A New Welcome for Jewish Daughters

An interview with the author of the only book on welcoming ceremonies for Jewish girls reveals much about contemporary Jewish life.

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Reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com. All rights reserved.

The Jewish ritual of a brit milah, the circumcision and naming ceremony that formally welcomes baby boys into the Jewish community, is familiar to many, Jews and non-Jews alike. Many Jewish families are now choosing to celebrate the births of new daughters with similar welcoming rituals. 

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.

Do you see the creation of this ceremony as an example of Jewish feminism? Did you write the book because you're a Jewish feminist?

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.

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Rebecca Phillips is a producer at Beliefnet.com, the multifaith religion and spirituality website. She lives in New York City.