Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
This summer, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world in Jackson, Mississippi. Ever since, the birth of my firstborn daughter has been providing me with a steady stream of shecheyanu moments. The naming ceremony, baby’s first Shabbat, the first time I got pooped on. But the way it’s made me think about blessings has been one of the biggest changes of all.
My wife and I were together over a decade before she birthed our first child, and in that time we discussed various opinions on how we would like to raise our children as Jews. Some things were agreed upon quickly — we will do upsheren (delaying the first haircut until the child’s third birthday) for sure, regardless of the sex assigned to our child at birth — while other things, like kashrut practice, are still being negotiated.
While making it to synagogue on Friday evenings as a family has been tough (that’s bedtime, after all), we have tried to increase the rituals we keep in the home. One of those things is the blessing of a child. Now, for those of you who aren’t aware, there are two versions of the Sabbath blessing bestowed upon children. One is for a boy and one is for a girl, and both are followed by bir’kat hakohanim, AKA the “threefold benediction” or “the priestly blessing.”
Now, the priestly blessing I can get on board with. It’s the oldest prayer of which we have a written record, and is a really nice, somewhat clear sentiment.
But, what does it mean to say to my daughter, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah?” Yes, the matriarchs had good qualities. But am I wishing for my child to be mean like Sarah, expelling her husband’s consort with whom Sarah had told him to make a child. Does it mean I want her to be jealous like Leah, connivingly acquiring nights with her husband from her sister/co-wife? And why am I not wishing her the strength of wisdom of the patriarchs, too?
Likewise, if I had a son, why would I only want him to only be like “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”? They had great traits, but also fatal flaws, namely lying and deception and divisive family favoritism.
And, does saying just one of the prayers for an assigned gender mean something? (Full disclosure, one of the reasons we chose our child’s name was because of its gender fluidity. These are things we think about.)
Regardless of my child’s identity, I want them to embody the good traits and learn from the mistakes of the matriarchs and patriarchs. I do not want them simply lumped in with one group, good or bad, because of this one criteria.
So, liking the tradition so much and wanting to make it meaningful for my family, I decided to fill in the blanks in my head. Every time I say the words in Hebrew, alternating between the blessing for a boy and for a girl (saying both every Shabbat is just a little greedy, and time-consuming) I think something like this, focusing on specific actions rather than general identities:
Yismchah Elohim k’Avraham, Yitzchak, v’Yaakov. May God make you like Abraham who welcomed guests of all backgrounds, Isaac who survived the tortures of his youth, and Jacob who knew what he wanted and determinedly set out to acquire those things in life.
Yismach Elohim k’Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, v’Leah. May God make you like Sarah who embodied a true queen Bey of a matriarch, Rebekah whose generous spirit lives on in our people, Rachel whose beauty shone on the outside and in her personality, and Leah who was fiercely loyal to her children.
Friday night has always been important to our people, and we must always find ways to continue its celebration and relevance. How are you continuing to revisit our many customs to make them meaningful to your family?
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.