EXPECTING MIRACLES: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy Through Judaism
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Expecting Miracles is a collection of refreshingly honest and inspiring interviews with traditionally observant Jewish mothers about their diverse experiences of pregnancy and childbearing. It is about the ways in which mothers have managed to make these important stages in their lives into a time for personal growth, spirituality and real-life miracles.
These wonderfully different, engaging and vibrant women, who represent a wide cross-section of the religious community, will quickly draw you in. Their personal stories will energize you to approach your own pregnancy with new insights and understanding.
Have you ever asked yourself what Judaism can teach you about pregnancy? Leading Jewish women scholars, including Rabbaniot Chana Henkin, Tziporah Heller and Emuna Witt offer illuminating ideas for making these nine months more meaningful. Shaarei Tsedek Medical Center’s Bambi Chalkowski, Jerusalem’s most senior midwife, and alternative birthing midwife Sarah Landau will leave you more confident and well-informed for your journey of bringing your new baby into the world. In addition, you will discover that Jewish mysticism holds a treasure-chest of practical ideas as well as kabbalistic breathing exercises to make your birth a more positive and spiritually-enhancing experience.
Everyone talks about the “miracle of pregnancy,” but how often have you, the expectant mother, actually felt that way about this experience? After the first burst of enthusiasm when you received the results of your pregnancy test, you have probably found, as most of us do, that processing this earth-shaking transition gets pushed aside by the rush and routine of daily life and the unrelenting demands of work/study, family and home. The time that you take to read this book over the course of your pregnancy will provide the necessary space in your life to recapture that original sense of awe and wonder, and will enable you to discover ways in which you can revitalize your pregnancy experience by growing and developing along with the baby inside of you.
Expecting Miracles is filled with emotions that will touch the heart of anyone who has ever traveled the path towards motherhood and will inspire readers to find meaning, spirituality and Jewish expression in their own childbearing experiences. It provides new insights for pregnant women through a diverse array of personal accounts of pregnancy and childbirth by traditionally observant women living in Jerusalem, and includes interviews with distinguished educators and midwives, who discuss how pregnancy and childbirth relate to Judaism and the religious community.
Learn from honest and intimate conversations with traditionally observant Jerusalem mothers how to transform pregnancy into an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth - and see for yourself why the author's website, JewishPregnancy.org has received over a million visits since 2001.
Jeremy Epstein in Moment Magazine says the following about the author's website: "Before our child was born, we visited www.JewishPregnancy.org. Site-creator Chana Weisberg sees pregnancy as an opportunity to take an already life-changing experience and transform it into a way to develop Jewish spirituality and knowledge."
About the Author
Chana (Jenny) Weisberg, also known as the Jewish Pregnancy Lady, is the founder of the popular website JewishPregnancy.org. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, she is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Hebrew University’s Graduate School of Social Work, and devoted several years to intensive study at institutions for Jewish learning. Chana is the mother of three and lives in Jerusalem.
by Chana Weisberg
Hardcover, 352 Pages
Praise for Expecting Miracles:
“A fascinating journey into previously unexplored terrain. Chana Weisberg’s beautifully written book explores the little known world of Orthodox Jewish women in various stages of pregnancy: their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their beliefs as they integrate the marvels, the mysteries, the magic, and ultimately, the miracle of childbirth and mothering.
This is an important, erudite and valuable contribution… and offers fresh insights and intimate glimpses into the psychological and spiritual world of the Orthodox woman, a world where religion, above all, predominates. Although the focus of the book is on pregnancy and childbirth, the net cast here is a broad one, and we learn much about the rituals, customs, mores and beliefs of a society worlds apart from the general culture. The book is written in a very lucid, cogent and readable style, and proves to be vastly entertaining as well.”
–Yitta Halberstam, best-selling author of Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life
“Chana Weisberg’s ground-breaking book takes the reader into the literal and figurative womb of Jewish women’s spirituality. Through a series of eclectic, sometimes off-beat, always honest and intimate interviews, her work provides a breathtaking view of women engaged in the most difficult and fulfilling of life’s experiences: pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing.
