Be Fruitful & Recognize

by Rachel Kasten

Despite being a Jewish educator, I have never felt a strong, personal connection to our sacred texts. I read the Tanakh as one reads literature, though this particular series of books had way too many underdeveloped characters and a very loosely held-together plot. It certainly didn’t invoke the kind of emotions that, for example, the Harry Potter books did. These stories were never my story.

Last year, I took a course in Hebrew Bible at a local university, as a refresher to better my own teaching of the topic – and then, I saw myself everywhere in those texts. Reflected back at me like a mirror, she appeared over and over: the barren woman. Sarah. Rebecca. My namesake, Rachel. In Psalms. As a metaphor used by the Prophets. Samson’s unnamed mother. And of course, Hannah. These women knew my struggle; they knew my pain, my anger, and my desperation. They felt the burden of disappointing their husbands, of not being a “good wife.” They understood that, beyond the deep longing for a child to complete their own family, laid a sense of personal obligation to begat the next generation of Jews.

The stigma attached to these women, particularly the early matriarchs, scared me. While I wasn’t going to offer my husband another woman to procreate with, I found the text telling me that my worth as a woman, and my husband’s love, were dependent on my ability to bear his children. Furthermore, they became increasingly bitter and jealous of the more fertile women around them, and I felt that same envy building up in myself with the passing of each fruitless month.

Shouldn’t I be finding comfort in these words? Isn’t our spirituality supposed to lift us up at times like these? What could I possibly learn from these women? I took a step back, trying to see the big picture. Infertility was is a common motif throughout the Tanakh, which suddenly meant something wonderful: It was normal. I was not alone. My ancestors did not struggle in silence, expressing their emotions openly throughout the text, and I could do the same.

So I began sharing my story with other women, in person and through social media. I found an entire network that shared my fears and desires, compared notes on the best ovulation monitors, and experienced the same side effects from the fertility drugs. And, like my ancestors, I prayed with my whole heart. For the first time in my adult life, I spoke to God, plainly and pleadingly. In particular, Hannah’s story – an infertile woman who prayed so passionately for a son that she appeared drunk – became my story. I finally found myself in the Tanakh.

It still frustrates me that all of the barren women in the Bible eventually become pregnant, as if a heavenly miracle is the only acceptable conclusion to infertility. My network of strong, infertile women have all found their own path, whether through science, adoption, or acceptance. And some, like me, managed to find some solace along the way by reading the same texts we have read since childhood, finding resonance in those ancient words.

My story ended in a similar fashion to Hannah’s, with the birth of a beautiful baby boy. And in unison, Hannah and I both thanked God: “This is the son for whom I have prayed.”

Rachel Kasten is the Assistant Director of Education & Youth Programs at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is from Raleigh, N.C., where she met her soon-to-be-rabbi husband, Marc, while teaching at Beth Shalom. Rachel enjoys musical theatre, sports, and “Doctor Who,” but nothing is more entertaining than her son, Emory.

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12 Responses to “Be Fruitful & Recognize”

  1. avatar

    I could’ve written this 20 years ago. I did not find strength through social media, since it didn’t exist, but through an amazing organization called Resolve. I believe our many barren matriarchs are there to tell us,as we struggle with infertility, that we are not alone, many have gone before us, many are going through it beside us and many will come after us. My Hebrew name is Hannah Sarah–perhaps it was destiny.

    it is a long and hard road, but there is light at the end of the tunnel,—whether eventually through pregnancy like the matriarchs, through adoption, like me or by resolving without children. Infertility does not end, but the emotional roller coaster is not forever.

  2. avatar

    Hi Rachel!

    Mazel tov on the birth of your son and on a lovely article. I too have related in some ways to the women in the Tanakh. With regard to your frustration about all the barren women in the bible ending up fertile – maybe look at it a bit differently. The story is of the ancestors of our people – if a woman did not become fertile, then she would not be one of our ancestors, not a direct part of the story. And because the characters lack some depth and the stories lack some amount of detail, the story of Bertha the Infertile (who stayed infertile) is left out. What do you think?

    • avatar

      Thanks, Heather! I like your way of looking at the part I find problematic. Someone once described the science behind fertility drugs/IVF/etc (and all medicine, I suppose) as a way of bringing God’s miracles to those who need them. That view has also been helpful for me.

