Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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September 28, 2012
Now that her first birthday has passed, I want to document the choices that Jacob and I made for how to welcome Esther into this world in the traditions of our families.
We began with a Jewish naming ceremony when she was about 2 months old. This Simchat Bat ceremony has been gaining popularity over the last decades as an equivalent to a bris, which happens for a boy on the 8th day after his birth. A relatively new tradition, there are very few guidelines for how they are structured. Some communities do them during regular Shabbat services, but both the bris and the naming that I have attended were intimate ceremonies held in the home of the grandparent, which is slightly more traditional for brises. Since my parents had been willing to host the bris if Esther turned out to be a boy, we followed the same plan for her naming.
Our rabbi sat down with us before Esther was born and then again after her birth to talk about our intentions for spiritual life and the origins of Esther's name. He leads an inclusive congregation focused on Jewish spirituality; most of us do not adhere to a specific Jewish denomination. We gather with this congregation, which meets in the rabbi's living room, for the holidays and occasionally for Shabbat services. Our rabbi would have co-officiated our wedding but he was busy creating a Jewish community at the Burning Man festival. If this does not give you enough insight into his persona, I will share that he asked during preparation, "Do I need to wear pants?" which was a humorous question I understood to mean, could he wear his kilt? He wears one daily and asked as he didn't want to offend anyone in Jacob's family. I was so glad he wore it.
Our rabbi is actually a little bit more inclusive than we are when it comes to ceremonies. He has the luxury to do this because he is all-Jewish and a rabbi. Since we want to keep our spiritual practices separate and distinct, our conversations with Menachem are often about finding a balance between making an event feel authentically Jewish and making an event reflect our spiritual advisor's desire to explore a new Judaism. I love this tension.
The service itself involved a procession of the grandparents and each held Esther for some part of the ceremony.
We said many blessings and our rabbi gave a sermon on the origins of Esther's name, the Torah portion for the week, and the Torah portion from the week of her birth. These sources led him to talk about tithing (which is a value Jacob and I share); the word "nistar," which is the Hebrew root of her first name and means “hidden;" and her middle name, which means tree in Hebrew.
I had asked Menachem if we could give thanks for a healthy delivery and I had meant that he would give thanks and he thought I mean that I would give thanks so I was put a little on the spot with nothing planned and blubbered my way through it. I was still healing on both the physical and emotional level from Esther's birth so it felt ok to be that much of a mess in front of the people I love.
We both value tithes, a tradition common to both our religious heritages, so we'd planned on incorporating a first tithe in the ceremony. A way to set her off on the right foot. But we totally forgot to bring the cash for Esther's first tithe, a gift of money to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, so had to wing that part of the ceremony, as well. This is the story of our lives, isn't it?
Also, we had the timing a little off for Esther's sleep cycles and so she screamed through the entire thing.
But people were so loving and the food was amazing. It was exactly what I wanted to say to the world — and to her when she got older — that this child was welcome in the Jewish community, which is theology that I have come to believe is true through a lot of studying. Actually, we liked her name because it would help her fit in at a synagogue, as well as a church. I try to explain this with many more words all the time and Jacob cuts in and says, "We named her after a strong woman in the Bible." That's true to and so much more succinct, don't you think?
When we discussed a possible bris if the baby had been a boy, our rabbi expressed that he would be happy to do it and his conversations with his favorite mohel indicated that it would be fine to perform a conversion when the child was a little bit older and able to handle full immersion in water. Earlier in my marriage, I would have bristled at this implied statement that the baby would not already be considered Jewish. Didn't this non-denominational guy know that the Reform movement has recognized patrilineal descent for 25 years? Maybe pregnancy mellowed me or maybe marriage had, but in that moment sitting at an outside table at a local cafe, the condition of conversion didn't raise a single hackle. I trusted our spiritual advisor and was willing to follow his understanding of what was necessary.
So, when Esther was 11 months old, we had her formally converted by meeting with a beit din, a jury of three Jews, who asked us questions about our intent, and then went through the immersion in the mikveh, which is a ritual bath that is maintained to strict kosher standards. The make-up of the beit din was a compromise with our rabbi. He believes that Jews should go back to the scriptural requirement that only specifies that the jury be made up of Jewish people. We wanted to observe the current custom of having Jewish clergy, again so that Esther would later know that we had observed all of the customs on her behalf if she chose to identify as Jewish. However, as Menachem said, "Since I'm not Orthodox, Israel won't recognize this conversion and if she wants to marry [an Orthodox] man someday, God forbid, she'll need to be re-converted anyway." So, our beit din was made of our rabbi, a mohel (who is also a cantor), and one of Jacob's friends. It was just coincidence that they were all dudes.
The mikveh lady explained that immersion marks a time in one's life between who you were before something important happens and who you are after. People visit the mikveh before their marriages, before trips to Israel, and Orthodox women go after their periods are over every month. What Christians call Jesus's baptism was actually a mikveh and it was only after Christianity was established as a separate religion that it was seen as what we now call baptism.
Jacob acted as a divine surrogate for Esther and showered, brushed his teeth, cleaned under his nails and took out his contacts to be sure that nothing would come between him and the spirit of God, represented by the water. He put on paper slippers so that he wouldn't pick up any dirt between the shower and the pool.
While that was happening, I undressed Esther and handed her to him when he came out. They stepped down into the pool and the doors above it were opened to the beit din and Jacob's mother so that they could witness.
Esther screamed the whole time. I have no explanation for why since we took swim lessons and she loves the water. (By the way, the swim lessons were totally for my comfort level in watching someone dunk my baby.)
Jacob whispered a blessing in her ear from both of us, read a special blessing for the immersion from a card on the wall, and we all said the shehecheyanu which thanks God that we have lived long enough to see a special event.
Afterwards, the was much joyful kibbitzing (chatting) while Jacob dressed and our beit din signed Esther's certificate of conversion and naming. I created my own certificate since all of the ones I could buy were aimed at female adult converts. I hope to frame it with pictures of the event for Esther's wall. For reference, if you are considering a similar ceremony, here is the text of her certificate. The rabbi also wrote in her Hebrew name to reflect her earlier Simchat Bat.
This is to certify that Esther Alanna has been dedicated to live by the principals, values and practices of Judaism. She has fulfilled the Mitzvah of Tevilah and we, the undersigned, have found her family to be of sincere intention. We do hereby accept and welcome her into the Covenant of the Jewish people on May 23, 2012 and the corresponding Hebrew date, the 2nd of Sivan, 5772, in the community of Wilmette, IL.
A week later, we had Esther blessed during the regular Sunday service of our church. We considered baptism and attended a joint naming and blessing for our friend's baby facilitated by the Interfaith Union, but found that individual ceremonies reflected our spiritual life better, in addition to being more comfortable for many members of our families, who are still getting used to our inter-faithness.