More importantly, her subjects highlight a truth that has been woefully lost in the discussion concerning women and their place in Judaism – religious devotion, for both women and men, is first, foremost and always about placing God at the center.”
–Rivka Slonim, author of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology
"Summary in a sentence: Weisberg, known as the Jewish Pregnancy Lady to her hundreds of thousands of visitors to her Web site (www.jewishpregnancy.org), offers wisdom and insights from conversations with Jewish women for transforming pregnancy into an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth.
Why you should read it: It'll help give extra meaning to the already emotional nine months of morning sickness.
Why you might be turned off: If (a) you're a guy or (b) if you've got your fill of emotional estrogen-induced upswings."
-Bradford R. Pilcher, Jewsweek.com
"This book makes for fascinating reading for all mothers and mothers-to-be and is an amazing tribute to the power of women's spirituality."
-Doreen Wachmann, Jewish Telegraph
Chana Weisberg says that "pregnancy and birth take place in an altered spiritual reality, in which the dividing curtain between this world and the next is left slightly open."
Out of this perception, Weisberg during her second pregnancy wrote the book that she had unsuccessfully searched for since her first: "Expecting Miracles: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy Through Judaism" (Urim Publications, hardcover, $27.95).
Then living in the Nachloat neighborhood in central Jerusalem which she refers to as "the belly button of the spiritual universe," Weiberg was a young American wife and newly religious woman in Israel.
Through her interactions with the religious women in her neighborhood, she developed an expanded sense of the presence of God in her life. It is interviews with these women -- mothers, midwives and rabbaniot (Jewish women scholars who are also wives of rabbis) -- about the spiritual journeys they made in pregnancy and childbirth that make up the main body of her book. In addition, she included two articles on mystical/Hasidic approaches to birth by teachers of Hasidic philosophy.
After a brief introduction to each woman interviewed, the author presents a transcription of the woman's words with as little editing as possible "to maintain [her] unique voice and style of expression." The result is a rich textured narrative from their hearts and souls.
This glimpse into a world where deeply held faith, mysticism and miracles explain and enrich the mysterious and mundane experiences surrounding motherhood is entertaining, educational and, possibly, spiritually inspiring.
-Erin Cohen and Andrea Waxman
Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle
The theme of this book is the spiritual meaning that Judaism brings to pregnancy and birth. Written by a ba'alat teshuva from Baltimore who lives in Jerusalem, this intensely moving book contains the author's interviews with 24 Orthodox mothers in Jerusalem about their pregnancies. Most of them are "Anglo Saxon" immigrants; many only became observant as adults; many live in the haredi community. All of them see pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood as opportunities for increased closeness to God. The women speak very frankly about difficulties and obstacles such as infertility, miscarriages, and high-risk pregnancies and births. Through their descriptions of their pregnancies as spiritual journeys, we get an intimate look at the inner lives of these women, and how they are empowered by seeing themselves as God's partners in the creation and care of their children. One mother says that she does not believe it possible for a woman to give birth without believing in God. A Hasidic rebbetzin told Weisberg that during her pregnancies she always thinks of the fetus she is carrying as a sefer Torah, as every child is a living Torah. Another woman focuses on prayer and performing more mitzvot during her pregnancies so as to have God-fearing children. Each of the nine chapters of the book is aimed at helping readers grow spiritually along with their babies during their pregnancies. Weisberg includes interviews with two midwives and also with Rabbanit Chana Henkin of Nishmat and other female educators, a kabbalistic birth meditation and teachings on birth based on the teachings of Nachman of Bratzlav.
As a thrice-“pregnant” father, I’ve waded through a fair amount of the voluminous pregnancy literature. There are books that describe the physiological development of the foetus, books that debate the pros and cons of pain medication in labour, books that advise you how to deal with intrusive in-laws, books on nutrition, sex and exercise, and books that detail everything that can go wrong so luridly that it’s incredible anyone reading them would ever choose to have a child.
There are almost no books, however, on the spiritual aspect of bringing a new life into the world. Chana Weisberg’s path-breaking “Expecting Miracles” goes a long way to remedying the gap.