  3. avatar

    Heather, (and Rachel)

    Going with your line of thinking, I think that is precisely the story we then need to write back in.

    I think though there are many very wonderful things about our Jewish communinty, this is one of the areas we struggle with: Valuing people as who they are, and recognizing the contributions they make, and the legacy they offer whether or not they have children – or whether or not they have suriving children.

    There are many reasons some people do not have children. Some don’t want to be parents. (And I so respect people who know they do not want children for not having the children they don’t want.) Some people struggle with infertility, or choose not to struggle. Some people don’t want to adopt, for whatever reason. Some people (like me) get cancer and have a bone marrow transplant and spend years recovering. Some people’s children were all murdered in the Holocaust, so why they are still parents, they are parents without children. Some people’s children died as infants, or in childhood, or early adulthood – and similarly, they are parents without children.

    But the story of our people DOES include the legacy of those child-less people.

    It wasn’t written that way in Genesis. At every turn we have someone who begat someone else who begat someone else.

    But people who don’t have children also live lives of value, also have a legacy, and also contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people. Off the top of my head, I know people who teach adult Hebrew, who make and deliver meals to people who are sick, whose doors and tables are always open to anyone looking for a place for a holiday meal, who run entire religious school programs . . .

    Rachel, I’m glad you found commonality and connection with the women in the Torah. I’m happy for you that you were able to have the child you so much wanted.

    And I also think as important as children are – and they are important – they cannot be our only measure of worth and value in the Jewish community.

    After all, maybe it was Bertha who was sitting by her tent in the early morning when Jacob hobbled back, who listened to him and helped him make sense of his night. Maybe it was Bertha who had helped raise Batya in the palace so that when the time came instead of listening to her father she had the humanity to go down to the river and take baby Moses out of the water. Maybe it was Bertha who gave that student of Hillel’s some bread every morning on his way to class – bread that they didn’t have at home. Maybe it was Bertha who first rushed out to welcome Naomi home.

    I think I may be telling stories about Bertha for years, now. 🙂

    • avatar

      Amy – I absolutely love what you have shared here! The choice to not be a parent is also a valid and fulfilling one. It is not only Judaism, but also our society at large, that undervalues and questions this. We should challenge our synagogues and each other to think about how we include and appreciate those who do not have children.

    • avatar

      Yes, Amy – I fully agree. Bertha most likely made a slew of important contributions of her own. It is unfortunate that the Tanakh leaves her out and that we don’t know more. Please know that it was never my intention to minimize her importance to our people and to the world. I also greatly respect people’s decisions to have or not have children.

  4. JanetheWriter

    Thank you, Amy, for so eloquently expressing that contributions to Jewish continuity can be made and are made by those who–whether by choice or by chance–find themselves childless.

  5. avatar

    Rachel, thank you for writing this; I am glad our communities are becoming more and more open about these conversations.

    Thank you, too, Amy, for your beautiful, heartfelt, and important response. I am struggling to put into words what it touched in me, but know that it was heard deeply.

    Lastly, I would suggest that a different picture might be more appropriate. For those reading who are struggling with infertility, it’s a painful reminder of what they don’t have. And for those in other situations, I think it comes back to Amy’s point.

    • Kate Bigam

      Rabbi Laufer: Point well taken, with apologies. Though Rachel’s story ended with the birth of her son, not all women’s stories have such endings. The graphic that accompanies this piece has been changed so as not to offend or upset anyone who may be struggling or have struggled in the past with infertility to different results. Thanks for pointing this out!

      • avatar

        Rabbi Laufer and Kate,

        Thank you! I was so affected by the graphic, but since the story did end with a birth I didn’t want to comment on it . . . In writing it sounded too bitter. Rabbi Laufer, thank you for putting into appropriate words what I couldn’t figure out how to. And Kate, thank you for hearing them!

  6. avatar

    sometimes things seem to be hopeless, but we should never lose hope or faith. I read a story in an inspiring book, where these two ladies who were friends, have been praying for each other and themselves for many years. Finally, after a long time, they got what they wanted and gave birth. I also heard another story about someone who couldn’t give birth and so she taught instead, they were like her children.

    by the way, this is a great article for marriage, ‘The intimate Road’

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