I could not spend one more week hearing about barren Biblical women.
Two-and-a-half years ago, we took a break from shul (2) and the break ended a few weeks ago. We knew that we couldn't return to our old shul--there was no way I was going to be able to pick up that red Etz Hayim (3) and not turn to Rachel's story like a freakin' fanatic if I was sitting in the same seat where I had sat for years, wishing for motherhood.
Trying on shuls is sort of like jeans. When it fits and makes your ass look good, you know it instantly. And when the shul feels wrong the moment you sit down for the service, it's like standing in a dressing room at the Gap and thinking, "it's me; isn't it? If I just lost a few pounds, these jeans would look better. No; it's them. Their clothes have gone to crap. Who the hell would fit into these? Fuck it. I wish I hadn't even tried this on."
We tried on many crappy pairs of jeans to find this fit.
We were pretty much on our final shul when it clicked. I can't really put my finger on why this shul and not another. They have the same books, the same service, the same faceless congregants as all the other new shuls we considered. But this one felt good. It fit me. And instantly finding a new home made me realize how much I had longed to have a home for the last two-and-a-half years.
The only thing (and even things that fit perfectly can have an "only thing") was that the service was so kid-centric. Next to the main ark (4) was a mini-ark filled with mini-Torah that the mini-children carried in their mini-arms behind the normal-sized rabbi to kick off the Torah service. The rabbi paused in the middle of the service to read a picture book to the kids who gathered in a small semi-circle next to the bimah (5). Lollipops were passed out to kids at the end of the service.
It was like entering a big, Jewy Willy Wonka factory without the river of chocolate. Or oompa loopas. With perhaps the only ties to Willy Wonka being the candy at the end of the service. But still.
And I get it. The future of the shul rests on the rabbi's ability to include the kids in the service and commit them to continuing the traditions. If you don't hook the kids, you're looking at a congregation that will die out at the end of the current generation. So I get it--I understand why catering to parents and children is a good investment in an age where tradition has the possibility of falling by the wayside in favour of secularism.
But what about everyone else? What about the single guy I was talking to after the service? What about the widows or the single women? What about those who decided not to have children? What about those who can't have children? Where do they fit into this bigger picture? Where is their lollipop?
This is what I was thinking as I was sitting through the service--how could the rabbi change it so that it was all inclusive? So that the children could be celebrated and made to feel like little kings and queens for the day with the Torah parade and quiet play area in the back of the shul while at the same time wrapping an infertile person in a much needed hug? Is it possible? Or are the two situations so diametrically opposed that it would be impossible to feel peace in a scene that brings you emotional pain?
And then I received this note this week from a woman who is writing a sermon specifically to reach out to infertile congregants in her church:
I am due to write [a sermon for Lent] on an Old Testament Woman and the theme is "being still and finding G-d in the storms of life." I remember a post from a friend struggling with infertility about how hard church was on Mother’s Day and am sure it can be a painful reminder. I was thinking about preaching on Hannah or Sarah or one of the “barren” women that God gave a child to. Knowing so many people struggling daily with IUIs, IVF, miscarriages, etc I have been touched quite a bit about this real struggle in our society even if I’m not at a TTC point in my life yet. So a few questions for you (and your readers if you would be willing to post them?)
1. How has dealing with IF changed your view of God (if you had one?)
2. Would it cause more pain to hear it talked about in church or be a comfort to open a dialogue?
3. For those who have succeeded in having children, has that also changed your view of God?
4. How does the Bible stories of Hannah, Sarah and the other “barren” women in the Bible relate to your own IF journey?
I’m also open to other thoughts and comments. My biggest concern is that I don’t want to do this if it would be more painful to hear for people. I don’t know who might be hearing it and I don’t want to be insensitive or seem like I have easy answers. I would like to be true to the experience and the emotions even though I have just been an IF supporter thus far.
For me, the second question brought out the most internal debate. To give some background, there is a short sermon-like speech given after the Torah portion called a "d'var Torah". In some shuls, the rabbi gives this speech, but in my old shul, a congregant (who was chosen beforehand) prepared the commentary on that particular passage in the Torah--perhaps providing more information to help the listener understand the passage or connecting it to current events. Which meant that people tended to choose a passage that they could speak about comfortably. The burden wasn't on the rabbi (we didn't have a rabbi--the service was community-led) to be everything for everyone.
So would it be a pain or a comfort to hear a d'var Torah on the desperation of Rachel, let's say? I started debating this in my head. How would I feel if it was brought up, but not done justice? Would I just be happy that someone was recognizing me as a part of the community and giving me a voice even if it wasn't perfect? How would I feel if it was a woman with seven kids giving the d'var Torah and I knew that she conceived each one on the first try because she's always talking about that fact? Would it matter if it was a really rockin' d'var Torah that somehow truly captured the infertile experience?
The best d'var Torah I ever heard was on Leviticus 18:22. It's a hot-button portion and I've heard some pretty crappy divrei Torah (6) in the past. But one year, the d'var Torah was delivered by J, a gay congregant. Rather than tiptoeing around the history of offensiveness over this passage, he said the words that made everyone cringed--the ones people like to sweep under the rug and pretend aren't a big old pile of hot-buttons "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is abomination." And then he paused and said something along the lines of this (though far more eloquently): "it's true--I cannot lie with a man as I could with a woman. The hardware is too different. Therefore, I see this statement as fact: I cannot lie with a man as I would with a woman. I lie with him in a different way." The d'var Torah was about homophobia and how it tears apart community. It was a brilliant, honest, raw account of his own experience as a gay man sitting in a heterocentric shul listening to Leviticus 18:22 come around every year.
Which brings back the question: can someone outside the experience ever speak as honestly and as eloquently as someone inside the experience? Is it the speaker or the personal experience that truly has the power?
On one hand, I don't know if a straight man could have delivered the same emotion even if he was speaking the same words. On the other, as a writer, I don't believe that one has to go through the experience to speak eloquently on the topic. Think of all the books with a believable female protagonist written by a male author. All the stories written that speak to the emotions at the core of an experience that could not possibly have been experienced by the author.
But...I keep coming back to the word "but." I don't know how I would feel--would it be the best moment ever in shul if my rabbi marched in this week with a d'var Torah about infertility or should I just sit in the shul, understanding that we're not living in a perfect world and in this world, the kids get the lollipops and I get to simply watch them.
Now with a glossary of all my Jewlicious terms...
(1) You've heard of the Torah, but what the hell is a Haftorah? A long time ago, when Jews were forbidden to read the Torah, the rabbis got around the edict by substituting portions from the Prophets in lieu of reading the Torah. They tried to find portions from the Prophets that matched the message of the portion of the Torah they were forbidden to read. Even though Jews can now read the Torah, they still read the corresponding Haftorah portions each week. And that's one to grow on... (Back)
(2) What is shul? It's just another way of saying synagogue. (Back)
(3) The book favoured by the Conservative Movement in Judaism. It contains the Torah--or Bible--and all the Haftorah portions along with commentary.
(4) The ark is where the Torah is kept. (Back)
(5) The bimah is the little stage where the rabbi (or whoever is reading the Torah) stands (Back)
(6) The plural of d'var Torah (Back)