Weisberg, an American immigrant with three children who lives in Jerusalem, has already founded a website, JewishPregnancy.org, which receives 300,000 hits per year.
For her book, she interviewed a range of 23 Orthodox Jewish women about their experiences of pregnancy - Sephardi and Ashkenazi, American, British, Swiss and Israeli, newly observant and frum from birth, modern Orthodox and Charedi, PhD students and full-time mothers.
They share a conviction that childbirth is not just “something to get through with as little pain as possible” in Weisberg’s phrase, but that it can be “the highest spiritual experience of your life.” Although some are in part-time work or studying, all of the women at a certain point decided (sometimes in the face of family or societal disapproval) that bearing and raising children is their principal way of serving God.
Weisberg has coaxed from her interviewees a fascinating revelation of the inner world of religious Jewish women. They speak with a lot of humour, poignancy and honesty about dreams, premonitions, prayers and miracles, about blessings from rebbes and angelic midwives.
There’s the story of Tamar, a 47-year-old South African who became pregnant for the first time after praying at the Wailing Wall for 40 consecutive days. For a year before she conceived, her husband would periodically feel a weight in his abdomen. When he meditated, the weight would tell him: “We are your unborn children.” After a year, his wife became pregnant with twins.
There’s the rabbanit - female rabbi - with “more than a minyan” of children who speaks of her feeling that, after the Shoah, her task is to bring down as many new Jewish souls as she can. And there’s an Israeli woman who screams out the names of friends who are sick or infertile during her intense labours. “I thought that, if it’s anyway going to hurt during the labour and I’m going to yell, then at least I should yell for things we really need,” she says.
The interviewees also talk about morning-sickness, infertility, miscarriages, Caesarean sections, pain, exhaustion and ambivalence about motherhood. They don’t idealise pregnancy or childbirth; rather they share their struggle to find meaning and a stronger connection to God through both their joys and travails.
In addition, the book includes discussions with distinguished Jewish educators such as Rabbanit Chana Henkin of the educational organisation Nishmat, and with Bambi Chalkowski, a midwife for 40 years who has delivered the grandchildren of babies who were born in her care. Weisberg has also included little-known Chasidic writings on birth from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who taught: “Like life, childbirth is a lesson in accepting our limitations, and shatters the illusion that we are in control of situations in which we find ourselves.” There is also a birth meditation, based on classes of the contemporary mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, who describes how kabbalistic breathing exercises, combined with meditations on biblical verses, can enable a woman to focus on the joy inherent in the birth process, rather than on the difficulties.
Well-written and entertaining, the book is also often surprising and moving. Weisberg originally intended it to fit within the genre of ethnological study, but, as she found herself drawn to the wisdom and spirituality of her subjects, it became more of an inspirational work. She has managed to write a book about the religious and emotional world of Orthodox women that combines the strengths of looking both from the outside in, and the inside out.
“Expecting Miracles” also has the power to challenge conventional assumptions about women’s fulfilment. Weisberg acknowledges in her introduction that it is not about women who are struggling to balance motherhood and career, the norm in the Western world. (She plans another book about such women.) All of her interviewees have opted to make motherhood their priority. Many of them clearly could have made other choices.
Ella, for example, is a doctoral student in physics with five children. Science barely gets a look in during her interview: being a mother is the centre of her world. There’s no trace of self-pity or regret in her interview, and no indication that she’s the victim of sexist brain-washing. She simply sounds as if she has chosen her life and is delighted by it.
-Rabbi Julian Sinclair
I am a gynecologist who got pregnant for the first time late in my life, so I was as knowledgeable as one can be when it came to the medical aspects of pregnancy and birth, but when a friend of mine who is a labor coach told me about a lecture being given by Chana Weisberg about her new book Expecting Miracles: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy I jumped at the opportunity.
I bought the book... and loved it! I "devoured it" over Shabbos. It filled the great thirst I had to gain an understanding of the deeper meaning of this unique experience. I was then in my eighth month and because of the book, I decided to start a notebook to put down my thoughts: the verses I wanted to read and repeat during labor as well as the names of all the ladies for whom I wanted to pray. I also photocopied a full chapter of the book (the Kabbalistic birth meditation) with quotes and verses... This notebook was ready in my bag for when the big moment arrived.... And when it did, I feel that it gave me an extra level of consciousness, and a superior level of awareness, of all that`s going on in Shamayim (Heaven) at that special time.
