I was eating lunch at the sushi bar when Marilyn, a woman I barely knew, came over to me. She assumed that because I—the fertility diary columnist for The New York Times who’s shared my IVF woes with the entire universe—was eating raw fish, I was not pregnant. And she was right. I had been pregnant, but I wasn’t anymore. I had just had my fourth miscarriage.
“What’s your Hebrew name?” Marilyn asked me. “I bake challahs every week and daven for women.” As a formerly religious Jew, I understood what she meant: When she makes her Shabbat bread, she says prayers for sick people, including women trying to have a baby. And now she wanted to say one for me.
My sashimi stuck in my throat as I felt a familiar rage, a furious flush that errantly hits me as I tried to cheerfully go on with my life, pretending that my husband and I haven’t been mired in baby-making since we got married three years ago. “I think God knows my Hebrew name,” I wanted to tell her. How could it be that an All-Knowing, Omnipotent Being who created The World would not be able to identify me by my English name? Healers, of which I’d tried many in this journey, could work on me over the phone without any name at all. Perfect strangers had no problem finding me through Google. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, had to have better SEO, even if I wasn’t going by my God-given Hebrew name.
But it wasn’t the Hebrew name request that truly bothered me. I did not want her—or anyone—praying for me.
Prayer was a part of my life from before I could remember. It was as much a part of my daily ritual as, say, washing up, or brushing my teeth. In nursery school, before I learned the alphabet, I memorized the Modah Ani prayer—thanking God for returning my soul to me and letting me wake up. At the end of kindergarten we had the traditional “siddur party”—a kiddie graduation where I was proudly awarded my first prayer book, a turquoise hardcover that I would use till junior high. And every night, before I went to sleep, I recited the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, God is One”), something my father must have taught me at some point before I had memory of it. I couldn’t fall asleep without saying it.
I had the same feelings about prayer that I did about the many things in life that as a kid, I did not have any control over: It was something I had to do, like going to school, or attending synagogue. Sometimes it was boring (and I’d head to the shul bathroom with my friends to gossip and hope my dad wouldn’t notice), sometimes it was a good waste of class time (now we’d never be able to have that spelling test!), and sometimes it was beautiful (like in summer camp when we sang Friday night prayers down by the lake, our voices accompanied by the sunset—but not instruments, of course).
Because I was a girl, I was obligated to pray only once a day. Over 18 years, I might have mumbled the prayers, rushed through them, even got caught in an occasional loop—sometimes absent-mindedly finding myself at the beginning of the book when I should have been at the end—but these incantations, these words whose meaning I hardly paid attention to (even though I was fairly fluent in Hebrew) wove themselves like chromosomal strands intractably into my psyche.
Then one year, I learned that prayers actually meant something—that I had to make them mean something. Like most Modern Orthodox teenagers, after high school I was sent to Israel to attend an all-girls’ seminary. It was like a Swiss finishing school but instead of learning how to fold napkins and curtsy demurely, we learned the finer ways of being a Jewish woman: how I would cover my hair after I was married (something my mother didn’t do and I had no intention of doing either), how to bake a challah, and how to pray. We were supposed to have kavannah, intention, to actually say the words and mean them: Praise God, thank God, and then ask for what we needed (but not too much for ourselves, better to ask for others). All this was new to me, but it gave me a renewed sense of devotion, and for many years I had the look of a zealot each morning as I shuckled and bowed and closed my eyes, directing all my wishes toward a supreme being who may or may not grant my wishes. Still, I had to ask.
I left religion behind incrementally, unwinding the strands one by one. In my mid-20s, living in Israel, I had a political break: My liberal, feminist, peace-loving politics didn’t fit with the increasingly right-wing tilt of so-called “Modern” Orthodoxy. By my early 30s, living in Los Angeles, it was more of a lifestyle choice: I started driving on the Sabbath, eating non-kosher, interacting with a wider swath of people. Back then I didn’t have a major ideological problem with the religion itself. Sometimes I would miss the restful nature of Shabbat, so I kept it occasionally, when nothing else interfered. My daily prayer had fallen by the wayside, but some mornings and nights I still found myself reciting the old tropes. They were comforting.
But I had never been comfortable with the idea of other people praying for me. Which they did, because I was still single at 25, 30, 35. I didn’t want to eat the good luck segula challah at another couple’s wedding or to take the broken plates from under their chuppah (you try carrying a shard of porcelain on a plane post-9/11). I didn’t want their pity, which is what praying for someone else really is: It’s saying, “I see that you’re lacking health/wealth/husbandry, and I—who have it all—would like to intercede with the heavens on your behalf.” I didn’t see anything wrong with my not being married—I thought it would happen when the time was right—so why should someone else pray for me?
Even now, after four miscarriages, when there clearly is something wrong with me—doctors aren’t quite sure whether I’m too old or my body is just not rigged to carry a baby to term—I still don’t want anyone praying for me.
They mean well. They want to help me. They believe that prayer has the power to change a life situation: a lost job, the state of singlehood, a debilitating illness, or, in my case, childlessness. I once believed that, too.
