Simchat Bat — Shalvi Aderet

INK:

I came home from the hospital last Thursday afternoon, the week of parshat Yitro, and on Friday night we sat down to eat Shabbat dinner as a family of six, for the first time. As we do every week, Daniel and I began teaching the parsha to the kids. Matan excitedly announced that it was his parsha, since it features the story of Matan Torah — and the girls wanted to know more about the thunder and lightning and the fiery mountain, which were all the more intriguing after a particularly stormy week. But the verse that most spoke to me had nothing to do with מעמד הר סיני but appears in the opening lines of the parsha, in which Yitro receives word of the dramatic story of God’s deliverance of Bnei Yisrael from Egyptian bondage. Moshe recounts to his father-in-law all the hardships that had befallen Israel, and how God had delivered them. The Torah then relates that upon hearing this news, ויחד יתרו – Yitro rejoiced, though Rashi reads it as a play on the word חד, sharp, and comments נעשה בשרו חדודין חדודין – his flesh became pins and needles. Yitro was so moved by the story of the exodus that the hairs on his skin stood on end; he got goosebumps– which was much like how I felt when I thought about the miraculous delivery of our beautiful baby girl earlier that week. In the midrashic imagination, the exodus is often analogized to a birth, with Mitzrayim as the narrow birth canal from which the nation of Israel is born. I, too, had felt the pangs of redemption, and in what seemed to be a miracle – this baby, like the Israelite babies in Egypt, came out so quickly that the midwife had to catch her with her bare hands – I felt like I, too, had been delivered from the hardship of labor on eagle’s wings.

But the high lasted only so long as the night wore on. Our kids grew tired and needed to be put to bed, and soon the baby would need to be fed, and dinner needed to be cleaned up. We felt so grateful that Savta Alisa was with us, as she’s been with us for three weeks now – cooking all our meals, taking the older kids to and from Gan, holding and changing the baby, and doing pretty much everything that needs to get done in our home. “How are we going to manage when Savta goes home?” Daniel asked me. “And what happens when I go back to work? You’re going to lose your mind.” I thought of Yitro’s conversation with Moshe, in which Yitro insists that Moshe cannot do it all on his own: נבל תבול Yitro tells Moshe, you are going to wear yourself out! And I began to worry that Daniel was right, and that I would indeed lose my mind – maybe not all the time, but certainly any time more than three kids were crying at once. Granted, we are blessed by frequent family visits, particularly by Baba Rella, who comes to Israel more often than we go to Tel Aviv. But how would we get the kids out of the house in the morning on days when it was just us? I wondered if I ought to be more fearful for my sanity, and if I, like Moshe, needed more help. But just then I looked over at our beautiful baby daughter, wrapped like a mummy in layers of blankets and perched calmly in a car seat on our windowsill, breathing deeply, the picture of perfect equanimity. She had barely cried since she was born – whenever she’d wake up, she’d merely open her eyes and look around wide-eyed until someone noticed her; when she was hungry, she’d suck on her fingers noisily until I had time to feed her, and I’d think:
אנכי יהוה אלהיך המעלך מארץ מצרים הרחב פיך ואמלאהו  (Tehillim 81:11)
Each time I picked her up to feed her, I felt as if she were in touch with a deep inner source of tranquility that prevented her from ever getting ruffled or unsettled. I already have much to learn from her, I thought. And just then, I knew what we would name her.

I cannot pretend that I know what sort of character our daughter will ultimately have. But in naming her ShalVA Aderet, I hope that she will always be robed in the tranquility that has typified her during these early newborn weeks. May Shalvi know, even in life’s most tumultuous moments, how to draw upon a deep inner reservoir of calmness and serenity. And may her tranquility radiate out to all of us. I know it will not be easy with four kids under the age of five, and I don’t expect a quiet household – at least not for the next decade. But I hope that no matter how hectic life seems, we will always speak to one another calmly and treat one another respectfully, and that our family will continue to be graced by ShalVA.

יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ;    שַׁלְוָה, בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ

This verse captures my fervent wish for shalom bayit—for peace within our walls, and tranquility in our citadels. In the context of the chapter of Tehillim in which it appears, this pasuk speaks, too, to one of my most fervent prayers throughout the nine months of my pregnancy – that peace should come to Yerushalayim –

שַׁאֲלוּ, שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם;    יִשְׁלָיוּ, אֹהֲבָיִךְ.
יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ;    שַׁלְוָה, בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ.
לְמַעַן, אַחַי וְרֵעָי–    אֲדַבְּרָה-נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּך
לְמַעַן, בֵּית-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ–    אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ.
(תהילים קכ”ב)

I thank God for miraculously delivering our daughter to us, and I pray that we will all be blessed with Shalom and Shalva – in our city and in our citadels, in our homes and in our hearts.

DBF Simchat Bat Shalva Aderet Feldman:

Our hearts overflow with gratitude today. When Ilana and I met a few short years ago, we never could have imagined being so blessed in so brief a period. As we welcome into our family a fourth child, our precious little Shalvi, we praise Hashem for showing us extraordinary Chessed and pray for wisdom in raising our children.

It may have already occurred to you that there is some irony in naming our own daughter for tranquility. As Shalvi joins a family in which the “big” siblings are only three and four, her name represents more an aspiration for our future than an accurate description of our current state of domestic affairs. Still, Shalvi’s name also recalls the earliest foundations of our life as a couple and family.

The word Shalva appears in one of our favorite Midrashim, cited by Rashi at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev and speaking to our identity as students of Torah:
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו
Says Rashi:
ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף.
After all his travails, Yaakov at last sought to settle in tranquillity when suddenly, there leapt upon him the agitation of Yosef.

Our teacher Avivah Zornberg eloquently expands upon this Rashi, for it vividly illustrates a turning point in Yaakov Avinu’s struggle for stability and his quest for wholeness in the Land. It was at a turning point in our lives when, during one of Avivah’s shiurim in the years when Ilana and I were first settling in Israel, questing for our own wholeness, Avivah sought to illustrate this Midrash about Shalva interrupted by way of Blake’s famous poem “The Tyger.” Avivah asked one lovely student, a woman burning bright in the back rows of the class, to recite the poem, which of course she did flawlessly, twisting the sinews of my heart— ואידך פירושה הוא the rest is commentary. Ilana, of course, has made sure that each of our kids learns the poem by heart. Shalvi can start studying soon…

Ilana, as we all know, is sui generis, one-of-a-kind. In our home, she is the master teacher of Torah, the inveterate lover of literature, the effervescent mother radiating life. INKy, it is a privilege, a delight, and an adventure to spend my life with you. Your vitality burns most bright during pregnancy and childbirth, and I could not be more proud to be your partner in raising our four beautiful children.

I also want to recognize our parents, both those who are with us in person and those who are with us in spirit. Ilana already mentioned our parents’ generosity in providing for our every need during Shalvi’s first days. But Ilana did not mention that in her mother’s case, this entailed retiring from an executive position in the world of Jewish federation in order to find the time. Two days after her retirement from senior management at UJA, Savta Alisa took over management in our home. I don’t think there’s any debate about what’s the harder job. Alisa and Saba Neil, we are so grateful to you both. May Shalvi learn from your selfless commitment to family and community. We are also very fortunate to have my mother Rella Feldman with us. Baba, you have not missed the birth celebration of a single one of your 16 grandchildren, k’nine o hara, including six born in Israel. What an incredible legacy for the only child of Holocaust survivors. Thank you for being here and for all you do on our behalf. Your generosity and warmth, enhanced these past years by Curtiss, whose own family is with us here, have no bounds, and we could not imagine a more beloved and loving, elegant and energetic matriarch to our family. Smiling down at us from Shamayim today is my father, Dr. Charles Feldman, Saba alav hashalom, who always encouraged his children to find more room at the family table. As time passes, I feel the loss of my father’s presence all the more acutely even as I sense his example as a father and leader ever more clearly. With each new milestone and simcha, we miss Dad still more fiercely, but in recollecting his legacy in the company of Shalva, I appreciate anew how fortunate I am to have had him as my father.

Ilana and I also recall the memories of our grandparents, Betty and Joseph Feldman, Sally and Isak Levenstein, Gila and Mordecai Rubin, and, most recently departed, Phyllis and Jerry Kurshan, Ilana’s dignified and adored paternal grandparents, who played a major role in her life until their passing two summers ago.

