A Bris and a Baptism
A Jewish grandmother thinks about identity and intermarriage
I’m not a fan of circumcision, though the bris milah is required for male Jewish children and is considered an essential component of Jewish identity. I do know some modern Jews now have the ceremony of the bris without the actual circumcision. When my sons were born in 1962 and 1963, I didn’t want to have them circumcised, which was an unusual position in those days. My husband felt strongly about the boys being circumcised, however. I allowed him the final decision and actually I’m glad I did: as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more aware of the value of our family’s connection to its Jewish heritage.
When my oldest son and his wife had a son, there was no consideration of the baby not being circumcised, and my husband proudly held the child in his arms during the entire ceremony. I was unable to watch, but by that point in my life I could understand and appreciate the value of the tradition.
Some years after my husband’s death, our daughter married a man who is Greek Orthodox Christian. When their son was born, my daughter, out of deference to her deceased father, decided to have a bris and have her son circumcised. Her husband and mother-in-law graciously agreed. To me, it was a very moving ceremony as I felt my husband’s presence.
After the bris… the baptism
My grandson was fifteen months old when he was taken to Greece to meet his relatives there. Somehow, I intuitively knew his Greek grandmother would want him to be baptized, and I was surprised that I was disquieted by the thought. I wished I could return the openness and generosity she and my son-in-law had shown, but the truth was that I felt very threatened by the possibility of the baptism.
When my daughter and her family returned to the U.S., I casually asked how the baptism went. They blinked and said it went well. I later found out that there were two hundred people at the ceremony and the party that followed, and I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of loss and feelings of sorrow. For a few moments, I felt, irrationally, that the child was lost to me. There is no doubt that my husband, if he was still alive, would have been devastated, too.
After I cooled off, I tried to look at the situation honestly. If, as is possible, my daughter and her family move to Greece and the child is brought up there, he will probably find it helpful to be in the majority and be Greek Orthodox. In any case, he will be surrounded by the Greek Orthodox side of his family, and the pressure to conform will be almost impossible to resist. My daughter insists the child will be able to make his own choices about religion later in life, but I think she’s kidding herself; the Jewish part of his heritage will become a distant, unfamiliar piece of his past. It will be easier to ignore it than explore it.
Will intermarriage be the end of the Jewish people?
I have always considered myself to be an open-minded and liberal person, someone who believes in the equal value of different cultures and religions, and in the importance of transcending borders and differences. I love my son-in-law and greatly admire his family. Nevertheless, I am worried that intermarriage may, in the long term, be the end of the Jewish people.
Those who keep track of such figures tell us that, now, 40 percent of the spouses of Jews are non-Jewish. In what faith are the children being brought up? What cultural background do they have? And what is going to be lost forever? On a less abstract, more personal level, if I end up with a Greek-speaking, Greek Orthodox grandson, whom will I be embracing?
I can see that there are no easy answers to these questions. I realize that love knows no boundaries and people need to be free to marry whomever they want. I understand that the pressures of family and faith are difficult to navigate for all of us, so compromise and accommodation are an essential part of love.
Of course, I know that I will embrace and love my grandson no matter what his religion. Nevertheless, a part of me still worries that a religious gap will create a sense of distance that would not otherwise be there. A part of me mourns.