For mothers

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A belated Happy Mother’s Day to anyone who identifies as a mother! Mothering is a particular identity. It often (but certainly not always) involves pregnancy, labour, and birth, all life-changing and life-giving processes. It often involves a great deal of caretaking and caregiving. It often involves taking a lot of criticism, correction, and unsolicited advice from family, Facebook, and “friendly” strangers in the local coffee shop. It often involves long nights, thankless jobs, and a great deal of monotony. It also often involves getting to watch the people you love the most learn, grow, change, and laugh.

I love being a mom and I love my kids and family, including my own mom (who is an Oraynu member. Hi mom!) very much. I’m not sure I love Mother’s Day as a tradition. Its creator apparently felt the same way (see a Washington Post article on this, here). It is a commercialized “holiday” that, at best, involves long waits for brunch and, at worst, gives people licence to under-appreciate moms for the rest of the year. What I do love is spending Mother’s Day with my family. Our tradition is a hike, a farmer’s market, and cuddles. I have wondered how to mark Mother’s Day with my congregation Oraynu but, given my objections to the day, had not found a way yet, until this year.

Our staff came up with a perfect idea and it was truly a delight: we hosted a havdallah and High Tea in honour of Mother’s Day (men / dads were welcome too, although none attended!), and raised money to pay it forward with cupcakes for women in a shelter.

I was so excited to be able to drop these cupcakes off at the 50-bed Red Door Shelter in Toronto. Red Door has both a family-housing shelter and one, the one we donated the cupcakes to, for women fleeing abuse.

See photos above and below: Kim serving Ruth tea, our gorgeous spread, and me with the cupcakes for the shelter.

This year, perhaps we are more aware than in previous years, that many, many women experience violence in the forms of harassment, assault, and partner-abuse. If the #metoo movement taught us anything, it is that this behaviour is pervasive across all sections of society. The Jewish community hasn’t always been great at acknowledging that this is our problem too (#ustoo). This is starting to change, which is why I was so proud that Oraynu chose to gift the courageous and strong women who are moving to make their lives safer and better, with a Mother’s Day treat of their own.

So happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate. I hope it was meaningful for you. We all deserve a treat - that’s for sure! If you’re interested in learning more about Judaism and the #metoo movement, I’m presenting two sessions on the subject at this Saturday’s JCC learning program for Shavuot. The program runs all night (midnight cheesecake!) but my sessions are early. See above for information. Hope to see you!

 

 

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Evidence on doulas

Sometimes people have asked me whether there is any concrete proof that doulas make a difference for birth outcomes. Although I believe that spiritual support for birth can make a big difference, my approach is also always scientifically-based. Science and spirituality - together at last. 

Read this excellent article (or view the video) for an overview of all of the studies done relating to doulas. Spoiler alert: doulas are really impactful for pain management and fewer birth interventions. 

 https://evidencebasedbirth.com/using-a-doula-for-pain-relief/

Goals/resolution check-in

If you were reading my blog or receiving this email blast in January, I wrote a piece about New Year’s resolutions. I understand that the Jewish new year is Rosh Hashanah. I also understand that if you live in North America, you also experience January as a new year. In my own life, I actually find I mark three periods of transition in a year: September with Rosh Hashanah and the start of the school calendar, January as a new start (especially after the vacation time and slipping of good habits that December inevitably brings), and spring time as a time of rejuvenation and renewed energy. We are inching towards spring and a couple of months have gone by since the resolutions post, so I wanted to check in. How are you doing with your goals? If you didn’t set goals maybe now is a good time. They don’t have to be the usual ones: weight loss, finances, general organization and management. Maybe they are fun goals: try surfing, eat a whole cake, spend a day doing only things you wish to do. Or maybe they are more meaningful. I suggested a way of looking at the year in terms of monthly themes to focus on:


January - tzedakah (charity/justice)

February - chesed (loving kindness)

March - hochma (wisdom)

April - yetzira (creativity)

May - rachamim (compassion)

June - sameach (joy)

July - seder (organization and order)

August - Tiferet (balance)

September - rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October - achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December - ahava (love)


I love the way these Jewish values can lend meaning and structure to my life.

I am a real believer in goal setting. As a humanist, I feel strongly that if I want something to be different in my life, it is me who has to make it different. I don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer. I believe in the efficacy of hard work with clarity about my own intentions.

One of my personal goals this year was to learn more about how to achieve goals (does this make me sound like I’m boring at parties?). I have been reading interesting books, learning about things I know nothing about (like sales, like building websites, like habit formation techniques). I decided 2018 would be a year of big goals for me, and to make them happen, I had to learn more about, well, how to make them happen.

If you do have goals that are meaningful to you, whether they are immediate or long-term, check in with yourself right now. Are you on track? If not, what could you be doing to get on track? How is your 2018 going? If you’re having a bad start to the year, what can you do to change it?

Many people I know have found 2018 to be a difficult year so far. There may be good reasons why that is so — from school shootings to serial killers, the news has been bleak. There are also, of course, personal challenges such as sickness and loss that some are dealing with. However, as we ushered out 2017 people were saying things like “good riddance to a terrible year!” Prior to that, 2016 was known as the “worst year ever” due to some very high profile deaths and an election result that was disappointing to say the least. Do you see the trend? 2016 was bad. 2017 was bad. 2018 is bad so far. If this reflects you and your thinking then I want something more for you. We can’t control the messiness of the world. But we can control the small corner of our own lives and our own small sphere of influence. What can you do to make this year a great one for you and for the people around you? Let’s stop wishing time away until an imagined future when things will be better. They will never be better! Or, more accurately, they will never be perfect. To a large extend the future is shaped by what we do today.