להבדיל בין חיים לחיים. We are thrilled to celebrate here with three of our sisters. Naamit and Ariella, accomplished professionals, exceptional mothers, and devoted sisters, we could not be more honored that you made a special trip to meet your new niece. Estie, you traveled not quite as far, but our proximity to you has fostered a special relationship that we and our kids share with you and yours. You are more than a sister.

Together with Elizur you are a role model of how to combine the life of a loving family with chessed, communal commitment, and infinite generosity. We are forever indebted to you for all the kindness you show us and our kids. We hope that our siblings with us here, along with our many siblings back in the States, serve as examples to our children, Matan, Liav, Tagel, and Shalvi, of how to create life-long bonds of friendship and love. Our bracha today is that our children come to know the gift of Achva by always striving to dwell together in harmony, leyshev B’shavla, no matter the circumstance. May our family merit the supreme tranquility brought by Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. And may Shalva Aderet always adorn our home with peace. Thank you for joining us. Enjoy the seudat hodaya, and mazel tov.

Stronghold of the Mothers

For the first time in my life I made it a regular practice to attend Selichot services this year. Selichot are penitentiary prayers traditionally recited between midnight and dawn in the weeks preceding Yom Kippur. As a child I never went to Selichot because either I was too young to be awake at that hour, or else I was old enough to babysit for parents who were willing to pay me so that they could attend. And as an adult, I shied away from Selichot because I had enough trouble maintaining my focus during the long Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services; the last thing I was looking for was more time in shul. But now, with three kids under the age of four, things have shifted, and Selichot have suddenly become the spiritual climax of my high holiday experience.
            To some extent this is simply a matter of timing. In my synagogue Selichot are recited at 10:30pm, once all my kids are blessedly asleep and I’ve had a chance to eat dinner, clean up from the day, and prepare for tomorrow. By 10:30pm I am rarely doing anything productive, and I welcome the twenty-minute walk in the cool evening air. Unlike all the other major services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which take place either when my kids are awake or else when I need to be putting them to bed, the timing of Selichot means that I can sit in synagogue by myself, without my toddler twins vying for space on my lap while rummaging through my bag in search of lollipops or begging me to read aloud to them from the books I’ve brought to distract them. Even praying at home has become difficult lately—this year on Rosh Hashanah my husband went to a 5:30am service while I davened Shacharit at home with the kids underfoot, where embarrassingly I found myself in the very same breath affirming God’s sovereignty—HaMelech—and assuring the two-year-old relentlessly tugging at my skirt that yes, Elmo also has a tushie. I can’t do that anymore.
            And so now I do most of my soul-searching during Selichot, where the metaphors that dominate the liturgy seem surprisingly resonant. The focal point of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy; we appeal to God’s compassion in the hope that we, too, will be forgiven. God is slow to anger, gracious, and abundant in kindness –He is our king, but also our father, and I would do well to emulate Him as a parent. Lately in our household, bedtime has been extremely trying, and most nights I end up yelling at my twins when they insist, a half hour after their official bedtime, that they need to come out of their cribs to make one more peepee. “Enough! No more!” I yell in frustration, only later to regret that I am not slower to anger. During the Aneinu prayer, where we appeal to God to answer us, I think about all the times my kids wake up crying in the middle of the night–itself a theme of Selichot, where we are explicitly enjoined to “Arise, cry out in the night” (Lamentations 2:19)–and I am tempted to burrow beneath my pillow and hope they learn to soothe themselves instead of soaking their beds with tears. “Answer us, stronghold of the mothers, answer us,” we plead. I pray that God will be the stronghold of this mother too, and instill in me the strength to rally in the wee hours. “Act for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; act for the sake of those who still nurse from breasts; act for the sake of those who are weaned of milk; act for the sake of the children of Beit Rabban who have never sinned.” And so we petition God to act on behalf of those who are innocent as children – those who are dependent on their parents for their every need, as I know all too well.
            The shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and also during Selichot—is supposed to resemble a cry or a wail. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) compares it to the wailing of the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite military general who fought against the Israelites in the book of Judges. The sound of the shofar is the sound of the wailing mother, and it is, too, the wailing sound familiar to all mothers. As I sit in synagogue at midnight trying to focus on the words in the prayer book before me, I am grateful that at least at that moment, the sound of the shofar is the only cry I hear.

