This column will once again be devoted to the gays. If you’re really sick of me (or hey, Conservative Jews in general) talking about the gays… well, too bad. Next month I promise to write about Nascar, Girls Gone Wild DVDs, Mickey Spillane novels and those hard hats with drainage systems you can attach beer cans to. But I just couldn’t wait to share this: After years of heartbreak and travail, my brother Andy and his partner Neal have just adopted a baby. I’m an auntie! We’re all giddy. She is the cutest baby ever in the history of babies who are not mine.
No, seriously, she’s gorgeous. She has downy light brown hair and cheeks like pillowy kneydlekh. She has a lovely disposition, except when she’s hungry, like many a Jew. Her name is Shirley. (Or as Maxine says, sounding like an elderly balebuste in Great Neck, Shawley.) She was named after Neal’s mother Shirley, who was killed by a drunk driver when Neal was 22. Her middle name is Michaela, after my dad Michael, who died in 2004.
When a baby comes into our lives we’re so happy to greet her, and so sad that our loved ones won’t be with us to watch her grow, laugh, taste her first rice cereal, get her doctorate (no pressure). All those churned-up joy-and-sorrow feelings came to the fore at Shirley Michaela’s Simchat Bat, her welcome ceremony. I’ve never been to a more moving celebration. Andy and Neal wrote it themselves, despite the hallucination-inducing sleeplessness of life with a newborn. They were inspired by the works of Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Anita Diamant, Debra Nussbaum Cohen and the ceremonies collected at ritualwell.org, a project of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. They had help from their rabbi, Ayelet Cohen, and their dear friend Shana Sippy. I cried like a hippie in a Wal-Mart through the whole thing.
Family and a few friends crammed into Andy and Neal’s apartment, oohing and aahing over the guest of honor, who slept on, oblivious. Teary-eyed grandparents took turns holding the yummy little bundle (who was rocking a kicky old-school dressing gown provided by Neal’s sister Barrie and her family in Arizona), while sitting in a chair draped in a scarf that had once belonged to Shirley’s namesake. Jojo and Max, using their special favorite cups, carefully washed Shirley’s feet (Shirley was not nuts about this) to symbolically welcome her to the family. Then cousins Amie and Allison dried her feet with their special pink baby blanket, the one that had comforted them in their babyhood. Just as Abraham and Sarah washed the feet of their guests, so did the cousins welcome their new addition, and so did Andy and Neal welcome all of us into their home. Presumably they’ll teach this Jewish value of hachnasat orchim to their daughter, who will learn to cook gourmet vegetarian feasts for a crowd like her Tate Andy, and diagnose all her nieces’ and nephews’ and friends’ children’s ailments for free like her Abba Neal, just as soon as she completes medical school (no pressure).
We all sang Hallelu, a song of praise to God. Then Jonathan and I and Neal’s sister Tracey and her husband Jeff each took a corner of my father’s tallit, his prayer shawl, “representing the four corners of the wondrous and complicated world for which we are all responsible,” as Neal and Andy put it. Tracey carefully wrapped Shirley in the traditional garment, then repeated a blessing given to Andy and Neal at their commitment ceremony by their friend Tani: “May you always pour old wine into new flasks — to take the tradition and make it speak to your life by renewing and reinventing the rituals of Judaism that carry so much meaning. May you always joyfully reinterpret the ancient dance we all share.”
Then, in memory of my dad, I read a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver, called “Wild Geese,” which concludes:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place>in the family of things.
You should really read it. Then my mom and Neal’s father Marty blessed their new grandchild, and Marty’s longtime girlfriend Elaine lit a candle in the baby’s honor. Because Shirley was born in the middle of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, Andy and Neal had friends and family light a menorah to symbolize the light this child has brought into their lives. Neal’s childhood neighbors read selections from Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” about the beauty and uncertainty of raising children: “You may house their bodies but not their souls/For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.” So true.
Marty and my mom lit candles in honor of Shirley’s namesakes. Neal and Andy said a blessing for Shirley’s birth mother, “the heroine of this Hanukkah story.” They prayed for her to find solace, knowing that this baby would be raised with so much love. They also prayed to God: “Teach us to be Abba and Tate, parents worthy of this scared trust of life. May our daughter grow in health. May she be strong in mind and kind in heart, a lover of Torah, a seeker of peace. May she see having two gay fathers not as a challenge but as a gift, a special lens through which to see the world and all its possibilities.”
Then Adena, the daughter of one of my dad’s best friends, lit a candle for tikkun olam, repairing the world, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday the following day. She read from the “I Have a Dream” speech: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…we will not be satisfied ‘until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’ … I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
My cousin Adam (who has voted Republican! My family is so totally a big tent!) recited the prayer for peace. Finally, we all sang the Hanukkah song “Al HaNisim” (“For the Miracles”) in honor of Shirley’s arrival. Then we stuffed our face with lox, in the great and lasting ways of our people.
It seems superfluous, but I’ll say it anyway: I hardly see how these two people in a loving, committed relationship, with obvious devotion to religion and family and tradition, are a threat to heterosexual families. Florida, Mississippi and Utah obviously do not agree, since they have laws that ban gay adoption. Ohio bars joint adoptions by same-sex partners. And about a dozen states are currently facing legislation that would require children to be cared for by a man and a woman, or by a heterosexual single — you know, like Britney Spears. (Incidentally, Mary Cheney, our own veep’s gay daughter, has opted to have a child in Virginia, a state that denies her partner of 20 years any parenting rights whatsoever. Whatever, Mary. Word to your father.) Rabid left-wing America-hating organizations like The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Child Welfare League of America have actually examined the research on children raised by gay and lesbian parents and concluded that the children fare comparably on a host of measures of social and psychological adjustment to children raised by heterosexuals. But hey, don’t let me get bogged down in my snark and stats when I really should be celebrating Josie and Maxine’s brand-new cousin. There are always opportunities for me to seethe at injustice. Right now, I just want to look at my sweet niece’s face, and coo.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.