Unplugging

If you are pregnant and reading this right now, I want you to put down your phone, get yourself a glass of water, and just... be. Pregnancy is a time when so many of us are attached to our devices, looking up information about pregnancy, the size of our fetus compared with various fruits, sites that compare strollers and car seats, etc. We can be on information overload. Sometimes it’s important to simply... unplug.

 Last year I spent 5 days at a resort with two girlfriends. It was hard to get wifi at the resort - there was just one area that had it and it was crowded and uncomfortable. I decided that I was spending 5 days free of my phone. I told my partner that if there was an emergency to call the resort directly and that I was offline. It took me a full day to lose the feeling that I was missing something by not carrying my phone around. Whenever there was a lull in activity (my friend had to get up to use the facilities after our third margarita, say), I found myself reaching for the phone to check messages as I usually do. But no phone was there! I was alone with my thoughts. Sometimes that can be scary, but sometimes it can be freeing. I was left to contemplate, to daydream, and to simply shut off my thinking mind. Life used to be like thisall the time. When riding the bus, or finding oneself alone, it was common to just... be. But now we are used to constant distraction or tasks. And I’m not even getting to the part about always feeling like we have to be available and accountable to our jobs or our families — even on vacation.

I’m working on finding freedom from my phone and unplugging more often. I set a deadline for when the phone goes off at the end of the day. It no longer gets to sleep with me in my bedroom. It does not join me during meals or times when I’m with someone in person. My phone and I are consciously uncoupling (if you don’t know what this refers to you can easily look it up... on your phone?).

The Jewish sabbath, Shabbat, is a weekly reminder to unplug. It can be unplugging from work, from stress, from the demands we face during the week. And it can also be an invitation to be free from technology for a while. Most of the Jews I serve are not strict about following Jewish law concerning using electricity or driving on Shabbat. But have you ever tried it? It makes the imperative to rest impossible to avoid. It also makes us get outside and walk, talk to the people around us, connect. Unplug to connect — imagine that.

On the Shabbat of March 9-10, sundown to sundown, it is the Day of Unplugging. Reboot, a great organization, challenges all of us to commit to being free of our phones / computers for the full 24 hours. I am doing it and I hope you will join me! This is a photo of the yurt I’ll be in that day:

 

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But you don’t have to be in a yurt in the middle of the woods to unplug. If you wish to join the Day of Unplugging, I encourage you to sign up with Reboot’s page and check out their resources like conversation starters with family about technology use:  https://www.nationaldayofunplugging.com

They’ve also sent me some nifty “cellphone sleeping bags” to store your phone in for the day. The first ten of you to write me at rabbidenise@oraynu.organd tell me you’re Unplugging will get one in the mail!

 

 

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Have a wonderful, restful, rejuvenating week!  

Uniting mind-body-spirit in birth

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Birth workers know the power of the mind-body connection. When I was in labour, I used the skills I’ve learned in years of meditation to be able to zone in, work with my breath, and let my body do its thing. But the mind-body connection is incomplete without the spiritual dimension.


Some people use prayer in labour. Some tap into a belief in something they might call “source-energy.” Some do not pray but rather mediate, listen to music that grounds them, engage in cultural practices they learned from their own families and communities. Indigenous women may use a smudge. Some African cultures have an animal slaughtered on the day of the birth to symbolize abundance for the child and help nourish the mother. Whatever your spirituality, it’s worth considering how you might use it in labour or if you are supporting someone in labour.


There are a couple of practices that I find really beautiful that come from Judaism, but could be adapted for anyone, to help connect the mind-body-spirit. One is using the tradition of a prayer for healing. In Hebrew this is called the misheberach blessing. You name a person who is in need of healing (if they are sick or suffering) and you also name their mother. So it goes: ________ son/daughter of ____________. Traditional Jews say a special prayer for them but you could pray for them in your own way, or wish them healing and wellness, or you simply hold them in your thoughts. Some Jewish people will recite the misheberach while labouring. I love this idea because at the moment of your own struggle, the intensity of the experience of birth, rather than dwell on your own pain or pressure you focus outwards. This is a reminder that we are all part of a broader family of humanity and we all share in pain and pleasure, illness and wellness. It allows the person who is in labour to feel both connection and empathy for their broader community. This is so useful because often in labour people find it useful to remember that many others have been through this experience too. I’ve said and I know others have said to a woman in labour: “Women have done this throughout the ages. You can do this too.” I had a Jewish midwife who said she was in a birthing room with five generations of Jewish women. She said to the woman in labour: “all of these women are a reminder that your family and your Jewish community would not exist without the strength of Jewish women in childbirth.” Feeling ourselves to be part of a community is so useful because we can feel the support of that community in our time of need.


Another Jewish spiritual practice that I find immensely powerful for preparing for birth is similar to a blessingway found in other cultures. “Blessingways” is a term created by Navajo (Diné) women for their own pre-birth ritual. I use it in reference to, and incorporate some practices from, the book “Blessingways: A Guide to Mother-centered Baby Showers - Celebrating Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherood” by Shari Maser. Maser notes: “To me, Blessingway most aptly expresses the essence of these ceremonies. “Blessing” connotes spirituality and community connections and “Way” reminds us that every change is a process, an ongoing journey along the path of life.... When using the term Blessingway to describe this evolving ceremonial concept, let us remember to respectfully acknowledge and appreciate its sacred Diné heritage as our source of inspiration” (2). I find this practice of creating a ceremony for the prenatal mother to be a terrific way to incorporate spirituality in the pregnancy process, as a step towards incorporating spirituality in the labour and birth as well. Of course, my spin on it is Jewish. I respectfully and with gratitude adopt the cultural and spiritual practice of Navajo women for a Jewish context. 

 

What is a Blessingway? Women get together and provide physical acts of care for the pregnant person, surround her with love and well wishing. Perhaps they create affirmations, or some kind of birth anchor. The women in my life each added a bead with a special intention (in Hebrew we might call it a kavanah - a powerful spiritual word). These beads were strung onto a bracelet I used as a focal point in birth.


