I’m not a religious person, though being Jewish is meaningful to me. So when on a recent visit to see my relatives in the States, my wife, daughter, and I were asked to attend Shabbat services with them, we agreed. I thought it would be a nice opportunity to connect to my background. But by the end of the evening, I deeply regretted going, and I wish I didn’t feel that way.
The issue was not about the religiosity of the evening, or the specific prayers offered or songs sung. It wasn’t about the cheesy but sweet music played. Or even the lateness of the evening, considering we’d just flown from the UK to the US and could barely keep our eyes open. The issue, surprisingly enough, was breastfeeding.
For me, Judaism is about family. I think of Jews as being family-oriented (not, of course, that people of other cultures or religions aren’t also family-focused; I just find that Judaism means family to me). So I assumed that families, and all that families entail, would be warmly welcomed in synagogue.
During the beginning of the Shabbat service, my 12-week-old baby was jetlagged and hungry and therefore she was fractious and crying. So I did what most parents would do, and I fed her.
I unhooked the cup of my nursing bra and slid the tip of my breast through the discreet slit in the front of my shirt. There was just a short moment when my nipple and areola were visible before my baby latched on; during this time, the people around me were busy singing. I adjusted and rearranged my shirt to cover anything my daughter’s head wasn’t already hiding from view. The whole thing took a minute or two and all the while the service continued and people didn’t appear to notice what was happening, or if they did notice, they didn’t mind.
But then a woman came rushing over to me and hustled me out of the sanctuary. She told me they weren’t “comfortable with that sort of thing.” I don’t know what “sort of thing” she meant–a baby eating? A baby being calmed? Or, perhaps, a woman briefly exposing one of her breasts in order to do what breasts are intended for?
Arguably, me being rushed from the room aroused much more attention than me helping my baby to relax. And obviously it just added to the stress of the moment, because as we were hurried out, my baby unlatched and began sobbing, my breast popped into view, and I began sweating and feeling infuriated.
I was a guest in this shul, it’s true. So I was willing to follow their rules, although no one had thought to tell me in advance that breastfeeding wasn’t welcomed. I simply couldn’t understand why this relatively liberal and supposedly family-friendly synagogue wouldn’t allow a woman to feed her baby, thus allowing both of us to continue to participate in the service. What was especially odd was that I was told that I should just let the baby cry while we stayed in the sanctuary, because the attendees were “used to it” and “didn’t mind babies crying.” In other words, they would apparently prefer a screaming baby to distract them during Shabbat service over a quiet baby with her mouth on her mother’s breast.
I felt shocked by the experience and I stayed in a back room at the synagogue, feeding my baby and trying to relax, for as much of the rest of the service I could. If my boobs weren’t accepted in shul, then I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t want my baby to be there, either.
For that hour, I felt rejected from the family of Judaism. And I haven’t yet felt welcomed again.