I promised my husband we’d raise our daughter Jewish. Now I worry I’ve left her in limbo.
“Push that baby to the wall,” Dr. Leonard orders as Barney, my husband, stares somewhere between that wall and me five feet from where he stands. My quivering legs tent a blue sheet. The wet stirrup, slick with sweat, digs into the arch of my foot. I stare at my clenching toes, which seem now like they belong to another woman. Where I once felt ashamed of my nakedness amid strangers in masks testing, timing, probing my body, now there is nothing but a blind urgency.
“Good job,” someone says, and I feel like a dog.
Five minutes, five pushes, and finally, the baby is born. She is of an unearthly beauty, compact as a fairy and healthy. When I meet Isabelle’s open eyes, a shockwave of fear courses through me. I was expecting a kitten’s face, scrunched closed, still living in a twilight. But there she is, taking me in with her dark blue wide-open eyes.
“I’d like the baby to be baptized,” I ventured at seven months.
Then come the sounds of celebration, phone calls, sharing the details. She is the first girl born in my family in 25 years. But, though physically relieved of the pregnancy itself, every inch of me feels weighted—my blood thickened, my tongue engorged, my brain a nest of dead coils. I don’t feel real. I am in quicksand, losing my foothold on reality. The world around me has become a distant, cartoonish tableau. I worry about what is real and what is not. And the meaning of life. Not in sweet wonderment. Not in the sense of miracles. It is dismal, fragile, incomprehensible. Down the distant but familiar hole I go.
I hope no one will notice as long as I smile, which I manage with forced effort.
Both my parents are dead; they died before they could meet this sweetest child.
“I’d like the baby to be baptized,” I ventured at seven months. “I want you to be happy, but....” Barney sat at the kitchen table.
We imagined a harmonious houseful of children slamming hockey pucks against a garage door, peanut buttery lips pursed at the art table.
“It’s more of a tradition,” I tried. “More like it’ll protect the baby just in case.”
“We decided this before,” Barney said.
During the days of our courtship and his marriage proposal, we imagined a harmonious houseful of children slamming hockey pucks against a garage door, peanut buttery lips pursed at the art table. Between us and our different traditions, we brokered a vague sense of fair play. He didn’t require me to convert, but the children, the imaginary children, would be raised Jewish. I had agreed. After all, what had Catholicism done for me? After all, what did I believe anyway?
Our differences evaporated in love’s urgency. But even then, blinded with passion, I called myself a sell-out in silent moments. Keep the man at all costs. If you want to move up in the world, you’ve got to evolve. Catholicism is so retrograde. Don’t blow it. Let go of the Catholic girl for a man who will whisk you away from your troubled landscape and bring you to paradise. Was I selling my soul for the financial security he offered? Was it simply how much I loved him?
Even then, blinded with passion, I called myself a sell-out to my faith. Keep the man at all costs.
I agreed to lose the debate.
Settled into reality, seven years into our marriage, I found myself sad, resentful and worried that the baby I was carrying would not be baptized. I imagined a compromise. Raised Jewish, yes, but baptized first.
My belly grew. I felt myself so immersed in Barney’s family, their wishes and love that I could not imagine falling out of line, out of their favor. A good Catholic girl.
Still the need burned inside of me. I could not see past it.
We pack up Isabelle and bring her home from the hospital. I feel no better. In fact, I am caught up in a loop of negative, frightening ideas and thoughts. Not about God, exactly, but something existential, looming, something that can devour me. But I soldier through December’s gray drizzle, marveling at the wonder I have created.
How could I, the sophisticated free spirit, even think that Isabelle is spiritually imperiled without a christening?
How could I even believe, as the church proclaims, that this innocent child carries original sin on her soul? I look for an answer on the bow of her pearly lips. I go cross-eyed as I bring her face to mine. There is a moment of painful ecstasy for the time I forget to breathe.
How could I, the sophisticated free spirit, even think that Isabelle is spiritually imperiled without a christening? Did I actually believe that she would end up in limbo if she died without a baptism? Even the Catholic Church is ambivalent on the matter. The website aboutCatholics.com reports that “Limbo is a theory developed by medieval theologians as the place where unbaptized persons go when they die.” Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church, nor has it been rejected by the church. Not official, but not rejected? The notion of limbo is itself in limbo.
