- The Good Stuff
- Contact Us
Written by Tamar Fox. Tamar, Jewrotica’s Double Mitzvah columnist, is the author of Permanent, Real Israelis and Behind Closed Doors With Men and Women of the Bible.
And none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. – Exodus 23:26
I had my third miscarriage on the day after my husband and I got the invitation to our nephew’s Pidyon HaBen. My younger sister Leah had already taken her infant son to get professionally photographed, and on the card we received four small pictures were placed like brackets around facing plates of English and Hebrew text. One was a close up of Noah’s feet crossed at the ankle, his toes like tiny peanuts at the end of plump soft feet. In another we saw him from the nose up, his brows lifted in an expression of shock, eyes pushed like dark raisins into his smooth doughy face. A crest of very fine dark hair stuck up haphazardly. The third picture was of his outstretched arm, fingers spread wide, and in the bottom right corner of the invitation was a small full body shot of Noah sleeping naked on a white blanket, his skin smooth and dewy in the impossibly beautiful manner of models for shaving cream.
The text of the invitation was short and awkward-sounding in English:
With gratitude to Hashem and joy in our hearts we invite you to join us for the redeeming of our first born son, Noah Benjamin, in accordance with the laws of our fathers. We will redeem Noah from the honorable Rabbi Dr. Moshe Cohen on the seventeenth of Shvat, 5766, corresponding to the fifteenth of February, 2006, at seven o’clock in the evening.
After I opened the invitation, I stuck it to the refrigerator door with a frog-shaped magnet that we had bought at the San Diego Zoo on vacation earlier in the year. The frog had blue skin and bright pink eyes, and its head was almost exactly the same size as Noah’s head in the pictures on the invitation. I put my hand on my belly while I looked at the invitation, letting my thoughts drift toward what kind of baby name announcements Lior and I would use when our baby was born. It felt dangerous, risky, like preparing a shocked expression for a no-longer-surprise party. I tried to picture some of the names we were considering on pastel colored announcements–Dahlia for a girl, or Boaz for a boy–but then shook my head, trying to clear the thoughts from my head. A sharp shard of superstition pushed me away from the refrigerator and into the living room, where I went back to work, proofreading copy for a pamphlet soliciting funds from corporate sponsors for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Lior came home late that night, looking rumpled but happy, and he scavenged in the refrigerator while I watched TV from the couch in the living room, already in my pajamas.
“What’s this thing?” he called from the kitchen, his Israeli accent amusing me, even after seven years. Wots thees theeng?
“I can’t see what you’re looking at, babe,” I called back.
“This thing for Noah.” He came into the living room holding a container of cottage cheese with a fork in it in one hand, and the invitation in the other hand. He handed me the invitation.
“They’re having a Pidyon HaBen.”
“I can read,” he said, giving me a withering look. “I meant, what is a Pidyon HaBen?”
“Really?” I was always surprised when Lior didn’t know the kinds of things that I assumed were basic Jewish knowledge.
Lior rolled his eyes at me and scooped a hefty spoonful of cottage cheese into his mouth.
“When a couple has a baby boy and it’s their firstborn, they have to do this thing 30 days after the baby is born. They have to basically buy the baby from a member of the priestly family.”
“Are you serious?” Lior looked at me as if I’d just told him the world was run by a glowworm named Ralph.
I shrugged. “Yeah. I mean, it’s symbolic of course—the baby isn’t really for sale or anything, but there’s something somewhere that says that the firstborn male children are supposed to be promised to God, or something like that, and then in the end that job was given to the priests, so you have to get the baby back from the priests.” As I was explaining it occurred to me just how ridiculous the whole thing sounded.
“And, what, they have a ‘buying back the baby’ party?” Lior sat next to me and fixed me with another one of his standard ‘you and your psycho religious family’ looks.
He put one of his hands on my belly and smiled more to himself than at me.
I thought about explaining that there was no Pidyon HaBen for a baby that has followed a miscarriage, or even for a baby born via C-section, but it didn’t seem worth it. And in the end it wasn’t relevant anyway.
The next night I came straight home from work and tucked myself into a corner of the couch, still wearing my peacoat. The invitation was sitting on the coffee table in front of me, and for a second I picked it up and stared at Noah, gritting my teeth and trying to swallow back the strong sour taste in my mouth. My eyes clouded slowly, I replaced the invitation on the table and retreated to the bedroom where my side of the bed was made neatly, and Lior’s side was rumpled, the sheets pushed like angry waves against the bedspread.
Stepping out of my shoes and shrugging off my coat I lay on my back, feeling how entirely still my body was. When the baby was alive I had felt it, like a constant light thrumming in my belly. And now there was a silent emptiness in its place. Tears edged out of the corners of my eyes and slid into my ears. I was bored with crying already. For an hour at work I had cried in the bathroom stall as the baby fell out of me in tiny bloody pieces. I cried the first time it happened a year and a half before, I cried the second time it happened six months later, and now I just wanted to be done with crying. But the tears were obstinate and unyielding, even when I dabbed heavily at them with a tissue.