 

The Fallen Street Lamp: Mourning the Temple with my Kids

A few weeks ago a street lamp collapsed in the empty Jerusalem parking lot my children and I cross through every morning on our way to their preschool. The giant light pole—at least thirty feet tall—lay strewn across the parking lot, its wooden pole intact but its glass light shattered. I tried to navigate the stroller around the shards and the exposed electrical wires. Although we were not there when the lamp toppled, my kids were very shaken to see how the mighty had fallen, and even now, weeks after the lamp has been dragged away and presumably taken to a landfill somewhere, my toddlers continue to shout, “Lamp fall down! Lamp fall down!” every time we cross the parking lot. They seem traumatized by the event and unable to let go, and now, with Tisha b’Av approaching, I think I understand why.
            Tisha b’Av is a holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temple, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE. For Jews living during these eras, the Temple was the focal point of religious worship, which was characterized primarily by sacrifice. All Jews were obligated to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times a year, such that it was impossible to pass through the year without a visit to the Temple – and once the Temple was destroyed, that loss became indelibly etched in the Jewish national consciousness.
Like the destroyed Temple, the fallen lamp continues to haunt. No matter what else we are in the middle of talking about, my children can’t seem to pass through the parking lot without interrupting to invoke the lamp and bemoan its absence. “How did it fall? Why did it fall?” my four-year-old son keeps asking me, echoing the repeated “how” of Lamentations, the book of the Bible in which the prophet Jeremiah elegizes the Temple. But we rarely have time to linger, and so instead I hurry him along.
            The opening pages of the Talmud famously tell of a rabbi who enters a Jerusalem ruin to pray and is rebuked by Elijah for spending too much time in the ruin and not praying “along the way.” But the art of losing is hard to master. It’s only the rare Rabbi Akiva who can look out at the foxes scampering in and out of the desolate Temple mount and laugh, confident in a more hopeful future. It’s hard not to get swept up in mourning and lamentation, which is why I suppose the rabbis designated a single day of the year to commemorate so many of the tragedies of Jewish history – they teach that not only were the Temples destroyed on Tisha b’Av, but also on that date the decree was sealed that the generation of the desert would not enter the promised land, and the Bar Kokhba revolt was crushed, and the Roman general Turnus Rufus plowed Jerusalem. Tisha b’Av becomes a catch-all for tragedy and loss, a one-day-fits-all that teaches us how to honor but also contain our grief.
            In the poem “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet tells of a girl who weeps at the falling of the leaves in autumn. “Marguerite are you grieving / over Goldengrove unleaving,” the poet asks, unable to understand why such a commonplace and cyclically predictable event could be the occasion for so much grief. Ultimately the poet comes to realize that Marguerite is mourning not just for the foliage, but for all the sadness of humanity, because “sorrow’s springs are all the same,” just as all Jewish historical tragedy is the tragedy of Tisha b’Av. My children, too, are swept up not in the collapse of the lamp specifically, but in the notion of loss more generally – the sobering notion that something that was once a part of their lives could be suddenly no longer there. And so now when we pass through the parking lot and they ask about the lamp, I respond with a blessing I’ve been trying to teach them, part of the daily liturgy: “May You rebuild Jerusalem rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure…. Blessed are You O Lord Our God, who rebuilds Jerusalem.” They don’t know the whole blessing yet, but they always respond Amen.

 

