I had never had any interest in alternative medicine. I was an NPR reporter; I spoke Hebrew and Arabic; I had a master’s in Arab Studies from Georgetown and had spent a year as a Rotary Fellow in Cairo. I was even in a book club that read things like The Brothers Karamazov and Paradise Lost (although I did skim that one). Besides all that, I was rarely sick, and if I was, I did what a sane Jewish woman with a college education did: I went to the doctor. But feeling like I had nothing to lose, I called Aliza’s office.
I made an appointment for the next week with Aliza at her clinic in Ramot, a northern suburb of Jerusalem with a large ultra-Orthodox population. Called Aliza’s Place, the clinic was in the basement, and I had to push my way through a maze of strollers in the entryway. When I came in, a woman called out, “I’ll be right there!” I followed the voice, and saw a woman sitting in a makeshift pharmacy in front of dozens of bottles and jars. She was mumbling to herself and pouring herbs into a small brown bottle. I felt like I had bumbled into a coven. I was on the verge of walking out.
When she finished, she came out and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Aliza!” she said with a big California smile, as her green eyes sparkled and her large hat, the one worn by Orthodox Jewish women for modesty, flopped into her face. She was almost too friendly—maybe I had been in prickly Israel too long, but it came off as almost fake. I asked her a little about her background. She said she had grown up in a Lubavitcher home in California. She seemed uncomfortable talking about herself and wanted to move to the exam.
She asked me a few questions about why I had come and took some notes on a chart.
“Now stick out your tongue,” she said, standing up to peer at my tongue.
“That’s it,” I thought to myself. “This is not for me. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
But of course I did know what I was doing there. I was desperate, and I knew that whatever this Lubavitcher pseudo-doctor with the potions and vials on the shelves behind her told me, I was going to follow her advice.
The first time I went through menopause, I was 37. At first I didn’t know what was happening. I had spent the past year on a journalism fellowship at Stanford University with my husband, Cliff, and our two children, then 5 and 3. The return to Israel had been difficult. Rafaella, our 5-year-old, who had been bilingual since birth, refused to speak Hebrew and came home every day from kindergarten crying that she didn’t understand anything that anyone said. Our 2-year-old, Uriel, seemed lost in his new day care. The tech company Cliff worked for was on the verge of bankruptcy, and I was finding the return to daily journalism a challenge. After a year of classes at Stanford, where I had time to read fiction, I came back to the pressure of daily journalism for NPR—running around gathering sound, writing the script, tracking, editing. Worse, the optimism that Israel and the Palestinians were on their way to a peace deal had evaporated, and signs were pointing to another round of violence.
I felt tired all the time and had a low libido. The scariest symptom for me was that my hair was starting to fall out. Cliff tried to be understanding, but there was tension between us. My periods were irregular. I chalked it up to the stress of the move, the language issues, work problems. We had stopped using birth control about halfway through the year at Stanford, and when a year passed without my getting pregnant, I went to see Ehud Margaliot, head of fertility at Sha’arei Tzedek hospital.
Balding, wearing sneakers under his lab coat, with a kindly but brisk manner, he ordered blood tests. I came back expecting him to say I had a slight hormone imbalance that could be easily corrected. Instead, he said the following: “Based on your tests, you haven’t ovulated in about a year. Your FSH”—follicle stimulating hormone—“is very high. Basically, you’re in premature menopause, and it will not be possible for you to have any more children.”
I sat in his office, stunned.
“You know, you’re lucky,” he continued. “I see women in their twenties in premature menopause who don’t have any children. Now go home and enjoy your kids.”
I went home, but instead of enjoying my kids, I turned to Google. There I found that up to 10 percent of women go through premature menopause and that there is no medical cure. I read that FSH should be around 7, and anything over 60 is considered menopausal. Mine was 103. I felt sad that we would have a small family—in Israel, anything fewer than three children is a small family—and began to deal with physical symptoms and psychological feelings associated with menopause that most women confront in their fifties. I felt less feminine, inadequate as a woman. I worried that premature menopause could put me at further risk for breast cancer, which already runs in my family.
I began to confide in friends, most of them in their thirties, about what I was going through. One of my friends, an art therapist who had spent several years living in Boulder, Colorado, told me about Aliza Levine.
“She’s a nurse-midwife who uses Chinese herbs and specializes in fertility issues,” Rachel told me. “Why don’t you go see her? You have nothing to lose. Worst case scenario, she can’t help you, but who knows?”
Aliza nodded to herself.
“OK,” she said, “you can close your mouth now. I see the problem, and I can fix it.”
As I sat there looking skeptical, she explained that I was very dehydrated, making my blood volume low, and that my whole system was out of balance. She could give me herbs—specifically Chinese herbs, including black cohosh and blue cohosh—to restore the balance, she said, and I should be able to get pregnant. She asked me what I thought of that.