For my clients, I have created a version of the blessingway that can happen at a mikvah, which is a ritual bath. The mikvah is to be used for cleansing, sometimes after menstruation. I find this to be a practice that has sexist origins, but powerful possibilities. After suffering a pregnancy loss, I attended a mikvah, and created a ceremony to help me release my sadness and grief and allow me to move on. The idea of the waters being cleansing, like a baptism or other religious/cultural cleansing rituals, really helped me forge the mind-body-spirit connection. I had a water birth with my second child, and the connection to the waters was made spiritual for me because of that experience. I also have a mikvah ceremony to prepare for birth and/or for after birth to mark the transition and make it spiritually significant and recognized.

 

These are a few examples of how I bring spirituality into pregnancy and birth. I’d love to know other examples of spiritual practices that you find useful or meaningful. Feel free to leave me a comment to share yours. Whatever your experience as a person in labour or as a birth worker, I encourage you to find ways to bring the spiritual dimension of life into this very significant journey. We are whole beings and holistic birth needs to account for the mind, the body, and the spirit.

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This is what a mikvah can look like. You can also use any natural freshwater source that is running, like a stream. If you are not observant and are flexible on the rules, you can use a bathtub or swimming pool.  

Culture and Spirituality in birth - meeting people where they’re at

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This past week I attended an important and really excellent event focusing on postpartum depression and the Jewish community. Why the Jewish connection? Surely all communities experience postpartum depression. But this panel got into the specifics of cultural approaches to these issues and, more specifically, how in the Jewish community there are rituals and ways of dealing with postpartum depression. For example, we have rabbis as resources. We have ceremonies that help mark transitions such as the transition to parenting or after birth; these often take place in a ritual bath called a mikvah. We have certain prayers or blessings that some families find useful. And we have cultural traditions like not disclosing pregnancy until after the first trimester, which make some families feel lonely in the event of pregnancy loss etc. We also have cultural norms around stigma for such loss, and for postpartum depression, and these need to be dealt with from within. 

Many cultures share this dynamic, but it is nice to have a specific lens, to see oneself represented in these discussions, and to feel that your own community is learning, engaging with these issues, and will have your back. To truly heal from postpartum depression, infertility, pregnancy loss, difficult birth experiences, sometimes a spiritual practice can be of help. As doulas we often say we focus on the physical and emotional needs of our clients, but to ignore the spiritual is to ignore an important dimension.

The other piece I wanted to speak about here is how doulas and clients can connect around certain ritual practices, especially when these practices are unfamiliar to the doula. Recently several doulas in my (awesome, vibrant, wonderful) doula community were speaking about how they advise clients against intermarriage, one of them noting that a Jewish couple they were working with was turned off by this. I understand the complexities around circumcision. I have counseled many couples in my role as a rabbi who are struggling to decide. I am an advocate neither for nor against circumcision; I think it’s complex and my role as rabbi or doula is to help families find what is right for them. The doulas who point to evidence from the scientific community that there is no health benefit to circumcision are correct. But paediatric societies and others do not recommend against circumcision either. If a client asked me whether they should circumcise for health reasons, I’d tell them that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that it is needed, but also that there is no evidence to suggest that it is harmful. But most Jewish or Muslim clients are approaching this question differently; they are wrestling with some combination of religious observance and belief, cultural norms, deep-seated affiliations and identity markers (being circumcised is a physical sign that you are of this community), family pressure, and more. For many families, this is an agonizing decision.

My second child was assigned male at birth and I struggled with this decision. I’m not going to tell you what I decided because that would be a breach of his privacy. But I will share that I had some people who are close to me tell me that if I circumcised my son then that would be tantamount to child abuse. And I had others tell me (on the day of the birth no less) that if I did not circumcise then he wouldn’t be a real Jew and would face discrimination from his own community for his whole life. Becoming a parent is hard enough without this kind of pressure from family members who often mean well but whose opinions are not helpful.

Doulas are not there to make decisions for our clients, but rather to empower clients to make decisions that work for them. My hope is that doulas would hear the concerns of their clients, try to understand their cultural or religious attachments to practices like circumcision, and approach them with non-judgemental language and empathy. Cutting someone off from something they find spiritually significant is not good for birth or for babies. 

I have worked with clients who are not of my religion. My very first birth was with a Muslim family (which I loved as the Jewish Doula!) and I regularly work with couples who are intermarried, who are secular and non-religious, who are Jewish but practice their Judaism really differently than I do. My goal is always to meet my clients where they are at, and to help them find the spiritual side to birth that will work for them. In my final blog entry in this series on culture and spirituality for birth, I will share some specific blessings and practices that I use with clients. 

 

 

 Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event

Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event

Birth and culture/spirituality

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This is the first in a series of blogs I’m writing for Doula Canada, my wonderful, awesome, supportive, brilliant doula training organization and doula community.  

As doulas, we often say that we offer physical, mental, and emotional comfort and support. But what about the spiritual dimension of birth? Many people have a particular cultural identity, or spiritual belief and practice, but don’t bring those aspects of themselves into birth. I think a birth experience can be richer (not to mention easier) if these aspects are integrated. Penny Simpkin, the well-known childbirth educator, says that a good labour experience relies on the 3 Rs: Rhythm, relaxation, and ritual. This is my experience as well. And, it seems to me, that some of that ritual can and should reflect the culture of the person in labour.

I became a doula, and specifically a doula specializing in Jewish birth, because of my own experiences in labour and delivery. I had planned for a home birth with my first child. We had a tub in our kitchen for a month. We had practiced breathing. We had thought through lighting and music. We were pumped. And then my daughter refused to come out. We had to go to the hospital three times for the drug that induces labour. And then, when I went into labour at the hospital, I had to stay. This change in birth plan and place threw me. And the intense contractions brought on by the drugs and the back labour didn't help. I had one intervention and then another, finally ending in a caesarean.

