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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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In early January 2011, when my daughter Rena was nearly 3 weeks old, she stopped breathing for six seconds. Since she was hooked up to breathing and heart monitors in the Roosevelt Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—where she and her twin brother, Aryeh, had been living since their premature birth eight weeks before their due date—a nurse quickly caught this brief episode of apnea. But when the nurse examined Rena, she saw that her belly was slightly swollen, a possible symptom of necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, a dangerous intestinal condition common in preemies. The neonatologist on duty that day told me that she was concerned and would continue to monitor my daughter.

The next day was Saturday, the Sabbath. On my arrival at the NICU in the morning, the doctor informed me that X-rays had shown that Rena’s swelling was not subsiding. She told me that she planned to insert an intravenous line into my daughter and funnel antibiotics into her bloodstream for seven to 10 days and also feed her intravenously. (Until then Rena had been fed small amounts of pumped breast-milk through a thin plastic gavage tube threaded from her mouth into her stomach.) I did not know it at that time, but NEC—an infection that causes the lower intestine to die—is fatal in one quarter of cases. The doctor was reassuring, however: She said I would just need to sign consent forms permitting them to insert the intravenous line into Rena. I did.

That Sabbath was the day on which the weekly portion of Beshalach is read from the Torah in synagogue. The portion of Beshalach, which we read this year on Jan. 26, has very special meaning for me. It’s what I chanted the first time I was called to the Torah. And it includes the beautiful Shirat HaYam, or Song of the Sea, in which the Israelites, recently freed from slavery in Egypt, pour out praise after crossing the Red Sea on dry land, “as the waters formed a wall for them on their right and on their left.” So, I put my hand through the porthole in Rena’s incubator, and I folded her hands over her chest so that she would feel safe and loved, and I sang her the Song of the Sea. I knew that she was going on a journey across a wide river, and I prayed that the waters would rise up to form walls on her right and her left, so that she could cross over in safety. And when I reached the end of the song, the nurses wheeled Rena in her incubator into the Level 1 NICU, where they care for the smallest and sickest babies. To calm myself, I began to think about her bat mitzvah.

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In the Orthodox Jewish community in London in which I grew up, it was not customary for a 12-year-old girl to celebrate her bat mitzvah by chanting from the Torah, or to be called up to the Torah to recite the blessings, or even to give a D’var Torah (a commentary on the weekly portion). So, I did not have a bat mitzvah ceremony. When I was 12, I was simply pronounced “bat mitzvah” and celebrated with a party in the garden at home with my school friends. My parents made a kiddush for me—a light meal following Sabbath services—at Rebbe Finkelstein’s shtibl, the synagogue-in-a-house that we attended in Willesden, our neighborhood in northwest London. I probably helped prepare the kiddush: My honored role at the shtibl was to spend most of the Sabbath morning in the kitchen spreading chopped herring on crackers, poking toothpicks in fried fishballs, and arranging slices of cake in decorative circles on serving platters. By the time I returned to the service, in a separate room for women, it was almost over.

My introduction to chanting from the Torah, or leyning, came nearly three decades later, on Yom Kippur in 2004 at the egalitarian West Side Minyan, which meets at the Conservative Congregation Ansche Chesed on New York City’s Upper West Side. During a break in services, my friend Solomon Mowshowitz offered to teach me the special cantillation for reading the Torah. I readily agreed. I chose a passage from Beshalach, a stirring section of the Torah in which Pharaoh first sends the Israelites away (beshalach means “when [Pharaoh] sent”) then changes his mind and decides to chase after them with chariots and horsemen, just as the people are reveling in their first taste of freedom. After several months of lessons, I was called to the Torah, picked up the pointer (the yad, Hebrew for hand), and read the second aliyah of Beshalach, in which the Israelites, camped on the shores of the Red Sea, look back and see the Egyptians pursuing them. They cry that “it would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the desert,” to which Moses responds, “Stand firm.” Though my hand was shaking as I moved the yad over the words in the Torah scroll, I loved singing this passage and thinking about its meaning.

Those two words—“stand firm,” or in Hebrew, one word, hityatzvu—are what make this section of Beshalach so powerful for me. So often during their wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites yearn to return to their old lives in Egypt, remembering the “free” fish, the “cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:5) that accompanied their slavery. But Moses tells them to face the challenge of freedom, to persevere, “for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.” And the Israelites listen and step into the sea. In taking up that yad, I too embarked on a new life of Jewish engagement, of participation as an active member of the community, and over the next few years, to marriage (I met my husband Larry in a Talmud class) and, after much persistence, to my sweet children.

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.

***

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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