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Pregnant in Israel

The belly of a pregnant woman is public property. Traditional Jewish law divides domains into public (reshut harabim) and private (reshut hayahid), much like American law. While there is probably no case establishing this in the She’elot U’tshuvot (body of law known as the Responsa Literature containing questions asked of authoritative rabbis), the general public in Israel has indeed ruled that my belly, like the bellies of all pregnant women, belongs to the reshut harabim. Since another legal tenet states if the rabbinic authority does not remember a particular custom it should look to see what the public is doing, the ruling seems irrevocable.

Fortunately, the worst a pregnant woman endures today is the random touching of her belly by complete strangers and unsolicited advice from every corner, which only increases once the baby is contending with the out-of-womb environment. This is an unfortunate mistranslation of the famous rabbinic passage, kol Yisrael arevim zeh le’zeh (all of Israel are guarantors one for the other).

In a wonderful book called The Blue Mountain, Meir Shalev describes the expectant arrival of the first baby in a pre-state yishuv (settlement). As was quite common in those days of fervent socialism, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the baby belonged to everyone, with naming rights going to the yishuv council and not the parents. Thankfully, those days have passed, as have the days of children’s houses on kibbutzim. (My partner Gonen recalls very clearly that at the tender age of four he awoke fitfully in the middle of the night, climbed out of bed and crossed a not-so-small section of the kibbutz in order to reach his parent’s house and the comfort of his mommy and daddy.)

Being pregnant solves two common problems in Jerusalem: getting cars to stop for you that otherwise wouldn’t when you want to cross the street, and warding off the typical Jerusalem evening chill. Regarding the first, it helps to get to the stage of pregnancy when your belly announces your arrival a few minutes ahead of the rest of you. Still, from the time that you have folks guessing, you have at least a fifty percent increase in your chances of surviving as a pedestrian.

The traditional Jewish saying upon hearing of a pregnancy or greeting a pregnant woman is not “mazal tov” but “be’sha’ah tovah” — may it be at the right time. This avoids avoid tempting fate with a premature congratulations, and is still widely used by many Israelis, except for the younger, secular population.

Two other sipurei tzavta (literally “grandmother’s stories”) about pregnancy run strong. The first: If you are carrying in the front, you are expecting a boy. Girls are known to spread themselves out freely all across the mid-section spilling over to the rear. Strangers and friends alike, and everyone in between — the corner grocer in particular — pride themselves in guessing whether I am pregnant with a boy or a girl, and from what I know of my own precious package and others in birthing class, this sipur tzavta is a truism. In a related post-birth matter, the gender game is much simpler in America than in Israel. When you find yourself sitting in the train station next to a parent with an irresistibly cute baby, you can safely say “your baby is so adorable” without running the risk of embarrassing yourself by guessing wrong. In Hebrew, all adjectives are gendered and so you must brave it out and venture your best guess.

The second sipur: If a pregnant woman does not fulfill her craving for a particular food, her child will be born with a ketem layda (birthmark) in the shape of whatever she gave up. This is sometimes abused by local merchants to sell their goods. Perhaps this sipur also helps Israelis relax, on the other hand, when it comes to pregnant women drinking coffee and sipping wine in moderation. Waiters don’t look at you questioningly when you order a cappuccino or a beer. American friends, however, will politely decline the wine list on your behalf and jump to offer you grape juice in case a sip of kiddush wine was not what you had in mind.

Pregnancy will test the limits of one’s commitment to socialism. There are those who steadfastly refuse to purchase supplemental health insurance above and beyond the subsidized package every citizen gets automatically from the government. They do so because this perk, which provides for multiple medical opinions, surgeries out of the country, etc., is affordable only by the middle and upper classes, and hence discriminates against the less fortunate. However, without supplemental insurance during pregnancy, there are little things one must pay for such as a co-pay of twenty-two shekels ($5) for ultrasound exams, and there is no partial reimbursement if you are tempted or medically mandated to have certain tests done privately rather than at your kuppah (HMO) clinic. Of course, you only find this out after the fact, since it is assumed that you have the supplemental insurance.

