Baby Talk

By Sarah Sookman


Thirty-odd years ago, I was the new baby to a Jewish father and Protestant mother; they both grew up in families that were regular worshippers. My mother’s family attended the United Church of Canada. My father’s family attended the only (Orthodox) synagogue in town. There was no brit bat (the covenant of a daughter) for me, though two years later  when my brother was born in Toronto, my father arranged for a bris (circumcision ceremony) at the hospital.

I believe my parents had intended to raise my brother and me according to the BBW, the Best of Both Worlds School of Interfaith Parenting. This meant that Santa squeezed through our chimney, and the Easter Bunny peeked inside my bedroom. This also meant joining a Reform congregation in Mississauga, a Toronto suburb. In 1980, the guitar-strumming rabbi gave me and all the other 5-year-olds our first Torah scrolls.

But as I grew up, I felt something was missing.

When my cousin (who is my age) had her first Communion, our extended family took notice. We missed the ceremony, but I remember my cousin’s photograph, that pretty white dress she wore. That same spring, two other cousins (brothers) had their Confirmation. We skipped the religious service and attended the house party, where my Sicilian aunt fluttered about, serving the shrimps and the pigs’ knuckles.

At that age, 7-and-a-half to be precise, I had no clue what a first Communion was, or a Confirmation. All I knew was that it had to do with something that wasn’t Jewish.

When I turned 10, my family moved from suburban Ontario to rural Quebec, where I didn’t meet one Jewish kid. I turned 12, then 13, and there was no Bat Mitzvah. I described myself as “half-Jewish” until after high school when I met “real” Jews who decided I wasn’t Jewish at all. By that time the few Jewish traditions I had known were tucked away like the good china–there, but never used.

It was probably fate that I found Dan, a nice (Jewish) boy to marry. Only a Jewish wedding would feel right, so we met the only rabbi in Montreal to perform intermarriages without conversion. I had toyed with the idea of conversion several times during adolescence and young adulthood, but I eventually decided that I was comfortable with myself; it didn’t matter to me whether I was Jewish or not. Once we began planning our wedding, however, I understood that not converting could affect our future children.

They would be raised Jewish but I did not want them to ever have to explain their Jewish status to anyone, especially since some branches (Orthodox and Conservative) adhere to the doctrine of matrilineal descent–meaning a child is only Jewish if its mother is, unless the child is converted. I also wanted my future children to grow up with a clear sense of self and be free of the confusion that clouded so much of my own youth. Dan and I could convert our children after birth, but that option could open the door to even more confusion: Why didn’t Mom convert?

I finally acknowledged that my connection to Judaism had always been present. I had met a Jewish man, wanted a Jewish wedding, and intended to raise Jewish children. Converting was a logical step.

Three weeks before my wedding, I went to the mikvah (the ritual bath), completing the final step of my conversion process. At last the remaining piece of my identity puzzle clicked into place. And along with my DNA, that part of myself was precisely the piece that was passed on when I gave birth to my son almost three years ago: a mere six pounds of new identity.

Eight days after my son was born, Dan’s uncle, a local pediatrician and highly experienced mohel (ritual circumciser), performed the bris in my mother-in-law’s kitchen. Our parents, relatives and closest friends shared our joy, even Dan’s brother, who spent eight hours traveling for the three-hour visit.

As parents of newborns, we have no clue who that newborn is or will become. The first thing we give a child after birth is a name. We named our son after Dan’s great-uncle and my zaida (grandfather) whose Hebrew name was Yehuda–which means “the Jew.” My little Natan Yehuda will always know who he is because the baby ceremony planted the seeds of his identity. When he is older, he will know he is Jewish. Ask him now who he is and he will tell you:

I am Nathan.


About Sarah Sookman

Sarah Sookman holds a Bachelor of Education degree from McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), and is a member of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount, Quebec. She is a marketing communications writer by profession and occasionally dabbles in creative writing.