Karet Parties

I have never made a birthday party for any of my three children. Granted, my oldest is turning only four, but even so, we have already attended several parties with clowns, balloons, party favors, and frosted cakes, and I feel a bit awkward that I haven’t returned any of those invitations. But I know my kids, and I know myself – and birthday parties are just not our speed.
            Each time we attend a friend’s party, my kids stay as far away from the action as possible. Generally we spend most of our time huddled up in an older sibling’s empty bedroom, my kids pulling books off the shelf and asking me to read them, or else playing with puzzles and dolls as I try and fail to sneak out and socialize with the other parents so as to seem less rude. When the lights are dimmed and the birthday cake is presented with candles and fanfare, I drag my kids out and they cling to me for dear life, my son hiding between my legs and my toddler twins on each hip, their heads burrowed into my armpits. They don’t like big groups or loud noise, and I can’t blame them, because neither do I.
            As a child I never let my mother make me birthday parties. Always loathe to be the center of attention, I attended friends’ parties reluctantly but never wanted one of my own. “What’s the big deal,” I kept insisting. “So I’m one year older. Why is that a cause for celebration? It’s not like I did anything great.” One year my mother thought she could win me over by making me a surprise party. When I got home from school she told me to take my novel and read in her walk-in closet, and I, happy for any excuse to read uninterrupted, didn’t ask any questions. An hour later, when she tried to drag me out, I implored, “Let me just finish the chapter,” oblivious to the seven friends who were gathered excitedly in the kitchen. It took me a while to come out of the closet, though when I did, I tried to be a good sport.
            Now that I’m the mother, I see things a bit differently. I respect my kids’ aversion to parties, and I confess that I’m somewhat relieved that I won’t be dealing with the challenge of entertaining rambunctious, thrill-seeking toddlers and their equally demanding parents. At the same time, I now have an answer to my younger self who thought that birthdays were no big deal. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from being a parent, it’s that a turning one year older is a big deal indeed.
            I most recently learned this lesson shortly before Passover, when my daughter had a terrible fall and lost two teeth. She was bleeding for several days and had to re-learn first how to drink and then, a full week later, how to start eating again. Her speech is slurred and she can no longer eat apples, but thank God she is otherwise completely fine, if tooth-less. When we sat down to the Seder a few days later, we made the blessing recited on Jewish festivals and on the occasion of major milestones: “Blessed are You O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day.” Those words took on new meaning with my daughter on my lap, happily sucking on her matzah.
My daughter’s injury sensitized me to how lucky we were that things were not worse. Every day there are countless dangers in our path – I worry most about the cars that rush across the highway I cross each morning with three kids precariously perched in a stroller built for two, but there are also germs and sharp objects and daredevil toddler antics in that split second I turn my back. Each night when I tuck my kids in bed, I ought to thank God for keeping them alive and sustaining them and enabling them to complete the day. All the more so when a full year has elapsed with my children growing healthy and strong. The Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) relates that Rav Yosef made himself a sixtieth birthday party to celebrate that death had not cut him off from his people, referring to the biblical punishment of karet, or excision, which the sages believed a person was susceptible to only until this age. Neither I nor my kids are close to that point, but I can identify with his sigh of relief.
            When my son turns four this month, I am not going to throw him a party. But I’m also not going to let the day go by without marking it in a way that is significant for me, for him, and for our family. Because even if we don’t do it with clowns and balloons, there is no doubt we have much to celebrate.

