Arlene Sarah Chernow is the Regional Director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union for Reform Judaism (the Reform Movement), based in Los Angeles, Calif.
Professional View: Should We Have Birth Ceremonies in Both Religions?
Back in my college days, I needed to pass a physical education course in order to get my diploma. But I was having trouble with volleyball. Although I had tried different techniques, the ball kept falling in my side of the court when I hit it, rather than going over the net. I needed to "follow through." Once I did that, and kept swinging my arm after I hit the ball, the ball soared over the net. I passed the class and graduated from college.
So what does this have to do with baby naming and birth ceremonies? I think about this story whenever I hear parents say, "We can have a baptism and a brit milah, ritual circumcision, or Jewish baby naming."
Parents often say "How will a baby know if we have two birth ceremonies?" I would like to suggest that the baby will know. Just like my volleyball, the baby will be aware of the follow through, or lack of it. He/she will become aware of unresolved conflict associated with the birth ceremonies.
New parents may wonder how the baby will know.
One way is through photographs or videos. Could any parent have a life-cycle ceremony without taking pictures? Children love to see pictures of themselves as babies. What will be done with these pictures? How will parents who choose to have a Jewish and a Christian birth ceremony answer questions about what the ceremonies are and what they mean? Will all of the grandparents be in all the pictures or only in some of them? How will parents answer the questions of why there were two ceremonies? The child will know.
Birth ceremonies involve the child's name, and it is not uncommon for a young child to ask why his or her parents picked that name. Am I named after anyone? Why? In the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, children are often named in memory of a relative who is no longer living, to honor the memory of that relative. Families who follow this tradition often tell children about the values treasured by this relative and use this subject as an opportunity to teach and tell stories. In many Christian families, on the other hand, children are given the name of a parent or grandparent who is still living, as a way to honor that person. If parents have not resolved issues of religious identity, the traditions can clash. Choosing a name and telling a child about the choice can either become an opportunity to teach children about family history and family values, or a secret, a subject to be avoided. The baby, now a young child, will know.
Interfaith parents who have not talked to each other about religious identity may dread the moment of decision. I've heard expectant parents wish for the birth of a girl, believing that avoiding the decision on brit milah would make the basic question go away. The question may go away, but only for a short time. There will be another pregnancy, or a time to begin religious school, or a life-cycle ceremony in the extended family. Each of these moments will bring the question up again.
Parents need to deal with what a birth ceremony will mean to each parent. Where will the ceremony be held? What feelings will the ceremony stir up for each parent? If parents have not made a decision about religious identity, the ceremony/ies can be a further step in putting off the inevitable discussion and decision, rather than an opportunity to begin to create a solid identity for the child.
The birth of a child is an occasion to celebrate, a time to bring family members together. Celebrations can be an opportunity for new parents to make a statement about who they are, how they have chosen to define the new family, and how to acknowledge all members of the extended family. They can be the beginning of a child soaring through life with a secure sense of religious identity, just as my volleyball soared over the net when I hit it with intention and follow through, or they can lead to confusion and turmoil.