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Baby Namings in My Interfaith Family

Before we were married, my wife and I decided that we would raise our future children in her faith, Judaism. Being Protestant, I was accustomed to a whole different set of life-cycle events for kids. The world of baptisms and communions was all I knew. Now, I had to start learning about completely different ceremonies and their significance.

About the only event that Bonnie and I had in common was the annual birthday party, although I could argue that even these were very different. As children, I took my friends sledding and to basketball games, while she went for pony rides. She probably even played house! Now, as an expectant dad, I had to become familiar with Bar Mitzvahs, brises (ritual circumcision ceremonies), and this thing called a baby naming. What's that all about? Didn't we already name our daughter at the hospital? Why do we have to name her again?

When my wife got pregnant for the first time, we had no idea if we were having a boy or a girl. If we had a boy, we decided we'd have the circumcision covenant ceremony known as a bris (Yiddish), or brit milah (Hebrew). If we had a girl, we'd have the ceremony known as a baby naming. The only thing I knew about either event was that there is lots of food, and the baby usually cries. What else would an infant do?

If we ended up having a baby boy, I wasn't sure how I'd react if we had to have a bris. Although I had been circumcised, it was by the doctor in the hospital--not in a room full of people trying to eat their bagels and lox. In the past few years, I had been to a friend's son's bris and survived. Fortunately, I don't get too squeamish about such things. But how would my family react? The ceremony would be a whole new experience for them, let alone one where the cutting of foreskin took place. Yikes! However, I reminded myself that this is what my wife and I had decided for our children, and that this was an important part of their Jewish identity. My family, who, thank goodness, is open minded about our interfaith marriage, probably would be excited for us anyway.

As it turns out, we had a girl and a baby naming. So what's the deal with naming her a second time? As my wife explained, this is to give our daughter her Hebrew name. Actually, she said, because baby namings are a relatively new ritual, there is a lot of flexibility in what we can do for a ceremony. Unlike the bris, which is commanded by the Torah, we found that there are a few precedents out there, but no steadfast rules for celebrating the birth of a daughter. We chose to have the baby naming in our home, rather than our temple, so that my family would feel more comfortable.

Before our daughter was born, we had decided what all her names were to be and after whom she would be named. We knew that we wanted to incorporate the names of our grandmothers, who had recently passed away. My wife told me that it is customary for Ashkenazic, or Eastern European, Jews to name their children after a deceased member of the family as a way of remembering them.

"Ah, that's why you don't see a lot of "Juniors" in Jewish boys' names," I surmised. But wait a minute, we could have a problem. "What about when you want to name your child after someone with a name that's, let's just say, no longer in style--like your grandmother, Gertrude?" I asked. "Or your grandmother, Mildred?" she added. "Yeah, I don't want her to get beat up at school, or called 'Mildew'." Bonnie explained that a lot of families use the first letter of the ancestor's Hebrew name. She said, "Gertrude's 'Hebrew' name was Gittel (which is actually Yiddish). So for our daughter, we can use Gittel and take the "G" to make Gabrielle for the English name." "Oh, so it's a loophole!" I replied.

For our second daughter, we used the "loophole" again and named her Molly, after my grandma Mildred. For the Hebrew name, we chose Chava. Now, I'm sure if my grandma had been Jewish, this would have been her Hebrew name. Actually, all joking aside, this was a nice opportunity to give Molly a Hebrew name belonging to another one of my wife's grandmothers. We felt it would be more appropriate to use this existing Hebrew name, rather than making one up for the name Molly. Bottom line, I learned that there are a lot of acceptable ways to come up with names in the Jewish tradition.

So for the baby namings of our two daughters, the order of events went something like this: Friends and family arrived at our home and began to mingle, while waiting for the rabbi to begin. At noon, the rabbi was ready to start. But wait! Some of my family and friends weren't there yet. They were, as usual, sociably late! We forgot to tell them that this is one occasion where it is not fashionable to be tardy. Oops.

When the rabbi finally started, he introduced himself and welcomed everyone. After Bonnie lit the candles, we had my parents bring the baby into the room. The rabbi said a few blessings and then told everyone the significance of the baby naming. This was great for both Jews and Christians who had never witnessed one before. Later on in the ceremony, Bonnie's parents also participated by saying the blessings over the wine and challah. As you can see, it was important to us to make sure both sides of the family were involved in a meaningful way and comfortable with their roles.

Looking back, I think that my wife and I were the only ones who were nervous. During our first daughter's ceremony, I remember not wanting to screw up. I could just hear my Jewish in-laws; "there he goes messing up one of our fine traditions." (For the record, though, I don't really believe anyone would have thought that.) After the rabbi gave our daughters their names, my wife and I wanted to say a few words about why we chose these names, the people after whom they were named, and what it all meant to us. We both had parts we wanted to say. But in both ceremonies, Bonnie was too emotional to speak. So it was up to me to do the talking. I began by telling everyone about the meanings these names had for us and how we hoped our daughters could emulate their loving great grandmothers. I felt much more confident for my second daughter's naming three years later. You should have heard me pronounce "Chava". Of course, we ended the ceremonies by eating lots of great food. This, Bonnie explained, is an integral part of all Jewish rituals.

I'll never forget either ceremony, but the first one struck me as incredibly significant. Here I was, standing in my living room, the Protestant, in the middle of a Jewish ceremony, expounding on these Hebrew names. I looked out at the room full of loved ones. I looked down at my daughter's sweet face. I couldn't have felt more at home.

Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.

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