My Big Fat Jewish Pregnancy
This morning I was greeted in the hallway by my neighbor, Malka.
“How’s that baby boy, mama shana velt?” she asked.
I told her that Feigie, a few doors down, thinks that I’m having a girl.
“Trust me,” says Malka. “I’ve had four. I know what a boy looks like in his mother’s belly.”
Note to the reader: Malka also has five daughters. She is thirty-one years old. And she is not finished having children yet.
I am thirty-six years old and living, with my husband Noah, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The first setting for American Judaism, our neighborhood is one that my maternal grandmother used to call home. Her family of eleven left their Delancey Street tenement as soon as they could afford a house in the suburbs. Noah, an outer borough-raised kid, came here a century later, as soon as he could afford to buy an apartment in the city. That we are now trying to save money to move to Brooklyn would make Grandma Berdie’s head spin. But I digress.
The fact is that Noah and I are not typical residents, much less parents-to-be, on the LES. While there are plenty of other so-called modern folks and families living in our cooperative housing development, built in 1927 by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, the majority of our neighbors adhere to an old-world way of Jewish life. They get their bread from Kossar’s, baked treats from Moishe’s, and meats from East Side Glatt. The men wear their beards long, the women cover their heads with sheitels. Yiddish is spoken, and can be read, at every corner. Lately, I hear cheers of “mazel tov!” when I walk down the street, or go to the drugstore, or board the M14 bus. It always takes me a moment to realize that my protruding belly is the cause for such delight. Ah gesundheit, someone might say to me, as if I’ve just sneezed. God bless you. And may you, and your baby, have a healthy, blessed life.
Noah and I are exceptionally polite, and appreciative, toward these kvellers. What we don’t tell them is that even though we live in the same community, we practice a very different religion; we have a mezuzah at our door but we keep a strictly secular home. To us, it seems perfectly natural to cherry-pick which elements of Judaism fit into our lives. To them? A shanda, perhaps. And yet, how to explain to my brethren that now—with the birth of my baby next month—I feel more grounded in my Jewish roots than ever? I can barely understand it myself. Maybe it’s the nesting instinct kicking in, and that I’m becoming a true product of my environment. But I continue to be surprised by the ways in which my pre-partum attitudes and decision-making revolve around Jewish thought and tradition. Examples include:
- Baby showers: I am adamantly opposed to having one. Why? The simple answer is that, quote, Jews don’t believe in them. Why not? Because celebrating a baby before it’s born is tempting fate; we Jews mustn’t mess with what God has in store for us. And why, given this logic, would an avowed atheist disavow her nearest and dearest from showering her with a few rattles and onesies? Because Jews don’t believe in them. Period. And I’m nothing if not a superstitious Jew.
- I’ve indulged other Jewish superstitions, among them: Don’t find out the baby’s gender, don’t decorate the nursery beyond the bare-bones necessities, and don’t dare speak of the baby’s name until s/he is born. What to make of all these “don’t”s? What weight do these age-old adages carry during the twenty-first century when we can test for the likelihood of Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s and other Ashkenazi diseases before an embryo has even been created? What is there to be superstitious about when an ultrasound can measure the thickness of a twelve-week-year-old fetus’s neck and calculate the risk of neural tube defects? When chorionic villus sampling can detect the presence of an extra twenty-first chromosome? When doctors and genetic counselors and lab technicians have gathered enough evidence to suggest that I am carrying, and should deliver (spit three times to ward off the evil eye), a healthy baby?
- I think a lot about how other mothers make sense their pregnancies, spiritually speaking. Myself, I am not seeking divine explanation for the “miracle” of birth. Those quotations are not intended for snark; I use them to illustrate just how difficult it is, at least for me, to describe the enormous privilege and responsibility associated with giving life. Language can only go so far. This might explain why, when I found out that I was pregnant eight months ago, the words oh my God fell from my lips. The same happened when I heard the baby’s heartbeat for the first time, saw its spine on a sonogram, and felt a firm kick. I cringe over my etymological unoriginality during these moments of shock or awe. But could it be that I’m attempting to channel the divine more than I’m able to admit…even to myself? How do other women, particularly those with faith, process such profound developments? My current coping mechanism can be characterized only by a leap of faith—a stubborn belief that somehow, in some way, everything will just miraculously work itself out. Does that run counter to my no-shower stance and other dictums? Of course it does. Nu?
All of which is to say that I have more Jewish Questions than answers at this time. And the list keeps on growing. Combing through the complexities of my own religious identity is one challenge. Raising a Jewish child? Where to begin.
How should Noah and I teach our offspring what it means to be Jewish? Our explanation may just be survival itself, as evidenced by Noah’s father and my Nana Rozika, both of whom fled Europe and made our lives possible. As for which customs and cultural markers to share and pass along? The template is pretty patchy—from learning Hebrew and making matzoh farfel to reading Shel Silverstein and listening to the great klezmer classics. As for joining a synagogue? Becoming a bar/bat mitzvah? Discussing Israeli politics? Debating whether kugel is best enjoyed with or without raisins? Or, more pressing, whether to have a bris or naming ceremony?
Fortunately, there’s still some time left before we must address these issues. Jewish law dictates that life begins the moment the baby’s head makes it through the birth canal, when it acquires its soul. This is why, I think, Malka and Feigie and others in my community take heart when they see my belly and me. We may be worlds apart in our differences but they acknowledge that I’m fostering one more Jewish soul into creation—leverage, as we all learned during the earliest years of our religious education, against that never-forget figure of six million lost. Ah gesundheit indeed.
(Spit, spit, spit.)
Elizabeth (Frankenberger) Wildman wrote the “Sects and the City” column for KtB, among other contributions. Her work will be featured in two forthcoming anthologies: Lost and Found: Stories from New York (Edited by Thomas Beller, W.W. Norton & Co.) and KtB’s own Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith (Beacon Press).