Luckily, my daughter is healthy and wonderful and although it was a tough birth, the outcomes were good. Still, it took some healing to get over how she came into the world. With my second child, I wanted to prepare differently. I knew labour and birth can go any which way, but I also knew that I needed to prepare myself mentally differently than I had the first time. For me, that meant going to my cultural roots. I am a Humanistic Jewish rabbi, meaning I offer teaching, programming, and ritual around Jewish history and culture. Being Jewish is important to me. I wanted some Jewish connection in labour and birth. So I began researching Jewish birth rituals, blessings, practices, and stories. I got my hands on Jewish birth art and affirmations. You should have seen my bag ready to take to the birth centre or hospital -- it was loaded with stuff.

And then, of course, the birth went nothing like how I had imagined. This time, it was fast and furious. I went into labour at my daughter's second birthday party and didn't make it to the cake before I had to leave. I was concerned I'd give birth in the car on the way to the birth centre. Thankfully, all was well and I had a beautiful birth in a large, luxurious, birthing tub, and my son came into the world healthy and happy. The bag full of the Jewish birth stuff? Still in the car.

All of that preparation was not for nothing though! I was so focused and centred. I was able to move through discomfort with breath and visualization. I drew on all of my cultural and spiritual knowledge gained in my preparation. I didn’t need that bag; I had everything I needed within. That’s the power of spiritual and cultural preparation for birth. For people who are pregnant, consider how your own culture or spiritual identity might be brought into your birth prep and experience. For doulas, it opens up so many possibilities to consider how we can bring the culture/spirituality of our clients more fully into the birthing room. In my next two blog posts, I’ll give more specific examples of how that looks and why it matters.

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Happy 2018 - it’s not too late to make resolutions!

We celebrated Rosh Hashanah back in September, but most of us also mark this time of year. Given that we have two “New Years” (more even, there are actually four in the Jewish calendar, the next being Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the trees), it’s useful to pause and reflect. Did you commit yourself to any goals at Rosh Hashanah that need attention now? How have the last few months been? And what are you seeking in the months ahead?

Some of you might be setting resolutions. Others might shrug the tradition off. There are other ways I’ve been exploring this year. Check out the work of http://www.susannahconway.com/ who has a New Year’s workbook or, if that’s too much to take on, a little challenge to find one word that will be your anchor this year. Words she suggests might work for you are: presence, mindfulness, hope, peace, rest, joy, laughter, strength. Is there a word that you hope will be thematic for you in 2018?

You might be more interested in asking yourself some questions for reflection. These ones are useful: https://nosidebar.com/intentionally/

As Jews, it might be interesting to consider whether our worldview, our goals/resolutions, and our way of being in the world is inflected and informed by Jewish values and experience.

Do you have any resolutions centred around Judaism for this year? Here are some ideas:

-Learn something new about Judaism (one way is to check out Rabbi Eva’s fabulous adult learning sessions)

-Research a historical period/place and how Jews lived. For example, what was life like for Jews living in the Ottoman Empire? Or Jews in China?

-Start a new Jewish practice: light Shabbat candles each week, start doing Havdallah on a monthly basis (there are Humanistic ways to do these rituals), celebrate a holiday you’ve never celebrated before with your family

-Attend a, or attend more often a, Jewish-themed film, speaker, book talk, etc

-Do some text study online or in a group. Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, even Kabbalah…

Sometimes a year is too daunting to consider. Perhaps we can commit to one Jewish value/idea to inspire us and work on per month. Here’s an example (you can sub in your own Jewish values if you wish):

January - tzedakah (charity/justice)

February - chesed (loving kindness)

March - hochma (wisdom)

April - yetzira (creativity)

May - rachamim (compassion)

June - sameach (joy)

July - seder (organization and order)

August - Tiferet (balance)

September - rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October - achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December - ahava (love)

If you’d like to ask me about Jewish sources or insights into any of these concepts, please drop me a line! I’d love to chat.

The new year ahead is like freshly fallen snow (of which we’ve had plenty!): somehow pure, a little bit like a blank canvas, something inviting us to muck it up and make our tracks all through it. No one’s year will be perfect or pristine. But I hope all of us experience adventure and laughter, joy and peace, health and happiness.

Happy 2018! Let’s make this a great year, together.

Happy 2018 - it’s not too late to make resolutions!

We celebrated Rosh Hashanah back in September, but most of us also mark this time of year. Given that we have two “New Years” (more even, there are actually four in the Jewish calendar, the next being Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the trees), it’s useful to pause and reflect. Did you commit yourself to any goals at Rosh Hashanah that need attention now? How have the last few months been? And what are you seeking in the months ahead?

Some of you might be setting resolutions. Others might shrug the tradition off. There are other ways I’ve been exploring this year. Check out the work of http://www.susannahconway.com/ who has a New Year’s workbook or, if that’s too much to take on, a little challenge to find one word that will be your anchor this year. Words she suggests might work for you are: presence, mindfulness, hope, peace, rest, joy, laughter, strength. Is there a word that you hope will be thematic for you in 2018?

You might be more interested in asking yourself some questions for reflection. These ones are useful: https://nosidebar.com/intentionally/

As Jews, it might be interesting to consider whether our worldview, our goals/resolutions, and our way of being in the world is inflected and informed by Jewish values and experience.

Do you have any resolutions centred around Judaism for this year? Here are some ideas:

-Learn something new about Judaism (one way is to check out Rabbi Eva’s fabulous adult learning sessions)

-Research a historical period/place and how Jews lived. For example, what was life like for Jews living in the Ottoman Empire? Or Jews in China?

