Keren R. McGinity is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. Previously, she was Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.
Daughter of the Covenant
The religious liberty and opportunities for equality that 23 Jewish settlers found when they arrived in North America 350 years ago became personally meaningful as I stood before the congregation holding my new baby girl with my husband, Matt, beside me. Elation, awe evoked by the miracle of life, and serenity filled my senses. The moment was no abstraction; it was Jewish women's history in the making. We, too, had "arrived."
As an interfaith couple committed to raising a Jewish daughter, choosing a name that would cultivate and convey a Jewish identity while respecting both parents' ancestries and sanctifying her birth, seemed profound responsibilities. I explained to Matt how integral to one's sense of self a name is in Jewish culture and that I felt strongly about giving her a Hebrew name. I also wanted to follow Ashkenazic, Eastern European Jewish, custom and name our daughter for a deceased relative. He at first preferred something more mainstream than a Hebrew name, next suggested a Biblical name, and then accepted the idea that we needed a name as obviously Jewish as her surname is obviously Irish. Matt is a ger tzedek, a righteous gentile.
We chose the name Shira Belle McGinity. Shira is Hebrew for song. Belle is a modified version of Bella, meaning beautiful, which was her maternal great bubbie's (grandmother's) name. Combined with McGinity, Shira's name reflects her rich multicultural heritage, joins her with the future of the Jewish people worldwide and continues the McGinity name. Traditionally, Jewish men, but not Jewish women, were given two names based on the disparate gender roles in Jewish religious and communal life requiring two names for men only; one for religious purposes, such as having an aliyah (women were not called to the Torah), and one for secular use on the street. Giving Shira two names, a Hebrew first name and a non-Hebrew second name, symbolizes the contemporary status of Jewish women as full-fledged participants in Reform Judaism.
Having settled on the name, we determined to plan a brit bat (covenant of a daughter) that would be as momentous an occasion as a brit milah (covenant of circumcision) would have been if we had had a baby boy. When I was born to two Jewish parents in 1967, no naming ceremony honored my arrival and destiny. Historically, Jewish females did not receive the same treatment as Jewish males, whose births Jewish law sanctified with multiple ceremonies and communal celebrations. In the past, a girl's father would go to synagogue, make a blessing on the Torah, and recite a prayer for the health of the mother and child, naming the daughter in the process. All this occurred without the mother or the baby necessarily being there! As Jewish feminists (men and women dedicated to equality) became parents in the 1970s, they recognized the disparity and began creating unique naming ceremonies that involved the whole family. Over the past three decades, people have invented new liturgy and adapted rituals to revitalize Judaism for girls. As the author of Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter writes, "we know it's time to honor their arrival with the same depth of ritual and praise of God with which we honor our sons."
In practice actually taking the first public step toward raising a Jewish child is often more complicated than in theory. We met with our rabbi, Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Mass., who has a great neshama (soul), and devised a ceremony that explained the significance of the event, included both parents on the bimah (podium), and gave us the opportunity to express our gratitude and prayers for our child. At first, Matt and I differed on how many people to include. I wanted to invite the world to Shira's brit bat. But for my husband, the naming ceremony marked the first event that demonstrated to his side of the family that our child would truly be raised as a Jew and not as a Catholic. It was a time fraught with emotions and we wanted to be sensitive to all. He asked that we invite immediate family and a handful of close friends. I empathized with his process of becoming the father of a Jewish daughter and agreed to a shorter invitation list. There will be other simchas (celebrations); by the time Shira becomes a bat mitzvah, our extended family will have had more time to adjust.
The brit bat took place on January 25, 2002, at a Friday night service thirty days after our daughter was born. The timing was intentional: to coincide with Shabbat Shira (Sabbath of Song), one of only a few Shabbatot (plural for Jewish Sabbath), that have a special name, and to welcome our daughter to the community when she was still a newborn, as is always the case with sons. Although we did not plan a pidyon habat (redemption of the firstborn daughter), the month benchmark observed the tradition of waiting thirty days after the baby is born to assure its viability. Traditionally, pidyon haben only applies to the firstborn male child of a Jewish woman who delivers vaginally. Reinterpreting the exclusive Biblical phrase "openeth the womb" (Exodus 13:2) by celebrating Shira's brit bat when she and I were both viable, that is, sufficiently recovered from a labor and delivery process that was everything but "natural," recognizes the variety of women's childbirth experiences.
As luck would have it, the temple's new-member service was on the same evening, generating a splendidly full yet somehow still intimate atmosphere. Rabbi Stern spoke about the Torah portion for Shabbat Shira in which the joyous Israelites sing with renewed faith after the splitting of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1). Matt and I elucidated the import of our daughter's name, we pledged to give her "roots and wings," and we said a poem of thanksgiving for the gift of our child. Together we concluded: "Dear God, help us to be good parents and to teach our daughter the values of Judaism so that she may improve the world through her thoughts and deeds." The next day, a bagpipe player entertained everyone attending the s'udat mitzvah (commanded meal) to give tribute to Shira's Irish heritage. I planned the kilted musician's visit as a surprise for my husband; both he and my father-in-law were delighted.
Reflecting back, I am overwhelmed with appreciation that we successfully navigated the challenges and created an event as special as our beloved daughter of the covenant. Shira's brit bat set her on a journey that will hopefully continue to inspire her to embrace a Jewish life as she defines it. Today, my daughter is nearly two and a half. She attends a fabulous Jewish preschool where she relishes her turn to be the Shabbat Helper who brings the challah and grape juice. Shira calls us ima (mother) and abba (father), and she fervently chirps all three brachot (blessings) to our weekly amazement. Listening to Shira Belle singing beautifully, Matt smiles and says: "We chose the perfect name."
Baruch HaShem (thank God)...and God Bless America.
Cohen, Debra Nussbaum. Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001.
Diamant, Anita. The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies, and Customs A Guide for Today's Families. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993.
Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
Kolatch, Alfred J. The Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1984.
Leifer, Daniel I. and Myra. "On the Birth of a Daughter." In The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth Koltun. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.
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. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. 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.