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Infertility lessons from Pumbedita

Advice for those coping with difficulties bearing children: Talk about it

Growing up as the eldest of seven children, it never crossed my mind that getting pregnant could be an issue. It was always assumed that when you get married and decide to, you start a family. After all, sexual education in the religious sector focuses on abstinence and making sure you don’t get pregnant, which leads to the assumption that pregnancy happens at the snap of a finger.

After our first year of fertility woes, I found myself answering those who questioned (mostly the nosy women in shul) that we were trying our best and if they can please stop scanning my mid-section that would be nice.

Ten years later, as we are trying again, I look back and realize that I have spent over seven years in fertility treatments. Those years included miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies and one successful birth to my incredible five-and-half-year-old twin boys.

As I contemplate on this journey I realize that the one constant is the lack of support and visibility that women and couples have throughout this process. Things have changed since a decade ago, but not enough.

At my weekly shiur on the laws of Nidah, questions of ideal family size and the ideal sex life come into play. The tension between reality and Halakhah come up again and again throughout the various topics. On the one hand we have Halakhah, which tries to codify and create standards that can apply to a larger population .On the other hand, we have the Rabbis dealing with the fact that life cannot be controlled or planned (surprise surprise).

In Tractate Nidah 66A we find a story of a woman from Pumbedita who, after having intimate marital issues, is encouraged by her spouse to “come out” to her friends about the situation in hope that they will pray for her. This example of coming out to the community with a very personal and intimate problem is both refreshing and empowering. The Talmud is telling us that there is value in going public or coming out to our community with even our most intimate problems. In turn, the community doesn’t offer a solution to the issue, but is just there to support and hear us out.

But do they hear us?!

In religious communities that put modesty at the forefront of their value system and main cause of concern (some might say bordering on obsession) women are often left to deal with the struggle of infertility alone. This is especially difficult in a society that values large families as an ideal way of life.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are witness to a culture where everything is brutally exposed; where fertility becomes a national hit reality TV show (see Israel’s “Baby Boom” and the like), and the discourse about the struggles of couples to conceive is dumbed down to sensationalism.

These two extremes leave us hanging in a reality that doesn’t offer the opportunity for a real conversation or helpful support. It is either kept under wraps or broadcasted for the world to see. Neither option allows for real interaction.

Difficult issues must be spoken about in the larger community (not on TV), both for the benefit of the person facing the challenge and for the community that is now aware of the situation.

My husband and I find that the more we talk about the challenges, successes and failures, the less isolated and alone we feel. We should strive to be public about our experiences, as difficult as it may be, both for our own sake and for our communities’ sake.

My request is simple, but not easy. Talk about infertility. Help generate an open and honest conversation. Like the story in Nidah, the conversation will allow our community to support us, and in turn we will serve the community by creating a safe space for others.

About the Author
Na'ama Levitz Applbaum is currently serving as the Director of Ramah Israel Seminar. She received her ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes in Jerusalem and has studied at various educational institutions on her path to becoming a Rabbi. She enjoys leading tefila and has served on the leadership team in different communities. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband Ari and their four children.
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