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Last week was my mother’s yahrzeit, the observance of the anniversary of her death. For someone who wasn’t raised in a Jewish household, or in a Jewish-but-luckily-not-bereaved household, yahrzeit is one of those traditions that you don’t really know about until you have to. There are public parts of observing yahrzeit, but the most powerful and probably widespread component is a private ritual in the home – a tiny glass candle burning for 24 hours, commemorating a day that you need to study up to remember, since it is the Hebrew calendar anniversary of a person’s death, not the Gregorian calendar date. It is traced to Talmudic times, and references a biblical verse about the human soul representing the lamp or flame of God.
When I light my mom’s memorial candle, there is a part of the ritual that is about bringing her into our home through the candle’s flame. Even more than the reminder of her spirit that the candle symbolizes, what is meaningful to me is the act of yahrzeit. When I light the candle, and watch the flame climb down the wick, placing it in a window, I bring my mom into myself, going through the steps I watched her take as a daughter who lost a parent early in her adult life.
I have very vivid memories of my mom lighting the yahrzeit candle for her father when I was a girl. I never knew my grandfather, but I knew the sacred moment when my mom was by herself with the flame of the candle every year, and felt the spirit of the candle flame holding court in our house for 24-hours every spring. Over time I have learned the ways that this act was one way she expressed her duty and gratitude as a daughter. Lighting the candle on her father’s yahrzeit expressed her obligation to remember, to make space for him and their relationship on the same date every year, and to keep the reminder of loss alive for 24 hours.
The obligation was also uniquely her own. While we shared many aspects of our Jewish practice and our emotional lives in my household, my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was an individual tradition. Following in her footsteps, I make it my own, too. With my mom’s memorial anniversary within days of Mother’s Day each year, I spend lots of time with Eric and the girls talking about my mom, visiting her grave, and doing special things that remind us of her. But lighting the candle is my own moment. It is my own personal obligation, and I think there is a power in holding it as an individual tradition, and having my girls understand that it is a part of remembering their grandmother that is my responsibility.
Last week, I snuck a moment to myself just after the girls’ bedtime, lighting the memorial candle in its small glass jar. I took the moment not only to reflect on my loss, but more importantly on my mother, and on what it means to be a daughter. I remember all of the life she breathed into me, all of the ways she made me into the person I am. I remember that it is my obligation to hold onto her spirit in this world, and to weave her memory into the ways I live my life.
I’ll never know know how important it would be to my mother that I light the candle every year. What I do know is that when I do it I am honoring her in the way I watched her honor her father, which means something to me.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husband and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that we’d need to bring in a mohel from who-knows-where, if we happened to have a baby boy. Would we have to ask someone to drive in from Atlanta, three hours away? Or perhaps Charlotte, a mere two-and-a-half?
When we found out that the baby would be a girl, we breathed a sigh of relief on that score, at least. Understanding what happened at a baby naming, though, seemed much more complicated than the task assigned to a mohel.
I had dozens of questions for my husband, though, about baby namings for Jewish girls. What happens at them? Did it require synagogue membership, or a rabbi? Were there set prayers or actions to follow? The lack of clear guidance on what to do in such a ceremony baffled me, given my greater familiarity with baptism and the UU baby-welcoming tradition which often feature a rose in addition to water. Our nearest local Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led by a retired cantor and an active layman who served as the group’s unofficial rabbi. We attended Friday night services sporadically in the fellowship hall of the local Catholic church. The Jewish community had just celebrated a milestone by purchasing a Torah, housing it in an ark-on-wheels in the priest’s personal study.
When Laurel was born several months later, the community was thrilled to host her baby naming. I seemed to think that a naming needed to happen soon after a baby’s birth, so we scheduled ours for a few weeks after she was born, despite her somewhat premature arrival. Relatives from both sides of the family poured in from across the country to celebrate the arrival of their first grandchild, first great-niece, and newest second cousin once-removed (etc).
