Saturday, April 16, 2011

Making Seder: Towards an Idea of Order

For the past few weeks, my husband has been urging me to clear off my desk so that we can replace it with a baby crib. The crib, which arrived just a few days ago from my sister-in-law along with an array of car seats, strollers, and bright orange garbage bags filled with baby clothes, will not fit in our apartment until I get rid of my desk. But I have not been able to let it go. And so my great wooden desk--stacked with folders marked “ideas for the Pesach seder,” “Bronfman seduction,” “Babylonian menstruation,” as well as a pile of books including the JPS tanakh, Masechet Menachot, the current issue of Lilith, and Benne Lau’s book on Hazal--is an island in a sea of baby supplies. When sitting down before it, I cannot get up unless I push back one of the strollers, climb over a garbage bag, and straddle a big wicker box labeled “toys.” You might say that the baby supplies form a wall, to my right and to my left, and I am harboring a murderous urge to hurl rocking horse and rider into the sea.

Of course, I am extremely grateful to have received a full supply of baby goods from my sister-in-law, which saves us many hours and shekels in the weeks ahead. But the sheer physical reality of this paraphernalia crowding what was once my office has left me quite overwhelmed. In an attempt to reclaim some idea of order, I packed my bag for the hospital tonight, as instructed by the stack of eleven baby books behind my bed (all courtesy of the literary agency where I work): It is never too early to pack for the hospital – you must be prepared! In stuffing my hand cream, underwear, hot water bottle, and Alexander McCall Smith novels (I chose my hospital reading three months ago) into a tote bag, I felt a bit like the Israelites packing to leave Egypt. I too was gathering all the possessions I would need to take with me into the uncharted wilderness of motherhood, a land of flowing with milk, which I am told is characterized by many a Leyl Shimurim-- long nights of no sleep without even a pillar of fire to keep vigil beside me.

On the other hand, once the baby is born, it will no longer be inside of me, which I suppose offers some degree of relief. I find it amusing that watermelons came into season in Israel the very week I entered my eighth month, just when I began to feel like I was carrying one around. Perhaps in a few weeks, when beset by the wailing cries of a baby that wishes it were back in my narrow womb, I, too, will pine for the watermelon to be curled up mutely inside me again. We remember the watermelons we ate in Egypt....

That watermelon-sized baby inside me is really all I need at this stage. If I had to, I could flee to the hospital b’chipazon, without my hospital bag and with only my girded loins and my sandals on my feet. If my contractions drive me out of my home so that I cannot delay, I could leave even without preparing any provisions for myself. After all, Pesach is not a holiday of preparedness. No one is ever fully ready for Pesach when the sun sets on the fourteenth of Nisan. There is always more to cook, more to clean, more to study, more to prepare. Perhaps that’s why the matzah is such a powerful symbol. Matzah is unfinished bread. It is dough that has not been given sufficient time to rise. Eating matzah is a reminder that we don’t always have time to plan in advance, and that sometimes we must just pick up and run, placing our trust in God as we hurl ourselves forwards towards our divinely ordained destiny. I hope the baby that is cooking inside me does not emerge half-baked--and certainly I feel quite puffed up and leavened--but I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely ready for labor and childbirth, let alone motherhood. I do know, though, that this year I have a very different understanding of what it means to see myself as if I have left Egypt. I will be as prepared as I can be, and, in spirit of Dayenu, it will have to be enough.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Zaphod's Phylacteries (Menahot 37a)

Today’s Daf (Menahot 37) ought to have been off limits for pregnant women. I already have nightmares about birth and babies – last night I dreamt that I left my baby on the stove for too long, and it started to cry because it was overheated. (I was grateful when my husband explained that this dream was obviously inspired by leaving artichokes on the stove for too long, which is a mistake I often make.) I know that birth is a natural process, but it also seems like a miracle from on high. If I am blessed with a healthy baby, I will be overcome with gratitude to God – to the extent that I find myself saying “Godwilling,” a word I never really invoked before, in every other sentence. It seems presumptuous to discuss baby names or to order a stroller or to talk about who will care for the baby while I teach this summer – how can I know that this baby will come out alive and well? I feel, more than ever before, how much is entrusted to God, and how little is in our human hands.

And so I was somewhat disturbed to find, amidst a discussion of Tefillin in the third chapter of Menahot, a reference to babies and birth defects. The Talmud is discussing the proper place for laying the head Tefillin. First the rabbis establish that the Biblical phrase “between the eyes” refers to the skull, specifically “the place where a baby’s head is soft.” As I’ve learned from my bumblebee-colored bedside companion “Pregnancy for Dummies,” the bones on the skull of a newborn are not yet fused, because the head must be able to squeeze through the narrow birth canal. For this reason it is so dangerous to touch the soft spot on a baby’s head. But it is that very soft spot (albeit not on a baby, of course) where the Tefillin are supposed to be placed. This discussion of the head Tefillin inspires a question from Pleymo, who asks Rabbi: “If a person has two heads, on which one should he lay Tefillin?” Rabbi, convinced that Pleymo is pulling his leg (one of his legs, at least), responds angrily: “Either get out of here, or be excommunicated!”