After a minute I stood up and went to the closet, undressing and pulling on a pair of sweatpants and an old t-shirt. Lior and I had spoken briefly during the day, our conversation clipped and fraught as we both tried to maintain any sense of professionalism at work, but I had to make a few more phone calls and the thought of it pushed out more tears. My mother’s answering machine picked up after the third ring and her voice curtly requested that I leave a short message.
“I miscarried again,” I said into the phone. “Just thought you should know.”
I pressed the end button and then dialed Leah’s number. She answered quickly, her voice warm and tired at once.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said, closing my eyes and staring hard at the small bright explosions of color inside my eyelids. I heard a distant and quick high-pitched squeal, and imagined Noah curled in Leah’s arms, warm and soft and exuding the milky smell of babies.
“Hi Naomi! Noah, it’s your Aunt Naomi,” she said, as if at three weeks Noah might have already registered my existence and would be thrilled to hear from me.
“Hi,” I said again, and wiped the back of my hand across my eyes, which were still leaking. “We got the invitation to the Pidyon HaBen yesterday. It’s really beautiful.” My voice cracked mid-sentence.
“What happened?” Leah has always had this way of saying what happened that drives me crazy.
It’s like she puts on this fake panic, to humor me, but it just makes me want to slap her. Maybe she really is panicked, but it sounds fake, and I always have to restrain myself from being rude in response. My baby fell out into the toilet, that’s what happened, Leah. Can you think of something reassuring to say now?
Can you think of something reassuring to say now?
“I miscarried at work,” I said, and pictured myself in the little grey bathroom stall, the skirt of my suit crumpled at my ankles with my nylons, but my feet still elegant in the brown leather heels I bought on my birthday.
“Oh Naomi!” Leah moved her mouth away from the phone for a second, so her next statement was muffled, but still audible. “Yonatan, will you take him? I have to talk to my sister.” I heard Noah make another one of those remonstrative snuffling noises, and then Leah’s voice was back, and I felt her attention focused on me through the phone. “I’m so sorry, Naomi,” she said, and I attempted a weak little laugh.
“Oh, you know– I’m sure, you know, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you in any pain now?” she asked, and then corrected herself, “I mean, physical pain. I know you must be in so much psychological pain, but are you still bleeding? Do you need to go to your doctor?”
“It doesn’t really hurt anymore. There were contractions, and those hurt like a motherfucker—“ the word was out before I could catch it, and I could practically hear Leah flinching through the phone, the skin at the bridge of her nose twisting in distaste. “Sorry, Leah. I meant, they really hurt. But it wasn’t for too long. And you know, I’m an old pro at this by now.” I forced the awful disingenuous laugh again. “I could probably miscarry in my sleep.”
“Oh, chas v’shalom,” Leah said, in exactly the same sing-song tone our high school teachers had used when they said those words dozens of times a day in any and every context imaginable.
If, chas v’shalom someone should do poorly on this test… If, chas v’shalom someone should need a divorce… If, chas v’shalom someone should move away from her frum upbringing and live a secular life with an Israeli husband who wouldn’t know a Torah scroll if it came up and bit him on the tuchus — then she really can’t be surprised when Hashem punishes her with three miscarriages, now can she?
But always the chas v’shalom, the automatic and high-speed entreaty to God not to let such a thing happen. God forbid! God forbid! God forbid! But God had not forbidden.
“Sorry,” I said into the phone. “I was just kidding.”
Leah offered to make us food, or to have Lior and me over for dinner, but the idea of putting on a long skirt and hat to sit and sob in Leah’s pristine TV-less apartment was completely unattractive, and the thought of having to make any kind of conversation with Yonatan, who had always struck me as a self-obsessed asshole made the option even less appealing.
“Thanks, but I think Lior will be home soon and I pretty much just want to have a drink and go to bed.
“Well,” she paused, and I heard her exhale softly, “I’m really sorry, Naomi. I really am.” She sounded sincere, and I appreciated it, but…
“Thanks.” I started to ask about Noah, but couldn’t. Just thinking about his body and the little pictures of him on the invitation made my chest tighten.
“I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah, that would be good. And can you call Eema in a little bit and tell her I’m okay?
I just left her a message but I don’t want to talk about it anymore tonight. Can you just let her know I’m fine and she can call me tomorrow?”
“Of course. But—are you really okay? Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?”
“No, really. I just need to sleep. I promise.”
After we hung up I lay down on the bed and considered getting under the covers, but decided it would have been too much work, and slipped easily and quickly into sleep.