Support for Infertility in the Jewish Community
By: Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores, MFT Santa Rosa, CA
Many Jewish holidays can evoke grief for women and couples experiencing infertility. Rosh Hashana brings the Torah stories of the matriarch Sarah, finally learning she’s pregnant in her old age, after struggling with infertility for decades, and of Hannah–who prays so fervently for a child that the priest Eli takes her for a drunkard. Channukah and Purim can evoke the envy of watching friends’ children light up with glee over the fun of the holidays. As one friend recently put it, “Channukah just isn’t fun without little ones around.”
Perhaps no holiday is as replete with themes of fertility and birth as Passover, during the spring season of rebirth. In the Passover story, the Jewish nation is literally so fertile that pharaoh commands that their baby boys be thrown into the Nile for fear they will grow into a nation that will overpower the Egyptians. The brave midwives, Shifrah and Puah, save these babies, telling pharaoh that the Jewish women give birth so quickly, and in such high numbers, that they cannot possibly gather all their infant boys. Imagine hearing this story year after year, while trying, and failing, to conceive. Jewish culture values the family above all else, except perhaps the Torah or a good brisket. Thus, being childless can feel shameful and isolating.
Passover was my mother’s favorite holiday. Early in my marriage, I looked forward to hosting her at our home in California, where she’d travel from the East Coast, after so many years of enjoying her beautifully prepared family seders. I happily anticipated showing her the lilacs blooming in our backyard–both of our favorite flower–reminiscent of those outside my childhood house. But my excitement over her visit was tempered by the fact that I had not yet been able to give her grandchildren. I’d prepared a beautiful meal and created a spiritually meaningful Haggadah, but there were no little ones present to ask the Four Questions or to excitedly search for the Afikomen. Part of the purpose of the seder is to pass on the story of Jewish survival to the next generation. Would our family have a next generation to continue the faith and lineage? I identified with the Israelites wandering in the desert, as I felt lost in my own desert of barrenness. When we invited in the Prophet Elijah, I prayed to this purveyor of miracles to grant me my wish for a baby.
Raised in a traditional Conservative home, I had long been interested in exploring how Judaism can provide meaning to our modern lives, through the renewal and reinterpretation of ancient teachings and rituals. I began to look to Jewish resources for how to cope with infertility, reading essays and creative prayers by women rabbis about fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. I was grateful that women’s experiences and voices were increasingly a part of our tradition, as I drew from their wisdom. I began to put myself in the shoes of our matriarchs–Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah–and was inspired by their patience and faith. About the same time, I had a woman friend in my synagogue community who experienced a miscarriage. Alone with her disenfranchised grief, she felt that she could not share her pain with many friends, lest she be told, “You can always have another baby.” Friends didn’t understand the unique bond she’d had with this particular child. Her struggles with infertility afterwards only added to her feeling isolated and excluded. Like many women I’ve counseled through infertility, she felt many conflicted feelings when invited to friends’ baby showers–a churning in her stomach of joy for them, tempered by her own grief, jealousy, longing, and bitterness.
When my friend next became pregnant, she asked that our Jewish renewal community develop a ritual for her to celebrate and pray for her and her baby. Our rebbetzin at the time, herself in rabbinical school, designed a beautiful ceremony where we women sat in a circle with our friend, as the rebbetzin dipped her feet in water, in a symbolic mikveh to mark the holiness and transition of this time in her life. We took turns offering her blessings, to comfort her pain over past loss, soothe her worries and fears, and offer hope for new life.
I was inspired by this ritual to develop my own. One Shabbat, during the days in between Passover and Shavuot, when my community was offering each other creative, individualized Priestly Blessings, I asked that a group of my women friends encircle me to send blessings for fruitfulness. As I felt their love surround me, I felt their strength infuse me and I knew that I would be better able both to maintain faith whether or not I bled the next month. I also realized that if it was not my fate to be blessed with my own children, I would find a way to have children in my life, through friends, family and my counseling work.
The practice of developing creative rituals within Judaism has made my faith feel more authentic. I have gone on to co-create rituals marking friends’ hysterectomies and menopausal passages. As more Jewish women leaders and lay leaders add our experiences to Jewish practices, the tradition itself grows, expands, and becomes more life-giving and more fruitful. Eventually, my husband and I were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. I’ve celebrated as she’s chanted the Four Questions at seder, rose to the Torah for her Bat Mitzvah, and has grown into a strong and articulate young woman in her own right. I continue to pray that as a community we will include and support the disenfranchised grief in our own midst, even as we celebrate the joyous miracles of life and rebirth.