-Start a new Jewish practice: light Shabbat candles each week, start doing Havdallah on a monthly basis (there are Humanistic ways to do these rituals), celebrate a holiday you’ve never celebrated before with your family

-Attend a, or attend more often a, Jewish-themed film, speaker, book talk, etc

-Do some text study online or in a group. Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, even Kabbalah…

Sometimes a year is too daunting to consider. Perhaps we can commit to one Jewish value/idea to inspire us and work on per month. Here’s an example (you can sub in your own Jewish values if you wish):

January - tzedakah (charity/justice)

February - chesed (loving kindness)

March - hochma (wisdom)

April - yetzira (creativity)

May - rachamim (compassion)

June - sameach (joy)

July - seder (organization and order)

August - Tiferet (balance)

September - rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October - achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December - ahava (love)

If you’d like to ask me about Jewish sources or insights into any of these concepts, please drop me a line! I’d love to chat.

The new year ahead is like freshly fallen snow (of which we’ve had plenty!): somehow pure, a little bit like a blank canvas, something inviting us to muck it up and make our tracks all through it. No one’s year will be perfect or pristine. But I hope all of us experience adventure and laughter, joy and peace, health and happiness.

Happy 2018! Let’s make this a great year, together.

Jewish Mother's Day

I'll bet you didn't know there was a Jewish Mother's Day! I only found out this past year myself. The day is in honour of the biblical matriarch Rachel who dies in childbirth and who cries for the children of her people living in exile.  

Some people take the biblical narrative literally. Some see the stories of our matriarchs as narrative figures who prefigure a kind of feminine and feminist strength. Either way, how nice that feminist Jews around the world mark this day as a day to commemorate, honour, and celebrate Jewish mothers. 

I'm so grateful to be part of a Jewish doula group called Imeinu (our mothers) who will get together today by teleconference and/or in person to discuss birth, babies, and the beauty of motherhood. I have so often seen how lines of sisterhood are drawn around issues of motherhood, and I find it moving and inspiring. 
 
For more on the significance of today, this is a blog by Wendy Na'amah Klein, coordinator of the Imeinu doula collective, all about it. 

 

https://imeinu.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/jewish-mothers-day-anniversary-of-the-passing-of-our-great-matriarch-rachel/ 

 

Attitude of gratitude

It's the season for all kinds of giving thanks. I am ambivalent about the holiday of Thanksgiving because of its colonial history, but I love the idea of setting aside time to be grateful. If you're like me, this is something you have to work at. I can be naturally critical; I have high expectations of myself and sometimes therefore have (too) high expectations of others. I generally have a positive, happy, hopeful outlook but I can get a little mired in blame, grudges, and negativity. So I actively cultivate a practice of gratitude. I know that sounds a little "woo" for some people, but there is good science to show that a positive outlook, gratitude, and shifts to attitude make a big difference in overall health and happiness.  

So what does this look like for me?

I notice. Every single day I take time to think about the people I love most and how precious and beautiful they are. My partner makes fun of me for commenting every single day how beautiful our kids are. But I really do want to notice this every single day. They are beautiful in every way -- so intelligent, creative, inquisitive, adventurous, happy, and fun. So much beauty in my life comes from them and I don't want the drudgery of parenting and housework to cloud my ability to see that. 

I meditate. Not as often as I should but I know that this practice helps me work on my overall mindfulness and presence and I think both are essential for quality work and relationships. 

I say thank you. I try to really be focused and present when I say thank you whether it is to a colleague, a family member, or my barista. I make eye contact. I smile. I wish them well. I am really intentional about how I say thank you both for the person I'm thanking's benefit and for my own. I want to feel the thanks I'm giving so I remember I'm lucky to be receiving something.

I consciously shift my attitude. I am a sleep-deprived person with two big jobs and two little kids. It's pretty easy for me to get grumpy. I'm working on noticing when I'm grumpy and trying to change my state (through breathing, exercise, noticing what's awesome about the moment I'm in, etc.) 

What does all this have to do with anything?
 
Jewishly, this is the time of year to have an attitude of gratitude. We've come through the High Holidays, full of reflection, goal setting, atonement, recommitting to one's values. Now is the festival of Sukkot -- a harvest festival where one is meant to put up a "hut" and invite guests. Why the guests? The history of the "ushpizin" is interesting in itself but here's a modern take: if you could have anyone in your sukkah, fictional or real, living or dead, who would it be? Why? Ideally, there are things we would want to learn about and from that person.  

Guess what? Every person around us has the potential to be someone we can learn about and from; eveyrone around us might change our lives in small ways (letting us move ahead in the grocery line, offering a smile on a crowded subway car, buying a coffee if we're short on change), or big ways (becoming someone important in our lives, helping us profoundly, giving unimaginably). And we have the power to affect others too. 

If you know me, you know I'm a believer in stories. I love literature. I love hearing about people and their paths. Recently in my job as a professor, I got to take my students into our traditional tipi (I'm lucky enough to teach somewhere with a strong Indigenous program and focus), and I asked students to share a story from their culture. We started with Indigenous Canadian stories about the power of stories themselves. And then people shared stories from all corners of the world.

We spoke about how many cultures have a harvest festival at this time of year, and often story sharing is part of those festivals. From Indigenous Canada, to the mid-autumn festival of Vietnam, to my own Jewish culture, there is a time and place to come together, trade narratives, and listen and learn. Of course, this is about more than the stories themselves. This is about how families and communities bond and grow. 

I'm so grateful for the wonderful people in my life, who allow me to be part of their unfolding story. At this time of year, a time to celebrate abundance, and humanity - from guests, to strangers, to those closest to us, it's nice to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. We all have challenges and sometimes things are hard. They are made easier when we focus on what we're thankful for.  

