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“Passover” is known by four names – the Festival of Freedom, Passover, the Festival of Matzah and the Spring Holiday. These four names are linked to four spiritual levels. The Feast of Freedom represents our physical freedom. Passover (sacrifice/shank bone) represents the ability to rise above our animal needs and do the right thing. The Festival of Matzah is about our intellectual freedom, our ability to let go and think expansively (think yeast that rises). The last and highest level is Hag HaAviv, the Spring Holiday when the earth comes back to life, which represents our freedom from fear leading to our renewal.

Experience with infertility, like many challenging experiences, can feel like slavery on some levels.  Bodies, minds, and spiritual connections can be tied up and feel out of control in many ways. Passover reminds us that opportunities are always available to free ourselves and ultimately that freedom comes from within.

May this Passover season help elevate you in freedom of body, mind and spirit and lead you away from your fears towards renewal.

Hag Kasher v’Sameach – Happy Passover!

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In honor of Passover  – removing chametz from our lives and leaving the narrow places – Hasidah invited several guest bloggers to provide support for dealing with infertility during the holiday and beyond.
Guest blogger Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores, is a marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa, CA

Many Jewish holidays can evoke grief for women and couples experiencing infertility. Rosh Hashana brings the Torah stories of the matriarch Sarah, finally learning she’s pregnant in her old age, after struggling with infertility for decades, and of Hannah–who prays so fervently for a child that the priest Eli takes her for a drunkard. Channukah and Purim can evoke the envy of watching friends’ children light up with glee over the fun of the holidays. As one friend recently put it, “Channukah just isn’t fun without little ones around.”

Perhaps no holiday is as replete with themes of fertility and birth as Passover, during the spring season of rebirth. In the Passover story, the Jewish nation is literally ​so​ fertile that pharaoh commands that their baby boys be thrown into the Nile for fear they will grow into a nation that will overpower the Egyptians. The brave midwives, Shifrah and Puah, save these babies, telling pharaoh that the Jewish women give birth so quickly, and in such high numbers, that they cannot possibly gather all their infant boys. Imagine hearing this story year after year, while trying, and failing, to conceive. Jewish culture values the family above all else, except perhaps the Torah or a good brisket. Thus, being childless can feel shameful and isolating.

Passover was my mother’s favorite holiday. Early in my marriage, I looked forward to hosting her at our home in California, where she’d travel from the East Coast, after so many years of enjoying her beautifully prepared family seders. I happily anticipated showing her the lilacs blooming in our backyard–both of our favorite flower–reminiscent of those outside my childhood house. But my excitement over her visit was tempered by the fact that I had not yet been able to give her grandchildren. I’d prepared a beautiful meal and created a spiritually meaningful Haggadah, but there were no little ones present to ask the Four Questions or to excitedly search for the Afikomen. Part of the purpose of the seder is to pass on the story of Jewish survival to the next generation. Would our family have a next generation to continue the faith and lineage? I identified with the Israelites wandering in the desert, as I felt lost in my own desert of barrenness. When we invited in the Prophet Elijah, I prayed to this purveyor of miracles to grant me my wish for a baby.

Raised in a traditional Conservative home, I had long been interested in exploring how Judaism can provide meaning to our modern lives, through the renewal and reinterpretation of ancient teachings and rituals. I began to look to Jewish resources for how to cope with infertility, reading essays and creative prayers by women rabbis about fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. I was grateful that women’s experiences and voices were increasingly a part of our tradition, as I drew from their wisdom. I began to put myself in the shoes of our matriarchs–Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah–and was inspired by their patience and faith. About the same time, I had a woman friend in my synagogue community who experienced a miscarriage. Alone with her disenfranchised grief, she felt that she could not share her pain with many friends, lest she be told, “You can always have another baby.” Friends didn’t understand the unique bond she’d had with ​this​ particular child. Her struggles with infertility afterwards only added to her feeling isolated and excluded. Like many women I’ve counseled through infertility, she felt many conflicted feelings when invited to friends’ baby showers–a churning in her stomach of joy for them, tempered by her own grief, jealousy, longing, and bitterness.

When my friend next became pregnant, she asked that our Jewish renewal community develop a ritual for her to celebrate and pray for her and her baby. Our ​rebbetzin ​at the time, herself in rabbinical school, designed a beautiful ceremony where we women sat in a circle with our friend, as the ​rebbetzin​ dipped her feet in water, in a symbolic mikveh to mark the holiness and transition of this time in her life. We took turns offering her blessings, to comfort her pain over past loss, soothe her worries and fears, and offer hope for new life.

I was inspired by this ritual to develop my own. One Shabbat, during the days in between Passover and Shavuot, when my community was offering each other creative, individualized Priestly Blessings, I asked that a group of my women friends encircle me to send blessings for fruitfulness. As I felt their love surround me, I felt their strength infuse me and I knew that I would be better able both to maintain faith whether or not I bled the next month. I also realized that if it was not my fate to be blessed with my own children, I would find a way to have children in my life, through friends, family and my counseling work.

