Hearty Birthdays and the double “L’chaim”

“L’chaim” doesn’t promise “happiness” just “life.”


When I was 18, I left my home in Missouri and began my pilgrimage into the world.

18 years later, perched on the opening day of my 36th year, I contemplate the roots that ground me and branches that stretch me.

When I told my friend Courtney that I was excited about my 36th year of life, she responded:

“L’chaim l’chaim!”

“Double 18!”

If you’ve ever drank (or been drunk) with Jewish friends or family, you will have heard this toast, “L’chaim” “To life!”

L'chaim wedding

What I didn’t know, was that “Chai” is not only the word for “life” in Hebrew, but also the number “18”. (Learn more about the history and grammar of this number in the Jewish tradition here.) For this reason, when a Jewish person makes a donation, or gives a financial gift, they may make it out in a multiple of 18.

18 + 18 = 36 = “double chai” = fortuitous year.

Perhaps a decade ago, I stopped expecting other people to give me a happy birthday. While I’ll have my cake and presents too (when offered) what has become more meaningful to me is creating the space and giving myself permission to turn inwards and ask myself…Well, girl. What next? Then to turn outwards again and see where I feel compelled to wander.

Yesterday I wandered to Christs Church in DC where my college friend, the Revered Cara Spaccarelli, shepherds her Episcopal Parish through their lives on Capitol Hill. One of the best things about this parish, besides Cara, is the childcare. I can hand off my children to relative strangers and find quiet sanctuary in the sanctuary. (While I may have given myself permission for quiet reflection on my birthday…my twins have yet to be persuaded).


As I sat in the pews, prepared to be inspired on this my “double chai day”, I was met not with happiness but with…struggle.

First reading: Job chastised by God out of a whirlwind.

Second reading: supplication, loud cries, and tears.

Third reading: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

Huh. Happy birthday to me?

Cara’s Homily framed the intertwining themes of these passages as:

“We can do hard things.”

So…not your traditional birthday card, Shabbat toast, or Facebook affirmation…but then, that’s not what I find myself needing these days.

Last year was the first year I ran in the Baltimore Running Festival. The second leg of the relay, 7.2 miles, wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it ought to be. This year (and with much less training then I intended) I ran the first leg and then portions of the second and third leg for what amounted to 12ish miles of Baltimore pavement, potholes, and cobble stones.  Not everyone’s ideal birthday weekend, but I think it may become my very own, odd birthday tradition.

L'chaim can do hard things

So hard. So good.

A huge part of what makes this physical endeavor possible, is the throng of friends and strangers toasting you onwards…with silly signs, cowbells, and Gatorade. It is this collective energy that makes such a labor not just possible, but transformative. We can do hard things!

“L’chaim” after all doesn’t promise “happiness” just “life.” And life, for so many, is so much harder than a marathon, so much longer than 12 miles. So hard…but hearty.

I wrote in a previous post I feel myself on the cusp of a wind change…like I’m on the wide expanse of the Midwestern prairie watching a storm roll-in…not with fear and trembling but instead with quiet, gritty determination.

We are strong. The house will stand. Life and love await on the other side.

So, Here’s to a Hearty Birthday, everyone.

L’chaim, l’chaim!

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