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From Before Birth... Growing the Jewish Identity

Originally published April, 2005. Republished October 18, 2012.

Our first son came into the world at 8:20 a.m. on September 16, 1994, just on schedule. It was not to be a natural birth as he was breech and stubbornly refused to turn around and face the music. So despite our hopes, surgery was the only answer, followed by a long recovery for Britta, my Danish and non-Jewish wife. We did not know if our coming child would be a boy or a girl, but in either case, we knew what we would do.

Britta and I had already been together for nine years and had lots of discussions about how we would raise our children, at least in principal. One thing we agreed on was that they would be raised Jewish; I felt strongly that a child's religious identity cannot be left to an ad-hoc, on-the-go decision. Fostering that identity is the responsibility of the parents, and we should be clear about how we would do it from day one.

After the joy of seeing a healthy and beautiful baby boy, the planning began almost immediately. And we have discovered the planning has not yet ended. The plan was for a Brit Milah (ritual circumcision), followed within a year with a conversion and mikvah (ritual bath). I was exhausted from lack of sleep, as was Britta, who was also in pain from the surgery. What were we to do, have sixty people at the house for a bris (circumcision) and Britta could not even carry our son, and hardly get out of bed without help? In stepped my Jewish mom, and three older sisters, and "magically" all the planning for the bris seemed to come together.

In discussions with the rabbi and the mohel (ritual circumciser), we agreed the circumcision was the first step and promised to raise our son as a Jew. Our second son was born three-and-a-half years later, and the procedure repeated itself, this time preceded by a natural birth and less painful participation on the part of Britta, although not on the part of our second son! Now Johan, our oldest son, and David, our youngest, have both started their long paths to being Jewish.

Almost nine years have passed since Johan was born and it is almost fifteen years since Britta and I stepped under the chuppah (wedding canopy) to be married. Even getting married as an interfaith couple is not an easy decision. After we made the decision to get married, finding a rabbi to marry us was not easy. But I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted a Jewish upbringing for our future children and that we should set the example from day one. We did find a rabbi and did get married in a Jewish ceremony. What drove me? Why the motivation? I am not really sure, but it must somehow have been a combination of my own family upbringing and [the fact that] deep down I knew that even with Britta not being Jewish, our children would have been "Jewish enough" to have perished in the Shoah (Holocaust).

Have we kept our promise to the rabbi and the mohel to raise our sons Jewish? I'd like to think we have. Once Johan was ready for kindergarten, he was lucky enough to be accepted into the Reform Jewish day school in Atlanta. After kindergarten, we moved to Denmark. In Denmark, David started in a Jewish daycare/preschool called Gan Aviv. But what to do with Johan? The only Jewish community in Denmark when we moved was the Orthodox one, and would they accept Johan as Jewish?

So, off to a meeting with the chief rabbi. After having to prove my mother was Jewish by presenting documents, I was finally permitted to talk with the rabbi. As expected, the conversion performed in Atlanta would not be acknowledged. With exclusion from the local Jewish community, what where we to do?

I ended up doing what my father did, and his father before him. I started, together with a like-minded group of other Jews and interfaith couples, a new progressive synagogue! While it is still a struggling congregation, and being on the board has taken many, many hours of work, the rewards have been fantastic. Now we have created in Denmark a venue for families like ours to provide for our needs. Johan attends Sunday school and services. We celebrate the holidays in our community. And at the same time, David and Johan see that being Jewish requires effort and commitment.

Being the Jewish parent does put a burden to provide for the "Jewishness" of the child's upbringing. But clearly, none of this would be possible without support and willingness of the non-Jewish partner to make this happen. Britta has been great, supporting both celebration of Jewish holidays at home, participating on the board at the Jewish daycare, and generally encouraging all us "boys" in this effort. And being on the board of a new startup congregation means lots of work! David and Johan know that their mother is not Jewish, and understand that she celebrates Christmas. They are also very aware of their Jewish identity. An identity that was planned even before their birth.

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." Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." 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. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Steven Michalove

Steven Michalove recently relocated from Copenhagen to Seattle with his wife and their two children. He works for Microsoft as a senior security strategist.

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