Want to know when I post?
Add yourself to my "followers" list -- scroll down and look on the right side of the screen. Or, drop me an email at ilana@post.harvard.edu and ask me to add you to my alerts list. You'll get an email each time I post.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Last week, I had a miscarriage.

That information seems maybe too personal to be sharing on a website.  But the experience of this pregnancy and its spontaneous termination taught me something important about what it means to live in America, and what it means to live in Israel, and that's why I'm sharing it.

A year ago, my husband and I were satisfied with the size of our family.  Ours is the imagined ideal, minus the dog:  one boy, one girl, a mother and a father.  Our kids are at a perfect age: young enough to need us, but not every minute.  Why would we want to mess that up with diapers, night feedings, choking hazards, car seats, etc., etc., etc. -- not to mention the risks of complications?  Besides, the world's population topped 7 billion a few weeks ago.  7 billion!  More people are alive today than the total of all people who have ever died.  This exponential growth rate cannot continue, and even replacing ourselves is really a luxury.

Then, we spent a year in Israel.  Israel has one of the highest birth rates of any western country: 2.97 per woman.  In Jerusalem, where we were staying, the average family has 4.5 children!  Our family of one lovely boy and one lovely girl felt paltry there.  Over time we met a few small families like ours -- but every single one of them had suffered fertility problems.  It seemed that small families by choice did not exist.

We loved the family atmosphere in Jerusalem.  Our five year old daughter could leave our apartment and walk all by herself to the apartments of any of three of friends.  For the first time, we felt comfortable leaving our son alone -- we knew if he got into trouble, he could run to any of 10 different neighbors for help.  The kids could walk to a local park by themselves, and even to the closest makolet (little grocery store), where they would greet the owner by name and he would give them their purchases on credit.

As an American, my gut assumption is that the large size of Israeli families is a result of Israel's religious culture.  Certainly that explains why Jerusalem, the most religious of Israel's large cities, has an especially high birth rate.  Many an American has returned home from an extended stay in Jerusalem feeling more devout, and more pregnant, than she was when she left.

But what is that religious experience that drives fertility?  And why, judging by my husband's physics colleagues, are secular Israelis more family-oriented than their American counterparts?  A friend of ours who did almost the same thing we did said to me: "Our youngest was conceived in Israel, where all things seemed possible."  This friend is not religiously observant, and his statement was not inspired by tradition.  All things seemed possible.

In Israel, life and death are closer together.  You don't have to be religious to feel that.  You simply have to walk into a shopping mall and open your bag for inspection, and realize that in the not-so-distant past people came to Israeli shopping malls equipped with explosives.  Far more importantly, Israeli children enter adulthood by way of the army, where they cannot help but confront their mortality.

When you realize that life is fleeting, all things really are possible.  Nothing is guaranteed, and everything is possible.  You must cast your bread as best you can, as often as you can, and hope it lands well.

My very first pregnancy, over ten years ago, ended in miscarriage.  I was 29 years old, but an American 29 year old -- young and immortal.  I wanted to have my babies when I wanted to have my babies, and I was not interested in accepting what nature had to offer.  That miscarriage was a dreadful shock.

This last pregnancy was an Israeli one, conceived under the lingering influence of the Israeli air:  religious, optimistic, and aware of my mortality.   Its termination was disappointing, but not a shock.

But the aftermath -- the doctor's visits, the ultrasounds, the medications --  jolted me back to American soil, where all things do not seem possible; where life seems under our control, and possibilities and impossibilities are determined by our human capacities; where raising children is hard, and careers and family are in competition, and a family of two healthy children (baruch Hashem and kein ayin hara!) seems perfect.

Perhaps by coincidence, and perhaps not, I offered a dvar torah at my shul two weeks ago that touched on very similar topics (though at the time I thought my pregnancy was healthy).  If you would like to read the dvar torah email me at ilana@post.harvard.edu 


  1. Israel has probably the most open and generous policies toward fertility. The government pays for more fertility treatments per person by far than any other country (that is for Israelis and Arabs BTW, and for single and married women). It is unlimited for up to 2 children for women up to 45 years old and then they help a lot with the 3rd and even 4th kid. It allows for egg donation and egg freezing (again paid for by the State) and surrogacy (while the surrogacy itself is not paid for by the State, the fertility treatments involved with the surrogacy are).

    Haaretz used to have a section on different "families" around Israel. I say "families" because it also included people living together in different types of relationships (e.g. group homes, city kibbutzim etc.). At the end of the section, they asked each person how many children he/she wants. I was surprised to read that the overwhelming majority of people, including even totally left wing, liberals, with very alternative life styles would still say 3-5 kids (whether gay or straight). I would bet (although I have not seen any studies) that even gay couples in Israel have a far higher rate of fertility than like couples around the World.

    As you said, Israel is a very child focused society. I think this affects people all around the country.

  2. I am sorry to hear about your miscarriage. Thank you for sharing this beautiful post. I take your insights very seriously, as work on my book continues.
    -- Lara

  3. yeshar koach on coming out of such a rough experience with so much wisdom!

    my favorite line is this one:

    Many an American has returned home from an extended stay in Jerusalem feeling more devout, and more pregnant, than she was when she left.

    i thought this piece highlights very interesting different qualities about american and israeli life. i'm not sure where to put myself in that spectrum - i only have three - but i can't really imagine seeking more...i think. but since i myself am an only child, all families look big to me...
    shabbat shalom

  4. I'm so sorry to hear about your loss, and so impressed that you're dealing with it so logically and rationally! You are indeed blessed with two beautiful children - here's my wish that life only gives you what you're looking for from here on in!

  5. Our family is also a "not by choice" small family. I suffered four miscarriages. If you still have the d'var Tora available, I'd like to read it.