Adoption, Ethnicity and Jewish Baby Naming

Adoption adds special considerations to rituals for welcoming a new baby or child. Here is one recent example:

Cheri just called to say the civil adoption approvals and medical clearances have all arrived and she will leave next week for Central America to collect her baby, a girl just over one month old. She wants help with planning a Jewish rite of passage ritual for bringing her daughter home. She is vibrant with excitement until her voice drops and she says: “Reb Goldie, I don’t expect the day of the ritual to be easy.”

“Why is that?”

“We’re very concerned about whether my parents will accept her. Mom keeps asking if we’re sure about going through with this. She’s upset because our daughter will not look like anyone in our family. She wants us to keep trying, so she can see the family resemblance. We wanted that whole genetic legacy thing too, but we couldn’t keep trying; it’s taken too much of a toll on our relationship. And this baby, she’s so beautiful and she needs us. We’re ready for this. Mom just has to start to understand she’s about to become a grandmother for the first time; she’s always wanted to be one. Why does she have to be so impossible now?

“Cheri, you are suffering because your mom isn’t accepting your and Matthew’s decision to adopt.”

“Rabbi Goldie, what can we do? She has to accept that Carmen is never going to have Grandma Rayzl’s eyes or my artistic talent. This girl is going to be her own unique self.”

“Cheri, did you pick a sacred name for Carmen yet? Remember, we’ll need one for her conversion documents and blessing.”

“No, we have time yet to decide that. Why?”

“What was your Grandma Rayzl like?”

“Well, she loved to read novels, to do crewel embroidery, and she loved trees and flowers. Everyone says she was a passionate dancer when she was young. Family legend has it that she once ran for City Council because she was angry about crime during prohibition. She called herself Rosa Raymond for the election and she served one term. She had friends who were beatniks, mom said. Also, her sister Lena told me Rosa ran off to elope with a boyfriend during the war but actually didn’t end up marrying him. Instead she joined the army and trained as a nurse. She was sort of a renaissance woman.”

“Cherie, might Rosa be a nice name for a soon-to-be Jewish girl from Guatemala? And Rayzl is an honorable good Yiddish name to have as a sacred name.”

“So you’re thinking we might name her for my mom’s mother? That would be bold. No one’s named for Matthew’s grandpa Joseph yet. But, it’s really a strong idea. If we name her for Grandma Rose, it will give to give her a real family connection, someone to learn about when she’s older. Oh, if Grandma Rose was here she’d be helping mom understand, Grandma Rose traveled to many countries during the war. Her friends were from every nationality, especially as the neighborhood where she lived changed in her later years. I never saw her treat anyone as anything other than special. I’m going to talk to Matthew about this.”

• Notice how wise Cheri is to take this step; to register and embrace the possible feelings of her parents, as well as to speak honestly and honorably about her and her husband’s sense of loss in the midst of their joy at Carmen’s imminent arrival.

• Her inner wisdom is already working well; naming the new baby after her grandmother Rose, who was a real old-fashion family matriarch, the kind who would have taken charge and wrapped that baby in acceptance and life, could prove to be a great option.

I see Cheri is looking inward, knowing something important. “Rabbi, remember Wendy Li’s Rosh HaShannah talk last year?”

I did remember. It was a heart-stopping talk. Wendy Li was adopted in 1980 from a Chinese orphanage where she was suffering from deliberate neglect. Government policy aimed at population reduction prohibited families from having more than one child, and by tradition, most wanted that one child to be a boy, not a girl. As a child Wendy Li seemed well-adjusted. She did very well in school, had lots of friends, delighted in Jewish summer camp, and became chair of the synagogue’s junior youth group. Then, as a teen she became angry about always feeling different, being different; she raged about having been unfairly uprooted. After college, she taught English as a second language for two years in China, and also took time to tour the province of her birth.

On her return to America, she met with me regarding her request to speak at High Holiday services, to reach as many people as possible in one time. She had come to understand just how huge her good fortune had been. She’s now doing a doctorate with the intent to work on issues of population balance and control. As part of her talk, she apologized publicly for her accusations of unfairness to her adoptive parents and described her goal as turning challenges into miracles that can help others.

Cheri called a few days after our first discussion to say Matthew had agreed to naming the baby after Grandma Rose. Cheri also had some new ritual ideas. “Rabbi Goldie, here’s my vision. I sense there is a need to have us stand with our baby as a family; for everyone in attendance to tighten a circle around us. We can all be holding hands in a way that each can feel the pulse of the other, until we are one loop of life. Then, let’s ask my mom to touch Carmen, to feel for her tiny heart beat. After a while, into the silence, I can whisper the word Shema, ‘listen,’ and you can whisper back, Ehad, One. Then you can amplify the shema and encourage everyone to reply with Ehad, one!”

Rabbi Goldie Milgram: I was knocked out by the beautiful idea and imagery, great for starters. “But what about the traditional rituals?

Cheri: “Oh, we’ll do them for sure too. We could use Grandma Rosa’s big embroidered babushka, a huge scarf she kept from her own mother, that I have held onto as a family heirloom and hold it over Carmen like a huppah while you say the traditional blessing and we welcome her into the Jewish people with her new sacred name.

“We’ll have been through most of the formal conversion process earlier in the week, so would it be alright for you to explain about mikveh and the formal bet din of three rabbis that signed her certificate. Then everyone can call out spontaneous blessings, respond amen, and then we can eat!”

Just right. Cheri had created a beautiful ritual model customized to address the needs of her particular family. For more extensive, step-by-step guidance including each specific Hebrew phrase (transliterated for you), see my book Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life. We encourage you to contact your local rabbi for assistance and also note that not all seminaries train rabbis in creative approaches to ritual. Accordingly, Our staff is available to assist as needed.