Walking Books

            I am an avid reader, though these days I read fewer novels and far more children’s picture books. I’m not complaining; one of the greatest pleasures of being a parent is reading aloud to my children. And read aloud I do, all the time. Although a staggering proportion of children’s books are bedtime stories—on the final page the character either falls asleep or wishes the reader good night—in our home we read all day long, in every imaginable context. In the middle of our kitchen table sits a shtender, a wooden stand more commonly used to support volumes of Talmud and other heavy religious tomes. Ours contains a line calligraphied from the Mishnah: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study; lest you never have time.” When I bought it ten years ago, I had far more time to study Torah than I do now, but I have rehabilitated it by using it as a stand for the picture books we read at the breakfast table, including several food-related favorites: The Watermelon Seed, Pete’s a Pizza, Spoon.
            While I am pushing the kids in the stroller—we have a 25-minute walk to and from their preschool every day—I recite to them from the books I’ve committed to memory, particularly those that are in verse. When reading rhyming books to my kids, I usually sing them to a melody of my own devising; as a result, I tend to memorize rhyming books pretty quickly, and can belt them out as we wait for the traffic light to change or make our way across the noisy four-lane highway. Dr. Seuss comes in handy in this regard, especially One Fish, Two Fish, which is essentially a delightful collection of nonsense verse: “The moon was out/ we saw some sheep / we saw some sheep/ take a walk in their sleep…” I want my kids to internalize various meters and rhyme schemes in the hope of cultivating their poetic sensibilities.
            And I want them, too, to learn poetry, and towards that end we have managed to find a few children’s books that consist of illustrated poems, like Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (which all my kids can more or less sing by heart) and William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” (they deliver a mean first stanza). Well, I didn’t actually find an illustrated children’s version of “Tyger, Tyger” – it is a song of Experience rather than Innocence, and therefore not standard children’s fare – but we owned a book about a tiger in a forest with awful text but dazzling illustrations, so I printed out the poem from my computer and pasted one stanza over the text of each page. I do this sometimes when we have books with terrific illustrations but terrible text; the book becomes a palimpsest, with another layer of text overlaying the original. Our copy of In My Nest, a silly board book with a three-dimensional felt bird that pops out on the last page, is now called “Shiluah HaKen,” and it contains the full text of the biblical verses about the commandment to send away the mother bird from the nest. This, too, my kids can sing.
            When we have time for more complicated narratives—while waiting our turn at the doctor’s office, or sitting before daunting plates of meatballs and spaghetti—I read them longer books that are essentially short stories for children – like Otto the Story of a Mirror, a delightful tale about a mirror working in a hat shop who is bored with his job and runs away to reflect wondrous and magical sights; at the end of the book he arrives at the famous Isle of Koodle, which he had previously only read and dreamt about, where he meets another mirror, Miranda, and they set sail together. Instead of falling asleep at the end of this book, these characters fall in love: “The two mirrors reflected many wondrous things. But sometimes on a moonlit night, Otto and Miranda just like to look at each other, reflecting back and forth, back and forth, on and on and on, forever and ever and ever.”
            And then there are the stories we read before bed, like Before You Were Bornand The Baby Goes Beep, two books edited and published by the gifted Deborah Brodie z”l; both are excellent transitions to “Now get in your cribs!” – a request often met with demands for an encore. Though it’s not a bedtime story, I unfailingly give in to any request to read our all-time favorite Wild About Books, about a librarian named Molly McGrew who drives her bookmobile into the zoo and gets all the animals hooked on reading: “Raccoons read alone / and babboons read in bunches. / And llamas read dramas / while eating their llunches.” I like to think that my kids fall asleep dreaming of insects scribbling haiku.
            Most of the books we read are heavy on text; I tend to stay away from books that are illustrations only. I will not, for instance, read Goodnight Gorilla. I understand that the point is for the parent and child to come up with their own words, but I much prefer a fixed text. Nor do I stop to explain things as I read – it is more Mikra than Parshanut. Instead I assume that the kids will understand what they can understand, and internalize the rest nonetheless. Sure, there are dangers of this approach. Recently while reading my daughter an illustrated children’s book version of “Sunrise, Sunset,” we came to the line “Share the sweet wine and break the glass” and she pointed to the eyes of the bespectacled groom in the picture and yelled “break the glasses, break the glasses” before lunging for my pair as well. (I hope she marries a guy who wears contacts.)
            Sometimes I wonder if I focus too much on memorization when reading to my kids. But it has been such an important part of my own learning. When I first started reading Shakespeare in high school, I committed to memory several sonnets and soliloquies, even though I only partially understood them. Over the years, a couplet or stanza would inexplicably pop into my head and I’d find that I suddenly understood what it meant, and how it was relevant. Likewise, much of the Torah I know by heart comes from leyning, practicing again and again to chant the verses aloud in synagogue until I know them nearly by heart. To memorize something is to be able to summon it at any time, and therefore truly to own it. Like those sages in the Talmud who were valued not for what they understood but for what they had memorized, I’d like my children to become “walking books,” able to recite the text of their favorite books to themselves and thus to sit down and “read” to themselves even before they are literate. This hasn’t quite happened yet, but when it does, I’m looking forward to some quiet time to finish reading my novel.