At the baby naming ceremony for our first daughter
We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the community’s oldest member, and everyone’s eyes were alight with wonder at this dual celebration of someone at the very start of their life, and someone else whose life had lasted for a remarkably long time, and who remained quite spry besides.
The ceremony opened with an affirmation of our choice to raise Laurel in the Jewish tradition (see, I didn’t think I was mistaken), as well as our identity as an interfaith family. In the ceremony, we expressed our desire to welcome Laurel into the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. The congregation said the Shehecheyanu, and Ben and I said a Brachah for bringing her into the covenant. We wrapped Laurel in her grandmother’s tallit as L’Dor v’Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurel’s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her father’s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her mother’s side.
After the formal blessings, we brought out one of our menorahs, a brass, silver, and bronze affair with arms that could be arranged in a row, or in a circle. We arranged the arms in a circle, and relatives from all sides of the family read pre-assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible about light coming into the world, as if to emphasize the new light that shines with the birth of any baby.
Several years later, our second daughter was born, even more premature than the first. We didn’t hold a baby naming ceremony for her until almost six months after she was born. We were not yet affiliated with any synagogue in the area, so we held Holly’s naming at home, and conducted the ceremony ourselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that a rabbi could come to our home to do the ceremony, but my Jewish other-half assured me that really, we could just do it ourselves – say words and prayers that would enter her into the wider Jewish community of the covenant. Relatives who lived far away “attended” via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic church’s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.
We had the baby naming ceremony for our second daughter at our home.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. I’ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sister—“I-love-you-Holly-I’m-so-glad-you’re-my-sister”—in front of her assembled relatives. The main difference was that we asked each guest to say a few words of welcome to Holly as they lit a tea light, rather than the pre-arranged readings using the menorah. We also chose a version of L’Dor v’Dor taken from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.
Looking back on it, I am glad we held the ceremonies in the way that we did. Both ceremonies upheld our decision to give our children a Jewish identity, and I did not feel too strange about not doing something ritualistic to include each baby in Unitarian Universalism. After all, it was difficult enough to coordinate the schedules of so many scattered relatives for one ceremony, that I cannot imagine how we might have tried to fit in a second baby-welcoming ceremony in another tradition as well!
As someone with an enduring academic interest in ritual, it feels right that we held ceremonies for welcoming our children. If learning about Jewish baby-naming ceremonies taught me anything about ritual, they gave me an appreciation for the flexibility of tradition. Our ceremonies reminded me of the ways in which something (like religion or ritual) that can seem hallowed by time can actually be quite ad-hoc, adapted to the moment, while still feeling like something time-honored.
This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary. I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. I’ve never really talked to anyone about their Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, to find out if other people walk around reflecting on their day when it rolls around each year. There would be something religiously poetic about talking about this coming from a sense of my anniversary being some kind of a spiritual birthday, that I take time on March 25 to re-read my Torah portion, or to go to minyan. But that’s not really why I feel so light. It’s about a lot of other things; things about family and friends and a shift in how I perceived myself as an individual, Jewish or not.
I may be wrong, but I’d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” It’s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in today’s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and D’var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
The dress. Stepping aside from my interest in creating a post-feminist framework for my girls where a woman’s appearance isn’t such a big deal (referenced in my last blog post), I will say that a lot of my memories are about the dress. But it’s not about buying a dress because I needed to look pretty. It was the dress as a symbol of passage. My mother and I spent hours and hours shopping, and my father got involved, too. The conversations were not about whether or not I was pretty enough, they were about looking “grown-up,” finding a costume that was respectful of traditions and appropriately mature, but also comfortable. And it meant lots of one-on-one time with Mom, which made me feel pretty special, since I was the oldest of three. Whether or not the dress achieved the goal was yet another story, but the learning was in the process.
The party. My party was a luncheon at the temple. It was a big and wonderful production. While I have mixed feelings about how big is too big for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party, I will say that if you take away the high-priced disc jockey and the gorgeous catering, my real memories are of the warmth of having everyone I knew and loved under one roof. This only happens a very few times in any person’s life, and I feel lucky that I had the unique experience of a Bat Mitzvah to make this happen an extra time for me. And perhaps it is not about being an adult, but I would argue there are very few things that make you feel as solidly grounded in the universe as being in a room full of family, familiarity and love.
