Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Welcoming an interfaith baby

On Saturday night, the family we spent the week with in Kansas City treated us to an amazing French dinner at Cafe Des Amis, which I cannot recommend enough if you are ever visiting the area. Because our hosts are friends with the owners, they made several special dishes for my husband's family, including a kosher bouillabaisse that Esther LOVED.

 I, however, had the scallops.

When I put the first forkful into my mouth, I moaned a little and my sister-in-law laughed, remarking that every dish so far seemed to be a religious experience for me. She was not wrong and I turned to Esther and joked about how sad I was that I would never be able to share the experience of scallops with her.

But that sacrifice is such a small one to make. There is so much good food that IS kosher plus it is about the only sacrifice like that I will make in raising our interfaith daughter.

 Now that her first birthday has passed, I want to document the choices that Jacob and I made for how to welcome Esther into this world in the traditions of our families.

We began with a Jewish naming ceremony when she was about 2 months old. This Simchat Bat ceremony has been gaining popularity in the last decades as an equivalent to a bris, which happens for a boy on the 8th day after his birth. Thus, there are very few guidelines for how they are structured. Some communities do them during regular Shabbat services but both the bris and the naming that I have attended were intimate ceremonies held in the home of the grandparent, which is slightly more traditional for brises. Since my parents had been willing to host the bris if Esther turned out to be a boy, we followed the same plan for her naming.

Our rabbi sat down with us before Esther was born and then again after her birth to talk about our intentions for spiritual life and the origins of Esther's name. He leads a congregation of non-denominational folks in an inclusive congregation focused on Jewish spirituality. We gather with them for the holidays and occasionally for Shabbat services in his living room, which lots of folks to whom I describe this to assure me is how every synagogue started. Our rabbi would have co-officiated our wedding but he was busy creating a Jewish community at the Burning Man festival. If this does not give you enough insight into his persona, I will share that he asked during preparation, "Do I need to wear pants?" which was a humorous question I understood to mean, could he wear his kilt?  He wears one daily and actually, he has a glorious three-piece kilt but he didn't want to offend anyone in Jacob's family.  I was so glad he wore it.

Our rabbi is actually a little bit more inclusive than we are when it comes to ceremonies.  He has the luxury to do this because he is all-Jewish and a rabbi.  Since we want to keep our spiritual practices separate and distinct, our conversation with Menachem are often about finding a balance between making an event feel authentically Jewish and making an event reflect our spiritual advisor's desire to explore a new Judaism.  I love this tension.

The service itself involved a procession of the grandparents and each held Esther for some part of the ceremony.

We said many blessings and our rabbi gave a sermon on the origins of Esther's name, the Torah portion for the week and the Torah portion from the week of her birth.  These sources led him to talk about tithing (which is a value Jacob and I share) and the word, "nistar," which is the root of her first name and means hidden and her middle name, which means tree in Hebrew.

I had asked Menachem if we could give thanks for a healthy delivery and I had meant that he would give thanks and he thought I mean that I would give thanks so I was put a little on the spot with nothing planned and blubbered my way through it.  I was still healing on both the physical and emotional level from Esther's birth so I'm OK with being that much of a mess in front of the people I love.

We also totally forgot to bring the cash for Esther's first tithe of her gift money to the Ounce of Prevention Fund so had to wing that part of the ceremony, as well.  This is the story of our lives, isn't it?

Also, we had the timing a little off for Esther's sleep cycles and so she screamed through the entire thing.

But people were so loving and the food was amazing.  It was exactly what I wanted to say to the world -and to her when she got older- that this child was welcome in the Jewish community, which is theology that I have come to believe is true through a lot of studying.  Actually, we liked her name because it would help her fit in at a synagogue, as well as a church.  I try to explain this with many more words all the time and Jacob cuts in and says, "We named her after a strong woman in the Bible."  That's true to and so much more succinct, don't you think?

