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 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."
|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.