At that very moment, in the felicitous synchronicity that is often a feature of Talmudic narratives, a man happens to walk into Rabbi’s beit midrash: “In the meantime, a man walked in and asked: My baby was born with two heads. How much money do I need to give to the Kohen?” The new father is not asking about Tefillin, but about Pidyon HaBen. As we learn in the Torah, every firstborn has to be redeemed for the price of “five shekels per head” (Numbers 3:47). But what if the baby has two heads? That is, what if the baby resembles Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed former president of the galaxy in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker trilogy? The Talmud answers that baby Zaphod would need to be redeemed for ten shekels, five per head. And so Pleymo, who had just been rebuked by Rabbi for his silly question, is vindicated (or should I say redeemed?) by the inquiring new father.

The question about Zaphod’s Tefillin shel rosh remains unanswered, and the Talmud does not even consider what the three-armed former president of the galaxy is supposed to do about his shel yad. (OK, we understand that Tefillin go on the left hand – but what if you have two left hands? Which is different, of course, from two left feet….) Nor do we ever re-encounter the hapless father of the hydra-headed twins, who had to pay double for his Pidyon HaBen. And certainly we do not know anything about the expression on his wife’s face when she first laid eyes upon her Siamese progeny. I can imagine her look of horror, and can only hope, as I crawl into bed, that she does not haunt my nightmares tonight.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Book of Names

I spent much of my childhood dreaming up names for my future children. On Shabbat afternoons I would sit on the floor perusing our heavy World Book Dictionary in search of beautiful words. Afflicted with an overly poetic sensibility, I didn’t care much for the meanings of these words – I privileged sound over sense, which is how I came up with names like “Parsimonious Avarice the Evanescent.” I loved the seductive mellifluousness of the soft s’s, and didn’t mind that the name I had chosen for my firstborn in fact meant “Stingy Greed the Fleeting.” Her siblings would be known as Chevrolet Charlotta, Chaperon Cliché, and Azalea Rendezvous, names that were surely influenced by my reading of Anne of Green Gables. If Anne could rename herself Cordelia and refer to Barry’s Pond as “The Lake of Shining Waters,” then surely I, too, could martial the English lexicon in service of my own phonetic aesthetic.

Now, twenty years later, I am perplexed to find myself at a loss for a name for the child currently kicking around in my belly. Instead of reading the World Book, I sit in shul and pause at every other word in the siddur, wondering if it could be my child’s name. “L’hodot l’hallel l’shabeach l’faer” – Hodaya? Hallel? Shevach? Pe’er? Occasionally I also look in the parsha, though not this week, lest my child be afflicted with a name like Se’et or Sapachat or Baheret. I think about the names of my friends’ children, and the grandparents we might want to name after, and the names of the literary characters I love. But thus far, I have not had any brainstorms.

Perhaps this focus on names is an attempt to intellectualize my pregnancy, which has been the most intense experience of embodiment I could possibly imagine. If I concentrate on the name of the baby, I can take a break from thinking about the extra thirty pounds weighing me down and preventing me from leaping out of bed in the morning. I might actually delude myself into thinking that I can go for a morning jog, forgetting the intense pressure on my pelvis and the soreness in my upper thighs each time I try to take a long stride. I might even succeed in distracting myself from the terrifying awareness that the head of my baby needs to be able to fit through my own body and make its way into the world, a prospect that makes me tremble in fear of the pain that lies ahead.

The contrast between potential baby names and the pain of physical embodiment brings me to the beginning of Sefer Shmot, the book whose narrative we will recount next week at the Pesach seder. These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob. The book opens with the names of Jacob’s sons, who in turn had many more sons, in a process that surely involved great pain, since the midrash tells us that the Israelite women had six babies in their bellies at a time. The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased and reproduced and grew mightier very very much, and the land became filled with them. The language of the text, with its rapid succession of synonyms and its doubled “very very,” reproduces itself, replicating the embodied experience on the semantic plane. Suffering under their Egyptian taskmasters, the Israelites cry out (vayizaku), and shriek (va’yeanchu), and their moans (shavatam) and groans (naakatam) reach God’s ears in all their synonymous multiplicity.

Of course, while the Israelite men are laboring to build Pitom and Ramsees, their wives are laboring to bring forth their multiple births, who emerge so quickly from the womb that the midwives Shifra and Puah do not even have time to look at the birthstool and evaluate the sex(tuplets). Their moans and groans of childbirth blend with the moans and groans of their husbands in the fields, until God can ignore them no longer. I have taken note of you, says God to Moses, invoking the same language (פקד) used to describe the impregnation of Sarah: And God took note of Sarah… And Sarah conceived and bore a son. God takes note of the Israelites, causing them to reproduce en masse; but at the same time, God hears their cries and delivers the people from the narrow birth canal of Egypt. Perhaps this is the rationale behind the very first commandment given after the exodus:

That very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop. The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, “Consecrate to Me every first-born, man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is mine. And Moses said to the people: Remember this day, on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand.

God delivered His firstborn son Israel from the womb, and immediately afterwards, we are commanded to consecrate our firstborns to God. When we experience the convulsions of childbirth, which I’m told are as cataclysmic as the splitting of the sea, we must recognize the divine hand that guides each firstborn through the narrow womb never before stretched by a child. We must trust that our moans and groans and cries and shrieks are reaching up to the throne of the One who is responsible for the creation of all new life, the One who takes note and delivers, and the One whose name is the ultimate mystery: I will be what I will be. And so this is what I have decided to tell myself as I puzzle over lists of names in an attempt to stave off my panic about childbirth: I will trust in God, and, with God’s help, it will be what it will be.