When we discussed a possible bris if the baby had been a boy, our rabbi expressed that he would be happy to do it and his conversations with his favorite mohel indicated that it would be fine to perform a conversion when the child was a little bit older and able to handle full immersion in water.  Earlier in my marriage, I would have bristled at this implied statement that the baby would not already be considered Jewish.  Didn't this non-denominational guy know that the Reform movement has recognized patrilineal descent for 25 years?  But maybe pregnancy mellowed me or maybe marriage had, but in that moment sitting at an outside table at Cafe Sel Marie, the condition of conversion didn't raise a single hackle.  I trusted our spiritual advisor and was willing to follow his understanding of what was necessary.

So, when Esther was 11 months old, we had her formally converted by meeting with a beit din, a jury of three Jews, who asked us questions about our intent and then went through the immersion in the mikvah, which is a ritual bath that is maintained to strict kosher standards.  The make-up of the beit din was a compromise with the rabbi.  He believes that Jews should go back to the scriptural requirement that only specifies that the jury be made up of Jewish people.  We wanted to observe the current custom of having Jewish clergy, again so that Esther would later know that we had observed all of the customs on her behalf if she chose to identify as Jewish.  However, as the rabbi said, "Since I'm not Orthodox, Israel won't recognize this conversion and if she want to marry a hasidic man someday, God forbid, she'll need to be re-converted anyway."  So, our beit din was made of our rabbi, a mohel (who is also a cantor) and one of Jacob's friends.  It was just coincidence that they were all dudes. The mikvah lady explained that immersion marks a time in one's life between who you were before something important happens and who you are after.  People visit the mikvah before their marriages, before trips to Israel and Orthodox women go after their periods are over every month.  What Christians call Jesus's baptism was actually a mikvah and it was only after Christianity was established as a separate religion that it was seen as what we now call baptism.

Jacob acted as a divine surrogate for Esther and showered, brushed his teeth, cleaned under his nails and took out his contacts to be sure that nothing would come between him and the spirit of God, represented by the water.  He put on paper slippers so that he wouldn't pick up any dirt between the shower and the pool.

While that was happening, I undressed Esther and handed her to him when he came out.  They stepped down into the pool and the doors above it were opened to the beit din and Jacob's mother so that they could witness.

Esther screamed the whole time.  I have no explanation for why since we took swim lessons and she loves the water.  (By the way, the swim lessons were totally for my comfort level in watching someone dunk my baby.)

Jacob whispered a blessing in her ear from both of us, read a special blessing for the immersion from a card on the wall and we all said a shehecheyanu, which thanks God that we have lived long enough to see a special event.

Afterwards, the was much joyful kibbitzing while Jacob dressed and our beit din signed Esther's certificate of conversion and naming.  I created my own certificate since all of the ones I could buy were aimed at female adult converts.  (Boo to that truth revealed through capitalism.) I hope to frame it with pictures of the event for Esther's wall.  For reference, if you are considering a similar ceremony, here is the text of her certificate.  The rabbi also wrote in her Hebrew name to reflect her earlier Simchat Bat.
This is to certify that Esther Alanna has been dedicated to live by the principals, values and practices of Judaism. She has fulfilled the Mitzvah of Tevilah and we, the undersigned, have found her family to be of sincere intention. We do hereby accept and welcome her into the Covenant of the Jewish people on May 23, 2012 and the corresponding Hebrew date, the 2nd of Sivan, 5772, in the community of Wilmette, IL.
A week later, we had Esther blessed during the regular Sunday service of our church.  We considered baptism and attended a joint naming and blessing for our friend's baby facilitated by the Interfaith Union but found that individual ceremonies reflected our spiritual life better, in addition to being more comfortable for many members of our families, who are still getting used to our inter-faithness.  I made Esther a bonnet out of the same fabric from my wedding dress to mark the occasion.

Our Christian congregation is founded on inclusion of people with any beliefs to participate with us as we explore Christianity and how to live out the teachings of Jesus.  Our pastor and I worked together to create a liturgy that would make everyone present feel like an insider, even if they weren't Christian. 