In the socialist system, a pregnant woman’s gynecologist handles all pre-birth care but is not responsible for the delivery. You register at the hospital of your choice to give birth, where the midwives and doctors on shift handle the delivery when it is your time — unless, of course, you go with a private doctor, and then you sign up at your doctor’s hospital. People everywhere ask you where you plan to give birth, as if that information were relevant to them.

Many Israeli doctors rely heavily on technology, rather than on the old-fashioned physical exam, to track progress of your pregnancy. Ultrasounds are done regularly at nine, twenty-two and thirty-four weeks, with the middle one an hour-long scan of the heart and other organs and limbs for defects. Amniocentesis is encouraged when the risk of Down Syndrome is high. Earlier tests such as checking fetal protein are readily available. Depending upon the hospital, protocols for labor and delivery are strict to reduce any chance of endangering mother and baby. For example, a pregnant woman whose water breaks can expect to be induced only six hours later if her labor has not advanced, so that she will give birth within twenty-four hours and reduce the risk of infection.

Birthing classes are probably a shared American/Israeli cultural experience. The decision to take a class depends somewhat on ethnic background and socioeconomic status. Israelis of Sephardic and Middle Eastern backgrounds, particularly if they also married relatively young, are more likely to bring Mom into the delivery room than take a birthing class. I imagine that the participant demographics in the class we took are not dissimilar to those of North America: Our class of about eight couples contained mostly professionals, including high-tech industry employees, a television network news producer and doctoral and medical students.

Nearly 100 percent of Israeli Jewish boys are circumcised at birth. The overwhelming majority, secular as well as religious, uses a mohel and has a traditional brit milah ceremony. Circumcisions done by private doctors, usually on the eighth day, are becoming more popular. For that matter, so are covenant ceremonies for girls. The problem for liberal Jews, however, is the dearth of non-Orthodox mohelim. While there are Orthodox mohelim who will allow you to add whatever additional berakhot (blessings) and readings you would like, the traditional ceremony remains what it is, meaning that only the father recites the relevant blessings since, according to halakha, it is the mitzvah of the father to circumcise his son. There is one non-Orthodox mohel I know of in Jerusalem (and perhaps in the entire country). You have to hope that he will not be on vacation when you need him — the other hazard of a summer birth, besides that of your child never having a birthday party in school.

As for naming, you can take advantage of the Jewish tradition of a covenant ceremony and wait eight days to make a final decision. While it might be a good idea to have a short list, you can wait to see what your child looks like before making a final decision, and no one will think you strange for it. For mixed native-Israeli/American couples like us, naming is a bit tricky. If you want to avoid Hebrew names that are unpronounceable by non-natives, that means nixing all names beginning with a resh or a khet such as Ronen, Rafael, Hanan, Hayim or Shahar. Then there is the problem with names that sound beautiful to Israeli ears but not to American ears or vice versa. Gonen thinks the name Nimrod is absolutely beautiful, but for those of us growing up on the West Coast, “nimrod” was popular slang for a nerd. I think Caleb is a gorgeous name, but its root in Hebrew means “dog.”

The other dilemma is attempting to name your child for a dear departed relative. In North America, you can simply give your child a contemporary name in English and bestow the old-fashioned Hebrew or Yiddish name for use on select occasions. Others memorialize loved ones by giving a name that shares only the first letter with the departed one’s. These options don’t work in Israel, where one name, a Jewish name, is all you get and so the range of modern-sounding names is narrow. For anyone living in North America who is considering a Hebrew name for your child, here are a few tips. Biblical names are still popular as long as they don’t have a galut (exile) ring to them. That means yes to Yonatan and Avishag and no to Avraham, Shlomo and Rivka. One-syllable names such as Bar, Dor, Gal and Tal are definitely in. And the unheard-of practice of using boy’s names like Yuval for girls is now the latest fashion.

The most significant thing I have found here is that being pregnant carries with it a certain amount of collective responsibility in a positive way. Gonen and I have brought more smiles to people’s faces and joyous comments to people’s lips than I could have ever imagined. In troubled times like these, that is very satisfying.

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