran the whole way, which was quite the feat in the muggy afterstorm atmosphere) and grilled up some meat. Many thanks to our dear brother-in-law, Gregory, who stood tirelessly by the grill, and provided us with perfect burgers and dogs to serve to the rest of the guests. He really is a gem. 🙂
Dinner was quick, as everyone chowed down and inhaled their food. Guess they were hungry…
After blessing G-d, we moved inside, to escape the close air and to gather in more of a circle for our next activity. When each person had arrived, we had given them a thank-you note. They hadn’t realized it at the time, but that was all part of the master Reversal Plan (normally, you’d get a thank-you note after the party). In the note, we thanked them for coming, and gave them each a topic upon which they’d be asked to speak later in the evening. That time had now come.
Again, we had the recorder on, so all of this will live in infamy. It’s been a while since I’ve laughed that hard, I have to say. Each person segued from topic to topic as seamlessly as possible, and then tried to work in their answer to our question without telling us what they had been asked – I was so proud of all of them! No one shied away from the challenge, wriggled uncomfortably, or declared themselves unwilling to speak. Their creativity was boundless, and their answers superb.
When we had gone the full round, and everyone had spoken, we announced the final item on the schedule: fruit. You see, it’s traditional in Judaism to taste a new fruit on your birthday (one you haven’t had that season), and recite the special blessing after doing so (Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this season). Our family is into fruit, so there weren’t many we hadn’t had this season yet. However, Peter and I went to the grocery store together and found the perfect solution. Horned melon!
Now, you really need to know what this stuff is to appreciate the rest of the story, so I’ll give you a moment to look it up on Wikipedia.
So we came home that afternoon with three horned melons poking out of our plastic bag, and sat down to watch YouTube videos on how the things are supposed to be cut open and eaten. They are resilient green on the inside, even with their oddly orange exterior, and filled with mammoth cucumber-like seeds suspended in what looks like green jello that didn’t quite set. But green jello normally has an intense, artificial lime flavor, and this goop was a gentle mix of banana and cucumber – very inoffensive. The skin, we read, was edible, packed with vitamin C and fiber. Eating skin with horns is for the brave, that much I’ll say.
So Peter and I attacked our melons, cut them into more inviting pieces, and wrapped things up to wait for that moment in our party. We did not try any of the melon, much as we were tempted.
At long last, at 9:40pm, we presented our guests with pieces of horned melon, oozing green globs of goodness from its crunchy orange peel. I couldn’t believe it, but every single one of our brave partygoers tried it. True, some stuck with one bite and grimaced, but a few even had a second piece. And some ate the skin! Together, we were all able to bless G-d for bringing us to this season – nothing like horned melon to help you remember that G-d is the One keeping us here, one breath at a time. In fact, I’m thinking of making those scary-looking things a birthday tradition… 😉
Without further ado, we packed everyone up and sent them home. I was floating on air – it was positively one of the best birthday parties I’ve ever had. Scratch that – I think it was THE best.
(skydiving doesn’t count as a party 😛 )
Happy birthday to us! May you enjoy yourselves as much as we did when your turn rolls around!