I chose this profession because I love women in general, and I am genuinely interested in what they feel or experience. This book gave me a profound perspective on something very intimate, about feelings that women rarely discuss in detail. I related so much to the book — it has truth — emes, in it, and portrays the mothers in it with so much dignity.
Despite my medical background, it turned out that I had idealized the whole process of birth a bit too much, as things did not turn out the way I had hoped for. I had a failed induction, a failed epidural, and a Cesarean under general anesthesia after close to 20 hours of labor. I then thought of the lady described in Expecting Miracles who delivered sick babies and accepted everything that happened as the will of G-d. The book helped me to remember that Hashem is the Boss and I was able to put my difficult but ultimately successful childbirth experience into the proper perspective. In general, Expecting Miracles helps a pregnant woman to make the proper mental and spiritual preparation in order to make her ready to accept G-d`s plan for each of us ... and to realize that the result is so worth it!
In summary, this book fills a very big need in our Jewish religious community, and it is definitely sitting in my office waiting room.
-Dr. Hava-Yael Schreiber
a senior Jerusalem-based OB/GYN, who is the medical director of Zir Chemed- Halachic Medical Center as well as an attending physician in Bikur Cholim hospital.
The Jewish Press
Chana Weisberg is known as the Jewish Pregnancy Lady to the 300,000 annual visitors to her website www.jewishpregnancy.org. Her book offers wisdom from conversations with observant Jewish women for transforming pregnancy into an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Each chapter consists of an intimate and moving interview with a religiously observant mother. For example, we read of the battle between a Hasidic mother of 15 and her doctor, who pressured her to abort her last child; a South African mother of two whose first pregnancy brought up repressed memories of adolescent sexual abuse; and an American-born mother who contends that every prayer that leaves her mouth during pregnancy is as vital to her baby’s health as the food and vitamins that enter it.
This unusual book will serve as a valuable resource for all pregnant women, their husband, doctors and members of her family.
-Dov Peretz Elkins
Jewish Media Review
Mrs Weisberg's book is a collection of interviews she conducted, while pregnant, with Orthodox women in Jerusalem. These women come from a broad spectrum of political, social, and philosophical views and upbringings. She also spoke with several rabbaniyot (learned women) and midwives, including Bambi Chalkowski, the chief midwife at Shaarei Tzedek Medical Center. Most of the women's political affiliations were mentioned, though this fact did not correlate with attitudes towards pregnancy or the use of painkillers during labor. It appeared to correlate with the number of children. Some of the stories are fascinating - about when women knew they were carring twins or knew the sex of their unborn baby; some are inspiring - about women with fourteen children and how they manage their households, and a story about adoption. Part of the attraction of this book is that there is little discussion in biblical or rabbinic sources about the physical and emotional aspects of pregnancy and birth; these women's stories elucidate a time that can be challenging because of lack of knowledge. One of the best selections is from a French emigree, who describes a rather mundane day (I wash dishes, I do the laundry), until she realizes that God is with her all the time (You make me able to start all these sentences with "I").
The book includes a glossary and a mystical breathing exercise to use during labor. I would recommend the book to Orthodox mothers or pregnant women. Again, it brings some insight to this special time in life that those who have not experienced would not fully appreciate.
-Kathe S. Pinchuk
I have many books on the topic of birth, but none like this. The lovely Expecting Miracles, with its graceful cover design and focus on the spiritual aspects of pregnancy and birth, is unique... and I have already given it to some of my friends....
N'shei Chabad Newsletter
This pregnancy guidebook for Jewish women highlights the lenses through which religious women, living in Israel, interpret and experience their pregnancies, births, and childrearing. Weisberg infuses each section of her book with poems, Talmudic passages, Chassidic stories, women’s prayers, and rabbinic essays on pregnancy and motherhood for women to contemplate and use.