The expression of individualism. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an important moment during which a child makes an individual journey within their community. The one-on-one tutoring with my cantor, studying and planning, and reading my D’var Torah in front of a room full of people, all demanded an inner focus and ability to differentiate myself from others in the crowd. If you can remember back to your pre-teen years, this is not something many of us were trying to do at that particular moment in time. Being forced to say “Here I am,” at 13 wasn’t just about preparing religious life, but for everything from planning my wedding to prepping for a professional presentation. It was a big deal for me.
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you weren’t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister. In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan. Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat. It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year. It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment. It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.
When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn. The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags. There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint. When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake. There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.
Sisters discovering a new farm for picking blueberries together. Credit: Eliza Berman
But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much. There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present. The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on. My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake. I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could. My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.
And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends. Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character. While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities. They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car. And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.
One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future. Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.
I love a good wedding, which almost all of them are, in my experience. Last weekend I had the privilege of being a guest at a really powerful wedding, with a ceremony that was not only joyous but also left me with strong food for thought about the power of marriage, partnership, love, family, and community. I especially loved the way the ceremony charged family and friends to play a role in the couple’s marriage, so much so that I thought I’d share it with you.
Keeana and Marc’s wedding was special because they are a lovely couple – they are both remarkable people who are head-over-heels for each other in an infectious way. They are connected to and with their faith and their clergy in way that made it impossible to not feel spiritually connected to their ceremony. And the fact that five of their friends came together to form a choir just for their ceremony, or that Keeana’s mother, a reverend herself, led the final step of the ceremony, only sweetened the pot.
But what I really loved were the three “Charges” of the ceremony.
As I understand it, the Charge is the officiant’s chance to tell the couple about the responsibilities they are taking on as a married couple. In a Jewish wedding, I think these charges tend to be a bit more understated. In Keeana and Marc’s Christian wedding, the Charge was not only explicit, but it was said three times in three different ways. First to the congregation, then to the families, and finally to the couple themselves.
In the first charge, the pastors from Boston’s Bethel AME Church (who happen to be married to one another), told the congregation that the couple’s goal for their ceremony was to celebrate their love, to encourage unmarried guests to think about getting married, and to remind married guests about the power of marriage. This is such a lovely way to attend any wedding – to remember not only to notice the wedding dress and to listen to the couple, but also to reflect on your own relationships as you participate.
The second charge was the one that really stood out to me. I can never do it justice verbatim, but following are the Cliff Notes. The reverends took pause from the flow of the ceremony to speak directly to the bride’s and groom’s families. They reminded them that Keeana and Marc were standing before them and before G-d to enter into a holy partnership, and that moving forward their primary relationships would be with each other and with G-d. Because of the sacred nature of the commitment they were making to each other, the officiants implored the families that the best way to support these two individuals going forward would be to support them as a couple. This included supporting their ability to (and perhaps need to) forge their own path as a unit, sometimes stepping aside to let them stumble together. The reverends promised that if the families supported the couple’s partnership, they were gaining a respective son and daughter, and that respecting the partnership was the way to be close to the adult child who they raised themselves.
This was not striking because it was a revelation to me – Eric and I have always felt great support for our marriage from our parents. As a parent myself, now, I feel like I am one step closer to understanding the potential challenge of this charge (although not nearly close enough to really get it!). After nine years of marriage, I am unmeasurably appreciative of the ways in which our families have supported our marriage journey, even when we’ve made choices that have been very different from those our parents made (or might have made for us!). The way Keeana and Marc’s pastors laid out the charge reminded me that this is never something to be taken lightly, that it is work, and that it is sacred work. And while this post may read as more about marriage than parenting, the truth is that all of this only becomes more important when children are in the mix, and the dynamics present and decisions to be made feel even more complex than before.
