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. 


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.”

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.