Blessed Be the Tie That Binds

By Teresa McMahon


After thousands of diaper changes, I am finally able to transform our no-longer-needed changing table into a shelf. As I flip the top of the table up, I smile to see the tiny piece of red ribbon that my Jewish mother-in-law tied to the hinge when my first baby was born. “Kina hara” she’d said as she made the knot. I learned that the ribbon and the phrase, which roughly translates to “may the evil eye stay away,” are used to protect the baby from bad omens. The older generation of my husband’s family often tossed the phrase into conversations about the baby, reciting the words with the warm familiarity and pleasure reserved for time-honored family stories. While they all clearly understood that the phrase referred to an old superstition, it was obviously one they took joy in perpetuating.

When I first heard my mother-in-law say “kina hara,” I wondered why she was speaking Gaelic. What did I know? As the Catholic partner in an interfaith marriage, I thought I was well informed since I knew that a “bris” or “brit milah” was the ceremonial circumcision traditionally performed on the eighth day of a boy’s life in keeping with the Jewish covenant. I soon realized that “knowing” about birth rituals in the abstract is very different from the conversations and feelings an interfaith couple experiences once the pregnancy test is positive.

Before Barry and I were married, I not only agreed to raise my children in the Jewish faith, it was my idea. I wanted my children to have a clear religious identity. While fascinated with Jewish religion and culture, I did not foresee conversion in my future. I had been raised Catholic, and although I don’t always agree with its doctrine (just as Barry doesn’t always agree with his Conservative Jewish teachings) it is a part of who I am. At our wedding, a rabbi and a priest worked together to give us a ceremony that represented what both of us brought to the marriage. But I knew that any baby ceremonies would have to take a different approach. If our children were to be raised Jewish, then the blessings and celebrations marking their birth would have to reflect that decision.

So, in theory I had no problem with a bris. However, when I found out I was pregnant, the reality of a bris made me incredibly anxious. I understood the religious significance of the ceremony and was as comfortable as any mother can be with the idea of a mohel, ritual circumcizer, performing the circumcision. I definitely did not believe that any child of ours would be barred from heaven for not being baptized. No, what caused me great anxiety during my pregnancy was the thought that I might have to coordinate a logistically and emotionally challenging gathering only eight days after I had given birth.

Relatives all lived in various states. How in the world could they all fly in on such short notice? More importantly, as a brand-new mother how would I have the energy and presence of mind to navigate and facilitate the delicate balance of each of the grandparents’ needs on the day of the ceremony? I was particularly worried that my parents, the Christian grandparents, would feel excluded. My husband and I found ourselves hoping for a baby girl since a naming ceremony is not linked to a particular date following birth.

Religious ceremonies weren’t the only confusing situation we faced. Certain Jewish traditions needed to be reconciled with my family’s understanding of how things are done–particularly for the baby shower. Let me first explain that my husband is notorious for his preparation. He is the ultimate pre-organizer, having found that transitions are easier if he completes as much as possible prior to the event. My mouth dropped open when he informed me quite seriously that according to Jewish tradition it is bad luck to bring anything related to the baby into the house prior to the birth. Going against this tradition, he said, would make him extremely uncomfortable.

Under most circumstances, I would have found the situation amusing, since I knew the lack of preparation would bother Barry far more than me. However, I didn’t factor in the nesting syndrome that often occurs in mothers-to-be. In addition, my mother was so excited for me that she had started to make baby blankets and sweaters during my pregnancy and was eager to share them with me. I’m sorry to say that I crushed her excitement by gently asking her to stockpile the gifts for her first visit after the baby was born. Even as I explained, I could hear her disappointment. I wish I could go back and handle that situation differently. But I learned from it. When my colleagues at work excitedly planned a pre-birth shower, instead of putting them off I convinced Barry that storing the gifts in the garage would be kosher.