NBR (not birth related) but this was my Jewish new year commentary. It has some useful ideas for those preparing for birth

 

(Note: this commentary was part of our High Holiday service and followed a reading of the biblical David and Goliath story)

A little later in this service we will consider Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” This is not only an oft-quoted line from Jewish wisdom, but it is, in my view, crucial to the whole Jewish experience. It is certainly crucial to the story of David and Goliath. David makes a name for himself here. He is drawn to action, to battle, leaving his defenseless sheep with an unknown keeper and throwing himself into the fray. We think of him as heroic because we know the end of the story. But what if he had failed, would his actions still have been considered heroic or would they have been considered foolish? We can never know the outcome of our choices fully and, so, it begs the question… does the Hebrew Bible tell us to take risks, even when that means putting ourselves and others in danger? Is self-sacrifice an honour, Jewishly? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We are told in Talmud that each life is precious; that to save a life is as though one has saved the whole world. Perhaps we can extrapolate then that to end one life is as though one has ended the whole world. Would that have applied to David, had he died? Does it apply to Goliath? How do we determine whose lives are worth sacrificing and whose worth saving? And what of the sheep? Did they deserve their abandonment? In the long view of Jewish life through the ages, which of these characters best represents the Jewish people? The sheep? Eliab, who admonishes David for leaving them? David himself? What about Goliath?

The Hebrew Bible is always complex but in this story it is uncomplicated in its notion of right and wrong. Three times, David says that the “Philistine,” Goliath, defies the “armies of the living God.” The text tells us that because Yahweh is on the side of Israel, Israel can’t lose and David, even as a youth untrained in the art of war, will prevail. And he does. There is a lovely circularity to the logic: God is on David’s side so he must win; David wins, thus proving that God is on his side. Clean and simple. Note, however, that David’s own actions are what lead to his victory. This is not divine intervention; for David must first convince Saul that he can fight, which he does through the force of his argument, and then he must defeat the hulking Goliath himself, which he does with cleverness and the force of his arm.

Humanists lack the certainty of believing that what we do is pre-ordained and divinely justified. It must be nice to live a life with that kind of conviction! What is not so nice is when that kind of conviction leads to war and suffering. For we know that plenty of people from all religions have felt divinely justified to enter into battle with their enemies. It turns out it is tough to tell who is defying the “army of a living God” when each side believes they are religiously compelled to defeat the other. Humanists therefore must find our conviction from another source; from within.

I woke up the morning of November 9th 2016, in what I would call a state of depression. I barely left my bed for two days. I found it difficult to summon the strength to care for my children. I phoned it in at work a little (yes, even rabbis do that on occasion). The results of the American election were in and, I admit, I was shocked. I hadn’t anticipated the result. Mostly, my belief in humanity was shaken. I could not believe, I still find it difficult to believe, that millions and millions of people voted for someone who was a known and proud racist, contemptuous of women and people with disabilities, someone who exemplifies greed and indifference to suffering. I understand the many reasons for this and have no desire to rehearse them here. I am not talking about the failings of a political system, or party, or a desire for change, or the hurt, misunderstood feelings of the masses. I know all that. You know all that. I’m not talking here about what we know. I’m talking about what we feel. And in those days after the election, I felt truly bereft. I had lost my faith in people, the only faith I ever had.

So what is a Humanist to do if she no longer has faith in humans? This was the source of my depression, and I call it depression with the fullness of understanding of the seriousness of the term. I felt shaken to my foundation and I no longer saw the point in continuing my work. Why lead a Humanist community when humanity is unsalvageable? Why continue pursuing, through community, the ideals of tzedakah, justice, when justice so rarely wins out. I worried, I still worry, for the future my children will inherit, with food and climate insecurity being at the top of a long list of seemingly insurmountable problems. And I couldn’t shake the feeling of pointlessness. Why bother?

I imagine this is what it feels like to lose one’s faith in God. Some of you may have been through something similar. It is a total paradigm shift; the world is not as it was and never will be again. So, now what?

I couldn’t stay in bed forever. At a certain point, we all must face our reality and decide what to do next. I am so grateful to have been given a good Humanistic Jewish education and to be in this community because I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten out of my funk without both. Firstly, I know from my Humanistic Jewish education, from Sunday school to youth group to adult education and, yes, to rabbinic school, that my Jewish history and ancestry compels me to keep fighting, even when things are tough. In fact, it is especially when things are tough that we toughen up ourselves. We keep on fighting. It’s the lesson from our biblical narratives like Moses, and, yes, like David versus Goliath. It is also the lesson of Jews who found their way through the generations of exile and violence. We would no longer be a people if we folded when the going got tough. And so much the more so for a Jewish Humanist. I am not waiting around for any deity to save me, my people, my fellow peoples. So who am I waiting for? We don’t expect to be saved; we expect to save ourselves.

The day after the election I had a tearful conversation with Rabbi Adam Chalom, Dean of the rabbinic school I attended and a rabbi in Chicago. Some of you had a chance to learn with him this past spring. One of the things he said was: “you’re strong. Don’t forget it.” And he was right. And so now I want to say the same to all of you. Many of you are struggling with the political realities of our time. Many of us also have our personal struggles, be they sick or struggling family members, our own health problems, financial pressures, loneliness, and more. But you are here today, which signals to me and all of us here that you believe that things can be better in the year to come. If you had lost that belief, shaken though it sometimes is, there would be no reason to mark the Jewish new year. So, you came. You sit here waiting to be inspired by someone who struggles too, someone who is just like you in their humanity and in their hope. And I say to you: “You are strong. Don’t forget it.”

The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, called Humanistic Jews to lead “lives of courage.”

For it takes great courage to go against trends that are harmful and destructive. I like the idea of a life of courage precisely because it does not signify an easy life, for there can be no such thing as a life that is both easy and meaningful. Life is full of struggles and that is the way it should be. We are made who we are by how we find strength and courage in the face of adversity and fear. There is no courage without fear; there is no strength without hardship. And you are strong, don’t forget it.

