Who’s That Girl?
Jewish boy babies have a Brit Milah. Jewish girl babies have bupkes. So one new mom created her own ritual.
Her name is Josephine Olive Steuer Ingall. My geek husband delightedly pointed out that her initials spell her nickname: J.O.S.I. (It has certain Man from U.N.C.L.E. jauntiness, we feel.) She has his eyes, and my last name. Her favorite toy is a stuffed olive with a fuzzy red pimento in it. As I write this, she is napping, wearing a tiny 100% cotton Star Trek uniform. We are clearly not major traditionalists…but on the other hand, yeah, we are. My husband may have managed a techno/acid house/industrial band and I may sport a nose ring and a tattoo, but we’re pretty conventional folks. I wanted my little Jewish girl to be welcomed into a Jewish world. And there’s really no blueprint for that welcome.
OK, sure, Judaism has recognized girl babies. For years, the proud new daddy was called to the Torah on the Shabbat after his daughter’s birth. And Sephardim have a Zeved HaBat ceremony—the recitation of psalms and blessings and the formal announcement of a name. But we wanted to do something at home, something personal, something that said “covenant.” “Brit” (or “Bris,” for you old-school folks) means covenant, and we’re all about the sacred promises in this house.
As it turns out, we’re not alone. Shaggy-haired feminists of both genders, feeling the need to give baby girls their due, started creating their own welcoming ceremonies in the early ‘70s, before Josie was even a gleam in her parents’ eye, mainly because we were too busy being toilet-trained. Rabbis Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Dennis Sasso and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld and Sharon Strassfeld were some of the original movers and shakers in this world, along with chick-power-influenced parents in the burgeoning chavurah and Reconstructionist movements. Going by such names as Simhat Bat (happiness for a daughter), Brit Bat (covenant for a daughter) and Brit HaChayim (covenant of life), their ceremonies aimed at creating a meaningful welcome for a wee double-x-chromosomed person of the Hebraic persuasion.
My mother, an Important Jewish Educator (we capitalize that just to annoy her) and an optimist, had been keeping a file of babynaming ceremonies approximately since my Bat Mitzvah. My brother’s boyfriend pointed me toward ritualwell.org, a web site about “ceremonies for Jewish living” run by Kolot: the Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in PA, and Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project at the JCC of Manhattan. It too offered a whole lotta info about inclusiveness and sisterhood. Most naming ceremonies started with a traditional Jewish song, followed by greetings in Hebrew and English, blessings of thanks by the parents, expressions of hope for the baby’s future, blessings, and welcoming of the baby into the covenant.
But none really sang to us. We weren’t interested in dunking our baby in a faux-mikvah, or having people light candles for her (too reminiscent of innumerable cheesy wedding receptions), or celebrating her future womanliness by saying “From this baby’s womb will flow the next generation of our people,” and tapping her cheeks to bring blood to the surface. Hello, how Berkeley. We didn’t want to ape a boy’s Brit Milah, either. So I cobbled bits and pieces from different ceremonies, and added new stuff of my own. The act of creation was absorbing and enthralling, if not quite as fabulous as the act of creation that made Josie in the first place.
I sent out a “save the date” email:
Please come to our Simhat Bat (celebration for a daughter), welcoming Josephine Olive Steuer Ingall to the world. March 3rd, 11am. Our home. A little smoked fish, some caffeine, a homemade ceremony. Consider it a feminist bris, with the knife used only for bagels. No prezzies, no dress-up.
We chose a date when most of my husband’s family, who live in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Milwaukee, could make it. More traditional choices would have been the eighth day, the first Shabbat, the first Rosh Chodesh or the first Jewish holiday after the birth.
That morning, I carefully dressed the star in her pale blue lettuce-edged dress and leggings. Jonathan and I ran out to Russ & Daughters, around the corner, to stock up on whitefish salad and pickles. Relatives arrived in a flurry of air-kissing and cheek-pinching while Josie, oblivious, snoozed.
Our ritual began with the singing of Hinay Matov, in everyone’s best summer camp tradition. We chose this song both because of the sentiment—-How good it is for all of us to gather together—-and because it’s a song almost all Jews, whatever their level of observance, know. We wanted to start off on a note of inclusion. (It’s bad enough that the kid has my last name.) We welcomed Josephine Olive and recited her name: Yosefa Elisheva, daughter of Yonatan Schmuel and Margalit Bracha. We told stories of her namesakes, Jonathan’s Papa Joe and my Bubbe Olla. Family members offered up their memories: Joe’s sense of humor, his gentle neurosurgeon’s hands and his pride in his grandson’s achievements; Olla’s love of the Red Sox, her cherished garden of daffodils and her dramatic squeaky-voiced readings of Muggins Takes Off.
In an element copped from others’ rituals, we prayed that Josie would share the attributes of her foremothers Lilith, Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, the midwives Shifrah and Puah (Josie was delivered by midwife, which I’m sure comes as a huge shock), Miriam, Ruth, Deborah and Yael. We hope she’s strong, confident, loving, adventurous, outspoken. We edited out any heterosexist references—she doesn’t have to be straight for us to love her, though I pray she will be femme and allow me to choose her clothing until she’s on Social Security. Then Josie’s grandparents blessed her, her aunts and uncles welcomed her to the family, we all recited Kiddush and haMotzi, and we sang Siman Tov, another camp-familiar musical hit. Oh, and my dad, on guitar, led us in Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eileh,” a song I know is woefully sappy but love anyway. (I think Naomi Shemer may be Israel’s John Tesh.) It seemed particularly appropriate for a baby born shortly after September 11: “Over the honey and the sting, over the bitter and the sweet, over our baby daughter — please watch over them all…protect this house, dear God, this garden, this wall, from sorrow, from terror, from war.”
Then, in the grand tradition of Jews everywhere, we noshed. Josie, now awake, charmed everyone with her very advanced gurgling. Family and friends met for the first time over the pletzls. Shutters clicked like yentas’ tongues. The Simhat Bat was a hit.
Now all we have to do is raise our daughter.