March 25, 2010

Surviving Passover: Thoughts on Being Jewish and Infertile

Passover is one of my favorite holidays, second only to Thanksgiving. They're both about food, family, and rich with tradition. Passover is not an easy holiday for the infertile Jew; so much emphasis is placed on children and fertility that it feels like there are little landmines left around the seder plate and hidden with the afikomen. How does Passover affect each sphere of the ALI community: adoption, loss, infertility? And how do we make this a meaningful holiday and spare ourselves the mental and emotional strife?

Before I go on, I need to say: this post is a big step for me. This time a year ago, I nearly lost my faith in the wake of finding out about my infertility. This year, like the crocus that fights through the snow, I come with a renewed perspective and a resilience to go on.

Sitting on our seder plate will be the beitzah, a roasted egg, a symbol of both life and fertility. Typically, particularly among the Sephardi, a roasted egg is the first thing eaten at the start of the festival meal. Traditionally this is also the first food a mourner eats following a Jewish funeral: in death, we remember life. We are reminded of life's cycles, of marking time- these concepts are foundational to the Jewish faith. The beitzah is perhaps the most visible reminder, the first of the emotional landmines on our holiday table. This year, instead of looking at that egg and thinking about the fact that I don't really have any good eggs of my own, I see the beitzah as a symbol of hope. There's something about a thin little shell containing possibility within: the act of hatching, of breaking through- this is a lesson in patience, struggle, and ultimately, hope. The egg is the idea. Its hatching is the fruition of our hopes.

Turning the pages of our haggadah, we read aloud how Pharaoh ordered the death of all Hebrew first-born. Later, the final plague results in the death of all Egyptian first-born: the profound loss of life- including Pharaoh's only son- moves him such that he releases the Hebrew slaves. I cannot imagine what it must be like to read this and have experienced any kind of pregnancy loss. I have always struggled with this part of Exodus. It speaks so clearly of almost Hammurabian retribution: you kill our first-born so too shall yours be killed. But from a theological standpoint, I suppose it illustrates that God is indiscriminate, b/c the same God who kills the Egyptian first-born is the same God that allows the first-born of his Chosen to be killed. What can we learn in this moment? Carpe diem. When someone's time is up, that's it, so make the most of the time you have.

For some of us in the ALI community, this still makes no sense, that something we've longed for could be taken away so soon. We cannot regain those lives, so we must live our own lives as best we can, yet these wounds leave scars on our hearts. As we retell the story of Exodus, we relive the pain of that scar even as we eat maror (horseradish) and karpas (vegetable) dipped in saltwater to symbolize tears, so that we as pass on our traditions even the pain of the memory is still felt. It is an almost kinesthetic form of cultural and historic education. 5000 years later we are still feeling the pain of Exodus, so it is only natural that those grieving a loss- be it at 6 weeks, 6 months, or even 6 years of age- still feel the pain. Acknowledge this pain of loss. Weave it into your story. Use it as a tool to educate and comfort others.

Even the emotional toll of adoption is featured in the Passover story, as Moses is rescued from the reeds and raised as the adopted son of the Egyptian princess. For the couple waiting to be chosen by prospective birth parents, that sense of hope and yet waiting is just as palpable as the Hebrew slaves waiting for their freedom. The Hebrews, once freed, they had to be ready to go at a moment's notice- that's why matzo is unleavened and we eat unleavened foods, as the bread didn't even have time to rise they had to flee Egypt so quickly. With domestic adoption, the same is true: everything has to be ready to go because you could be in line at the post office and get a call that you'll be placed with a child in a matter of days. So how can the prospective adoptive parent who's mind is half on the food in front of them but have their cell on vibrate in their pocket, waiting and hoping for that phone call? I recommend capitalizing on that energy, that excitement, and that hope. Channel energy into action. Offer to babysit the kids while the moms cook (might as well get a little extra practice in before the real deal, right?) Or, screw babysitting and get to work in the kitchen! Infuse your food with your energy so that your guests grow as excited with each bite as you already are. Get creative: nothing helps keep that energy moving like a little creativity. Maybe you arrange a beautiful table scape with handmade place cards, or you stitch your own matzo cover.

There are still even other areas that focus so much on family, children, legacy, and fertility, particularly the Four Questions and the Four Children. I'll get into a much more in depth look at those tomorrow.

This is by no means a comprehensive survival guide, but these are just a few things to make this holiday a little more bearable and perhaps provide a renewed context. That being said, I know this is a tough holiday for some and really can reawaken some old wounds. Like any other family gathering, if you need to bow out or only stay for a short while- do so. Ultimately, you need to do what's healthy for you and your partner. Make sure you do what you need for your own healing. I highly recommend having your spouse or a close friend read you this beautiful and invigorating guided meditation over at Ritual Well on the Kos Refuah/Cup of Healing.

For those of you cooking like fiends this weekend like I am, I wish you ovens that heat evenly, fridges and freezers that will fit all your precooked food, and short lines at the grocery store. More thoughts on Passover and infertility tomorrow.


Sonja said...

First of all, thanks so much for explaining more of the Passover traditions to me. Fascinating.

And the way you take the Passover traditions and symbols and instead of focusing on the loss (but still acknowledging it), see the hope that is there for you. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Amazing post. Simply amazing. I'm not Jewish but am part of a women's circle that uses ritual a lot. I really love how you have taken a familiar ritual and recast it with new meaning. Genius! And lots for me to think about.

Thanks for putting this on the Creme - I'm so glad I read this today.

Mr. Thompson and Me said...

This is one of my favorite posts of yours. So glad it's the Creme de la Creme.

As always, beautifully written.

Sara said...

What a great post! You made me think about old familiar ideas in a whole new way.

(here from creme)

Lut C. said...

I think I would find it tough to be a part of.

I cried all through the wedding ceremony of a friend of mine, because it marked the start of her family life - a life I could readily see children arriving in. At the time, I had completely lost faith in a child arriving in my own life.

(Arrived from the crème de la crème list)

Esperanza said...

Here from Creme. I feel like I have so much to say, I don't know where to start. What a thoughtful and insightful post. I don't know much about Judaism and I had no idea that Passover could be so wrought with conflicting emotions for someone dealing with IF. But then again, what isn't?

I did some exploring on your blog. I love your title and what it means. I had always wondered and when I found out I thought, wow, it's more interesting that I ever would have guessed!

I also feel like I can't leave without complimenting you on your amazing Portrait of Infertility movie. I saw it when it first came out and it moved me to tears. And it just did again, as I rewatched it. Thank you for making that. Thank you for telling the story that so desperately needs to be told. Thank you.

Creme de la Creme #125
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