Monday, November 22, 2010

Judge Kimba Wood Responds to Imbalanced Simchas for Jewish Babies

In my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a year-long seminar that focused on Jewish life-cycle observances. Of course, we covered all the basics like the bris, the Jewish wedding and the Jewish funeral. But we spent more time discussing life-cycle events that traditionally had been given short shrift. In fact, we devoted a great deal of time discussing appropriate ceremonies for the birth of a Jewish baby girl.

For generations, the birth of a baby boy in Judaism was cause for great celebration. The bris, or ritual circumcision, meant a crowded home event with festive foods, speeches, singing, and celebration. Relatives and friends would travel great distances to attend the bris on the eighth day of the baby's life, carrying gifts with them for the elated parents. The birth of a baby girl often meant nothing more than a synagogue honor for the newborn's father while mother and baby were still in the hospital. In recent time, it has been a naming ceremony after baby girl's first month, or any time in the first year when the parents got around to it.

Beginning with recommended rituals for welcoming a newborn girl into the Jewish faith by the authors of the 1960s classic The First Jewish Catalog: A Do It Yourself Classic and continuing more recently with Debra Nussbaum Cohen's wonderful Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant-New and Traditional Ceremonies, greater attention has been paid to welcoming ceremonies for Jewish baby girls.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2005, my wife and I welcomed our twin son and daughter into the Jewish covenant with separate ceremonies that took place in the synagogue one after the other. We figured that they were born minutes apart, so their naming ceremonies should be minutes apart as well. On the eighth day of their lives, they would become part of the Jewish people in rituals that were different, yet balanced. Our son had the traditional bris and then our daughter had a "Simchat Bat," in which she was blessed by her female relatives in a candlelighting ceremony. Rather than wait a month or longer to bestow a Hebrew name on our daughter, we chose to make both our son and daughter the main event of this life-cycle event attended by many friends and family.

I am feeling nostalgic as the fifth anniversary of that special event, in which neither male nor female was favored above the other, approaches. And so, I had to smile when I read about Judge Kimba Wood's recent decision in a case in which a lawyer asked to be excused from court if and when his pregnant daughter's baby turns out to be a boy. Kimba Wood was one of the judges nominated by President Bill Clinton to be Attorney General of the United States before Janet Reno was eventually confirmed. Both she and fellow nominee Zoe Baird were brought down by stories involving their nannies. Wood is also known as the judge who sentenced the "Junk Bond King" Michael Milken to ten years in prison.

Apparently, like me, Kimba Wood recognizes the unfairness in making a big fuss over a Jewish boy's birth, but seeing a Jewish girl's birth as a lesser event. Here is the letter to Judge Kimba Wood by attorney Bennett M. Epstein, with Wood's response following:

Dear Judge Wood:

I represent Mark Barnett in the above matter, which is scheduled for trial beginning November 29th.

Please consider this letter as an application in limine for a brief recess in the middle of trial on the grounds known (perhaps not now, but hereafter) as a “writ of possible simcha]”.

The facts are as follows: My beautiful daughter, Eva, married and with a doctorate no less, and her husband, Ira Greenberg ( we like him, too) live in Philadelphia and are expecting their first child on December 3rd, tfu tfu tfu. They do not know whether it will be a boy or a girl, although from the oval shape of Eva’s tummy, many of the friends and family are betting male (which I think is a mere bubbameiseh but secretly hope is true).

Should the child be a girl, not much will happen in the way of public celebration. Some may even be disappointed, but will do their best to conceal this by saying, “as long as it’s a healthy baby”. My wife will run to Philly immediately, but I will probably be able [to] wait until the next weekend. There will be happiness, though muted, and this application will be mooted as well.

However, should baby be a boy, then hoo hah! Hordes of friends and family will arrive from around the globe and descend on Philadelphia for the joyous celebration mandated by the halacha  to take place during the daylight hours on the eighth day, known as the bris. The eighth day after December 3rd could be right in the middle of the trial. My presence at the bris is not strictly commanded, although my absence will never be forgotten by those that matter.

So please consider this an application for maybe, tfu tfu tfu, a day off during the trial, if the foregoing occurs on a weekday. I will let the Court (and the rest of the world) know as soon as I do, and promise to bring pictures.

Very truly yours,

Bennett M. Epstein

Judge Kimba Wood's response:


Kim Levy said...

Love it! We also had Eden's Simchat Bat on the 8th day after she was born. Not knowing if she was a boy or girl, we just planned something for that day and stuck to it. We figured, we did it for our son and we'll do it for our daughter too. So glad we did!

Anonymous said...

As the mother of 4 girls I always felt that they were cheated out of their official welcome to the Jewish community, although they were named in Shul on the first Shabat after their birth. Nevertheless, they are all marvelous successful women who are making wonderful contributions to the Jewish community and the their communities at large. My 5 granddauhters have all have Simchat Bat celebrations.

Julie Hilton Danan said...

I can hardly believe the letter from the lawyer, even though obviously tongue in cheek. "Muted" joy if it's a girl? Oy vey!!!

But it's all too real with families who still say, "if it's a boy, we'll go right away, if it's a girl, no rush." I have four daughters and one son (fourth child) and when I was pregnant with him, a local Jewish matron asked me if my husband and I would "stop" if it were a boy this time. My clever friend said I should have replied, "Stop what?!"

I also wrote about ceremonies for girls in my book, "The Jewish Parents' Almanac," by Julie Hilton Danan.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Mark Fass linked to this blog in his New York Law Journal article on the Judge Kimba Wood simcha response.

In addition to getting the day off, Mr. Epstein is now in the midst of his own 15 minutes of Internet fame. The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog posted an item about the letter, as did The Atlantic ("This is incredibly charming and progressive on Kimba Wood's part"), the Jerusalem Post and, of course,

Mr. Epstein said he has received dozens of phone calls and e-mails, from friends and strangers.

In a phone interview yesterday, Mr. Epstein said that he has appeared before Judge Wood several times, and did not think the light tone of his letter, or his "secret hope" for a boy, would offend.

"It was tongue in cheek and also heart on sleeve," Mr. Epstein said. "I think she has a sense of humor."

Mr. Epstein said he has also begun to prepare for the celebration of girls and women in Judge Woods' court, just in case.

"There's a poem from the book of proverbs, 'aishes chayil,'" Mr. Epstein said. "It's read on Friday nights, and at weddings grooms sing it to brides. It's a beautiful poem that honors the role of women."

Mark Fass can be reached at

Gillian said...

I loved the judge's response. I always felt bad that we didn't make a simhat bat for my first daughter, but she was premature and after her month in hospital we moved house and we just weren't up to making a simha at that point. We made a simhat bat for my second daughter two weeks after she was born. Having made 2 britot 8 days after birth, I felt that I should at least take advantage of the situation and give myself a bit longer to recover! My older daughter's bat mitzva was made a week after her birthday - we would have done it on the date but she was born on the last day of Tammuz. Although she did not layen, she gave a dvar tora in shul on shabbat and her celebration was totally equal to those of our sons.