Bereishit

The Birthplace of Infertility

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Yael Leibowitz

Five days after the birth of her daughter, she hemorrhaged, on the floor of her bedroom. But it was 2011, and she lived in New York, so as she faded in and out of consciousness she was rushed to a local hospital where the emergency room staff wasted no time hooking her up to machines and getting her bleeding under control. So, she lived. 

She was terrified as it was happening. Mostly that her newborn would go hungry because she hadn’t yet taken a bottle. She insisted, irrationally, that her husband bring the baby with them to the emergency room. In some hazy picture in her dark and wild imagination, she figured that even if she were comatose, they could put the baby to her body to feed.

When she was back home, watching her two older sons sleep, she succumbed to the immensity of what she was feeling, and she cried thinking about what could have been. But more than anything, she cried for all the women throughout time and throughout the world, whose stories didn’t end like hers. She cried for her matriarch Rachel, and she cried for the woman in a remote village somewhere, who lived too far from a hospital, so five days after the birth of her daughter, bled out on the floor of her hut. She cried for that now-hungry baby. 

As the tears fell, her mind glided back in time to a brightly lit room, whose soft music and idyllic photos were, for the most part, ineffectual. It was the familiar mix of emotions that transported her; the coalescence of vulnerability and gratitude, and the swelling of her heart for women she had never met.

The infertility clinic, they were told, was one of the best in the country. Plus, there was ample parking, which meant one less factor to consider on those rushed winter mornings when she sped post-ultrasound to work. She remembers that particular morning. She remembers joking around with the lab technician she had become friendly with as she passed by his window, and she remembers feeling pretty sure in those moments, that interacting with kind people was more calming to her than any of the techniques the waiting room pamphlets advised. She pulled the sides of her puffer vest close as she crossed her arms, and she remembers laughing at herself for neurotically trying to find just the right amount of pressure with which to hold the test tube in her hand. Not too tightly in case it’s fragile, but not too loosely or it might slip through her fingers. She wondered for a moment if there were a guy somewhere whose job it is to come up with apparatus for medical procedures based solely on their symbolic value. If so, she thought, humoring herself, he nailed it with glass test tubes for aspiring parents. 

Her husband had to be overseas for work, so as she offered a fleeting, anxious smile to the couple that chose the chairs next to her, she steeled herself for the loneliness she assumed would surge. But as she looked down at the vial that held within it the potential for human life and saw the writing on the sticker that encircled it, everything stopped. The swirl around her, the ringing phones, the hushed chatter, the magazine pages– stilled. And she became excruciatingly aware, in that moment, of her uniquely modern ability to exploit medicine’s advances. For thousands of years, she knew, women tried desperately to cajole their bodies into obeying them. Fragments of amulets, incantations, and ritual texts unearthed from the ancient world attest that humanity has always tried to control the precarious progression from conception to birth. For thousands of years women ached. They begged their gods, they consulted their necromancers and their witch doctors, and they used every means at their disposal to break through their uterus’s refusal to accommodate life. And there she was, she realized, sitting in a waiting room, holding in her hand scientific breakthrough. 

She thought in those moments of the Apkallu figures depicted in Mesopotamian mythology, the semi-divine beings that revealed the secrets of cultural and technological progress to mankind. Left to its own devices, the ancients believed, humanity would be devoid of ingenuity. But the ancient texts she favored had a different take. The Book of Genesis told of Yaval who pioneered animal husbandry, Yuval who devised wind instruments, and Tuval-Cain who developed enhanced agricultural tools. Innovators, she thought, because they heeded the injunction, not just to “fill the earth” but to “master it.” Genesis spoke of a God that not only created humans in His image but endowed them with the ability to probe the secrets of His infinitely complex universe. He enjoined humanity, she thought, as she pictured her doctor’s faces, to be, like Him, creative. 

****

Growing up on the Bible, meant growing up on stories of barren women. They were as familiar to her as the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, despite the unfamiliarity of the world that produced them. Ancient subsistence living measured the worth of an individual, in large part, by the degree to which he or she contributed to the group’s ability to survive. Male valiance in battle and productivity in the fields, corresponded to the female ability to produce future soldiers and laborers. Naturally, the stories of the Bible reflected the realities of its world, gendered roles and all. But what she loved was how, in carving out space for the experiences of the women that lined its pages, the Bible allowed them to transcend their trappings and communicate timeless truths. And she thought about those truths that morning. She thought about Sarah’s laughter at the angel’s pronouncement of her impending pregnancy, and she understood that sometimes, when heartbreak is at stake, faith and skepticism exert equal pull. She thought about the nerve it took Hannah to march up to the male-dominated sanctuary in Shiloh, and how in fulfilling her appeals for a child, God was also confirming Hannah’s conviction that no one is denied the privilege of prayer. She thought about the fact that Ruth chose compassion as the motivating force behind every choice she made, and how when her baby was finally born, she placed him in Naomi’s empty arms knowing that the warmth generated by new life can crack open the most frozen of hearts, and that its light, diffused, is not diminished. She thought of Rachel’s persistence, and of Leah’s ambition, and she wondered how women, raised in a home that taught them to expect nothing, found the inner strength to demand of man and of God. The stories enveloped her. 