Baby Showers: A Teshuva

A pregnant friend recently asked me whether or not she ought to have a baby shower. “My mother-in-law really wants to make me one. I know that Jews are not supposed to do those kinds of things, but why not? Is it just about superstition?”
            I thought about her question. Is there any other reason? Why do many Jews not have baby showers? Yes, there is the superstitious fear of the evil eye, namely that celebrating the baby before it is born would attract the attention of dark spirits, who would mark the baby for disaster. Jewish superstitions go back very far – in the Talmud, for instance, the sages speak of a very real fear of doing anything in even numbers because pairs were considered demonic; this fear led the rabbis to question how we can possibly drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder, a practice that no one thinks twice about today. Indeed, many of the superstitions that may have plagued our great grandmothers in the shtetl seem to have fallen away. Why then should we not turn a blind eye to the evil eye and have that baby shower after all?
            When I think back to my own pregnancies, I can say with certainty that a baby shower was the furthest thing from my mind. Pregnancy, more than any other experience, awakened me to a sense of the miraculous. I was overcome by awe at the ability to take part in creation, but along with that awe came tremendous trepidation. Just as the baby inside me was completely dependent on me for all its needs, I felt myself entirely dependent on God. Though the baby was forming just inches below the surface of my skin, I had very little control over whether it would be healthy or strong, curious or loving. This seemed entirely up to God, and all I could do was hope and pray and tremble.
            The Talmud relates that the uncertainty that characterizes pregnancy and childbirth gave rise to a series of astrological superstitions: “One who is born on Sunday will be strong; one who is born on Monday will be quarrelsome; one who is born on Tuesday will be rich and fornicating….” I related to the desperate wish to be able to control the outcome of pregnancy, but I knew it was in vain. The day on which my child was born would make no difference, and I had no control over that day anyway. Elsewhere the Talmud relates that three keys are in the hand of God and are not entrusted to any messenger – the key to rain, the key to the revival of the dead, and the key to childbirth. It is only God who decides how an unborn child will fare.
            And so every day that passed in which my baby seemed to be fine, I regarded as a miracle. Every day I received a positive report from a doctor or ultrasound technician, I found myself chanting psalms of praise as I skipped my way out the office. People often ask me how I felt when I found out I had twins: “Were you panicked? Terrified?” I tell them the truth — that I broke out in joyous and incredulous laughter at my unbelievable good fortune, and identified more with the matriarch’s Sarah’s response to her own annunciation than with Rebecca’s dismay at her twin pregnancy. It seemed so wildly wonderful and impossible – I had been hoping for a baby to grow inside me, and lo and behold there were two!
            Throughout my pregnancies I was constantly overcome by gratitude. Several of my friends had been through devastating miscarriages and never for a moment did I assume that everything would go smoothly; even the language of “expecting” seemed a bit presumptuous. I was hoping and praying for a healthy child, and if my child were not healthy, I was hoping and praying for the strength to help him or her to thrive nonetheless. I did not find out the sex of my children in advance because I experienced pregnancy as a way of getting in touch with the unknown, the mysterious, the wondrous, and I wanted to retain that sense as much as possible. A baby shower – a party that seemed designed to celebrate a baby who would surely come – felt so antithetical to my sensibility. I did not want to assume or expect anything, but to take each day as a gift. For the time being, this was gift enough, and already I was showered in blessing.

