I focused on the words in front of me and tried to ignore my shaking legs that felt like they might collapse under me at any moment. The cramp that had been constant in my belly for over 48 hours pulsed and subsided, pulsed and subsided. I steadied my voice. I internally patted myself on the back for choosing a Purim costume that called for black tights — Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, in all her dissent-collared glory — which would mask the heavy bleeding I’d been experiencing for days.
I knew I was having a miscarriage. I knew it almost immediately after getting the shocking call two days earlier that my pregnancy test was positive. I wouldn’t get confirmation that I’d miscarried until several hours after our megillah reading, but I knew it was a foregone conclusion. This megillah reading was — and is — far too meaningful to me, though, to let a little thing like a miscarriage prevent me from participating. Even a miscarriage that sealed the failure of our third IVF cycle in the past year.
Three years ago, I started a women’s reading of Megillat Esther — the text traditionally read on the holiday of Purim — in our community in Oceanside. Our first women’s megillah reading was Purim 2019, but it took nearly a year of planning to get it started. Ours is a Modern Orthodox community that is progressive in many ways (for an Orthodox community) while lagging behind in others, and when I wanted to start this women’s megillah reading, it was not without controversy. According to Jewish law, women have every right and capability to read the megillah, but in most traditional Orthodox circles, a man typically reads the megillah while everyone else listens.
I wanted to change that in our community. I didn’t know how I’d do it, or how many women would be on board. I just knew I wanted to have a hand in opening the doors — however narrowly — to let women in our community play an active role in the traditional ceremonies of our faith. At that point, I was just beginning what would prove to be a long journey of infertility, but I was highly motivated by thinking about the world of opportunity I wanted to bring a son or daughter into, by the active role I wanted my imagined children to see their mother taking. Megillat Esther felt like a non-controversial place to start, but I learned you should never underestimate the “but we’ve always done it this way!” line of thinking.
Regardless of any controversy that first year, I, along with six other women, got this reading off the ground, with over 50 women and young girls in attendance at our first reading.
It takes a fair amount of skill and a lot of practice to learn how to read the megillah in the traditional way. We read it from a scroll of parchment, with no vowels under the Hebrew letters to guide us. Each word is read—or sung, rather — to the tune of a complex language of musical notes. And many of the words in the megillah are ancient Persian, not Hebrew, so it’s challenging even for those of us with a strong background in Hebrew. Most men in Orthodox circles never learn this skill, let alone women.
I didn’t know how to read the megillah when I started this. I asked my husband to teach me. In turn, I taught this skill to my six fellow readers. And, in the second year, with COVID looming overhead, that number became 10 readers other than myself (including three teenage girls), with over 60 women at our reading. Last year’s women’s megillah reading was the last “normal” gathering most of us would experience before everything fell apart.
This year was always bound to be different. It’s the year of COVID, after all.
It was different. We lost a couple of readers this year (one couldn’t commit to the preparation time, the other had a baby less than a week prior), but our audience grew.
Let me preface this by saying our synagogue has been extremely careful with social distancing and masking protocols, proper ventilation, and all that jazz. Although I haven’t been attending synagogue myself this year because I’ve had to be extra careful while going through IVF treatments, not a single COVID transmission has been linked to our synagogue in the nine months or so since it reopened for in-person services.
80 women and children attended this year’s megillah reading — our third annual — safely spaced and masked in a room equipped to hold 400.
And I barely registered any of them.
For our first two years, getting to the day of the megillah reading was the climax after months of preparation. Seeing so many supporters in the crowd, and seeing that crowd grow, filled me with pride. I can’t even describe the joy I felt last year, when we added three teenage girls to our list of readers. That world I’d pictured bringing a son or daughter into was becoming more tangible.
This year, I didn’t have the chance to feel that full sense of pride. I was in a daze. As each reader got up to read her chapter of Megillat Esther, I was filled with panic as my chapters drew nearer. I was actively losing my shot at the closest I’d come to motherhood. I could barely breathe.
Most women who experience miscarriages this early never even know they were pregnant. They might just experience a heavier period than normal and think nothing of it. Because IVF is the only way my husband and I can possibly get pregnant, we’re not afforded that luxury, as every step along the way is closely monitored.
I knew I was pregnant for all of a few hours before my body started telling me, in no uncertain terms, this was not meant to be. In those few hours, I’d started picturing how I’d decorate this precious child’s nursery. I tried to infuse as much love as I possibly could into this baby I imagined sharing my body with for the next nine months. And I thought about how, if this pregnancy made it to full term (I was already bleeding at this point, so I had my doubts), I’d be able to tell my child that one of the first things I did with him or her in my belly was get up in front of a room full of women, dressed as the late Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, to sing the story of Esther, one of the saviors of our people. This child of mine would grow up a strong, proud champion of women.
Only, this child was just a blip. A “chemical pregnancy,” in sterile medicalese. As I stood up there, dressed as RBG, singing about the heroism of Esther, I was overcome with dread for the confirmation I knew I’d be getting later that day. But I also felt pride as I glanced around the room, and as I heard from two more friends that their teenage daughters want to join our megillah reading next year. Even if I am never able to create the child I so long for, I’ve helped create something lasting. This women’s megillah reading is here to stay.
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