By Hillary Kessler-Godin
Thirty-six hours after her water had broken and labor was induced, Melanie Schneider still hadn’t given birth, but the moment was close. Yet exhausted as she and her life partner were, they summoned the strength to read together a modern prayer from the book Motherprayer by Tikva-Frymer Kensky.
The reading, “Aneni,” meaning “Answer Me,” was patterned on a first-century priestly benediction recited in the days of the Temple. It petitions the God who answered the often-anguished pleas of such Biblical Jewish women as Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, and Hannah to “answer you and hear your shouts today.” Each stanza ends with an exhortation to the woman in labor, such as “Scream O daughter of Eve,” and “Fill heaven with cries!”
Schneider, whose daughter Eliana is now seven months old, said that she is grateful to have found the strength to go through with the reading at the height of her labor. It added a uniquely Jewish dimension to an intensely physical experience. “I was able to focus on what was about to happen and I was able to be stronger for the big event,” said Schneider, who works as the director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation of Metropolitan New York.
She is hardly alone among Jewish women in seeking new rituals and spiritual interpretations of pregnancy and childbirth. Through pregnancy and bearing children, women claim their place in the chain of the Jewish people as their matriarchs have for millennia. But Judaism today largely lacks fixed practices for women who desire to place their life-changing experience of childbearing in a Jewish spiritual and ritual context.
As women seek new roles and voices within Judaism, they are adapting traditional sources and creating new ones in order to bring a Jewish dimension to a physical experience that is largely universal among women the world over. Jewish women are now seeking to empower themselves through creative and standard readings and rituals at this time in their lives.
The practices that can make pregnancy and childbirth a Jewish experience are still very much works in progress. There seems to be room for many, many more, given the latitude that women feel to both adapt traditional rituals to their experience and to create new ones.
“They want to place their spiritual experience of pregnancy foursquare within the Jewish experience,” said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, author of Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, and mother of five children. “You couldn’t open up a prayer book 10 years ago and find something to celebrate your pregnancy.”
However, the lack of modern written material doesn’t necessarily mean that women lacked a Jewish context to their pregnancies through the ages, Rabbi Cardin said. It possibly means that the traditions were passed down orally. “I can’t imagine that Jewish women existed for 3,000 years without having a way to express their awe,” she said. She cited the Biblical example of Rebecca, who demanded that God tell her why her twins were struggling in her womb. Though the Torah does not specify where she made that plea, she more than likely went to a designated prayer spot. “If there was a place to go, she wasn’t the first one to go there,” Rabbi Cardin said.
But in a modern context, with families often scattered and oral traditions hard to preserve, written prayers can become today’s Jewish woman’s way to connect to her foremothers and their experiences of childbearing. Hanna Tiferet Siegel, who leads the Jewish Renewal community of B’nai Or of Boston along with her husband, Daniel, likes to tell pregnant women of Jewish verses that concern openings of various kinds, and to show them how they can use those very traditional sources as metaphors for experiences other than those for which they were originally written.
“We have this gift of our tradition. We have mantras that we can use at any time, not just set times,” Siegel said. She cited as a favorite example for pregnant women the prelude to the Amidah, “Adonai sifatai tiftach u’fi yagid tehilatecha,” which means, “God, open up my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”
Also in keeping with the theme of opening, Rabbi Cardin suggests in her book that at the beginning of the ninth month of pregnancy, the woman or her husband be given the honor of opening the ark during Shabbat services. “Just as the ark opens with ease, allowing us to remove the Torah readily from its midst, so may the woman’s womb open with ease, allowing us to remove the child readily from within her,” she writes.
Just as rituals concerning openings can help a woman through childbirth, one very traditional experience can be used to help start the healing process that must accompany parenthood. Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses of New York said that going to the mikvah after the birth of her daughter a little more than a year ago helped her to begin a new phase physically, spiritually, and emotionally. She likened the ritual bath to returning to the womb again, then leaving it behind as she ventured forth to navigate the uncharted waters of being a mother to her new daughter, Ayelet Kalila Vivianne Cohler-Esses.