Barney and I decide to consult a rabbi. Her face is round and earnest. Her study is walled with volumes of treatises and canons, assembled on high shelves. I was always attracted to the intellectual backbone of Judaism.
“We’re not very religious,” Barney begins. “My family. We’re secular.” Secular meaning Barney is agnostic at best, non-observant but still proud of his Jewish heritage and committed to raising his children as Jews.
He throws in a joke about Nazis that lands flat as a palm.
The rabbi sighs. “You want this child to be Jewish, but if he or she is baptized....”
I want her to say that it will not matter. Her baptism won’t register under Jewish law. It would be the spiritual equivalent of Monopoly money—of value only in one specific world. But I make no sound and the rabbi remains friendly but unequivocal.
When Solomon orders the child to be cut in two, the true mother hands the child over to the imposter. She is willing to lose the child in order to save his life.
“The Jewish community could not accept her as one of their own. It would be out of the question. You have to make the choice one way or another.”
As I walk home from the temple, I think of the story in Kings, in which two women present one child to Solomon and ask him to decide who the real mother is. When Solomon orders the child to be cut in two, the true mother recoils in horror and hands the child over to the imposter. She is willing to lose the child in order to save his life. I, too, am now being asked to make my decision to “lose her” from my faith in order to keep her whole. There can be no halfway, no compromise.
That night I tell my sister about the rabbi’s words.
“Let’s just bring her to the church and let the priest splash some water on her and make the sign of the cross,” she whispers. “Will that make you feel better?”
We plan a baby naming at the temple. My family attends, pleased like me that there is at least some religious ceremony to welcome its newest member.
It is tempting. Isabelle wouldn’t have a mark on her body signifying her entrance into Christendom. Barney would never know. Isabelle would never know.
In the end, I decide against our proposed sibling conspiracy. It would be living a lie. The rational part of me knows too much is at stake.
Barney and I reach a compromise of sorts. We plan a baby naming at the temple. My family attends, pleased like me that there is at least some religious ceremony to welcome its newest member. I recall very little of that day, addled with Xanax and the third or fourth trial of anti-depressants that still failed to move the mood needle toward normal. But I find some peace and comfort knowing that Isabelle was blessed. Though imperfect, it is at least a shield. Limbo recedes.
Twelve years later, Isabelle addresses the same family group as she reads from the Torah.
Seven years after that, when she is 19, I read pieces of this essay to her. She listens, her blue-green eyes still taking me in, but, in another way, uncomprehending. Why, she wonders, was this so troubling to me?
Religious doctrine has fallen away like an itchy cardigan from her pale shoulders. The notion of sin is as imaginary as the puppet characters she creates with her posse of friends at the artists’ colony where she lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I don’t want her to feel guilty about my struggles over her religious identity, to wonder whether she is half-Catholic and half-Jewish.
And yet, I still ask her.
“Would you want to be baptized?” I don’t say “for my sake,” but it’s obvious enough.
Even this late, almost 20 years later, a part of me hopes she will finally come to my side. Even this late, there is a part of me that wonders whether she will end up in limbo.
She shakes her head.
“I’m sorry that I made you so unhappy,” she says. “That you suffered when I was born.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I reply.
I don’t want her to feel guilty about my struggles over her religious identity. I don’t want her to live in limbo on earth. I don’t want her to wonder whether she is half-Catholic and half-Jewish. I want her to feel complete and satisfied with the choices we made as parents and the choices she has made for herself. Second-guessing and self-blame don’t suit her soaring spirit, her curiosity, her open heart.
Her iPhone buzzes with a text from a person she has wanted to hear from all day. Like that, she bounces off my bed, gives me a warm hug, gathers her backpack and departs.
She is off to a good start—an intrepid traveler, an excellent student, a talented painter, a loving sister with many friends. And, after all these years, I am off to a good “restart,” too. I have taught myself to accept the ambiguities that life has laid before me. Isabelle has taught me to leave limbo behind, to live in the precious moments of now, to accept myself as a complicated, imperfect person I am and am still becoming.
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