So it reminded me, especially on the eve of our anniversary this week, to say:
Thank you to Mom and Dad and Mom and Dad!!!
(and the rest of our families, too, of course), and to remember that the successful union of two people is all the richer when we have our friends and family holding up that union.
The final charge, to the couple, was a lovely statement about love and commitment. And all of the wedding guests will remember the way that two pastors emboldened them to maintain a passionate marital bed, but that is for another kind of post for another kind of day.
So Mazel Tov to Keeana and Marc. Mission accomplished in helping me reflect on the power of love and marriage. Thanks to you two, too.
This week we marked my mom’s birthday. She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration. Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.
Grandpa, my girls and me at Halibut Point, one of mom's favorite places
One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning. The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times. When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless. When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.
I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday. The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself. It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.
Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax. As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday. But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything. Birthdays are very special in our family because of her. Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me. I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get. And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.
I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller. It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself. It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma. I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me. And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:
I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma. In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life. Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real. She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan. The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.
But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me. Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me. She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring. She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make). She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow. She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity. I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.
One of many beautiful pictures of my mom
While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind. So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.
I get weekly emails from my synagogue, and, a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a little paragraph tucked in between notices from the Sisterhood and requests for coat donations. A bar/bat mitzvah meeting for parents of kids fourth thru sixth grade. It took me a minute, but I realized quickly that it meant me. My daughter is in fourth grade. It’s that time already? Really? Wasn’t it a week ago that I was pregnant with her and couldn’t fathom how she’d be able to have any kind of clear religious identity with a Jewish father and me? Wasn’t it just the other day that I realized that while she was self identifying as Jewish the way she considered herself Irish but because I hadn’t converted, according to our synagogue, technically, she wasn’t Jewish? I didn’t think she’d really remember the mikveh, she was only five or six, but I remember it so vividly. And suddenly – we’re there already. A bat mitzvah.
And the more I thought about it, the more emotional I got. Which isn’t surprising, I cry at pretty much every milestone. Dance recitals, preschool graduations, her first real report card. But a bat mitzvah seems like it’s so important. Not only because she’s the first in my husband’s family, of her generation, to read from the Torah. Not only because my family will come, of course they’ll come, but won’t have the foggiest idea what we’ll be doing. But also because the bat mitzvah has so much meaning attached to it. It’s coming right when I’m starting to realize that this baby girl, this tiny little baby of mine isn’t always going to be mine. She’s her own person – and that’s terrifying and wonderful and, yeah, I’m welling up with tears as I’m writing. I’m going to be in so much trouble with this…
That’s what the bat mitzvah is – it’s a public acknowledgement that we’re Jewish, and that Jessica is Jewish. That she’s responsible for herself now, that she’s going to take ownership of her own religious identity in a way that I’ve been worrying about since before she was born. What will her religious identity be? She’s Jewish, yes, but not only Jewish. She’s inherited a rich family tradition dating back thousands of years. She’s also the product of my side of the family, a family filled with people who have no strong tie to any organized religion but a very strong and heartfelt connection to God.
She’s all intellectual questioning rules and ritual on the one hand, and on the other, she’s got a sincere and absolute relationship with God that, as far as I can see, she’s never doubted. She blends both of us, the Jewish side from her father, and the spiritual intensity from me. She’s got an extra dash of drama and wonder and intensity that’s all her own. And it makes me cry. I’m not sure if I’m crying because I’m grieving the loss of the little girl who’s growing up so fast, or if I’m crying because I’m so incredibly proud of the woman she’ll be.
When she was born, my husband picked out her Hebrew name. It means “beautiful celebration.” That’s what she’s always been for us, a celebration of love and life and so much joy. And on her bat mitzvah, she’ll stand in front of our friends and family, and she’ll read from the Torah. She’ll be exactly who she is. And that’s amazing to me.
When our second child, a boy, was born, my (Jewish) husband was adamant that he be circumcised. Everyone has their own baggage, and I’m far from exempt from that. I grew up without a dad; I was dead certain that I wanted my children to have an active, involved and dedicated father. I didn’t want them to have just one parent, so it was vital to me to respect him as a parent. This was his son as much as he was mine, and it was that absolute for him. He would be circumcised.
It’s one thing to blithely agree to something and then realize how incredibly hard it’s going to be. Like daycare – of course, my kids would go to daycare and I’d work full time, right up until I actually HAD a child and the thought of leaving them for eight to nine hours a day was devastating. It was the same situation with the circumcision. Yeah, sure, we can do that, right up until I’ve got this tiny little boy – AND YOU WANT TO CUT OFF HIS LITTLE PENIS?!?! And if I was struggling with the concept, explaining it to my non-Jewish family was even harder. The whole idea of having a party where we’d cut off the tip of his penis and then have bagels was beyond their comprehension.
But cut it off we did. I reminded myself over and over again that this was my husband’s child as much as mine. That I had to respect Marc’s traditions and his right to make decisions for our child if I truly wanted him to be an equal parent with me.
First let me back up. My son was a challenging baby. To this day, six years later, I know of no other child who was as miserable as my little baby was for the first several months. Colic and reflux were a part of it, but part of it was just who he was, he doesn’t like change – and the whole concept of starting his life here just made him furious. He cried all the livelong day, unless he was nursing. Or in the swing – he loved his swing. But mostly he cried and nursed. He only slept when I held him, and only stopped crying when he nursed. He was horrified if anyone other than me tried to hold him, screamed unmercifully if people looked at him for too long, and being the center of attention made him nuts.
So I was a wreck on the day he was going to be circumcised. To put it mildly. I was an experienced mom, he was my second baby, and I’d had literally decades of childcare behind me – but I was worn out, sleep deprived, and out of mind with confusion and frustration and this overwhelming love for this boy child. Voluntarily hurting him (and that’s the only way I could see this) was so hard. So incredibly hard. My mother, sister, stepfather and cousin had all come early to our house. We lived in a second floor apartment, and it was literally the hottest day of the summer so far that year. We had no air conditioner, and the apartment was wall to wall people. I couldn’t stop crying. The baby couldn’t stop crying (because the mohel didn’t want me to nurse for the two hours before the ceremony, and he was furious at the thought of a pacifier).
All of my husband’s female relatives assured me that I shouldn’t be there, the mothers never watch. But I couldn’t NOT be there. This was my child. This was my baby, and if I was going to allow this to happen to him, I couldn’t let him do it without me there to support him. So I sat in the room just off of the dining room, where everyone had gathered. My father-in-law held the baby, and my poor confused stepfather gave him little bits of a sweet wine and it was over super fast. They handed him back to me immediately, and he stopped crying the instant I touched him. He nursed gratefully and went immediately back to sleep.
The man who performed the circumcision passed away a few months ago. It wasn’t that I knew him well, I had never met him before and only saw him a few times since then. But he was there, on one of the most challenging and painful and ultimately rewarding days of my life. You know how sometimes you bond to your baby the first time you meet them, and sometimes it takes a bit? I loved my baby from the beginning, but on the day that he was circumcised, I knew absolutely and without question that I was his mother and he was my son, and that when he hurt, I felt it more than I could have imagined. It was the beginnings of a relationship that, to this day, continues to shock and amaze me, to teach me and stretch me and astound me. Rest in Peace, Stuart Jaffee, and thank you for your part in my son’s life.
That being said – when we found out that our next baby was a girl, the first thing I thought in the ultrasound room was thank God we don’t have to have her circumcised.
Sometimes I think what will be written on my headstone when I die is She had a lot of faith. As Roman Catholic raising Jewish children, I spend a lot of my time in houses of worship—three hours in the synagogue on Saturdays and an hour at Mass on Sundays—preparing for and celebrating holidays, and talking about God and religion with my friends and family.
