On feeling weird and holding babies

This morning on a crowded bus to Talpiyot, I was rocked back by the stunning presence of purpose.

I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to decide what it is about this country and this city that leaves me with my tail between my legs. It isn’t the religious community. A graduate of a small liberal arts school in progressive Boston, I’ve considered myself an active feminist since my first women’s studies course four years ago. It is not news that women in Orthodox and Haredi society commonly face exclusion, segregation, and lack of leadership opportunities in their communities. The collective struggle to systemically increase the rights of women and girls across the board is what led me to such a fulfilling internship at the New Israel Fund/Shatil. But I wouldn’t say I was itching to fight gender inequality on the Israeli ground quite yet.

So when a young modern Orthodox woman attached to a screaming baby stroller relapsed onto the back entrance of the 4א, my magnetic reaction to her deeply surprised me.

The woman was very young and I should have looked away but I simply couldn’t fix my eyes anywhere else. Her hair was dangerously peeking out from within her hurriedly tied headscarf, a tired piece of plain fabric that itched to bare burning red curls underneath. She was stunning—exposed in her own way and hidden in all other ways at exactly the same time.

She had pale, fair skin with freckles and looked at me as though the world had given her too many things to do that day. I generally avoid intimate interaction with strangers in public places in Israel, as my just-barely-above-the-knee “Haredi chic” look I’ve unconsciously adopted over the past month somehow doesn’t swallow well in the mouths of the people of Zion.

Yet the look in this woman’s eyes pierced the depths of my soul and without one grain of thought I instantly became removed from the world around me in a gesture that must have demonstrated I was there solely to help her. There was no need to use my broken Hebrew. I quickly stood but her patient silence told me to sit down. She produced a living creature from the stroller beside her and plopped it into my lap. It was small and breathing.

I could not have known during my sprint to catch the bus this morning that I would soon be holding a stranger’s baby. Maybe if I did I would have not run. It doesn’t matter. The thing was very small and it was crying. But its entire hand measuring under two inches opened to grip my thumb and I looked down to observe fingernails that were smaller than what I assumed was otherwise humanly possible. Its grasp was strong and blind and I held my breath without knowing.

Yes, this is the second time I’ve held a baby in my entire life. Allow me to offer a minor disclaimer: I’ve enjoyed an uninterrupted lifetime of loathing toward small children since I convinced myself I was no longer one.

Bouncing snotty, self-fertilizing, pukey and shrieking—yet “adorable” (?)—babies were never my cup of tea, and I physically cringed at the thought of holding or coddling one. But I moved to Israel to have foreign and ultimately uncomfortable experiences that would rock me backwards and open my spine and soul to the new and the different.

It has been my mantra since I can remember that there is beauty in discomfort. Feel weird, get strange, bring yourself to moments of uncertainty and revel in them. I have written countless dissertations on the subject, devoted a substantial fraction of my short life to channeling this theme.

But up to this morning, babies still weren’t a factor in my ability to get weird, and I wasn’t exactly pining to handle one.

Part of this aversion stems from my academically conditioned fear that being married with children makes me less of a feminist, and another is a fear that one day I will be scooping baby barf off a new white blouse wondering where I went wrong. I’ve since realized that sharing and creating life with someone doesn’t mean I’m any less of a strong, independent woman. Being able to autonomously make such a decision is actually a powerful part of being a woman.

My mother’s selflessness, bravery and blind sacrifice of an unwritten and an untold future in the name of raising two [once] hell-raising children warms my heart in a way that makes me want to jump the next flight home to New York. I can only hope to grow up to be the woman she became and the mother and friend she is to her daughter and her son. It is worthy to note here however, that I’m still working on that baby barf part.

I rifled through all of the above thoughts, a million miles a minute. It couldn’t have been more than two before the woman collapsed her stroller, neatly concealed her hair until I could no longer distinguish her as a redhead, and opened her arms to receive her child.

There was no exchange of spoken word. If there is one thing I’ve learned while assimilating into Israel for the past eight plus months it’s that language simply does not matter. I admit this may come off sounding extreme, especially as a writer and lover of words, but in a country teeming with shades of grey, every once in a while I feel the deep need to boldly present myself. I spent three months chasing and rolling around on the ground with Israeli children from a women’s shelter who knew not one beat of English, and they contributed to my transformative experiences more than the adult English speakers in this country have. I have spent significant time with an Arab woman in the Triangle region of Israel who did not know English but whose mustered gesture “I like you” meant more to me than any esoteric and tender verse.

I was a puddle with lips of cement and I remember barely murmuring a lame “ein baaya.” She gently smiled, showing no teeth and her eyes were soft. She was young and old as she turned to her child to inspect what she had created. I inspected myself, the child my mother made and raised. I felt just as small as the thing I had in my arms moments before. Thankfully, there were no signs of milky spit-up, but when I returned the infant I did not also return the new emotions the experience gave me.

In sharing this story with a Jerusalemite, my story was not met with visible surprise. I was taught a new phrase, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. I guess some people take it to the extreme.

I understand my account of this morning may not be as stupefying for some readers, but it was an experience that renewed my deep love for human life, open, searching palms and the kindness of strangers by blind trust. There may be miles to go before Israel can realize any kind of full peace but in the meantime its citizens are handing off their babies left and right.

About the Author
A recent graduate of a small liberal arts school in Boston, Billie Hirsch concentrated in gender and women’s studies as well as critical pedagogy. She has been spending the year abroad in Israel through JFNA's OTZMA initiative teaching English, grappling with her Jewish identity, and devoting time to social change organizations like the New Israel Fund/Shatil.