The bulk of the book consists of lengthy interviews of twenty-four religious women, two midwives, and four rabbaniot (female religious teachers). These women’s stories, descriptions, and explanations of motherhood convey their constructions of gender roles and religious selves. Weisberg’s great strength is her ability to elicit candid, deep, and insightful responses to personal subjects from many different women. The difficulty is that these interviews don’t fit neatly into the categories she constructs for the book. In her commentary, Weisberg focuses on identifying miracles these women experience in relation to pregnancy, and their belief in God’s protective and instructive control of their lives. The framework of assuming God’s presence in life comes along with the necessity for these women to primarily identify with motherhood and all its physical work.
Miracles and God’s control pulse through the paragraph headings, offering a unifying idea in a book loaded with wide ranging personal and social information. The stories often reflect women’s ambivalence even to their eventual acceptance of the Godly mission of motherhood. For example, one woman who struggled to find satisfaction in mothering as her primary role and identity stated,
It’s a paradox, because I’ve become much more spiritual and at the same time I’ve accepted that being a mother is a mostly physical role…I see now that this is what real chesed (charity/loving-kindness) is. We have so few opportunities to do real chesed nowadays. If we don’t invite this guest for Shabbat someone else will, but if I don’t make the bottle for this screaming baby, no one else is going to. It is sheer chesed. It gives me satisfaction. Maybe I put it into the category of chesed because I want to feel that I’m doing something exalted, instead of just washing a bottle at three o’clock in the morning. Even if this is just a way to make myself feel better, it makes me happy (105).
Weisberg places this excerpt under the heading, “Changing Attitudes toward Pregnancy.” I found this excerpt, and most of the others, to contain conflicting attitudes rather than a single changed one. If motherhood is actually as unqualifiedly meaningful to this woman as Weisberg asserts, why would she need to make herself feel better by framing it in terms of the ultimate kindness?
Weisberg clearly admires these women’s feelings of Godly intervention. For example, she interviews one woman who committed to a religious lifestyle, married, and was expecting a child all within four months. These rapid drastic lifestyle changes, however, meant that she and her husband had to live with others. Weisberg focuses on her attitude of God helping them through rough times, but one has to wonder, how she came to accept these conditions in the first place. The reader is left to wonder whether trust in God means drastic changes in lifestyle for women without sufficient resources.
There are many golden moments in this book. For example, Weisberg presents a midwife who cares equally for all clients, Jews and Arabs alike. This same woman moved to Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement/community just east of Hebron where carrying a gun to feel safe is standard practice. Her story is a challenge to readers who would otherwise assume that her residence and kind of professional empathy would be impossible to maintain. I was also struck by the outlier woman who rejected her community’s concept of “natural childbirth” when explaining that she felt no qualms about using epidural treatments, she instead interpreted the whole birth process as natural whether a woman uses pain medication or not.
Read as a whole, however, Weisberg and her informants persistently assert their orthodox/Chassidic notions of pregnancy and motherhood as superior to, in conflict with, or under attack by secular/“western” conceptions and practices. For example, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller states,
We live in an anti-child society (Western society). Children are a blessing and they make their parents more than they were on every level…But the society that we have (Western society) see the children we have in every way as not a blessing, they are seen as emotional drain, a physical drain, because we are taught to see giving as being bad for you and taking as being good for you (34).
Assigning a unified negative face to “western/medical” culture serves an important purpose for Weisberg and the other women who have had conflicts over equating motherhood and self. In order for some women to execute the daily work of laundry, cooking, shopping, cleaning, and viewing themselves as women on reproductive missions, they seem to need something to hold themselves superior to.
More importantly, assuming that at least some of the these women had loving parents and families; it is surprising to find that few make any connection between their conceptions of motherhood and what they learned from their own family relationships. The mission of childbirth appears to be a value disconnected from their personal histories.
This book romanticizes faith. For Weisberg, orthodox practices and Godly faith give women confidence and status. Indeed, it made her feel authoritative as her husband’s rebbitzen and erased all her doubts about religious life. For most of the women in this book, however, it did not seem so simple.
Women in Judaism journal