I’m sitting on a couch in my daughter Rachel’s home in Chicago, holding my first grandchild, a boy, seven days old. I’ve heard grandparents talk, ad nauseum, about the thrill of this relationship, but, as with having your first baby, you have no clue what it will be like until it happens.
I still don’t know the baby’s name. Rachel and her husband, Jay, decided not to reveal it to our family and friends until the bris—the circumcision and blessing performed eight days after his birth. Traditionally, parents give the baby his Hebrew name during the ceremony, but Rachel and Jay wanted to do the same with his English name. So they wrote it on his birth certificate and told no one else.
Months before, when they’d learned they were having a boy, Rachel asked me to plan the bris. I live in Colorado, so I wondered, how would I find a mohel—the man trained and certified to perform the bris—in Chicago? Online, of course. The mohels are even rated on Yelp, and I discovered there are now female mohels, often former pediatricians, who refer to themselves as a “mohelet.”
Jews have been conducting the circumcision ritual, symbolizing the covenant between God and Abraham, for thousands of years, long before it was adopted by people from other cultures for health reasons. Recently, though, the health benefit has been debated, causing some to avoid the procedure.
After discussion, Rachel and Jay chose to follow the Jewish tradition, linking their baby to the long chain of males going back to ancient days. She spoke with three mohels, then chose Rabbi Phil Karesh because of his flexibility and sensitivity.
On the eighth day, about 20 family members and friends gathered in the rooftop lounge of one of Rachel’s cousins, which has sweeping views of Lake Michigan. Rachel sat on a couch, and the baby was brought to the “Chair of Elijah” by my son, Andy, and his Chinese wife, Fay. This is an honor that’s said to bring luck and fertility to a couple who hope to have children, which they do.
The actual cutting took less than two minutes. Rachel’s father, Glen, held a wine-soaked gauze pad in the baby’s mouth, but he howled when the Mohel opened his diaper. Those two minutes seemed interminable. Finally, when the mohel fastened a diaper back on and put another wine-soaked pad in his mouth, he closed his eyes and sucked.
He was handed to me to hold for the blessings, during which the mohel announced, “His Hebrew name is Asher ben Jay.” Asher, son of Jay. Hmm, I thought, that probably means his English name begins with A. What could it be? Anthony, Abraham…?
Rachel said, in a soft voice, “His name is Felix.”
What? Felix? Really? That name had never crossed my or anyone else’s mind, except theirs, obviously. Rachel explained, “We like the name because it’s lively and distinct, Jay had an uncle Felix who served in the Peace Corps, and especially because it means “happy” in Latin. His Hebrew name, Asher, also means happy.
It began to grow on me. Yes. Little Felix. Then she said, “His middle name is…..Marvin.” That was my father’s name, and it blew me away. Marvin had died when Rachel was five, and she has no memory of him. I had brought my father’s tallis, the prayer shawl he received on his bar mitzvah in 1921, to Chicago because it’s traditional to wear one for the bris. Rachel said she would wear it, but not in my wildest dreams did I imagine she’d name the baby after my father. She explained that she’d heard wonderful things about him.
She also may have a sense memory of Marvin because he adored her, holding her whenever he had a chance. To me, it was a testament to her love for her lineage—through me and my sister back through my father and his father, Abraham—and it brought me to tears.
The following day, Jay’s mother and I took turns holding the baby while Jay’s father did loads of laundry for the couple. Every two to three hours, Jay would change the diaper and Rachel would breast feed and then hand him to one of the grandmas. We couldn’t get enough of Felix. Holding him was tranquilizing, and nothing else seemed relevant. Business, emails—all fell away. It was one of those moments when you get to just “be.”
It was a joy to watch my daughter care for Felix so naturally, with a grace and confidence that had not come naturally to me. I remember pacing the floor at 4 a.m., jiggling my first-born in a Snugli as he wailed. Frazzled and desperate, I would strap him into his car seat and drive the freeways until he fell asleep, only to open his eyes and cry the minute I turned off the ignition.
It’s different, of course, with grandchildren because you can hand them back to their parents, but I was unprepared for the communion I felt holding Felix as he slept on my chest. I loved hearing the gentle cooing of his breathing in and out, and feeling the soft pulsing of his tiny stomach against mine. As we grow older, feeling that connection between the baby’s wee new light and ours that’s slowly fading is… poignant. We come and we go…from where and to what? The same mysterious space? I have no words. Just gratitude, and a deep bow. Amen.