Another area for negotiation was baby names. I was in complete agreement that the names of past boyfriends and girlfriends should be out of the running. I understood the request to exclude any names that were a derivation of Christ–Chris, Christine, Kristen, Crystal. I was less understanding of the desire to forego apostles’ names–yet, out went Peter, Paul and Matthew. My oldest brother was named Vincent Jr. after my father, a practice I learned was unheard of in the tradition of Ashkenazi Jews, of Eastern European descent. Ashkenazi Jews avoid naming children after any living relatives, a superstition dating from the Middle Ages when people wanted to avoid having the Angel of Death mistakenly take the newborn child instead of the older relative. Traditionally a new Jewish baby is named after someone who has passed away whom the new parents want to remember, but would it be one of Barry’s relatives or one of mine?

We ended up choosing names we loved and then forging a link to the past with each of them. We selected Claire and Emily as girls’ names and were able to link them to Barry’s grandmothers, Clara and Esther. We stretched the tradition by selecting Ben and Max as potential boys’ names, linking them to the first letters of the family names, Bronstein and McMahon. In a break from anyone’s traditions, I insisted on giving our children my last name as their middle name.

During my pregnancy, Barry brought up another Jewish ritual, a pidyon haben. We had to do some research to find out when, how and why this ceremony happens. A friend’s brother, who was studying to be a rabbi, filled us in via e-mail. He explained that the name pidyon haben means “the redemption of the first-born son.” The ceremony is linked to the biblical importance of the first born-sons, particularly the passing over of the first-born sons of Israel during the final plague in Egypt. Biblical references indicate that the first-born sons of Israel are obliged to serve God. This has been interpreted to mean that a father either dedicates his first-born son to service at the temple, or redeems him by paying five shekels (approximately five dollars) to a Kohen. My friend’s brother explained that this ritual, which occurs 30 days after birth, does not apply to a first-born female child, a son born by Cesarean, or to a child born to either a father or mother who is from the tribe of Levi. He also wrote that obviously this ceremony did not apply to us since I was not Jewish.

This last line hit me hard. Barry and I could observe all the Jewish family traditions we wanted, but we still would not have a traditional Jewish family. Well then, did the bris apply to us? Why was I trying so hard to provide an authentic Jewish start for our baby when in most Jews’ opinions, the baby was not Jewish? Which of these traditions, rituals, and superstitions were significant to my husband and to me, and more important, why were they significant to us?

Discussing these questions helped us clarify what we believed and what we wanted. The discussions sometimes became pretty heated. I recall that Barry shared his desire to raise his children exactly as he had been raised because–I’m not sure if he actually said this, or I just think he said it-“Look how great I turned out.” At this point Barry should have wrapped himself in red ribbon because I definitely was giving him the evil eye. What was I–chopped liver? When I cooled down, I admitted that I did know what he meant. He loved his childhood and had amazing experiences that he wanted his children to share. I reminded him that I also loved my childhood and had amazing experiences to share. What we were creating with our marriage and our children was something new. While we didn’t have to cut all ties to the past, we needed to make sure certain ties didn’t become tangled knots of confusion.

With six weeks till my due date, I convinced Barry that it was safe to order–for future delivery–a crib, a rocking chair, and a changing table bureau (that could convert into a bureau with a shelf some day in the future). To everyone’s surprise, our baby arrived the next day, short circuiting the rest of our planning. Barry and I were greatly relieved when we were told that our baby was healthy and that it was a girl.

The early delivery made me acutely aware of the no-baby-item superstition was really quite practical. My daughter had to stay in the hospital for ten days after I was released. Arriving home without a baby in my arms was hard enough and I became all too aware of how difficult a fully stocked baby room would have been if I’d faced real tragedy. Ironically, my baby arrived well before the scheduled shower. The gifts did not have to go into the garage and my colleagues were thrilled that by having a post-birth shower they had a chance to see the baby.

Six years and another baby girl later, Barry and I continue to discuss which traditions, rituals and superstitions we want to incorporate into our lives as we raise our girls. Now, we’re better at pushing ourselves to understand why. Even though my babies are grown, I am leaving the red ribbon on the shelf. Why? I’ll admit I don’t believe it will ward off evil. But, that small bit of red ribbon reminds me of Barry’s grandparents, Harry and Hendella Bronstein, who passed away last year. They met both our girls and were so special to us. Through traditions like that ribbon, they remain tied to us, a part of our day-to-day lives. That ribbon represents their wishes for good health and happiness for their great-grandchildren and for future generations to come. And that, surely, is a good omen.


About Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.