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The Superstitious Pregnancy in the Age of Social Media

‘The day I see Syrian Jews doing gender reveals on Instagram—I’ll know it’s over!’

Esther Levy Chehebar
June 25, 2018

Instagram knew that I was pregnant before I did. Evidently, its algorithms proved more adept at registering elevated levels of progesterone in my urine than three “early results” sticks and a subsequent blood test. It began on my Explore page, where photos of women wrapped in varying swaths of white fabric peering down at their bellies, swollen with life, reflected themselves back at me like some Valencia-filtered crystal ball. Some women stood tummy to tummy with their partners, gleefully exclaiming, “WE are expecting!” Others marked each weekly milestone of their pregnancies with letter boards, accompanied by captions that included a fruit or vegetable Emoji, to indicate the size of their growing fetus.

Instagram’s sponsored ads got more precise after I received the phone call from my OBGYN that confirmed I was indeed, expecting. The content began to better mirror—if not superficially—my psyche; a black hole of Google search results that I used to confirm or deny my worst fears. When a friend suggested I take a babymoon to unwind, Instagram recommended a spa-like resort in the Arizona desert. As my pregnancy progressed and I began to feel confident enough to start searching for essentials, like a crib and changer, Instagram offered wares from companies they concluded espoused my beliefs; that bottles should be BPA-free, mattresses 100 percent organic and woods rid of toxins.

But what Instagram couldn’t glean from my collected data was that my Syrian-Egyptian Jewish background meant I was prone to superstition. The photos of soon-to-be parents referring to their unborn children by name, the stories chronicling baby’s first ultrasound and the product-hawking—all of which I consumed with fervor, flew in the face of what I’d believed growing up: It’s best not to speak of or relish in life’s joys prematurely, less you tempt the evil eye of others.

My grandmother claims that her appetite for turquoise jewelry has little to do with its supposed capacity for deflecting the evil eye. “To tell you the truth,” she says, “I have tanned skin, and turquoise looks so nice against it.” While this is true, I have to believe that consciously or not, she wears the color as a protective shield against envy and libel. This is but one of the many antidotes to superstition that’s been passed down and remains prevalent in our Middle Eastern culture. In my Brooklyn-based community—a Sephardic mix of Syrian, Egyptian, and Lebanese Jews—the worst thing you can do to thy neighbor is not deny her sugar or block her driveway, but to utter the number five, or khamsa, in Arabic.

Feneledu!” My grandmother shouts, after I tell her that I’m just about to enter my fifth month of pregnancy. The Arabic phrase is used in lieu of the number, which is said to possess evil characteristics. She tells me that even if I don’t believe in the superstition, the person that I’m speaking to might. It’s more prudent to steer clear of the number entirely. Superstitions are based in the assumption that some people do not want the best for each other, and there are measures one should take to preemptively protect oneself and the ones they love, such as sewing a hamsa hand into your baby’s clothing and placing a prayer book beneath his mattress.

As my grandmother says, “If you believe in the hamsa, you believe in G-D.” And if you believe in the hamsa, you certainly don’t voluntarily open yourself up to the judgment of others, on Instagram or IRL. In fact, during pregnancy, it’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to exist in a partial state of denial.

I was around 30 weeks along when I visited Dimples, a family operated baby store in Brooklyn. Owned by Sara Mamiye, Dimples has been catering to the superstitious whims of our community since 2012. At first glance the shop looks like any other. The floor is stocked with colorful plastic toys, books, bumpers, strollers, highchairs and the occasional crib. A notebook lay open on the register, where you can peruse the ever-growing list of birth announcements. My mother and sister accompanied me, and after some heated deliberation (“What do you mean people don’t do bumpers anymore?”) I settled on a crib.

“So, when will it be delivered?” I asked.

My mother looked at me as if I’d just suggested we all strip down and build a campfire right there in the store.

“We’ll call you when it comes in.” Sara mediated, “And we’ll hold it for you until you give birth.”

A visit to the Dimples basement confirmed that there were dozens of boxed cribs, rockers, changers and car seats waiting to meet their tiny tenants. Sara explained that once she got the call, she’d have movers deliver and assemble the furniture in my nursery while I recovered in the hospital. My newly minted fairy godmother assured me that I had nothing worry about. While her confidence put me at ease, the realization that we did this hoping for the best but preparing for the worst made me queasy.

“Listen, you can prep the room in advance. Just don’t tell your grandparents or in-laws.” My mother offered, sensing my discomfort.

La’a! My grandmother exclaims when I ask her about the custom. In her day, women didn’t browse catalogues or preorder baby essentials. They waited until their newborns were safely in their arms to visit the local store. Her opinion on Annie Leibovitz’s iconic 1991 Vanity Fair photograph of a pregnant Demi Moore? Why give people a reason to talk about you? Before we hang up, my grandmother wants to make sure of two things: I am salting my eggs and indulging in my cravings. It’s a commonly held belief that denying the latter will show itself on a newborn’s skin via splotchy red birthmarks.

Since becoming pregnant I’ve taken countless photos of my growing bump. I’ve arched my back to the point of passed gas in order to get the perfect angle and stripped down to nothing all in the name of capturing the evolution of my body into a human refrigerator. I keep these photos stored in a private folder on my iPhone. Occasionally, I resist the urge to upload a mirror selfie. Mostly, I envy the women who’ve given into this urge. They’ve opened a precious part of themselves up to the world. They are excited and mostly overjoyed by the prospect of meeting their little one – or so it seems through the veneer of social media. I don’t mean to suggest that these men and women aren’t anxious and terrified. But I don’t think they lose sleep wondering if they’ve tempted fate by pressing upload.

“The day I see Syrian Jews doing gender reveals on Instagram—I’ll know it’s over!” Sara laughed. It’s uncommon to find out baby’s gender; it’s unheard of to publicize it. Some women will go so far as to give Sara a sealed envelope containing their baby’s gender, entrusting her with the task of setting aside items accordingly. It occurred to me that such methods are deeply tied to feelings of attachment and modesty. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents fled oppressive regimes in Aleppo and Cairo respectively. Decades later, it’s still difficult for them to believe that the lives they’ve carved out for themselves in Brooklyn are indeed, permanent. If you believe that G-D or your neighbor can take everything in an instant, you do all you can to build a protective fence around yourself and the ones you love.

I’m weary of giving these superstitions too much credence. But as I near the end of my pregnancy and the threat of my brain spontaneously combusting in a fit of anxiety grows ever near, it’s comforting to know there are a few things I can do to allay my fears. This past weekend, I baked Challah, a process thought to bring good fortune. I’m currently on the hunt for an Etrog, the yellow citron used by Jews during the holiday of Sukkot. It’s believed that the fruit’s jelly aids in fertility and the health of both expectant mother and baby.

So far, Instagram has no leads on where I might find one.

Esther Levy Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.