Thursday, September 25, 2008

Points of Origin

Four of my closest friends have given birth for the first time in the last few months, one as recently as last week. For most of them, the journeys to First Baby were not easy.

One friend, a modern orthodox Jew, struggled for nearly five years with infertility before conceiving through in-vitro fertilization. When she got married five years ago, she expected to be expecting almost immediately. That she didn't conceive quickly was not only a source of great disappointment for her -- if anyone was ever meant to be a "mother," she's certainly it -- but a source of constant communal pressure. Colleagues and friends assumed that she was deliberately waiting and they frequently questioned her "choice," suggesting that she and her husband were effectively misbehaving by postponing parenthood. In a community that holds by the biblical commandment to "be fruitful and multiply," a woman who seems to "choose" not to reproduce has to contend not only with God, but with a community that subtly polices its own members. Of course, as it became evident that she wasn't choosing to be childless, the reprimanding "tut-tuts" of my friend's community became sounds of sympathy -- because, as we all know from Genesis onward (that book that by its very title privileges production), the barren woman is a figure of pity: we pray for her, she prays for herself, and hopefully God takes pity, too.

In many orthodox Jewish circles, barrenness is still understood to be punitive. My friend was lucky to rarely encounter questions about the religious/legalistic reasons for her "failure" to reproduce, but my cousin and his wife were not so lucky. After several years of unsuccessful attempts at assisted reproduction, my cousin sought the advice of his brother's dati rabbi. Surely, the reason for the couple's barrenness, said the rabbi, lay in their lack of Jewish observance. If they would just keep kosher, or keep Shabbat, or keep, or keep, or keep another commandment, another custom... well, then, God would reward them with a child. In this rabbi's world view, the couple may not have control over what their bodies will or won't do, but they certainly have the agency to change their behaviours, which ought -- says the rabbi -- to result in offspring.

At the opposite extreme of these stories of infertility are those stories of women who carry out the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" to the nth degree. My paternal great-grandmother in Morocco, for instance. Family legend has it that she was married at 12 or 13 years old and was pregnant within a year. She lived through twenty-three pregnancies, including two sets of twins, but only seven of her 25 children survived to adulthood. I've spent a lot of years wondering at what this woman's life must have been. A "walking womb," a "baby factory" -- what are the terms in which she would have described her own body, her own life? Did she love her children, her husband? Did she invest the same hope in each of those pregnancies, even knowing that the odds were so often against her? Did she want those children? Did her body ever feel like it was her own? Was such constant reproduction understood in her community as a religious imperative?

The discourses around reproduction provide a fruitful site (pun intended) for examining the intricacies and complexities of contemporary Jewish identity (or, really, any cultural identity, but I'm going to stick with Jewish here). How many children you have, how you birth them, and what you do with them once you've birthed them -- do you circumcise your sons? what kind of values do you instill in your children?... these are fraught questions that reveal the relationships between communal and individual identity, between the reproduction of religious values and gender roles.

These are some of the vexing questions that propelled two amazing women I know in Indiana to create a film festival devoted to Jewish women's documentary films. The festival -- which will be held October 11-13, 2008 in Bloomington, IN -- explores questions of Jewish women's agency: the choices they make and the choices they can't make, the ways in which they negotiate power in all facets of their lives, from health and reproduction and beauty, to money, work, family, and relationships.

One of the films in the festival, Be Fruitful and Multiply (dir. Shosh Shlam, 2005), focuses on four ultra-orthodox Jewish women in Jerusalem and the States who, like my great-grandmother, have spent most of their adult lives pregnant or nursing. These women are, by and large, represented as happy in their roles as heads of families. For them, the imperative to bear children supersedes all other commandments. They don't work outside their homes (how could they, with 12 or 16 children?), and on film they celebrate the joys of motherhood, taking as a basic assumption that it is a woman's natural duty (and privilege) to be a mother.

Within this context, one woman stands out as a rebel, questioning the "naturalness" of the enterprise of repeated motherhood. Yentl has wilfully limited the number of children she will have, in part because she wants to work outside her home, and in part because she worries that parents risk neglecting their children's full needs when they have so many children to attend to.

Shlam's film forces us to reevaluate what motherhood means when you're a mother of many, and to think about the question of children's agency, too: as parents continue to have more and more children, the eldest among the children become little parents, taking on the responsibility for elements of household management out of necessity, to support their mothers.

If you're in the Indiana area, please come see a screening of this film at the Jewish Women in Global Perspective documentary film festival on Sunday, October 12 at 10:15am. Followed by a panel discussion on reproduction, motherhood, and Jewish identity featuring Molly Mendota, birth doula and childbirth educator, and Laura Harrison, Gender Studies PhD student, IU.

(Indiana University, Bloomington --