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Who Has Godparents?

July 8, 2008--"Godparents," my wife said, as if I had not heard. "Godparents?" I repeated, "Why do you want those?"

Visions of me bending down to kiss an old man's hand leapt into my head as the theme to The Godfather wafted through my thoughts. No, that didn't seem right. Who had godparents? Are they good for the Jews? I would need to look into this, before I could commit.

My wife grew up in France, marginally Greek Orthodox, but educated in Catholic schools. When she moved to Toronto as a young teen, religion was not a priority. In fact, aside from the perfunctory Christmas tree, she probably did not think much about it at all--until she met me, a liberal Jew from Long Island, when we were both in our 20s. Now, finally settling down and with a baby on the way, we were having one, of what will surely be many, discussions about religious lifestyle choices.

"Godparents?" I asked again. "Godparents," she said from the next room.

Russ and Jessica Consor
Russ and Jessica in Paris at kosher cooking school.  

I knew that my parents had not appointed godparents for me or my two brothers, and would likely be appalled at the idea, but I wanted to know what other Jews thought. While I knew it was not the most prudent place, I headed straight for the convenience of the web. As usual, on the internet there were as many conflicting answers as there are Cohens in a Jewish telephone directory.

Emohel.com stated, "The appointing of godparents is not a Jewish tradition," but then added, "If a Jewish family wishes to appoint godparents, they may do so--it is simply an honorary title." On Beliefnet.com, an uncle, who had been chosen as the sandek for his nephew's bris wrote that he did not want the "religious responsibilities" that he thought came with the position. He was advised not to worry, because, unlike Christians, Jews do not have godparents and the religious upbringing of a child is reserved "exclusively for biological parents."

Yahoo Answers offered a veritable seder feast of different responses to the question, "Do Jewish people have godparents?" posed by someone "just curious" as neither he nor his Jewish friends knew the answer. The responses ranged from "I thought only Catholics have godparents" to "Yes, many Jewish people have godparents." Another person wrote, "I don't see why not. Jews can lose their parents as easily as anyone else." The final Yahoo response on the page stated that the sandek was indeed the equivalent of a godfather. I was beginning to get dismayed. Although I went into this project with the zest of a yeshiva student, it appeared that I might have to use the pilpul method (a method of Talmudic interpretation) to get a straight answer.

Due to time constraints, I did not get to that level of examination, but I did do some research to confirm my understanding of the ceremonial roles at the Brit Milah. The sandek is the person in the Brit Milah ceremony who either holds the baby on his thighs during the circumcision or hands off the baby to the mohel. It is considered the highest honor a person can have at the ceremony and is usually given to a grandfather or other important male person. In more liberal circles, females are also given this honour. I also learned about the Kvatter or Kvatterin, who have the honour of handing the baby from the mother to the father of the baby at the ceremony to the sandek. They are often a couple who would like to have a child soon as superstition dictates that performing this ritual is a fertility rite.

Kvatter is derived from the German word "gevatter," which means godfather. Their role is sometimes thought of as nurturing, educating and guiding the child through life. That sounded similar to the Christian notion of godparents to me. This was getting truly exhausting. I did attempt to contact a local rabbi, but, becoming impatient, I sought a response that would surely be contrary, likely halachically questionable and definitely animated. I called my parents.

My father answered the phone and was terse as usual. "Jews don't have godparents," he said, before passing this hot potato kugel to my mother, the animated one. First, I asked her to think back to my bris in 1974. I wanted to know who acted in the ceremonial roles. "You did not have a bris or a sandek. We had a Pidyon Haben instead. Your father's friend Morty Shine acted as the rabbi. I was tired and working to the end."

Steve Marjorie Consor
Russ' parents in San Francisco on vacation.

"I did not have a bris?" I exclaimed in disbelief.

"No, just the Pidyon Haben, at the hospital. We had it done at the hospital for your brothers too," my mother explained.

A Pidyon Haben is a ceremony traditionally held thirty-one days after the birth of a first-born son, when certain conditions apply including that the parents are not Cohanim or Levites and that the child arrived via natural birth. I am not sure why this was done, because my father is fairly religious and the conditions for a Pidyon Haben were not satisfied, but that is for another day. I moved on.

"What do you think about godparents?" I asked my mother. Her tone changed immediately. She became as crazed as George Bush at a pro-choice rally. "I've never heard of that in my life. I don't think it's Jewish," she said. "Not one person in my entire life; who would ever do that? I would never do that."

That was about the response I expected. But what was it about godparents that turned Jews away? Weren't the sandek and kvatter at least comparable to the Christian notion of godparents? Apparently not; at least for my mother. "No, I don't think so. Jews don't call them that."

I intend to do further research on the subject of godparents. I am not convinced that they are bad for the Jews, but I am not going to completely dismiss my parents' reaction either. With three months to go until the baby is due, and then, God willing, many years of parenting after that, there will be many decisions to make and, hopefully, many compromises. Still to come: "Naming the baby: Is there a heimishe name that also sounds good in French?" and "Baby Showers: Conflict between economics and tradition."

And no, whether or not to circumcise is not on the table. We dodged that one when we recently found out--it's a girl.

Hebrew for "Jewish law," halacha is the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. 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." Yiddish for "godmother," often the individual who carries a baby in for his bris (circumcision). Yiddish for "godfather," often the individual who carries a baby in for his bris (circumcision). Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for ?godfather,? the word is specific to the role of holding the baby during a brit milah ceremony. Yiddish word for a savory or sweet pudding made from either noodles, potatoes or matzah. 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 "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. 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."
Russ Consor

Russ Consor is a lawyer and occasional writer based in Brockville, in the 1000 Islands region of Ontario, but originally from Long Island, New York. He is eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child, a girl, with wife Jessica.

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