“No disrespect intended,” I told her. “But I just don’t believe you. Professor Margaliot said it is impossible for me to have children.”
“No offense taken,” she said. “I actually like skeptics. It’s fun to prove them wrong. And doctors don’t know everything. I’m going to make you some herbs, and you have to take 30 drops mixed in water three times a day. If you take them as directed and you don’t feel better, I offer a money-back guarantee.”
I took the small brown bottles she mixed for me and made sure to keep the receipt, so I could get my money back when they didn’t work.
I went home and put the small brown bottles on a kitchen shelf. The first few days I couldn’t bring myself to take them, as I was sure they would not work, and then I would just be disappointed all over again. I tried to convince myself that I was lucky to have two healthy children, and it was time to move on. But several times a day I found myself wandering into the kitchen and staring at the little brown bottles.
Finally I decided I was being silly. Why had I gone to the appointment and paid for these little brown bottles if I wasn’t even going to take them? I measured 30 drops and mixed them in some water. The first time I almost spit it out, it was so bitter. The first few days I didn’t feel any change, and was sure that it was all a hoax. I was angry at Aliza and angry at myself for letting myself be drawn in. But I had started, and I was determined to see it through. After 10 days, I was less tired, and my hair stopped falling out. My interest in sex was coming back, too.
A week later, I went back to Dr. Margaliot’s for blood tests and an internal ultrasound. My FSH level was now 7, and the ultrasound showed I would ovulate in the next week. Dr. Margaliot spent several minutes looking at my test results, and comparing them with the previous ones. I told him about Aliza and the herbs.
“I’m not sure what happened, but something did,” he said, shaking his head. “Your test results are completely normal. I’ve never seen this before, but there seems to be no reason you can’t get pregnant. I’m really happy for you.”
I went home, determined to make a baby.
That’s when it got really weird, weirder than a Lubavitcher woman curing my menopause with Chinese herbal remedies.
As an observant woman, I follow the laws of taharat hamishpacha, known as family purity. We could not have sex until I had seven “clean” days after my period, and had immersed in the ritual bath, the mikveh. The problem was that I was due to ovulate two days before I could go to the mikveh.
I was in a panic. I didn’t know if the ovulation was a one-time fluke, and I would go back to being in menopause, or if it would last. I called my Talmud teacher Gilla Rosen, who is trained to answer halachic questions on issues surrounding mikveh. Could I go two days early? I asked her.
She called Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a leading modern Orthodox halachic authority, known to be liberal on these issues.
“Is it one day early or two?” he asked. “Does she already have children?”
After hearing the answers, he said I could not go to the mikveh early. A few of my friends, Orthodox ones, tried to convince me that the seven days was a rabbinic “fence” meant to make sure there was no sex during a women’s period, and that going a day or two early would be within the spirit of the law. One of my secular friends said there had to be a religious way to deal with this.
I went back to Gilla. Were there any other options? I asked.
There was one, she said. She suggested artificial insemination, done under the auspices of Machon Puah, an ultra-Orthodox fertility institute. Rafaella was sick that day, so Cliff went to the clinic first, deposited his sperm, and came home. I then went to be inseminated. It wasn’t very romantic—but it worked. Nine months later, our son Netanel was born. He crawled at six months, ran at ten months, and didn’t speak until age 3. Today he’s a teenager. He’s a gymnast and a chef with a face full of freckles who can charm the pants off anyone. He is a born lawyer who loves to argue.
A year later I got pregnant spontaneously, a few weeks after my mother died. I was happy that I would have one more child, and I could name him after my mother. However, when I got to the hospital to give birth, the baby was born dead. There was a knot in his long umbilical cord. It had been wrapped six times around the baby’s neck. I still don’t know if there were abnormalities or not. I couldn’t bear to hold him and I don’t know where he is buried.
So, then I was 40. Maybe I had pushed my luck too far. But I didn’t want to end my childbearing years with a death. I had the same symptoms of menopause that I had had three years earlier. This time, I went right to Aliza, and the herbs worked again. At 41, on an early Shabbat morning, I gave birth to my youngest, Mishael, a sweet boy who wants to be a game designer and tells me I don’t look a day over 21.
At 44, I went through menopause a third time. I went back to Aliza, who had reversed the menopause twice previously. I wasn’t ready for menopause yet; I still had babies. Since the time that she had first helped me, seven years earlier, I had heard countless stories about other women like me. One woman had a child at 48, another at 46. I no longer thought of her as a witch doctor. And I didn’t think less of myself for having consulted her. Instead I felt lucky that, with her help, I had been able to have the family I had always wanted.
“Do you want any more children?” she asked me.
“Oh no,” I told her definitively. “I’ve got more on my plate than I can handle right now.”
“So, let it happen naturally,” she said. “If the symptoms get really bad, I can give you some herbs.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Linda Gradstein is the Mideast Bureau Chief of The Media Line and a former Jerusalem correspondent for NPR.