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Naming things gives us a connection to them. Even little children name their lovies and their toys. We label and name to organize things in our minds and to recognize things. How surprising it has been for me as a mother to have a child who says she knows she is the gender not typically aligned with the anatomy she has. It made sense to me when she explained that she wants a name that goes with how she looks and feels. She started using her new name and slowly it has stuck.
When I officiate at a baby naming ceremony, I often explain how important names are within Jewish tradition. Our biblical ancestorsâ names told their storiesâAvraham, Father of a People; Miriam (from sea water), when she was alive, the people had water. Within the narratives of our ancient scroll, names changed when roles change. Jacob becomes Israel, for instance. The rabbis during the rabbinic period in the first centuries of the Common Era, spoke about having a crown of a good name, meaning your total reputation.
They helped us understand what Jews can believe about heaven. When you have been a good person and touched people who want to carry on your name and your memory, that is eternal life. Passing on the name of a loved one to the next generation is a way we enable this person, of blessed memory, to continue to impact the world through deeds done in their name. Sometimes elderly family members will say to the younger generation that they are their Kaddish (the prayer said to remember loved ones who have died). This means that they are looking to the ones living to carry on their memory.
A friend from childhood who has become a lawyer ushered my family through our minor name change process on Thursday, March 3. It was a profound moment when she reminded me that I named her children within the Jewish tradition and now she was naming my child in this way.
After the high and emotions of leaving court that day with a new name for my child, I drove into the city to help another family bestow Hebrew names on their three children ranging in age from 7 to 13. The mom in this family is Jewish and the father is Catholic. They have raised their children with the hopes of literacy, knowledge and comfortability within both religious realms and traditions. They have celebrated Jewish and Catholic holy days. These kids feel close to both rabbis and priests and both sides of their family. They know that they will have to wrestle like Jacob and discern what they believe about Jesus. They also know that they can turn to both traditions in times of joy and in times of need. They are enriched for this way of living and learning. They are not confused but full of joy. Their parents have a depth of compromise and respect for each other that is inspiring.
So, I stood with a priest who has become a friend and mentor as he baptized the children with water and anointed them with oil. I blessed them. We spoke about the loved ones for whom they were named and what their names in Hebrew mean. This was a ceremony of symbolism, metaphor and meaning.
Last year InterfaithFamily launched a social media campaign called #ChooseLove. As InterfaithFamily/Your Community Directors, we discussed whether our rabbinic colleagues would think we were suggesting that couples should choose love over religion, which was not our intention. Thursday, March 3 was a day when I understood what it means to choose love. Love rises above expectations and assumptions. It envelopes fear and uncertainty. It sweetens disappointment and loss. We donât always have control over the circumstances of our lives, but we can choose to have compassion at all times.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh. We praise You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this joyful time.
Does the huge conversation about Rachel Dolezal, who resigned as president of the Spokane, WA, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after it was revealed that she identified as African-American while her parents are White, have any relevance to efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community?
Iâm not commenting on Dolezalâs conduct or its implications on race and race relations; Samuel Freedman addresses those issues and describes her as âclearly disturbedâ in the Forwardâs âHow Rachel Dolezal Crossed the Line from Solidarity to Slumming.â Dolezalâs claim to be transracial has also been criticized as demeaning to people who are transgender, which I certainly donât mean to be.
In âWhat My Black Jewish Son Teaches Me About Rachel Dolezal,â (also in the Forward) Alina Adams, a Jewish woman married to an African-American man, who has written six wonderful articles for us over the years, says that her three children âare being raised Jewish, and they identify as 100 percent Jewish, not âhalfâ,â while her husband âdidnât convert, and he doesnât self-identify as Jewish. But he does identify with the Jewish people via his children.â
Then, about her husband, she says:
So Alina Adams doesnât âself-identify as blackâ but she âsort ofâ âfeels blackâ while her husband sometimes includes himself when talking about Jews, and his wife and their childrenâs Jewishness has become a part of him.
It sounds like Alina would not describe herself as âtransracial.â Does it make any sense or serve any purpose to describe Alinaâs husband as âtransJewish?â
I donât think so. I donât think coming up with categories or labels for people like Alinaâs husband is helpful. Over the years, some people have suggested calling a supportive partner from another faith tradition a âger toshav,â a Biblical category that literally means âstranger in the camp.â But the motivation is usually to allow people who fall into the category to participate in more Jewish ritual than those who donât, and I think thatâs a bad idea.
I know that some people would say that it doesn’t make sense to talk about âtransJewishâ because a person who comes to identify as Jewish can convert. But as of now thereâs no civil or cultural conversion, only religious conversion, and in any event there are many people who feel sort of or partly Jewish who for many reasons arenât interested in converting.
But the notion of a person who is born with and/or raised with one identity, who feels an affinity with and eventually adopts in some fashion a different identityâthatâs what strikes close to home. There are many people who were not born or raised Jewish, who are married or partnered with Jews, who feel an affinity with Jews and Jewish traditions and who in some fashion adopt a Jewish identity, the way Alina Adamsâ husband has. The increasing understanding that that kind of identity shifting happens is the positive implication of the Dolezal incident for those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
I agree with Alinaâs conclusion:
Postscript June 23, 2015
In the Sunday New York Times on June 21, 2015, there is a letter to the editor from Ron Brown of Brooklyn, who describes himself as a Christian married toÂ Jewish woman for 30 years, with adult children who identify as Jewish.
He writes, âOver time, I have grown to âfeelâ Jewish myself. I even feel a bit insulted and left out when I am singled out as the only one in the family who is Christian. I can understand feeling so identified with a certain group that you wish you were born into that group, so identified that even a reminder that you are separate from that group hurts. I can understand Rachel Dolezal. But I would never consider lying about it. I wish Ms. Dolezal hadnât either. Thereâs no doubt in my mind that she would have been welcomed into the African-American community just the way she was.â