American Jewish Childbirth Traditions
American Jewish families today have a host of rituals from which to choose to mark the births of their children, ranging from the traditional bris, to the more modern naming ceremonies for both girls and boys. The choices these families make depend largely on which Jewish sect the parents follow: Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, the most liberal of the three. But regardless of what branch of Judaism families belong to, some Jewish beliefs surrounding pregnancy and childbirth encompass all sects. Having a child is both a reason to celebrate and to pray. “For Jews, having children is both a religious obligation and the crown of human life, the source of greatest happiness,” wrote authors Anita Diamant and Howard Cooper in Living a Jewish Life. “The birth of Jewish babies is thus greeted with rituals that are both solemn and joyful.”
That solemnity is exemplified by the practice of waiting until after an infant is born healthy before having a baby shower. Though the superstition is thousands of years old, there are still some 21st century Jewish parents who don’t set up a nursery or buy a layette before the baby is born for fear of tempting the fates. But that doesn’t mean that pregnancy is approached only with worry. In her 1994 publication, The New Jewish Baby Book, Diamant said that since the 1960s, growing numbers of American and Israeli women have assembled in prayer groups that have “created beautiful ceremonies of preparation for their pregnant members and rituals of passage for women who are newly delivered.”
The first major task a Jewish parent has once a baby is born is to give him or her a secular and a Hebrew name, the name the child will be called in the synagogue. Some opt to simply translate the child’s secular name into Hebrew, while others choose a separate Hebrew name. One or both of the names usually honor a deceased relative by either selecting the relative’s name outright, or by using the first letter of the person’s name, like honoring an Uncle Joshua by choosing a name that starts with “J.” Names of living relatives are usually off limits. Jewish folklore says that if you give a baby the name of a living person, that relative and the baby could have bad luck. According to Alfred J. Kolatch in The Jewish Book of Why, “[Some] believe it would rob a person of his full life if another member of the family were to carry on his name in his lifetime.” Diamant puts it even more starkly, “. . . [M]any parents would no sooner consider naming their child after a living grandparent than they would think of leaving the baby out in a snowstorm.”
Once the Hebrew and secular names are selected, the first significant event occurs on the first Friday night — the start of the Sabbath for Jews — following the birth of the baby. In some active Jewish communities, relatives and friends gather in the newborn’s home on the first Sabbath, making sure to recite prayers in the baby’s presence so he or she hears the words of the Torah. Some guests might bring little gifts meant to ward off bad spirits.
The next expectation for parents of boys is to hold a ritual circumcision, known as a brit milah, an over 4,000-year-old Jewish custom. On the eighth day of the boy’s life, his parents usually host what is commonly called a bris in their home, or sometimes in a synagogue, surrounded by family and friends to witness what is considered to be a sacred Jewish obligation. “The covenant of circumcision is the oldest continuous Jewish rite, a ritual that unites Jews throughout ages and across cultures, and signifies the connection between individual human life and the Holy,” Diamant writes. But not all American Jewish families opt to have a formal bris ceremony. Some choose hospital circumcisions instead, followed by a naming ceremony in a synagogue where the baby is blessed; however, if the parents belong to a more conservative congregation, the boy must still have a ritual bris where a mohel, a man specially trained to perform brises, draws a drop of blood from the circumcision site. For adopted children, Jewish parents are expected to host a bris as soon as they can. If the child’s mother if not Jewish, the baby must also go through a conversion entailing immersion in bath, called a mikvah.
A traditional bris occurs in the home before sunset. Two people, usually a married couple or a brother and sister, are sometimes given the honor of passing the child from his mother to his father. The baby is passed from his mother to the kvaterin, the Jewish equivalent of a godmother, to the kvater, the godfather, to the child’s father. The father then places the baby on “Elijah’s throne.” In some synagogues, the throne is an ornate, permanent fixture to honor the Jewish prophet who is believed to attend all the brit milahs and protects the newborn. In homes, the throne can be a regular chair with a decorative cushion or have a prayer shawl arranged on it. The highest honor is given to the sandek, a grandfather, male relative or other close family friend, who takes the child from the throne and holds him while he is circumcised. The mohel recites prayer, performs the circumcision and dresses the baby. Holding a cup of red wine, the mohel recites a kiddush, a blessing, and shares some wine with the baby.
Following the kiddush, the parents may then explain the significance of the boy’s Hebrew name and relate stories about the loved one who is being honored by the child’s name. A traditional meal follows, which can include challah, a thick, braided bread, and foods symbolizing fertility like chickpeas, olives and eggs. Parsley or green vegetables represent the earth’s bounty, and desserts remind everyone of the sweetness of the event, according to Diamant. The swaddling cloth used to wrap the baby is sometimes very fancy, embroidered with the boy’s name and date of birth. In some communities, it is later cut into a strip and used to tie around the Torah (the handwritten scroll of the Old Testament) in the synagogue. The wimpel, as the cloth strip is called, is used when he has his bar mitzvah at age 13.
As for ceremonies for girls, it really depends on her parents’ tastes. Developed in the 1970s by Jewish feminists who believed there should be a ritual to announce the birth of a girl, a brit bat is modeled after the boys’ brit milah using similar blessings, prayers and using some symbolic actions like touching the Torah or cleansing with water. “Brit bat continues to evolve,” Diamant says. Services for the children of American interfaith couples are still evolving as well. With an estimated 50 percent of Jews marrying non-Jews, interfaith families like mine often look for ways to honor Judaic traditions at the very beginning of our children’s lives. As Diamant and Cooper observe, “The Jewish traditions and rituals . . . give voice to the powerful feelings that surround the birth of every baby: gratitude, awe, fear, humility, continuity and hope.”
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