The truth is I love it. I love being Catholic and I love that my family is Jewish. I am by no means a religious expert or theologian. I have studied Judaism for the past twelve years since I met my husband and as much as I have learned, I do feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Once when I was talking with a (Jewish) friend, trying to understand the differences between the Jewish denominations, he finally said the different denominations are about five minutes old in the span of Judaism, and I should not worry about the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reconstructionist Jew. He told me to study the Jewish holidays, interpret them for my family, and all will be well.
I am sure some would take exception to that advice, but it has worked for me all these years. I cannot expound on all facets of Jewish religion, tradition, and customs, but I have found my way living a Jewish life with my family. I am grateful for all of my teachers along the way, my children’s preschool, their Jewish summer camp, our synagogue, great friends, and resources on Interfaithfamily.com. And I cannot forget the secretary at my church who recommended the mohel we used for my son’s brit milah (circumcision).
My son is eight years old and my daughter is six. I am happy to share that they are thriving in all aspects of their humanity, they are healthy, they are socially agreeable, and self-identify as Jews. They know I am not Jewish and love me anyway. Last year when William was seven and Sarah was five, we took them to our local mikveh to be officially converted. Of course some lines of Judaism recognize patrilineal descent, but it was important to us to have them officially converted for their Jewish legitimacy to be recognized by most modern denominations.
On the appointed day, William and Sarah went through the ritual immersion for Jewish conversion at the Community Mikveh in Wilmette, Illinois. One at a time, they entered the small holy pool and immersed their whole bodies under the water three times. After each immersion, a prayer was said by the beit din (rabbinic court officiating the ritual) blessing them into the Jewish religion.
William and Sarah loved the experience. My husband and I prepared them for it in advance. The mikveh is a special place. The water is the most special water you will ever feel on your skin. You will be sealed with God’s grace in a very special way. Enjoy it; savor it because it will be a long time before you can go into a mikveh again.
Enjoy it they did. Sarah went first and made us promise she can come back again one day. William dunked himself at least six times. He treaded water. He swam around. He stayed in as long as he could.
The following day was Friday. At our Shabbat dinner, we all made toasts to how wonderful it is to be Jewish and what a remarkable week it had been. Our Shabbat Shaloms , l’chaims and special Shabbat blessings felt extra special and authentic. It was then when I realized that I really am the only non-Jew in our house. I also realized my work to raise Jewish children was not over. It had just begun.
Where am I? Somewhere between adoption and something else. I don’t know what just yet. But as I pause here wondering which way to go, I’ve had some time to think and most of that thinking has been about the question I asked in my last post, “who am I if I’m not a mother?”
As a person that is not married and has no children I spend a lot of time sitting in the pew watching traditional families (married couples with kids) on their way up to the bimah – baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and wedding blessings (aufruf), wedding anniversaries. Jewish ritual greets traditionals at every turn ready to teach how Torah can speak to them at that particular time in their lives, affirming their place in the community and marking it with congregational celebration.
But what if these events don’t happen in your life? Then who are you? Who am I? I don’t find it surprising that a loss of identity is an outcome of infertility and/or failed adoption because so much of Jewish life is structured by these milestones in traditional family life.
“I love my church and I hate my church” a friend who is struggling with infertility tells me. She sighs and adds, “everything is centered around the kids so I’m an outsider when I most need my community.” The Jewish community is no different.
That’s not to say that I’m not happy for all these families. I am. But couldn’t we be more inclusive? Aren’t there transitions that occur in adult life aside from marriage and kids that cry out for engagement in Jewish learning, ritual and celebration?
What if we had a ritual marking the entery into adult life after college or a program of study at the turning of 40 years old (which is a time of deep soul searching for some)? Or for retirees that are adjusting from work to retirement and wondering how to re-imagine their lives? I don’t mean just a class or an aliyah but a full program of study culminating a unique and appropriately sacramental recognition. Wouldn’t ceremonial and educational opportunities like these add to the richness of our congregations and to the lives of those that participate?
As our community continues to change maybe we need to think about re-structuring or simply adding more milestones on the Jewish pathway through life – after all Judaism has something to say every Jew wherever they may be.