But now I am not quite sure what to believe. My relationship to God is complicated. I like to say that I gave him the first 30 years of my life, I’ll take the second 30, and we’ll negotiate over the third (although, if I’m with my stubborn, secular, Israeli husband till then, I can’t imagine God would win that battle). I don’t know how involved God is in the world. Does he care about each and every segment of people’s lives? If so, he’s doing a damn poor job with mine. I prefer to think of him more a big-picture, laissez-faire Being. He oversees the master plan but doesn’t micro-manage the details. I have to believe that, if I believe anything at all (and after 30 years of religious inculcation, agnostisicm is as far as I’ve managed to get).
I have prayed. I have believed. I even went to the mikveh ritual bath (right before my third failed pregnancy). I have, in the past, opened up my heart to all the well-wishers, the strangers reading my column, the Hebrew-name-takers from the religious community. I have accepted, in a “Law of Attraction” way, that I will be a mother. And still I have lost four pregnancies. I want to rely on the doctors, but they have failed me, too.
To admit that God has the power—as he gave the matriarch Sarah a baby at the ripe old age of 90—would be to say he has denied me. That he has denied everyone who is suffering, people who have more problems than I do—I, who have my health, my husband, my friends, my work, and a full life.
When the challah-baking woman asked for my name, I couldn’t help but think of Job, the ancient prophet who lost everything—his family, his wealth, and his health—but rejected the notion presented by his busybody friends that it was all Job’s fault, that he must have done something to displease God. I knew there were some who believed my troubles were caused by my leaving religion—these were the very people who would pray on my behalf, since clearly I wasn’t doing a good enough job of it.
I wanted to be more like Job and tell this baker woman not to bother. Because to pray for me would be to admit that a decree must be reversed. That I am being punished. That I did something wrong. She was going to intercede on my behalf? No thank you, Job says, I have done nothing wrong.
In my memory, Job is defiant. But when I took another look at his story, I noticed he is complacent, almost Buddhist: He accepts his fate as God’s will. In this—and in my devotion—I am unlike Job. I refuse to accept this childlessness as my destiny. It is not the will of God. And if it is, he must change his mind.
We had another fertility treatment coming up. But honestly, I was all out of faith. In God, in religion, in doctors, in healers, in acupuncturists, in hypnotists, in Western or Eastern medicine … in the power of any of us to control anything in this world.
I still went to synagogue on the High Holidays, just once a year, like a good bagel-eating, cultural New York Jew. Truthfully, I’d never found another place to zone out and just think, as I do during prayers. I hardly said any of them, except to chime in during the songs. I sat on the hard, wood benches and thought about my upcoming fertility procedure.
Did I have to believe for the treatment to work?
I wanted to believe again. In something. If not in a benevolent being who wanted the best for humanity, than at least to believe in the possibility that something might succeed in the end. That our next treatment could be the one that would make me pregnant. That I could carry a baby to term. That we would finally have our child. But the old prayers had reverted to their childish gibberish, chants without meaning.
I wouldn’t let anyone else pray for me, and I couldn’t pray for myself, either.
“Help me! Help me!” I screamed, waking my husband up in the middle of the night. My face was damp from tears. “Help me, help me,” I whimpered, just coming conscious and hearing my words. As I lay down in his arms, I recalled what had happened in my dream. Someone had shot me in the back. There was a bullet lodged in my spine, and yet I was still walking around. In the dream, I trudged around New York City, slowly, aware that the thing stuck between my shoulder blades was weighing me down. But no one else knew. They expected me to act normal.
That’s why I was crying for help. Couldn’t everyone see what happened to me? Was I expected to go on like this forever?
I’ve always had vivid—if not rather obvious—dreams. Falling out of a tree, a car stalled, walking on the wrong path. All signs to examine my life.
But why a slug in my spine? Why had I been shot, not stabbed in the back—a classic metaphor for betrayal? One online “dream dictionary” said that that being stabbed was a sign of betrayal by someone else. But being shot is always a sign of betrayal by one’s self.
Clearly, the bullet in my back that I was carting around unbeknown to all my friends was my pain. But how was I betraying myself?
I thought back to one of my favorite prayers, one of the few I did recite on the holidays, silently, during the priestly blessing:
Master of the Universe, I am yours and my dreams are yours. I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I dreamt about myself, or if someone dreamt of me, or if I dreamt of someone else , strengthen them like Joseph’s dreams, and if they need healing, cure them as you did the bitter waters on Moses’ hand, Miriam from her leprosy, Hezekiah from his disease, and the waters of Jericho by Elisha. And just like you turned Bilaam’s curse to a blessing, so too turn all dreams about me into good … Amen
Suddenly it came to me: I felt betrayed by my body. Over the last three years, my body had let me down four times. It hadn’t stayed pregnant. It had not carried the babies. And I was now carrying around this bullet—this knowledge—crying out for help.
I had refused to blame God for my problems, but I wondered if I had been blaming myself.
But what if what happened to me was not my body’s fault? What if it were just a combination of luck, timing, circumstance? If that was really the case, that it was not fate, not Divine Retribution, not my destiny, not even my intrinsic inability to birth a child—there was a chance it could work. That the next fertility treatment could produce a child.
No, I did not need to pray. And I did not need anyone to pray for me. What I needed to do was forgive, let go, and open myself up to the possibility of believing again. That was something no one else could do for me.
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