I remember in those November days we Oraynuniks got together in the home of Roby and Jim Sadler. Roby, our office manager, is probably the one person in this room you’ve all connected with at some point. It’s fitting for her to host an evening of shared concern and connection. We went around in a circle each discussing our concerns and then, I believe, I heard a shift to a discussion of courage. Alone we all had our individual heartaches but together we were emboldened. We knew we would face whatever was to come as a community and, as important, a community that believed in humanity and in humanity’s capacity for justice. So I say again, I am really grateful to you, Oraynu, because although it is my job to inspire you, to offer support, to lift you up when you need it, you do the same for me.

What does any of this have to do with David and Goliath? I’m not saying Trump is Goliath although, with the portrayal of someone who has become a giant in the eyes of “his people” but who is galumphing and generally not so smart, it’s tempting. Forgive my party politics from up on the bimah – I couldn’t resist. What I am saying is that this is a political and historical moment that, I believe, calls us to be David. Our people, Jews, and our people, the people in our world more broadly, need heroes now. We do not have to be the boldest and the best, for David isn’t. We do not have to be experts, for David isn’t. We do not have to be armed with swords or the best tools for whatever our particular battle is, for David isn’t. We have to be willing to fight the good fight.

Here’s where we diverge from David. The slingshot is a nice device the writers of this section of Tanakh included. It is reminiscent of both childhood innocence and crude conditions; again, David’s victory is pre-ordained because he has the right God on his side.

Any of us could wield a slingshot, and Jews throughout the ages have looked to this story for inspiration particularly because we have so often felt outgunned and outnumbered. We believe ourselves to be people who rely on our wits and use whatever is available to us. But are we also the people who do what David did next? Goliath is dead, must David take Goliath’s own sword and behead him? Must the children of Israel plunder the camp of the Philistines? Is this still right?

Here is my concern for the Jewish people. We believe ourselves to be David. But at some point, I worry we become more like the other children of Israel who plunder the camp. I worry that, at a certain point, we become Goliath. When any of us attains societal power and privilege, do we lose the ability to care about those we may step on to get where we’re going?

It is difficult for me to read the narrative of David and Goliath and not think of Israel, the modern state. Is Israel David? Is it Goliath? Well, yes and yes. And for us here in the diaspora too – whether we vote for those we perceive as “strong,” knowing others will be hurt, whether we turn a blind eye to the problems of racism, poverty, gender discrimination, environmental degradation because they are too big for us to tackle alone and, anyway, truly tackling these problems might mean giving something up. Whether we think of being Jewish as a site of victimhood or a site of strength. Whether we tune out news and politics because they can be depressing and we have a life to lead here. I’d say we are all guilty of becoming a little too much like Goliath, a little less like David. And, or, a little too much like the David who is willing to leave his sheep and head into the fray. We can sometimes forget who we are, what we are here to do, and why it matters.

We live in tough times. The world turns on, of course, and we know the problems go on too. I have been so proud of how our community has risen up against Islamophobia and the continued ill-treatment of Indigenous Canadians. How we have been engaged in deep ecological experiences, and advocacy. How we are renewing our sense of vigour around volunteerism and helping others. And how we take seriously the need to care for one another in our community in these tough times.

We are Humanists… we answer Hillel: we are decidedly and avowedly not only for ourselves, but we are for ourselves. And we know that the time for courage, the time for strength, the time to act is now.

I wish for you continued hope and strength in the year 5778. I wish for all of us to know joy and peace. I wish for our community and the other communities of which we are all part to be sources of support and inspiration. I wish for us laughter and happiness. Above all, my intention and hope, for this particular year is that we find courage where there is fear and we find and remember our strength. We are strong. Let’s not forget it.

A little sass goes a long way

Recently I was at a beautiful birth. I arrived half an hour after receiving the call that the mother was in labour and when I arrived she was already pushing (note to second-time pregnant people: things often move faster once your body has been through it). I was in awe of this mother's strength and beauty as she pushed. She handled every contraction with grace and power. She was in control of her breathing. She knew what was happening and let her body do what it knew how to do. The baby was born and both mom and baby were well. It was *awesome*!
 
What happened next was not as awesome. The mother needed stitches and found this process to be even more painful than the birth itself. I coached her to breathe (just like in labour) to move through the pain. She was holding her partner's hand. Things were going as well as could be expected; she wasn't comfortable but she could manage. But then there were a few off comments by her midwife. I want to give a shout out to midwives here! The midwives I had for my own births and others I've known and have worked with are amazing. What midwives offer in general, such as choice in birth place, home visits, excellent pre- and post-natal care, and a feminist approach to birth, all of this deserves endless praise and gratitude! But this particular midwife was perhaps having a bad day. Or perhaps is not exemplary of the very best in midwifery care. Or, most likely, has done so many births without a break that she has started to lose sight of the person at the centre of her care. She was competent. But her bedside manner was a little lacking. And, so, while this woman was being stitched up and experiencing some real discomfort, the midwife started complaining about her own quads hurting because of a workout she did earlier. My client replied:

"Right now I think I get to be the one complaining about the pain. Talk to me when you have a needle in your vagina."  

This moment was my favourite moment at this birth. Watching the pushing: awe-inspiring. Being there the moment life enters the world: breathtaking. But watching this mom, having just experienced labour and delivery, having welcomed her little new child, having been through one of the most intense experiences we humans ever go through, watching her muster the wit and the sass necessary for this line really inspired me. 

We as women are too often told we are "too much." We are too loud, too large, too opinionated, too smug, especially when we are taking care of ourselves or kicking ass in our respective fields of work or study, we are told to tone it down a little, not take up too much space. Yet here is this woman, naked and in pain, holding her ground and taking up space. Here she is articulating that she is at the centre of this moment, she deserves at least that, and reminding those around her to see her as the full and complex being she is, we all are. I love this woman! I love this birth! 

