Letting Go: A Lesbian Mom Brings Her Son to the Mikveh

By Johanna Hammer


Both my partner and I were raised in homes where regular religious practice was the norm. For her, it was Conservative Judaism, for me, Episcopalianism. Before we got married, we had made a decision to raise our then-theoretical children Jewish. “As long as I can keep Christmas,” I said–that phrase heard in interfaith households around the world. There’s something about Christmas, it’s like heroin; you get hooked on the spirit. But I also love Judaism. For me it feels like tracing the roots of the same tree down to a more ancient and spiritual place. I had no intention of converting, but I was OK with attending Jewish services.

Originally, the wedding was the issue. As a gay, interfaith couple in 2003, the fact that our relationship would not be legally recognized by any government body on U.S. soil was unfortunate, but a given. What was surprising were the roadblocks we found arranging a religious wedding ceremony.

Rebecca and Johanna with their son, Rebecca’s mom and Rabbi Lev Baesh at Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters. Photo: Lauren Dorn-Jones.

We unfortunately lived in a particularly conservative Episcopalian diocese that was not even allowing ministers to perform blessings at a commitment ceremony. We weren’t asking for a cathedral service with the bishop! But it was not surprising as the church as a whole wasn’t accepting gayness of any sort, anywhere. That stance has since been so significantly and internally challenged that there is a pending rift within the Anglican church itself. I am proud that the church I was raised in is one of the biggest rabble rousers.

The Episcopalians were fine with the whole interfaith thing. When the entire history of your religion is conversion-focused (often with a “by any means necessary” approach), I think interfaith relationships represent the possibility to bring another sheep to the flock. “Hey, play ‘White Christmas’ again and give her some more eggnog–we’ll have her singing hymns by dawn!”

For the Jewish clergy, the issues were different. They loved the gay thing; the interfaith thing was an issue. That was a surprise. Reason #37 on the list of “Why I love Jews” is that when it comes to fighting for civil rights, the Jews are always right there at the forefront. The synagogues in our area have always been heavily represented in the gay pride parades–even as the Christian denominations were still trickling in. The Jews (except for the most Orthodox) couldn’t have been happier we were gay, wished us much mazel with our union, but were so sorry, would be unable to participate in an interfaith service, or marry us unless I was willing to convert. To be fair, we have since met a number of rabbis who would have happily presided at our ceremony but we didn’t know them at the time.

I think all the challenges we faced finding a spiritual and religious home as a gay interfaith couple made us even more committed to raising our children with a unified religious identity. It seemed important that if we were going to bring a child into the world whose existence as a member of our family would be unrecognized by the government and judged as invalid or worse, evil, by a large percentage of the world’s population, that they have some tether to some institution, some movement, something to have their backs. Judaism was the logical–really the only–choice.

Before the ritual immersion.

Deciding to raise our child Jewish also felt like an offering I could make to the Jewish people. Like any good Jewish son, he was bound to be a genius and it seemed like one thing I could do to plant new seeds and nurture new roots for a people whose existence has been continually challenged. These were all fantastically evolved theoretical discussions.

Then we had a son.

At his bris, I was grateful to be the non-Jewish parent, allowed to cower behind my partner, getting our son back only when it was all over and it was time to comfort him. In the meeting with the mohel, we had talked about the mikveh, the final step to his conversion. Because intention was not enough; there were rules to be followed and rituals to be performed. “It only really matters if he wants to marry someone Orthodox,” someone told us. Although I thought the gay-interfaith in-laws might also prove to be a bit of an issue. I tried to imagine my son marrying this fictitious Orthodox person and then secretly hoped he didn’t.

For the mikveh, I planned on assuming the same benign on-looker status my non-Jewish status affords me at all Jewish events. I would sit on the sidelines, take pictures if they let us and be there with the towel afterwards.

“They want both his parents in the mikveh with him. They prefer us both to hold him.”

So not only was I going to have to don a bathing suit in front of strangers, I was actually going to have to participate in the service–a concept that felt strange, especially as I was viewing the ceremony as something that necessarily separated me from my son in order to bring him closer to something else. This time I was actually going to have to hand him over.

So I went, I put on the bathing suit, I did the prayers, I cleaned my son as best I could and then we took him into the water. “You have to dunk him three times, blow in his face and then go under. Once you’re under, you have to let go, just for a second, just for the water to come in contact with every part of him,” the rabbi told us. So I blew and we went under.

That instant of taking him underwater and releasing him was counter to every instinct I have as a mother. It was my moment of letting him be held by God, giving him over. Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, I needed to feel like the universe was there to support him. This motherhood job is too scary to do as an ordinary mortal, it needs some divine supervision.

About Johanna Hammer

Johanna Hammer is a licensed clinical social worker. She lives with her wife Rebecca Rogovin and her son in Western Massachusetts.