A Birthday Question/The Meaning of Life

April 20, 2014.

I woke up this morning and I was 49 years old, entering my 50th year. So this person who lives in my home with me (who I’m not allowed to mention on Facebook) said “Are you freaked out about this?” So I wasn’t really till she mentioned it. I like the 49 part ok but not the 50 part, but I’m still younger than Jackie Chan and always will be, and he’s the spirit of youth, so I will be ever-young, thanks to Jackie Chan. But yet, I feel so wise.

Here’s something that is perplexing me, and it didn’t really start to bother me till last night at about 10 minutes before midnight, and I’m wondering if any of you are smart enough to figure this out. It involves statistics.

In 1830, in the South Bavarian Hamlet of Emmendingen, my great great grandfather Ephraim Weil, who was a moderately successful 20-year-old cattle trader, was trying to decide whether to marry Bessie Sonneborn or Barucha Heilbron. (Ephraim later had a synagogue named after him – Congregation Zichron Ephraim, which still exists in Manhattan.) He let his horse decide, and his horse chose Barucha. Had his horse chosen Bessie, I would not have been born. OK, 50-50 odds there, pretty good. Anyway, his son Jonas came to America and became a butcher, then a fantastically wealthy real estate developer, but he squandered – er, nobly gave away – all his money for good works. His son-in-law, a rabbi named Bernard Drachman (who was once accused by Arthur Conan Doyle of being a wizard), traveled back to Germany in 1882, where he fell madly in love with a woman named Jeanette Shemayah, “a true Oriental beauty of the finest type,” with “skin of alabaster whiteness” and a “softly melodious [voice] like the gentle rippling of a fountain.” But he was too timid to propose marriage and to bring her back to America. She was last heard from in 1941, when she was deported to Poland. Had he proposed, I would not have been born. 50-50 again. But beautiful Jeanette’s life would have been spared.

Meanwhile, my goyishe great-great-great-great-great (maybe a few more) grandfather was born David Betts or Petts between 1780 and 1790 in the lace-making hamlet of Honiton in Devonshire, from whence he fled to the New World, a wanted fugitive, and finally remade himself before the War of 1812 as William Frederick Slocum, the captain of a merchant vessel, where he met and married Rachel James. Had he not been accused of committing whatever crime he was accused of committing, I would never have been born. Many years later, my mother fell in love with a nice young man, who went off to war and was shot dead. Had he not been killed, I would never have been born. But other children would have been, the children of the brave soldier. Finally, even when she met and fell in love with a Jew from Brooklyn and collapsed with him in a drunken, passionate stupor in the dumpster behind McSweeney’s that crazy night in 1964 (ok, I made up the part about the dumpster), and even assuming that a child would result from the interlude, the odds were at least 100 million to 1 that the child would turn out to be me. (Because – I looked this up – each ejaculation contains between 100 million and 400 million sperm. Sorry to be graphic.)

So considering all this, the odds against any one of us being born has to be trillions and trillions to one. Really impossible odds. Like winning the lottery once a week for your whole life. Has anyone tried to crack the numbers? My point here (and I do have one) is that I’m just not that lucky. I’m kind of lucky. But mostly unlucky. So isn’t it just possible that there’s something more to this whole existence thing? Anyway: I HOPE SO.

Happy birthday today to me, Harold Lloyd, and Hitler.