Rituals for newborn girls pave new paths to tradition

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen wanted to hold a welcoming ceremony after giving birth in 1999 to her first daughter, Aliza. The planning, she figured, would be a snap.

After all, Cohen had collected lots of programs from similar events, is well-educated in Jewish traditions and, as a journalist, is an expert researcher.

Organizing the actual ceremony proved to be no cinch.

"When it came time to put it together, I really had no idea what to do," recalls Cohen, a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week newspaper. "It was a struggle to put together what comes first, what comes second — kind of the liturgy of it."

Cohen figured she wasn't alone.

"If I was struggling with it, then most people must be struggling with it."

Cohen's solution? Write a book.

The result is the just-released guidebook called "Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant — New and Traditional Ceremonies" (Jewish Lights).

The 192-page book covers the history and background of welcoming celebrations and provides numerous sample programs, prayers and tips for the simchat bat or brit bat, as it is often called.

"I collected more than 200 ceremonies," she related in a telephone conversation from her Brooklyn, N.Y., home. "I got amazing, beautiful ceremonies that really reflected tremendous creativity and interest on the part of rabbis and parents."

Welcoming ceremonies, Cohen found, are becoming a vibrant tradition in many Jewish households and not simply a poor relation to the brit milah.

"In certain circles, it's expected, normal to have a welcoming ceremony," says Cohen. " I think those circles are widening."

Jewish families always have held functions to welcome the birth of their daughters, Cohen reports, although those festivities frequently paled in comparison to the ceremonies held for their sons. Italian and Sephardi communities have welcomed girls with a celebration called the zeved habat, or "gift of the daughter," that is followed by a lavish Kiddush.

In medieval Spain, families held a ceremony called Las Fadas about two weeks after a daughter's birth. A rabbi would make a speech and guests would take turns holding the baby, saying blessings and offering their wishes for the child.

Some of the first modern ceremonies took place in the 1970s, spurred by the chavurah and feminist movements. "The very notion of welcoming daughters in a religiously significant way is rooted in an egalitarian concept of what Judaism should be: different, perhaps, for females and males, but equal nonetheless," Cohen writes.

Orthodox Jews, though generally less receptive to changes in rituals, also began holding welcoming ceremonies. In the past, their observances were limited to traditional blessings in the synagogue and an occasional reception afterward, according to Cohen.

After reviewing hundreds of welcoming ceremonies from around the world, she found many similarities. "So while there has been no rabbinic seal of approval designating a single ceremony as the only suitable one, there has been, in fact, a process turning experiment into accepted liturgy all the same," she writes.

The order of a modern service generally starts with a song — either traditional or contemporary — followed with an introduction by one of the parents, a Hebrew welcome, blessings of thanksgiving by the parents and readings. That is followed by a ritual welcoming of the baby into the covenant. Some ceremonies include the use of symbols such as candles, water or a tallit for wrapping the baby.

Other portions of the ceremony include an explanation of the baby's names and blessings for her Jewish names, the presentation of such gifts as a tzedakah box, more prayers of thanks and gratitude, and song. The ceremony ends with a festive meal.

Cohen adds her advice: "Remember that this is a day of joy. Take pleasure in it!"

The welcoming ceremony, Cohen says, is "rooted in the tradition, but it has a lot of flexibility for religious sensibility." The possibilities are as broad as the perspectives of the families holding the celebrations.

After the birth earlier this year of her second daughter, Cohen decided to focus the ceremony around the five senses. To symbolize the sense of touch, Cohen wrapped her daughter, Elana, in her tallit and talked about her hopes that the infant would be embraced by her community, Creator, family and tradition and that she'd grow up to experience a loving touch. Elana's older brother also had a role in the event, reciting a blessing he'd written at his Jewish day school.

Cohen views welcoming ceremonies as a growing and evolving ritual. "Because it is a contemporary religious practice, we don't have the Tradition with a capital 'T' telling us this is the way to do it," she says. "I think we're living in a really wonderful time as Jews where we have access to the tools and can move the tradition forward."