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'Leaplings'of the World -- Unite!

February 28, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Happy birthday, Ray Israel! He turns the ripe old age of "20" on Feb. 29.
Ray Israel has just a few more gray hairs than most men preparing to celebrate their 20th birthday.

Though he believes that he's "no different from anybody else," Israel is actually a part of a small sampling of the world's population -- 0.0684 percent, according to various sources -- who can pack on the years without technically getting old.

Israel is a "leapling."

While that may sound like some obscure medical condition, it just means that he was born on that odd little day in February that comes around once every four years: Leap Day.

"In four years, I'll be old enough to drink," joked Israel, a Center City resident who was born on Feb. 29, 1928.

Israel has been known to make quite a fuss when his birthday rolls around. For example, in 1992, he threw a "Sweet 16" party at a nightclub in Philadelphia, complete with cocktails, dancing, and relatives and friends from as far away as Florida and Colorado.

"I'm a party animal," said Israel, who does not have plans yet for this year, but said he thinks that his family may be planning a surprise.

Israel is among 200,000 Americans and 4.1 million people worldwide who have been born on Feb. 29, according to the U.S. Census.

The chances of being born a "leapling" are one in every 1,461, according to www.leapyearday.com, one of a considerable number of Web sites dedicated to providing information on Feb. 29 and attempting to unite the "leaplings" of the world. With more than 6,000 members, the site offers details on Leap Day birthday parties across the United States, as well as in South Africa, Australia, Spain and France.

Organizers of the site are even hoping to put the words "Leap Day" on every calendar.

" 'Leap Day' is more important than Groundhog Day," said Raenell Dawn, a spokesperson for the site. "If it were not for that extra day, eventually, our seasons would not line up with the calendar."

She also hopes to change Web sites and other forms that often do not have an option for selecting Feb. 29 as a birthday.

This year is not just a leap year on the Gregorian calendar, which is used by most Western countries, but also on the Hebrew calendar. Because the Torah requires that certain holidays take place during certain seasons, another month called Adar I is added to align the calendar, which follows both lunar and solar patterns.

Over the course of 19 years in the Hebrew calendar, 12 of them will be "normal," while seven will contain a leap month.

Some famous Jews are also leap-year babies, born on Feb. 29. Al Rosen, a baseball player nicknamed the "Hebrew Hammer," was born on Leap Day in 1924. He played for the Cleveland Indians from 1947 to 1956 and was chosen as the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1953.

Dinah Shore, the actress and singer, was born on Feb. 29, 1916. She died in 1977.

Feb. 29 also happens to be the birthday of two non-Jewish American serial killers: Aileen Wuornos in 1956 and Richard Ramirez just four years later.

'I'm Older Than Mom!'
Since Shari Spark turns 12 this week, her next birthday will be the big one.

"The next time I have a birthday, we're planning on having a Bat Mitzvah," said the religious-school teacher from Allentown, Pa., who really happens to be 48. "It won't include the pressure of having to prepare the way you do when you're 13. It will just be a fun thing to do."

Spark also said that it was a thrill for her son and daughter when they finally became "older" than their mother.

" 'I'm older than mom!' " she recalled her children saying. "For both of them, that was a big milestone."

When it comes to the day to celebrate their birthday during a nonleap year, "leaplings" follow various schools of thought.

Some consider themselves "strict Februarians" and choose to celebrate on Feb. 28, because, after all, they were born that month.

Others, like Spark, believe that their birthday falls on the day after Feb. 28, so they feel that March 1 is as close as they can get to their actual birthday.

Many, however, just tend to celebrate on whichever day falls on a weekend or is more convenient.

Figuring out how to celebrate such an odd birthday is easier for adults, but what happens during childhood, when someone's actual birth date goes missing, so to speak?

Spark, for example, thought it was "really cool" that her birthday was so unique, and loved those big celebrations every four years.

Lisa Fraenkel, on the other hand, would have been eager to trade her birthday for a normal one.

"It's almost here, then it doesn't come, then it's March 1," recalled Fraenkel, also from Allentown, who will turn 14 this year -- meaning that she's actually 56. "It's kind of an odd thing."

Spark so identified with her unusual birthday when she was young that she bypassed a traditional "Sweet 16" party in favor of something a bit different.

"Everyone had to dress up like a 4-year-old," she recalled, noting that partygoers wore pajamas and played with balloons.

Still, for parents with small children, it can be a real challenge to explain why their birthday only comes around once every four years.

Author Dawn Desjardins hopes to help with a children's book called Leopold's Long Awaited Leap Year Birthday. In the story, Leopold, the main character, plays peek-a-boo with his mother, who uses the game to illustrate the birthday.

"Mom describes it as a peek-a-boo holiday," said Desjardins. "It's there, but it's just hiding." 

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