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It started as an ordinary phone call. Just our oldest son checking in: glad we had gotten home all right; the job was going well; his wife was fine; their new baby was thriving; and, oh, by the way, the baptism would be in a few weeks, on Mother's Day. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, it would have been, except we're Jewish.
This was our first grandchild — and not only would she not be Jewish, but we would have to go into a church and watch her be baptized. Then we would have to join in the celebration of the "happy event." Whose happy event? Certainly, not ours.
It's not just going into a church — although like many Jews, I always feel a bit guilty as I enter, halfway between "what to do so everyone doesn't know I don't belong here" and "what to do so God doesn't know I'm here." Maybe I've never gotten over my first time in a church, when my brother married a Catholic woman. As our family tried to slip unobtrusively down the aisle — while expecting a lightning bolt to come crashing through a stained-glass window — my father fell afoul of Catholic genuflecting. When the person directly in front of him suddenly knelt, my father tripped and fell, with accompanying Yiddish curses.
Over the years, I have been to enough Christian weddings to be able to recite parts of the ceremony by memory. But the baptism would be different. It would require looking pleasant while our Jewish future was extinguished. That great wondrous chain that connected our families with those dusty folk who stood at Mount Sinai as Moses brought the Ten Commandments to them was being severed.
My daughter-in-law has an uncle who is a priest. The Sunday of the baptism, after he finished the Masses at his church, he drove to the town where my son and his family lived. The local church was closed, but he had the key and opened a back door so our small group could enter. Coming into a darkened, locked-up church only reinforced the feeling of being where we didn't belong.
My husband and I sat in the front row amid smiling Christian kin. My husband, a Jew-by-choice with one Jewish grandmother, patted my arm and whispered things like, "Hold on." He was remarkably calm, particularly since my nails were digging into his arm. I doubt any of my daughter-in-law's family noticed our misery. I certainly hadn't looked at the faces of my Christian in-laws when my son, the father of this child, was called up as a Bar Mitzvah (person who assumes the rights and responsibilities of an adult Jew). I had been too busy rejoicing at his reaching this stage of life.
Our granddaughter was taken up to the altar. Until that moment I hadn't known a heart could literally hurt. I'm given to angina, but this was different, not the usual bands across the chest. I felt a squeezing as if a hand had reached in and was tightening around my heart. I kept smiling, a grim smile by now. My husband was sighing deeply. Between sighs, he kept patting and murmuring, "You're doing fine."
When the baptism was over, they all posed with the baby in front of the cross. Perhaps my son had seen our faces. No one asked that we join in the different groupings. We had said that it was better the baby be raised with a religion, any religion, than with nothing. But it was so hard to watch it actually happening. Perhaps it was better than vainly hoping the child would somehow be Jewish.
As we were leaving the church, the baby's other grandfather held the door for us. He said, with great relief, "At least, now, the baby has a decent religion." He smiled warmly at us, and it was my turn to grip my husband's arm, hard, to keep him still and silent. There was, no doubt, a celebration dinner waiting: non-kosher, of course. Well, who felt like eating?
But the baby was healthy. She was beautiful. She was blessed by God.