These ceremonies, often referred to as simchat bat --joy of the daughter--have been held among American Jewish families for 25 to 30 years. But not until Debra Nussbaum Cohen's recent book, "Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter" (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), a guide to welcoming new female babies into the family and the Jewish community, have the ceremonies been researched, documented, and compiled for new parents. Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips talked with Nussbaum Cohen, a journalist and mother of three, about motherhood, Jewish women, and the burgeoning interest in and performance of this ritual.
Many people do a simple, traditional baby naming in a synagogue when they have a daughter, instead of a simchat bat ceremony. Why do you think this ceremony is not more widespread?
I guess it depends where you live and what circles you move in. It has increased in popularity dramatically in the last five years. When I had my son seven years ago and I was collecting these ceremonies, there was very little awareness of them. I think only the most deeply engaged Jews did them. Now it's almost become de rigueur in many circles. Where there are Jews who really are engaged with Jewish ritual and Jewish living, I think it's become almost as expected as a brit milah is for a boy. But in many places, it's not well-known.
It's also a challenge to stand up and lead a Jewish ritual. I think that's something that many Jews don't feel equipped to do. But I'm hoping that's what the book will do--really be a tool for people to use.
How did you come to write the book?
The whole idea for this book came out of my experience putting something together for my first daughter. I really struggled with it. I'm a fairly knowledgeable Jew, and I'm a good researcher because I'm a journalist, but I really did not know where to begin. People had been doing this for about a generation--about 25 or 30 years--and I had a file folder full of other peoples' ceremonies. I realized there had to be a better way. I figured if I was struggling, a lot of people must be struggling.
I wrote the book because I'm a Jewish woman. I am a feminist, but many women don't call themselves that. My husband and I knew that there was no way we were going to give our daughter less of a welcome and less of a significant Jewish ritual than we did our son. It just wouldn't have felt right. I think that says a lot about this time in Jewish history, too.
You mentioned the letters you received from people about their simchat bat ceremonies, and you mention in the book many ceremonies from other countries. How did you go about doing the research?
I have been to quite a few [simchat bat ceremonies], those of friends and in my community. I researched it by putting a query out. It spread all over the world, mostly electronically, and people sent them [the ceremonies] to me from everywhere. I researched traditional welcoming ceremonies through scholars' work. But there's actually not a lot written. It's an area of recent scholarship. But there have been welcoming ceremonies in different Jewish cultures for hundreds of years. It's not a new phenomenon. But it is a phenomenon that kind of got forgotten in America.
What did you do for your own daughter's welcoming ceremony?
When my second daughter, Elana, was born, I was a lot more knowledgeable about this, and the book was going to press as I brought her home. I had been so immersed in it for the last year and a half or so that I didn't even want to have one for her at first, but my husband talked some sense into me.
Elana's welcoming ceremony was based on the five senses that God gave us to appreciate the world. And through each of them, we talked about our hopes for her and our dreams for her, and her relationship as an individual to her family and her community.
For sight, we held her up so the community, our 80 nearest and dearest in our living room, could see her. Then we lit a really pretty candle, a havdalah [ceremony that ends the Jewish sabbath] candle, and showed her the flame. For touch, we wrapped her in my talit [prayer shawl] and talked about wanting her to feel the embrace of her family and the Jewish people, and also her growing to become an adult, capable of embracing both a partner and her commitments as a Jew. For taste, we put some grape juice on her tongue, which is also done at a bris. For hearing, we sang a traditional Jewish song. And then we ended with the seven blessings, the sheva brachot, the traditional end to a Jewish wedding. And then of course the best part, we ate and had a fun party.