And she understood that this preoccupation with the fertility of people and the land was not unique to the Bible. The unpredictability of the ancient world, with its high infant and maternal mortality rates, flash floods that could decimate the annual crop, or drought that could desiccate it, meant that people of the Bible’s world lived with an acute cognizance of that razor fine line between fertility and death. But as she processed the multitude of analogous stories, what struck her was the fact that all the women, whose struggles were so evocatively depicted, ultimately bore children. The narratives, misleadingly labeled “barren women of the Bible,” were in fact preludes to extended narratives about the births of individuals that typically went on to become central figures in Israelite history. Forefathers, prophets, warriors. Countless biblical greats shared that common personal history. So even as she connected to the rawness of the stories, and she stroked that rawness, beneath the scaffolded layers of meaning characteristic of the Bible, there had to be something more profound, more encompassing. 

****

All great cultures have their heroes. All great cultures speak of individuals, real or imagined, that embody what the culture stands for. And whether that status is earned or stumbled upon, once it is ratified, a culture sees in its heroes everything it wants to see in its collective self. Heroes, ancestors, forebears, are turned to by the cultures that venerate them, not just for what they accomplished, but for what they represent. They become, over time, microcosms of the macro; paradigmatic in the most literal sense of the word. The Bible, in a way that was exceptional for its time, did not deify its heroes and it did not portray them as beacons of perfection. The heroes of the Bible were relevant specifically because they were human. They were complicated, and they were flawed, and they made mistakes that blemished their legacies. But none of that changed the fact that the stories about Israel’s heroes were preserved and transmitted because, like all heroes, they projected in their lives, and in the choices they made, matters that were at the forefront of Israel’s consciousness. 

For the fledgling nation of Israel, the metaphorical significance of a miraculous birth, following a protracted period of barrenness, was profoundly resonant. Israel, like so many of its heroes, emerged onto the world scene in a stunning manner. God had made promises to Abraham, about his descendants emerging from servitude, and returning as a people to their homeland. But after centuries in Egypt, with the shadows of inherited memory fading by the day, those promises, for the few who even recalled them, seemed dubious. The birth of Israel seemed impossible. But just like its heroes, the Nation of Israel was born. And like its heroes, the fact that it emerged in the face of impossible odds points to the very source of its endurance- the fine interplay between divine promises and human initiative. Like their heroes, the people of Israel bore the responsibility connoted in a miraculous birth. 

And just like the birth of its heroes, the Birth of Israel was facilitated by irrepressible women. 

It didn’t begin with the Ten Plagues. The Birth of Israel began with an inadvertent sisterhood. It began with midwives refusing to allow tyranny to undermine their craft, and choosing to usher in new life, at the risk of their own. It began with a woman who tried desperately to save her child from a cruel dictator’s infanticidal decree, and it began when the daughter of that dictator rejected the hatred she was raised on, and chose to love her enemy’s child. The women of Exodus chose, instinctively, to believe in life. She had always wondered as she read the account of Moses’ mother placing him in a basket on the Nile, how many other mothers had done the same? When Pharaoh’s daughter assumed correctly that her foundling was Hebrew, was that because the riverbank was filled with similar baskets? Similar attempts to delay the inevitable? She wondered. And when Moses’ sister had the gall to approach Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest she fetch a wet nurse from among the Hebrews, how many women, she remembered thinking every time she read that exchange, were left lactating, anguished, with no mouth to feed? 

The impossibility of birth was being whispered all around them. They chose not to listen. And because of that, there was life. Waters broke and Israel emerged. 

She thought that morning about the women of Exodus. She thought of their tenacity, and their morality, and of their role in one of the grandest metaphors in history. She thought about how the aggregate of all the stories that had escorted her emotionally those last few months, was ultimately, the story of her people. It was the story of birth and loss, and obstinacy, and faith. It was the story of defying probabilities, of refusing to despair, and of trying to remain decent in a sometimes-indecent world. 

****

In ancient times, women would pray to Ishtar the goddess of fertility, and to mother goddesses believed to be present at birth. That night, as her tears fell, she offered up prayers to her God. She watched her children sleep, and she traveled back and forth among her memories and her thought processes, and she prayed in thanks, and in hope. Thanks for the abundance she did not take for granted, and hope for those suffering from emptiness, in any form. Thanks to God for inviting humanity to partner with Him in divine ventures and hope for people everywhere waiting on a medical miracle. Thanks that like their heroes, after their miraculous birth, her people went on to stimulate moral consciousness in an ever-changing world, and hope that like their heroes, they would always be inclined to learn from past mistakes. Thanks that the world that she lived in, like the world of the Bible, was still filled with individuals who chose to push the limits of what others believed they were capable, and hope that the good ones never back down. 

Yael Leibowitz
Yael Leibowitz has her Master’s degree in Judaic Studies from Columbia University. Prior to making Aliyah, Yael taught Tanakh at the Upper School of Ramaz, and then went on to join the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught Continuing Education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as Resident Scholar at the Jewish Center of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning and is a frequent lecturer in North America and the United Kingdom. For more of Yael’s writing visit: yaelleibowitz.com