The Mehitza and the Ramp

As I sat behind the mehitza in synagogue last week peering through its wooden latticework to catch a glimpse of my son playing at my husband’s feet, I couldn’t help but feel that I had crossed a great divide. I have always been a staunch defender of egalitarian Judaism, reluctant to attend any synagogue which assigned distinct gender roles in prayer. In the Conservative synagogue in which I grew up, men and women sat together and participated equally in the service. My father was the rabbi, which meant that my parents could not sit together even in this egalitarian prayer space, an irony my mother often lamented. While he stood on the bima leading the congregation in prayer, she sat beneath her wide-brimmed hat and plied us with bags of cheerios and little boxes of raisins, always keeping one finger in the siddur to mark her place.
            When I left my parents’ home and went to college, I soon became a leader of a small but stalwart egalitarian prayer community which held services not just on Friday nights and Shabbat day, but also a couple of mornings a week. The nights before we met I would call our various constituents individually to find out whom we could count on and whom we could count, since the full prayer service requires a quorum of ten. The Hillel building in which we prayed had transparent glass walls, and I often looked wisfully at the Orthodox minyan, which seemed to organize itself automatically. Our much smaller minyan, in contrast, would not happen unless we made it happen — unless every single one of us showed up as pledged, helped set up the chairs, and took a part in the service.
            Several of my college friends who had grown up in egalitarian synagogues did not feel it was worth the effort to sustain an egalitarian minyan, and instead elected to daven in the Orthodox community, where their absence would not be as noticeable nor their presence as vital. I tried to respect their decision, but to me it seemed like they were selling out. I believed that prayer should not be about gender, but that all men and women should stand equally before God. Although the sages of the Talmud excluded women from fixed prayer and other time-bound obligations, I did not identify with the Talmudic category of “women.” As an independent woman in charge of her own finances and not beholden to any man, and as a scholar of Torah, I identified far more with the men of the Talmud than with their wives or daughters. The rabbinic category of “women,” I felt, was largely anachronistic. In our modern world where men and women were treated as equal in the courtroom, the voting booth, and the college campus, it seemed only fitting that men and women should also be equal in synagogue. And so I cast my lot with the few other like-minded Jews wherever I found myself—on the college campus, the Upper West Side of New York, and in Jerusalem, where I have since made my home.
            And then I had children, and everything changed. At first it was impossible to pray in synagogue altogether. When my son was four days old and had not yet been initiated into the covenant or received his name, I insisted on carrying him in a sling to synagogue, determined that he should become a “shul baby.” I had not counted on how often I would need to leave to nurse him, and always at the most inopportune times – when I wanted to hear the Torah reading, or recite the prayer for the sick, or stand with my feet together in imitation of the angels for the silent prayer. Babies may look like angels, but they generally don’t allow their parents to stand angelically still. And so in subsequent weeks I instead prayed from home whenever the baby napped or my husband could take him off my hands.
     Now that we have three toddlers, it is important to us that our children grow accustomed to attending synagogue and learning the prayers and melodies. I want synagogue to be a strong Shabbat association, as it was for me. And so like my mother, I pack up the cheerios and raisins and set out with my husband–who has already davened elsewhere–and kids in tow. There is an egalitarian minyan that meets a few neighborhoods over, and before I had children I would always pray there. But now it is a far walk with the kids, and it’s not easily accessible with a stroller, and so we go there only rarely. More often we daven in  an Orthodox partnership minyan where men and women sit separately and there are parts of the service that only men can lead. It has a mehitza, true – but it also has a wide ramp leading up to the synagogue, a place for me to park my double stroller, and a children’s service in which my kids have learned to sing many of the Shabbat morning prayers.
          I do not feel entirely comfortable in that minyan, even though it is committed to many of my most deeply-held progressive and feminist ideals. Though I love to read Torah, I will not leyn at the partnership minyan because on some level I am not prepared to call it home. For the same reason, I have not become a member, though we gave a donation equivalent to the membership dues. Only rarely do I manage to make it into the main sanctuary, since I’m usually in the children’s service and then the playground. But there are times when I find myself sitting behind the mehitza, trying not to think about what my idealistic twenty-year-old self would have thought if only she could see my now.
            Have I, too, sold out? Part of what I always found so frustrating about the egalitarian minyanim I took part in both in college and beyond was that they rarely attracted families. Most of our members were students and single people in their twenties. I am beginning to understand why. Even if we were in an egalitarian synagogue, it would be impossible for my husband and me to sit in synagogue at the same time, or for both of us to take on leadership roles. Someone would have to be primarily responsible for the kids. And so I have a newfound appreciation for the Talmudic sages’ exemption of women from time-bound commandments. There are some stages of life when it is simply impossible to pray regularly at fixed times. Being a parent of small children is one such stage. It need not necessarily be the woman who is exempt, but the reality is that at any given moment, it is generally only one parent who can be praying. And so the “woman” – a Talmudic category that I would define as whichever parent is in charge of childrearing at that moment – is granted an exemption that affirms the sanctity of his or her work. Handing cheerios to a child or adjudicating a dispute between toddlers is just as important as praying; it too is a form of divine service, and so the one who engaged in that service is excused from prayer.
            I remain committed to gender egalitarianism as an ideal, but I would like to think about how to translate that ideal in a reality more sensitive to the needs of young families. I hope that as soon as we are stroller-free, I’ll be back in the egalitarian minyan so my kids can hear me leyn more regularly. In the meantime, I leyn the full three paragraphs of the Shema every night to them—its frightening threats notwithstanding—so that one day it will be easier for them to associate the words with the trope. On Shabbat mornings, when I sit with my kids in the children’s service, I imagine a time when my daughters as well as my son will lead the congregation in these prayers. And hopefully by the time they have kids of their own, they won’t have to choose a synagogue based on the ramp, but on the very same deep-seated commitments for which they are inspired to pray.