The practice of developing creative rituals within Judaism has made my faith feel more authentic. I have gone on to co-create rituals marking friends’ hysterectomies and menopausal passages. As more Jewish women leaders and lay leaders add our experiences to Jewish practices, the tradition itself grows, expands, and becomes more life-giving and more fruitful. Eventually, my husband and I were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. I’ve celebrated as she’s chanted the Four Questions at seder, rose to the Torah for her Bat Mitzvah, and has grown into a strong and articulate young woman in her own right. I continue to pray that as a community we will include and support the disenfranchised grief in our own midst, even as we celebrate the joyous miracles of life and rebirth.

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 As part of  Passover preparation – removing chametz from our lives and planning to leave the narrow places – Hasidah invited several guest bloggers to provide support for dealing with Infertility during the holiday and beyond.
Dalia David is co-founder, choreographer and Education Director at Uprooted – A Jewish Communal Response to Fertility Journeys

At the center of the Pesach Hagaddah, embedded in the reply to the ‘child who does not know how to ask’ is the instruction: וְִהַגְּדָתּ ְלִבנְךָ ההוּא ַבּיּוֹםַ (Exodus 8:13) and you shall tell your child on this day. This is the mitzvah of telling one’s child about the journey from slavery to the Promised Land.

But what if you feel as if you never made it to the Promised Land? What if you sit at the seder feeling enslaved, yearning to be free of your fertility struggles and family building challenges? What if you sit at the seder watching those around you tell the Exodus story to their wise, wicked, simple, and quiet children, longing so desperately
for a child of your own? To whom can you tell this story of enslavement?

Perhaps this is the moment to invoke the fifth child. This fifth child is absent from the Hagaddah because this child is not yet wise, wicked, simple or quiet. This child has yet to be born and resides entirely in your heart and in your dreams. The fifth child reaches out to to the heart’s of the seder guests, gently reminding them to be conscious of their fellow guests who can only dream of having a child to ask the Four Questions, or steal the Afikoman, or spill grape juice on the tablecloth. By including the fifth child, perhaps we can break free of some of the isolation experienced by those in the throes of fertility struggles and help them experience the seder as a night
of freedom rather than another night of darkness.

Please consider including the following paragraph to seder:

The Yet to be Born Child – what does s/he say?
“Why is this journey so long? Why does the path seem so obscure and unending?”
With no real words to answer, you of er him/her understanding with a hug, a moment
of quiet and the chance to express thoughts and feelings, for you both hold the truth
that fertility journeys are עבדהָ קשׁהָ –  brutal work.

 

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As part of  Passover preparation – removing chametz from our lives and planning to leave the narrow places – Hasidah invited several guest bloggers to provide support for dealing with Infertility during the holiday and beyond.
Aron Wolgel is an educator and infertility veteran based in Berkeley, CA.

The excitement of Pesach is upon us! Many families are preparing for their seder, planning menus, arranging place settings, and studying texts that will help unlock new understandings of the traditional tale. Guided by the Haggadah, we are told –  כל המרבה בסיפור יציאת מצרים, הרי זה משובח – anyone who expands the telling of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy ,

Many scholars have pointed out that the magid section actually contains four separate stories of yetziat mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt. During the Seder, we put these stories together so that we all participate in one unified narrative.

As such, here are four stories of infertility, thematically linked to four of the items on the seder plate: maror, charoset, karpas, and zeroa.

Maror – the bitter story

As with any difficulty in life, this journey carried with it bitter moments that overwhelmed the other aspects of life, often creating a sense of despair.

It began when the doctor explained that our situation was “not optimal.” After discovering that IVF was our only real hope for conceiving, we were extremely optimistic going into our first transfer. Then it failed. Then the second transfer failed. And the third. We felt a deep sense of loss, even though we hadn’t technically lost anything.

Were this the full story, it would have been bitter enough. But throughout the entire ordeal, we also overcame painful social interactions that presented themselves:

I endured the “playful” comments from community members when they observed me holding a friend’s child and would remark “that looks good on you.” Exercising restraint, I’d politely smile back, and think to myself, “It’s a baby, not a sweater!”

In fact, the deepest hurt existed at others’ celebrations. I can still remember the sting of people wishing me “soon by you” at every bris and baby naming. In my best attempt at empathy, I would reply “today is about their family”, so that I wouldn’t have to think of (the incompleteness of) mine.

Charoset – the bricks and mortar

The charoset reminds us of the mortar used by the Israelites in building Pharaoh’s cities. For our story, the charoset represents the tasks that simply had to get done.

I was challenged by how difficult this chapter was for my wife – her desire to be a mother was at the core of her identity. As such, I became the “logistics manager” in order to enable her to address her emotions in a more focused way, unencumbered by the extracurricular demands.

I appreciated the responsibility of scheduling doctors’ appointments. I found meaning in mixing the medicines for her nightly injections – it was my contribution to the process. Most notably, I felt like a partner in sharing my wife’s burden. By taking care of the details, I allowed her to free up the necessary headspace to deal with her emotions.

Karpas – the story of hope

On Pesach, many people have the custom of using a green vegetable, symbolizing spring, as their Karpas.

Fittingly, it seemed as though every time we found another glimmer of hope, (e.g. another embryo transfer) it felt that our parsley would be doused in salt water. The hope had been engulfed in sorrow. It was tricky to maintain my optimism, but I recognized how essential it was. I quickly learned that humor (albeit wry at times) would be my default coping mechanism.

At key moments, we clung to hope. Other times, I found it more helpful to seek respite. Sometimes the best feeling came from playing in my weekly frisbee game. For those 2 hours, I was able to escape my doubts and fears. For a brief time, I could release myself from the pressures of the home and remember the larger scenery of life – joking with friends, enjoying the outdoors, and appreciating all that I was physically capable of.

By providing a break, these moments of respite allowed me to return to my situation with a renewed sense of hope.

Zeroa – the story of strength

In the Bible, Israel is led out of Egypt with an outstretched arm. Consequently, the shank bone is associated with strength, or in this case, support.

We found ourselves continually reframing our situation to express gratitude for what we had. We were fortunate to have family and friends who supported us with outstretched arms. Though I occasionally reached out to friends to unload my burden, the most important idea for me during this time was to stay close to my wife.

We prioritized time for each other and found strength in three phrases, which became our mantra: “1) I love you. 2) We’ll get through this together. 3) This will eventually be resolved.” Now, I didn’t know what “resolved” would look like, or how long things would take before they were resolved, but as long as #1 and #2 stayed strong, it gave us hope for #3.

Each person’s Passover seder connection revolves around a different aspect of the day – songs, rituals, community, and in many cases, the food. Regardless of the personal association, our seder reflects a mixture of experiences. This is how we remember the slavery while simultaneously celebrating freedom.

It’s important to recognize when to immerse ourselves in one perspective of the story. By the same token, if we fail to engage in the other narratives, our story is not authentic. Similarly, my personal “yetziat mitzrayim” taught me to embrace all of the stories and flow between them.

We spend so much time and effort trying to create the world as it ​should​ be; this experience has taught me the importance of living in the world as it ​is.

Although my story may not be unique, its events and details make it mine. During this holiday season, may we all find the courage and conviction to tell our stories, and may we also demonstrate the kindness and sensitivity to empower others to share their stories with us. Chag Sameach.

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On the last night of Passover, the participants at the retreat I attended shared reflections on Passover themes. What were our journeys? What made us feel liberated? One woman, while describing the diversity of participants in our newly formed community, referred to me as a nursing mother. Me? Ironically, moments earlier I had leaned over to my husband and recalled how the first of many IVF treatments in our fertility journey occurred the day before Passover Seder. Our Seder that year was minimal but hopeful as I lay on the couch on bed rest. The hope ended when I had a miscarriage several weeks later on Mother’s Day.  The experience was a hard one and my identity will always be connected to years of infertility. Nursing mother, even just mother, is not an identity I wear easily or take for granted.
 
On this Mother’s Day, if you are a mother, please take this day to appreciate the gift you have been given. Not everyone gets to share in the experience. Consider making a contribution to Hasidah (www.hasidah.org/donate) to help those who yearn for that identity and are struggling along the way.
 
If you are not a mother and are hoping to become one, please know you are not alone, that others have been on the journey, and that we care and want to support you along the way.
 
Wherever you are on the motherhood journey, may Mother’s Day come with blessings for you.
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Early in the Exodus story Pharoah’s dApple with shallow DOFecreed hard labor for the Children of Israel and that their baby girls may live but their baby boys may not. Despite this harsh reality, they continued to have children. The Midrash teaches that this is connected to apples. The women would take their husbands to the fields to entice them. They would conceive and then return to the fields to give birth and prevent the Egyptians from killing their sons. This all happened under apple trees as it says in Song of Songs 8.5: “under the apple tree I roused you; it was there your mother conceived you, there she who bore you conceived you.”

During enslavement in Egypt, one of the ways the Children of Israel expressed their spiritual freedom was by conceiving their future. Literally. Their hope was that the next generation would serve God and not Pharoah.

Some among us, however, are not free to conceive their future. Their hopes and dreams are enslaved by fertility challenges. Infertility can feel like a form of bondage: bodies that feel broken or unable to perform as we wish, decisions that seem impossible at times to navigate, and circumstances that seem out of our control.

On Passover we eat charoset to symbolize the clay our ancestors used to hold together the bricks they were making. The charoset also represents the sweetness of their redemption to serve God. By adding apples to our charoset, we invoke these symbols as well as the connection to fertility. We connect our past, present and future with the Song of Songs, the apple trees, intimacy, conception, birth and redemption.

Meditation for making and eating charoset with apples for those experiencing fertility challenges:

God of our ancestors, our souls are afflicted.

While we may be free in most ways, our dreams of fertility seem out of reach.

With the sweetness of these apples, comes the bitter taste of disappointment and loss.

Under the apple tree – shade us with your blessings.

Under the apple tree – may we find comfort with each other.

Under the apple tree – help us conceive a hopeful future.

Creator and Redeemer of all, let this charoset strengthen our souls.

May the sweetness of its apples linger with us.

Grant us clarity and hope along the way

to redemption.

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