The enormity of Israeli motherhood

Many non-Israelis cringe at the deluge of unsolicited advice they receive while pregnant.

“You must be carrying a girl because your butt is big.”

“I was in labor for 46 hours and they had to yank the poor thing out with a vacuum.”

“Don’t eat spicy food until your ninth month. My friend’s daughter’s niece ate schug when she was in her seventh month and she gave birth early. The katanchik was in the premie ICU for six weeks. Haval.”

These words of wisdom come from everyone: from friends and family members to strangers on the bus and in line at the grocery store.

I learned during two pregnancies that in Israel a swollen stomach is a carte blanche for intimacy.

But I loved it. Being a foreign transplant I didn’t have my natural support system – my mother and grandmother, aunts, and their friends, the elders who should have told me how to avoid vericose veins, what to eat, and how to prepare for labor. So, I devoured every morsel of good intention bestowed upon me and my stomach. I loved the fact that I could swap birth stories with any woman, women whom I may never talk to under other circumstances. This maternal bond transcends social divides.

It reminds me that motherhood in Israel – like everything else in this troubled slice of land – is larger than life. It’s all-encompassing, overwhelming, something that you can’t separate from your core existence. (Read more about this here.)

I got to thinking about this after my cousin Nava’s untimely death last week.

To me, Nava encapsulated everything Israeli, and all that is tied to motherhood and womanhood – both in her life and her death.

Everything Nava did was large. I didn’t see her often or know her well, but when we met, her presence was always warm and encompassing. It started from the booming “Shaaaalom” with which she greeted everyone to her mischievous smile, wicked sense of humor, and infectious joie de vivre, all rolled into one woman.

Nava was an artist, an educator, a wife and daughter, and a mother of four, including triplets. Even in motherhood, she went all the way.

My most cherished memory of her was when we went to her house one Friday night in 2008. I was six months’ pregnant with my oldest son. The time was ripe for Nava to tell me the mythological story of her triple birth.

The whole family was gathered around the abundant Shabbat table, but Nava took center stage. It was as if the lights dimmed and the spotlight shone on her.

With wild gestures and theatrics worthy of an Oscar, Nava recounted the tale of the triplets’ birth to me – as the first-time mom-to-be, this was my initiation to the wild birth stories of our family’s matriarchs. Soon, I would join their ranks.

Nava told me how after their oldest daughter was born, they continued fertility treatments – but just for a short time. When they found out she was pregnant with triplets, Nava and Yoram — for lack of anything better to do — laughed hysterically.

The birth was premature and labored, Nava recounted, her black curls bouncing with emotion. As the tiny fetuses came out one by one, the doctors were not happy. Their vital signs were poor. The last one, Noa, was barely alive.

“She should have been dead! That’s what the apgar showed!” Nava bellowed.

We listened intently to the gory details and complications that ensued. Then the finale: “Can you believe it? Look at her, now! She’s a soldier, an officer. LOOK! AT! HER!  Look at THEM!” She turned adoringly to her four grown children with unabashed pride and a hint of cynicism and self-deprecation.

“So, don’t worry, Melanie. You’ll be fine.” Mischievous wink.

It’s surreal that we saw Nava for the last time two months ago when she walked one of the triplets — the first to marry — down the aisle.

She was in high spirits. How could she not be? Dancing, greeting the guests. She didn’t look sick.

When the rabbi exhorted how happy he was to have officiated at two of her children’s weddings and hopes to return for the weddings of the two other two triplets, Nava nodded vigorously. She had tears in her eyes.

I’ll always remember her that way: happy, brimming with emotion, even when the cancer brooded within her.

How tragic that this woman with such enormous love will not live to be a grandmother. We’ll miss Nava dearly. May her memory be a blessing.

About the Author
Born in Canada and living in Israel since 2003, Melanie Takefman writes about life in Israel, herstory and cross-cultural identity. She is currently working on a book about women and migration.
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