JERUSALEM (Aug. 5)
Come the end of December, everyone’s mind seems to be focused on new fad diets, health club memberships and the newest quit-smoking gadgets. But the focus of the Jewish New Year is not about reducing physical dependencies, but increasing the spiritual in all areas of our lives.
A new collection of interviews by Chana Weisberg, “Expecting Miracles: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy Through Judaism,” comes to illustrate how pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood are all, indeed, opportunities for spirituality and personal growth through the eyes of Judaism.
Its U.S. release just before the Jewish New Year is appropriate, considering that Rosh Hashanah is the day humankind was born. We even refer to this in the Rosh Hashanah prayer service, where it is called Yom Hora’at, or the Day of the Birth of the World.
Weisberg’s book offers about 50 interviews with a diverse group of mothers within the religious Jewish commu! nity of Jerusalem.
Interspersed among the interviews is a kabbalistic birthing meditation, assorted teachings on pregnancy and birth from the cannon of classic Jewish literature, as well as a spiritual teaching about birth from the Breslov Chasidic tradition.
This collection investigates how Judaism serves as a spiritual tool during pregnancy; it also is intended to empower women by broadening their understanding of motherhood.
“We’re surrounded by incredible mothers, but we don’t see how incredible we are, how much we can teach the world, and how strong we are, spiritually and physically and emotionally,” Weisberg says.
Although all the interviews were gathered from observant Jerusalem women, the range of lifestyles embraced by the interviewees is vast and the book is designed so that anyone, regardless of their level of Jewish knowledge, can understand their stories.
The mothers of “Expecting Miracles” range from a modern Orthodox graduate of Columbia ! University who is still reeling from her first birth by emergency Caes arean section, to a fervently Orthodox Iraqi mikvah attendant and mother of 10 who proudly boasts that she has never undergone a prenatal checkup.
Even before “Expecting Miracles” hit the shelves, Weisberg was known as the “Jewish Pregnancy Lady” to the 300,000 annual visitors to her Web site, www.jewishpregnancy.org.
There, her fans find Jewish traditions and prayers for pregnancy, clips from the book, as well as personal interactions with Weisberg herself.
Both the Web site and the book are outgrowths of the drastic change that Weisberg, now a mother of 3 young girls, has undergone through her own child-rearing experiences.
Ironically, before the 32-year-old Weisberg became pregnant with her first child, Hadas, now 6, she loathed the constant chatter of mothers who spoke of nothing but pregnancy and children.
“I always used to think, ‘Married people with children are so boring. They are the last people in the world that I would like to talk to,’ ” says ! Weisberg. “I was much more interested in my career.”
Prior to taking the leap into motherhood, Weisberg was very focused on getting a master’s degree in social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“When I first got married, I was never at home,” Weisberg says. “The whole day I was either studying or working outside the home, and I have a lot of hesitation about being a mother.”
“Then I got pregnant, and in a moment everything changed,” Weisberg continued. “While I was finishing my master’s at Hebrew U., I felt such physical pain sitting in the classes because I felt like they had so little to do with me. All I wanted to do was lie in bed, read pregnancy books and think about babies.”
For Weisberg, as well as for several of the other interviewees in her book, the transition from being an independent woman into motherhood became a path of spiritual and emotional growth.
The internal, 180-degree shift that Weisberg experienced during her first pregna! ncy drew her to the bookstore.
“When I went searching for a book o n what it means to be Jewish and pregnant, I shockingly came up empty-handed. I couldn’t believe there had been nothing written on the subject,” says Weisberg.
The concrete plans for “Expecting Miracles” were born when Weisberg became pregnant with her second child, Hallel, now 4.
Weisberg began writing the book that she had endlessly been searching for throughout her first pregnancy.
“I had no credentials to be doing something like this,” says Weisberg. “I’m not a writer or a midwife. I was merely a mother of one child, which in this community means nothing. I just had this burning desire to start this project.”
“I just dusted off my old tape recorder, bought a notebook and started setting up interviews with my favorite local mothers,” Weisberg added. “It was the only experience I’ve had in my life of pure inspiration. I felt as though I was just a messenger for this task that was coming from a higher place.”
The book is chock-full of stories that show t! he intersection of Jewish spirituality and pregnancy.
One woman was a former hippie who related to natural childbirth like an 11th commandment. Another focuses on praying and performing more commandments during pregnancy so that she will have a God-fearing child.
Other women, who had grown up thinking that career would be their life’s focus are now struggling with their new identities as mothers.
One of Weisberg’s most touching interviews came from a woman named Nili all names of the interviewees were changed for anonymity — who is a genetic carrier of a rare and deadly illness.
Weisberg explained that two of Nili’s four boys suffer from the disease, and constantly are sick from the symptoms. Still, Nili sees her life as a tremendous blessing, and Weisberg describes her as a “person with a tremendous amount of inner strength.”
When she gives birth, Nili takes advantage of what Weisberg says is a Jewish idea — that the divine presence of God actual! ly is in the room when a child is born.
During labor, Weisberg says , Nili “would scream out people’s names who weren’t married and the people who were sick or suffering, or women who couldn’t have children. All the nurses would get together and give her names to scream.
“Once, at the same moment that Nili was giving birth, she called out a woman’s name in the hospital who was sick and suffering. She died in the same moment” that Nili shouted her name, the book says.
Though “Expecting Miracles” started as an academic endeavor, a “case study” as Weisberg described it, the journey took her and the book in a different direction.
“It was a process for me, and I let these women change my approach to pregnancy and motherhood,” Weisberg says. “I feel so much love for Jewish women, for what we do and the wisdom that these woman have, and I feel like that spirit infuses the book.”