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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 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Get Up and Walk the Land

Shortly before we left  Palo Alto to spend a year in Israel, I attended a discussion at the Oshmann Family JCC in Palo Alto with a leader of the Israeli environmentalist movement.  She was remarkably deferential to American environmentalists, seeing Israel as trailing in America's footsteps.

It is true, on a public policy level Israelis are far less green than Americans.  But on the level of local communities and personal practices, I'm not so sure.

Most of the Israelis I know line-dry their clothes.  Only in the dead of winter do they resort to clothes driers.   While in Israel, I did the same.  Sure, our clothes were a little more stiff and wrinkled, but everyone was doing it!   I had the best of intention of continuing with line-drying in Palo Alto, but it's harder than you think to purchase a reasonable drying rack in American hardware stores.  And our clothes drier here is a heck of a lot more powerful than the one we had in Jerusalem.  And, I confess, don't underestimate peer pressure.

Large cars are very uncommon in Israel.   Big families crowd into compacts -- baby in the front seat, four kids crammed into the back.  It may be a little more dangerous in the short run, but in the long run our children will all inherit a healthier planet as a result.  Admittedly, these choices may be driven by poverty rather than ideology, but does it ultimately matter?

Many years ago, I briefly dated an Orthodox man who, like me, had spent extended time in Israel.  He was surprised when I told him that one of my greatest pleasures in life is hiking in our (American) National Parks.  He said: "I only think of hiking as something to do in Israel, as in קום התהלך בארץ", get up and walk the land (Genesis 13:17) -- quoting God's words of assurance to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel.  

Israelis are very connected to their land.  On a mythological level, God's promise has come true, though perhaps not in the ways our ancestors might have envisioned it: every place Abraham tread is now steeped in meaning for his descendants.  A day hike in Ein Gedi  would be incomplete without reading the stories of the future king David's escapes from King Saul; a day hike in the Gilboa requires a retelling of Saul and Jonathan's deaths on the mountain.

Israel is also a small country, where farms and nature preserves and cities are packed close together.  And the Zionist ideology ennobles the working of the land: החלוץ נאמן לעבודה, "the pioneer is loyal to his work."   For all these reasons, Israeli children all over the country do far more hiking, and have far more direct contact with commercial farms, than my own kids ever had in America.

Fifteen years ago, after a visit to the chicken coop of an Israeli friend's farm, I swore from then on to buy only free-range eggs.  Of course, we all know that farm chickens live their lives in boxes barely larger than their bodies.  But it's one thing to read about it, another thing to see it.  And how many American suburbanites actually get to visit a farm like that?

This past year, on a visit to our cousin's kibbutz, my daughter and I paid our regular visit to their dairy farm.  The kibbutz is one of the supplier's of Tenuva, a large-scale dairy company.  In the past, nothing about the dairy was particularly disturbing.  The cow's don't exactly live luxuriously, but they do not seem mistreated either.  This time, we happened to witness the final 20 minutes of a birthing.  That entire time, the mother's sides were heaving with exertion but not a sound uttered for her lips.  Her silence was almost frightening, and my daughter and I were both swept up in empathy with this laboring mother.  Finally, with a tremendous push from the mother, out came the calf,  collapsed in a heap in the dirt.  The calf seemed blue and lifeless, but soon life's colors came into her face and we saw she was fine.  Eventually, the supervisor on duty came into the pen to see how the birth was progressing. He was pleased to see a healthy calf, and then -- he gave the mother a solid kick in her side with his heavy farm boot.  The mother shuddered.
"Why did you do that?"  I almost cried.
"She needs to start licking the calf," he said.  He gave the mother another hard kick, and then left the pen.  Five minutes later, in her own good time, the mother turned around and started licking her calf.  Ten minutes after that, the supervisor returned with a cage on wheels, hauled off the calf, and mother and baby never saw each other again.

Nowadays, I only buy free range eggs and I don't eat beef.  I've also mostly switched from dairy milk to soy.

And if one of these days you start noticing my clothes have become more wrinkled, you'll know why.