It is Friday night and I’ve dug out the veil that I put over my head to light three Sabbath candles. As usual, my nearly 4-year-old daughter grabs it from my head and I content myself with a napkin. I light the candles, like my mother before me and my grandmother before her. I wave my hands over the candles three times and I say the blessing.
Hearing it repeated by my child is sweeter than the honey that I let her taste. I touch my daughter’s head and feel the hair that is so different from my own. She grabs my chin for reasons passing my understanding. It is a sweet, sweet moment, one I dreamed about for a dozen years.
I am a Jewish woman lighting the Sabbath lights with my daughter. I am part of an ancient tradition and I love it.
Reading that little scene, you would think that I attend synagogue regularly. You would be wrong. I can’t seem to find a place to belong.
Let me take you back to another Shabbat, around seven years ago. That day my eyes were sore from weeping. I could barely walk because I was in pain—physical, emotional agony. My arms, thighs, and butt were all bruised from the injection sites of the medications that would encourage my body to be fruitful and multiply through IVF.
Two days earlier, I had been told it didn’t work. I didn’t know I had so many tears in me. Somehow I managed to make dinner on Friday night. I was about to serve dinner and my husband—my not-Jewish, raised Episcopalian husband—had set out the candles for me to light.
I stared at them. I couldn’t move closer to them. I couldn’t lift the matches. I was so furious at God. I had prayed. I had done everything I was supposed to do. My husband put the matches in my hand. I looked at him.
“If you don’t light now, you’ll never light again. I’d hate to watch that part of you die.”
Before I realized it, there was a lit match in my hand and I lit two candles. I said the blessing, though the words were like ashes in my mouth. I stared at them. They beat back the darkness that was enveloping my soul. Not a lot, just a little, but I felt the light, the warmth, of the Sabbath.
Infertility robbed me of so much. The largest being religion related. When I felt right enough with God, I would go to synagogue and then nothing felt right. At the time I didn’t belong to a synagogue so I often went to different ones. “Shul shopping,” I called it. I was going to find some comfort—to say I didn’t would be an understatement.
There was the conservative synagogue that asked if I had children. I said no, we’re dealing with infertility. The rabbi said nothing and turned around and left. With the gauge of years, I can wonder if he just didn’t know what to say. However the silence said to me, “Come back when you have a kid, we don’t care about you now.” Several synagogues I visited had similar reactions.
There was the new lovely synagogue I went to, and when I was asked about kids, I said how we were very close to a referral from China. Someone (not the rabbi who congratulated us) came up and said how adoption means we will never fulfill the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying. I stood there in total shock. The rabbi actually gave her a blistering look, but I was stunned into silence.
How come I was given more grief when I went for comfort? It still hurts when I think of it. For years I became a submarine Jew, surfacing only at the High Holidays.
Things changed in 2013.
We adopted the most beautiful, sweet, sensitive little girl in the entire world. I have the title of “Mommy” and I love it. She fills my days with sweetness, my evenings with frustration (is there a child out there who won’t stall when it is bedtime?), and she tires me out. She is mine.
We went on the internet to find a rabbi to perform the baby naming—and that went perfectly well. But now I’m looking at synagogues—and still having problems.
I’m married to a non-Jewish man who will not convert, mainly because I would never ask him to. That immediately lets out some synagogues. Some look at my child oddly because she is Asian. That lets out others. Then there is the thought that they didn’t want me when it was just my husband and I. Why do I want my child raised to believe that the only value she might have to her synagogue, her religion, is as a mother? What if she can’t have children? What if she doesn’t want children?
So right now, we will bless the Sabbath candles in our home. We will have loud Passover seders in our home. We will light the Hanukkah lights, and we will sing Hebrew songs. As she grows older, I will have to struggle to find a place to fit in so she can have her place.