The portion of the service with the blessing took my denomination's traditional elements and tweaked them a little.  Esther was introduced by a member of the Leadership Co-op, questions of commitment were asked of us as her parents and as a congregation, she was prayed over by the pastor and her hands were anointed with oil.

We asked people to write blessings on fabric and I was so pleased that every single person in attendance did so, many of them stepping outside of their comfort zones to do so.  We displayed the wedding quilt that I made from squares contributed by guests and this might have helped people participate since they could see an end result.

We applauded for her and she tucked her head in pleasure at the sound.

Then, anyone was invited forward to have their own baptism remembered by having their foreheads anointed or to have their hands anointed like Esther's if they had never been baptized.

We sang many songs, including my request of "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing."

I have the bulletin in PDF form if anyone is interested, but this text represents the flavor of the liturgy:
Jacob and Rebecca plan to continue practicing both of their religions as a family, encouraging Esther to participate as she is able so that as she grows and discovers her own with relationship to God, she will have the spiritual resources of both communities available to her to determine her own identity and the practice that brings her closest to God. Although infant baptism is part of Rebecca's religious heritage, out of respect for Jewish customs and laws that Esther may one day value, her parents have decided to let Esther choose that step for herself in the future, if it seems right to her.
Today, we welcome Esther into a gathered community of Christians to ceremonially declare that she -like all of us- is loved by God simply because she exists.  Recognizing this helps us to remember that God also loves us simply because we exist and not for anything we do or do not do, can or cannot accomplish.  God's love is unconditional.
We also gather today to promise that we will teach Esther about our own experiences with God, however God has manifested Godself to us. This storytelling and sharing of our own lives and experiences will give Esther not just words, but inspiration and guidance that will shape her life.
I had to negotiate a little bit with my pastor for this, as well.  She has been part of a national committee of the denomination that is learning from rabbis about how to live together in the world and they said that one of the ways to be respectful was to stop baptizing their babies.

And apparently, I'd been having these very sophisticated discussions with all sorts of people about how our family is an interfaith family but I had failed to explain it sufficiently to my pastor.  She had been thinking that we were raising her as a Jewish kid in a house that celebrates Christianity, as well.

So, when we were still considering baptizing her as part of my tradition's way of welcoming her into the community (rather than for conversion or as a ticket to heaven, which are problematic rationale in the history of Jewish-Christian relationships), she was very uncomfortable with the idea.  Symbolic acts are powerful for a reason, after all.

So, over the course of those conversations, I convinced her that Esther is like a bi-racial kid and when she asks, "No wait, what am I: Jewish or Christian?" we will answer with a third option.  Hopefully, we will have done the hard work to make sure she feels at home in each community, rather than an outsider in both.  It's the best we can do.

And over the course of those conversations, she convinced us that blessing Esther would accomplish better things spiritually for our family than a baptism would.

So, it was a lot like the scallops.  In a perfect world, it would be nice if I could share that experience with her.  But she probably won't miss it much since there are so many other good experiences that we will share.

After the ceremony, we shared a potluck meal, like my community always does.  My mom brought a ham because -much like we want our Jewish experiences to be authentically Jewish- we wanted this Christian ceremony to be comfortable being totally Christian.

As I ate my ham sandwich, I reflected on how powerful it had been for me to be asked, "Rebecca, do you promise to live following the example of Jesus, to renounce the powers of evil in the world and to teach Esther the life and Way of Jesus?"  This is a standard question for rituals in my denomination and I have answered it before.  This time, I was surprised at how important this ritual had been to my personal practice: to my own relationship with God.
Esther contributes to the communion liturgy. This is my favorite picture of my fierce daughter.

It was a powerful thing to dedicate my own daughter to the rhythms of my own spiritual life.  It is what Christians do and what I have watched Christian parents do my whole life.  My own parents had done it for me.  I was brought closer to God by doing it.

I had been so focused on what was best for Esther and my marriage that I hadn't even thought about what was best for me.  What a surprise to find that what's good for those two turned out to be the best thing for me, as well.


Anonymous said...

Jacob is a good man and you are blessed to be married to him.
the dad

Jessi said...

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing!