Both my daughters were born with birthmarks. It’s so common, in fact, for babies to come out with similar marks that the nurses at the hospital use the popular folk names: “angel kisses” for reddened eyelids and “stork bites” for a pink smattering on the back of the neck. Most fade within a few weeks.
As you might imagine, Jewish folklore has its own explanation for a certain “mark” we all have: the philtrum, more poetically called “the flume” on the TV show Ally McBeal. It’s the little divot of skin above your upper lip, the thing you tap when you’re thinking and that you press against the bottom of your nose when you think no one is looking.
According to the Talmud (Niddah 30b, a passage that whiplashes me between “aww!” with its description of an embryo as resembling folded writing tablets and “arrgh!” with its discussion of “uncleanliness), babies are told all the secrets of the Torah while they’re in the womb. While they’re there, their eyes are closed and their bellybuttons are open, receiving food from Mom. But as soon as the baby “sees the light,” everything reverses: her eyes open and her bellybutton closes. And just as that happens, an angel approaches and puts a finger on the baby’s lips, shushing her so she won’t tell the secrets of the Torah. She forgets everything, and spends her life trying to rediscover those secrets. Ah, it’s a beautiful story, full of the aching and longing for that perfect peace of the womb.
Penelope was a preemie, born ten weeks early. Did she get the whole Torah? Did she not get adequately shushed? Might she remember more than she was supposed to, because the angel didn’t get there in time? Maybe so! After all, just when she finally came home from her six-week stay in the NICU, she developed a hemangioma (or a Chuck Mangione, as we called it) that swelled her upper lip into a little beak before receding to the faint whisper of pink on her upper lip that it is today.
“Someday, the man that’ll be her husband will look at baby pictures of her, and then tell her he can still see it, and kiss her right here,” I told my husband once.
He glared at me. “Sure, right after he gets out of traction,” he growled, overprotectively. Ah. No wonder they’re such daddy’s girls.
Abigail was born with her own mark: a shape on her forehead that, at first, I thought was a bruise left by her tortuous two-hour trip past my pelvic bone – the one that left me shouting, “You get up here and push for a while if you’re so excited about the pushing!” at my husband. Guilty from the start, I thought I’d marred her perfect face, but no, it was a “port-wine stain” that you can barely see already. To me, it looks like the letter “J,” and I joked that, not wanting to leave anything to chance, the angel had started adding a monogram so Jews wouldn’t forget who they were.
Makes sense, especially if we’re going to stop circumcising. But maybe a more discreet mark on the tush would be better, if we’re taking votes.
Was your baby born with a birthmark? Did you feel it had Jewish significance?