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When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husbandÂ and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that weâ€™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 localÂ Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led byÂ a retired cantor and an active layman who servedÂ as the groupâ€™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 priestâ€™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 babyâ€™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).
We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the communityâ€™s oldest member, and everyoneâ€™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 didnâ€™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 grandmotherâ€™s tallit as Lâ€™Dor vâ€™Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurelâ€™s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her fatherâ€™s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her motherâ€™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 didnâ€™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 Hollyâ€™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 â€śattendedâ€ť via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic churchâ€™s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.
Iâ€™m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. Iâ€™ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sisterâ€”â€śI-love-you-Holly-Iâ€™m-so-glad-youâ€™re-my-sisterâ€ťâ€”in front of her assembled relatives. The mainÂ 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 ritualisticÂ 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.
Recently, my older daughter Laurel was pretending that her father and I were guests at her house, and we were helping to take care of her while her parents were out at a meeting. She showed me the kitchen, and suggested I might want to make mac nâ€™ cheese for her and her baby sister. Over dinner, she decided to talk about her family.
â€śI am Jewish, and my daddy is Jewish, so we just celebrated Passover,â€ť she said.
â€śOh, that must have been fun,â€ť I replied.
â€śYeah, it was tons of fun!â€ť
â€śWhat other holidays do you celebrate?â€ť I asked, curious to hear how she might answer.
â€śWe also celebrate Hanukkah, of course,â€ť she continued, â€śbut we have Christmas too,â€ť she said, â€śbecause my mommy is Christian.â€ť
â€śOh, really?â€ť I replied. â€śThatâ€™s interesting. I think your mommy told me once that she actually is more of a Unitarian Universalist,â€ť I clarified, thinking fast. Well, UUs historically were Christian, but today, many UUs wouldnâ€™t call themselves Christian, for a variety of reasons, not least because they can’t quite accept some of the central tenets of Christianity. Oh, ack,Â what do I say! Iâ€™m much more of a cultural Christian, I suppose, since I was raised in the Episcopalian church, but, but, butâ€¦ how do I explain this in one sentence, to a 5-year-old!Â
I continued to play along with theÂ conversation. â€śI suppose your mommy is sort of Christian. Sheâ€™s a very, very liberal Christian,â€ť I added. â€śAnd she celebrates Christmas, yes.â€ť Perhaps it would be best to save explanations of nineteenth-century doctrinal changes for a few years, I thought.
When my husband Ben and I first started dating, one of our first outings as a couple was to hear Harvey Cox speak on his book about raising a Jewish child, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christianâ€™s Journey Through the Jewish Year. Weâ€™d only been dating for a fewÂ weeks, so attending this event seemed kind of significant, and definitely nerve-wracking. What I learned, though, was that Cox and his wife, who is Jewish, decided to raise their son Jewish because of matrilineal descent. When it came to Christmas and other Christian holidays, they would simply tell him that those were his fatherâ€™s holidays.
This sounded like simple enough advice, and something to think more about.
I now know that this suggestion is hardly quite so simple, and that questions of identity will look different for different children as they age.
When Ben and I started to discuss marriage, it also seemed simple to decide that our children, if we were blessed with any, would be Jewish. Or at least thatâ€™s how I remember the conversation going. Weâ€™d just gotten engaged a couple of days earlier, and were sitting on the old green futon that functioned as our first couch back in the grad-school days. I told Ben, â€śIâ€™ve been thinking about this, and since Judaism has an ethnic component to it, as well as a religious one, I think our kids should be raised Jewish.â€ť
I remember the surprise, and the happiness, that I saw in his eyes. â€śReally? Youâ€™d do that? Because Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent,â€ť he told me, â€śmeaning that Judaism can pass through the father as well as the mother. Iâ€™m so glad youâ€™re open to this!â€ť
Our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves almost a year after getting engaged, seems to imply a different intention. Iâ€™ve just looked at it hanging there in our living room now, and it clearly expresses our desire to create a home that honors our Jewish and Unitarian Universalist heritages, one that, should we be blessed with children, would â€śhonor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.â€ť This phrase rather nicely sums up what Ben and I hold most dear, theologically speaking, but nowhere does it say weâ€™re going to raise our children as solely Jewish!
Thatâ€™s funny, I find myself thinking. I thought weâ€™d agreed to raise our kids Jewish? Didnâ€™t I tell Ben that I agreed that we should raise Jewish children?
Or did I mean that I wanted to be sure they had a Jewish identity, even if that identity is only one of the labels a child might choose? After all, we have two Christmas-celebrating Jewish children, childrenÂ who receive Easter cards each spring from still-confused relatives, childrenÂ who this year participated gleefully in their first Easter-egg hunt.
At least, it sounds confusing to me. Iâ€™m not sure itâ€™s confusing to our older daughter. Itâ€™s simply who she is. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was proud to share a box of matzah with her class at school, and on the way home that day, she told me, â€śIâ€™m the only Jewish kid in my school.â€ť Iâ€™m not sure thatâ€™s quite numerically true of the school, even if it is of her classroom. However, what rings more true than a statistic is the extent to which, at this point, Laurel clearly considers herself to be Jewishâ€”and whether sheâ€™d say it this way or not, she knows, too, that itâ€™s not quite that simple.