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A Baby’s Journey Back to Health

When my newborn daughter became gravely ill, I found strength in the first Torah portion I ever chanted

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The author with her twins in the NICU in early January 2011, when they were about a week old. Rena is on the right, Aryeh on the left. (Courtesy of the author)
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For me, learning to leyn was a liberation from the very traditional ways of my youth. Following my first reading of Beshalach, I began to leyn regularly, first at the West Side Minyan and then almost every Shabbat at Darkhei Noam, a “participatory” Orthodox community in Manhattan where women can lead parts of the service and read from the Torah; and most recently at Minyan Yachdav in Ra’anana, Israel, where we moved last October. I love chanting from the Torah, and I think about every word that I sing. When I leyn from the Torah, I feel as if I was created for this role. And I marvel at the opportunities that are now given to girls, in egalitarian congregations and even within the Orthodox world: to have their voices heard, to read or deliver words of Torah on their b’not mitzvah or later in life; to be respected by the congregation for their wisdom, learning, and understanding. And also for their courage in standing there, facing the community.

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My tiny baby Rena remained steadfast in the face of the threat. She spent seven days on intravenous antibiotics and another three in isolation. Every day a nurse helped me lift her out of her incubator—she was attached to so many tubes and wires, I was afraid I would accidentally unhook one of them—and I kissed her and held her close, all wrapped up in her hospital blanket, and sang her every Hebrew and English folk song that I know. In the middle of that week, a test came back showing bacteria in her blood—the worst possible outcome. I thought about the terrifying possibility of losing her.

But it turned out to be accidental lab contamination of the sample. She’s a strong little girl, bless her, and she recovered completely. She was soon back in the step-down NICU with her brother, and several weeks after that they were both at home with us.

I often think about that Sabbath in the NICU when I sang her the Song of the Sea. That’s also why I think of the day when Rena, whose Hebrew name means “joyful song,” will sing from the Torah herself. When I leyn from the Torah, my husband holds the hands of our children—now 2 years old, happy and healthy and full of curiosity—and they watch and listen. On the festival of Simchat Torah, I was honored at Darkhei Noam with the aliyah for Kol HaNearim—the blessing of the children—and I held Rena in my arms, and she reached up to touch the tallit that was held over our heads. When she is 12, she will be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, and she will understand why it is important for young women to be honored in this way. She will know that she is a valued member of the community, that she has studied her words carefully, and that she is facing her future as a responsible and brave young woman. She will sing her Torah portion joyfully, and one year later, when he is 13, her brother Aryeh will do the same for his own bar mitzvah. And I will teach them.

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Marion says:

What a beautiful article! I’ve known Josie for a number of years from the West Side Minyan and she is a wonderful person–and leyns like a pro. Yeasher Kocha!

Thank you for sharing this lovely and moving story!

This is an extremely moving piece. The author’s love of leyning, of her children and Jewish tradition generally is so simply stated. I hope that Rena grows up to be as proud a Jewish woman as her mother.

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A Baby’s Journey Back to Health

When my newborn daughter became gravely ill, I found strength in the first Torah portion I ever chanted

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