December 8, 2019

Ritualized Equality

Woven into many Jews’ seders when they sit down to celebrate Passover this year will be a spate of new traditions.

A Miriam’s Cup next to Elijah’s represents the role of the prophetess Miriam in the Exodus and highlights women’s contributions to Jewish culture. A seemingly out-of-place orange on the seder plate represents how women — traditionally thought to have no place in Jewish study — have introduced their voices to Judaism.

Through integrating each of these into our retelling of the Exodus, the voices and perspectives of women are unearthed and brought into the present, where they add to the vitality of contemporary Judaism.

Like them, another relatively recent innovation — the simchat bat, or welcoming ceremony for Jewish baby girls — focuses on the feminine voice and is becoming so widely practiced that it is taking on the weight of tradition.

For centuries, Jewish communities from North Africa to Eastern Europe welcomed their baby girls with a range of customs, though none carried the same sense of religious importance as the commanded brit milah, or ritual circumcision, always has for boys. And as those communities were dispersed into Diaspora or destroyed by anti-Semitism, the customs regarding girls’ births all but died out.

Though the Sephardic community in America still customarily welcomes its new daughters with singing in synagogue and a party, in most American Jewish families little was done, until recently, to recognize the birth of a girl through religious ritual.

Traditionally oriented fathers go to synagogue on the first day that the Torah is read after the birth of a daughter, to name her and ask God to watch over her and help heal his wife. Rarely are the mother and baby present.

Today, in liberal synagogues, the entire family is often called up for an aliyah when family members first return to synagogue on Shabbat. They bless the Torah, and a blessing is said to name the new daughter and offer hope that she will grow into healthy adulthood.

But in recent years, the simchat bat has also been available to Jews wanting to welcome their baby daughters into the covenant and into their families with the same marriage of ritual seriousness and joy as they accord their sons.

The simchat bat (celebration of the daughter) or brit bat (covenant of the daughter), as it is often known, was first created in the early 1970s by Rabbis Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Dennis Sasso, and, separately, by Rabbi Michael and Sharon Strassfeld. They were connected with the chavurah and Reconstructionist movements, which created the new ritual out of a desire to renew Judaism spiritually and to include the female voice equally.

Since that time, especially during the last five years, welcoming the birth or adoption of baby girls has become a quiet revolution in all sectors of the Jewish community, with Jews from Humanist to Reform to Orthodox welcoming their daughters with rituals they compose and hold at home.

“Thirty years ago nobody even asked the question of whether a girl should have a ceremony,” said Rabbi Nina Cardin, who was involved early on in the creation and dissemination of welcoming ceremonies for girls. Cardin now works as director of Jewish Life for the JCC of Greater Baltimore.

“There is a huge awareness that has developed over a relatively short span of time, and it has bubbled up from the bottom,” Cardin said. “These ceremonies were a very radical expression back then, and nowadays they’re not.”

While the mainstream movements’ rabbis’ manuals today all include brief synagogue-based rituals to welcome girls, a growing number of families are opting to hold a more complex ceremony at home. There they welcome their daughters with rituals as unique as their families.

Adina Kalet and her husband, Mark Schwartz, who belong to a Conservative synagogue and live in Brooklyn with their son and daughter, knew that they would welcome their daughter with a simchat bat after they adopted her from Colombia, at age 4 months, just over a year ago.

“We were eager to celebrate publicly her coming to us, and we’ve always turned to our own traditions as much as we could,” Kalet said. “Even during five years of infertility we looked for Jewish rituals” to help work through it. Having a simchat bat to welcome Sara “just seemed like the natural thing to do,” she said.

Incorporated into Sara’s simchat bat were elements representing her heritage. An aunt sang her a song in Ladino, the language of Spanish-speaking Jews. Kalet and Schwartz dipped Sara’s feet in water, similar to the mikvah in which she had just been immersed to be converted to Judaism, and spoke movingly of their long journey in bringing her into their family.

Kalet also wore a necklace of a gold Colombian fertility goddess, which they had purchased when they went to get Sara.

“To have a ritual way of welcoming her was just so meaningful on so many levels. It helped us focus on the transition from being infertile to having it all be over and having her be with us,” Kalet said. “Plus it was just fun to have a party.”