Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Birth: A Personal Story

“They (the scholars of the Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel) took a vote and decided that it were better for humans not to have been created than to have been created. Now that they have been created, let them investigate their past deeds. Others say, let them examine their future actions.”

The above quote is perhaps one of the most challenging teachings of the Talmud, one that has been for generations a great conversation starter in philosophy, psychology, and the catchy ‘meaning of life discussions.’ Personally, this made a lot of sense throughout my childhood, as I was struggling with identity in all of its forms. Of course, if as a little girl everyone is treating you like a little boy, you wonder why you were born. As I got older, and closer to realizing that if I want to succeed in life I have to forge my own identity, the second part ‘let them examine their future action’ seemed about right.
Today, on my 25th birthday according to the Jewish calendar, I want to share an article about my own birth, inspired by my upcoming speech at “Beingwith.” It is part of a paper I am currently writing for a class at Columbia, and a really rough draft of a chapter in my upcoming book.
A Child Is Born:
I was born on October 1th 1991, or - the way I knew it growing up - the 24th of Tishrei 5752, at 11:10 pm. It was the final day of the Jewish high holidays season, and the last day of a 9 day straight holiday; Simchat Torah. I can assure you that if any Jewish mother can choose a day, or more exact a night, to go into labor, that night would be one of the last on the list. After nine days of non stop holiday meals, nine days of inability to wash clothes in a household of 7, including five kids under the age of 8, everyone wants to be home cleaning. In addition, no one was expecting me at that point, I was due more than three weeks after that. As my mother would later tell me, she “was just not ready,” and that from birth “I was always doing the unexpected…” At the final celebration of the holiday season, my parents had to drop off my five older sisters at my grandparents, as they rushed to Beth Israel Medical Center, just over the Williamsburg Bridge.
Being born three weeks early also had its physical consequences. As a result of underdeveloped kidneys, I had a tough case of “Newborn jaundice”, resulting in 3 blood transfusions, 2 of them within the first 24 hours. For the first time after five births with no complications at all, my mother left the hospital after two days alone, leaving the baby - myself, in the NICU. For the second and third transfusions my parents managed to secure blood from a Jewish blood bank, the first transfusion however, came from the general blood bank, oy vay. Years later during my teenage rebellions, my mother would constantly joke that “It has to be they put in ______ (add whatever specific rebellion it was) blood in you.” Now she probably (if she would talk to me) jokes that I got female blood, who knows.
By the time I was born, my parents already had five kids, all of them girls. To my father that was more than a bit challenging. These who are familiar with the Hasidic community know that having a first born son is what every new father, and - more times then not - mother, dreams of and hopes for. The traditional celebrations for a newborn boy are always more than for a newborn girl, and there are additional celebrations for a firstborn boy. However, even not as a first born, every Orthodox jew hopes to have at least one son, something called in Yiddish literature a “Kaddishel” - someone to recite the traditional prayer of remembrance after one passes away. In my family, as in most rabbinical (and royal) families, a son also means securing a continuation to the dynasty, someone that would one day take over the father’s seat as the rabbi and leader of the community. Naturally, after five girls, my parents, and specifically my father were close to giving up on a son. My mother always says in a half joking-half serious manner that “Everyone pitied your father” what a poor guy, only has girls, and five of them.
My father would often tell me, that when I was born, his excitement was in some ways bigger than that at the birth of my oldest sister. After all, my parents started expecting less than a month after they got married, while my father was barely 18 years old. Got to admit, for a couple that only met once before they got married, and grew up in a strictly gender segregated society, that is really quick. Yet after five girls, the need for a boy was stronger than ever. Most guys his age were already bringing their small boys to shul, and here he is in some ways effectively childless. In my community there is also a custom not to figure out the assigned gender of a baby prior to birth, and there is another custom (relating to the laws of Niddah - family purity) that the father shouldn't be in the room while the mother gives birth. It is only left to imagine how my father felt during the birth of each kid, waiting outside, hoping to hear the three words “It’s a boy,” and time after time, five kids, he gets “It’s a girl.” Until that day, 24th of Tishrei 5752, the doctor finally came out and said it’s a boy; the happiness is skyrocketing.
Little did he know at the time that he had a sixth girl. Even less did he know that after struggling for more than 20 years, this kid will build up the courage - forced by life itself, and openly proclaim I AM A GIRL, always was, always will be. My father did indeed have a boy, four of them to be exact, but for that he will have to wait another year (my oldest brother was born in January 1993).  
At the same time, little did this newborn girl know that she will live through a challenging life, a life where she will constantly hear that she is a boy, and how much that means to her family and parents. A long path to self determination awaited her. Even less did she know that she will experience giving birth (emotionally) to her own kid, before she will have a chance to live her own life.
A Kid Is Born:
It was an early winter morning in 2012 when I was standing in the dim lit corridors of Good Samaritan Hospital Maternity Ward, waiting for the doctor or nurse to come out from the room my ex was giving birth to our child. I was barely an adult, a year after I got married in an arranged marriage, and here I was about to turn a parent. My mind was swarming with all kinds of thoughts, which I believe only other parents can relate to. Will I be a good parent? Am I really ready to raise a child? Is the child gonna be healthy? How do I make sure that I am giving this child the most happy life possible? Will my (ex)wife recover quickly and easily? I can go on forever. Was I ready to be a parent? I guess as much as any other young parent in my community. I knew that our families will be there to help, and that was at least a bit relaxing. Every two minutes I got a phone call from my parents waiting to hear the good news (my in laws were at the hospital). I was walking nervously up and down, jumping between prayer to questioning myself whatever I actually believe in prayer (these were my final days as a believing Hasidic Jew).
After about half an hour the doctor comes out from the room. As he is pulling off his gloves he turns to me: “Mazel Tov! It’s a boy!!!” From all possible responses to hearing the news, I am turning to the doctor and ask: Are you sure? I am thinking to myself: my own life taught me that an assigned gender at birth is not always accurate. The doctor looks at me as if I just got released from the psych ward. Of course it is!? he replies, and walks off.
The weeks and months leading up to my son birth, were exciting, yet extremely challenging. Of course they are all the thoughts and conversations about how to raise a kid, the childbirth itself, starting a family, and more. However personally I was struggling with something more: What if my child is like me. At that point I didn’t even know what “Transgender” really means. From the few peeks I took on the internet, I had just figured out that they are some people who are not the gender they were assigned at birth. All I knew for sure was that the doctor who told my parents “It’s a boy” was wrong. Now here I am getting ready to raise a child on my own, and everyone is ready to gender the child before it is conceived. According to our custom, we did not ask the gender of the child before birth, but gender was hanging all over it. From family and friends bullshitting about how you can tell the gender by the way the mother carries the child, to questions relating to the nursery in our home and clothes. All I could think of is: we might all be wrong.
To be continued…