So, pregnant people, women, anyone reading this who has sometimes felt that they are sidelined in the middle of their own moment, take a little inspiration from this woman. The reason she rocked her birth is the same reason she was able to advocate for herself: she knows, trusts, and loves herself. In this life, when it comes to birth, to business, to babies, to being, we would all do better to follow her lead: breathe, lean on those who love you, be open to the joy and beauty of life, remain present, trust yourself and your body, and when all else fails, a little sass goes a long way!  

After Charlottesville

I know it isn't completely doula/birth related, but these are some difficult times. I just sent this message out to my congregation and thought you might find it useful: 

 

Dear Oraynu,

It has been a difficult week and I wanted to reach out and check in with you. The events in the United States reverberate here and many of you have been in touch with me with deep concern over the emboldening of Neo-Nazis/ White Supremacists, and a political leadership that can't seem to condemn them. The murder of Heather Heyes was shocking. We saw another terrorist attack in Spain. It seems that there is pointless, endless hurt all around.

I wish I could promise that things will get easier. I hope they do, but it seems we are in hard times indeed. I am not writing you with political analysis; there is plenty of that out there and that isn't my role.

At the High Holidays this year I am planning to speak about How Humanists Handle Hard Times but, given recent events, it seems that a preview is in order. If you are feeling sad, angry, fearful, anxious, please know that all of those feelings are normal and valid, Know also that there are some things we can do so that those feelings do not become feelings of hopelessness. Here's what I am doing. Some of these things may be useful to some of you.

- Stay informed -- read and support solid journalism and writers/analysts whose ideas you value

 -Unplug -- find the balance between being informed and being media-saturated. Take breaks from media/social media. Schedule time to read the news and schedule time when you will not

-Take care of yourself. In this world, self-care is nothing short of revolutionary. Eat healthy food, move your body, go outside, spend time with people who make you laugh

-Support causes that make positive change and work for social justice with money or with volunteerism. Ideas include the ACLU or CCLU, legal funds that support at-risk communities, places like Planned Parenthood, civil rights groups, Indigenous communities/initiatives, the political party of your choice, etc.

-Engage in political and social action that serves your vision for a better world. Join a demonstration (like last year's women's march or upcoming counter protests when white supremacists gather), sign petitions (check out Avaaz or the many online petition groups that send them right to your inbox), get in touch with your MP, MPP, city councillor about issues you care about (I've been engaging with mine around Indigenous issues since the Blanket Exercise)

-Take care of the people close to you. A lot of people are worried and upset right now. Check in with friends you haven't heard from, ask those in your family or community how they are doing, reach out to someone who is lonely or suffering

- Put pressure on the companies you support (via consumerism or via investment) to uphold ethical standards of business. Divest from places that support people/projects/politicians that are inconsistent with your values

- Be kind. We all have a small but important sphere of influence. Big social changes happen via everyday interchanges and exchanges. See, acknowledge, and be kind to the people you encounter at the coffee counter, the subway car, the driver next to you, the people on the street

- Be mindful. It can seem like terrible things are happening all around all the time. There are wonderful things too that, for balance and for sanity, we need to take in. Witness a sunset, savour a delicious meal, get into a great book, listen to beautiful music. This does not erase the problems and pressures of the world but it reminds us of the wonderful things in the world that are worth protecting

- Reach out if you need help. In hard times, it takes courage and bravery to admit that you need help. Ask loved ones and friends for company if that is what you need. Reach out to your Oraynu community if we can be of service. There are also many mental health services available in our community. If you need support, find it. If you need help finding it, get in touch with me and I'll help you

Some religious leaders are calling on their congregants to pray for things to improve. That's not our style; not our belief that the solutions to the problems of our world can be found outside of our world. We are it. How Humanists Handle Hard Times is that we take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet. We rest and then re-engage. We resist when necessary, rejoice whenever possible, and remember the lessons of the past to inform the direction we move in the future.

We will speak more about these issues at the High Holidays and at our gatherings before and after that. There is a lot of good sociological research that proves how important community is in hard times. So come out to events and programs and be in touch with Oraynuniks. We will face these hard times together.

Yours always,

Rabbi Denise

Why a doula? Better outcomes, fewer interventions

According to ACOG (the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) “Evidence suggests that, in addition to regular nursing care, continuous one-to-one emotional support provided by support personnel, such as a doula, is associated with improved outcomes for women in labor. Benefits found in randomized trials include shortened labor, decreased need for analgesia, fewer operative deliveries, and fewer reports of dissatisfaction with the experience of labor.”

 http://thinkaboutnow.com/2017/05/acogs-new-childbirth-recommendations-aim-to-limit-interventions/

Now taking clients with due dates in June, July and August. 

 

Passover midwives

Today is the first day of Passover and I can think of no better way to birth this Jewish Doula website and blog than to talk about birth and the Exodus story. At Passover we tell and retell this story; it serves as the central narrative of the Jews and a cornerstone of Jewish cultural and ritual practice.  

The story is of Jewish redemption; moving from slavery to freedom. And it begins with the birth of Moses. Moses is the hero of the Exodus story, but the story begins with heroines: the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and Moses' mother Yocheved. 

These courageous women refuse to follow the decree ordering first born Israelite sons be killed. They protect Moses, keep him safe. There is no saving the Jews without these women saving Moses. 

Scholars liken the whole story of Exodus to a birth story. There are gestational pains as Moses finds his voice and leadership. There is the labour of fighting for freedom and escape. The imagery of crossing the Red Sea reminds us of birth's watery passage. And the Jews are born and reborn in the story and through its annual retelling. 

I love Passover. It is a rich, sensory, beautiful holiday. And it's made all the richer for me, a birthworker and feminist, by its connection to midwives and mothers as heroes. 

 http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/189756/ruth-bader-ginsburgs-feminist-passover-message