Ties that bind

Last night, underneath a full moon, within the sacred space of our kibbutz mikveh, ten women gathered to acknowledge our friend who will be bringing a new life into our community in a few short weeks.

Debbie’s due at the end of August and it’s become somewhat of a tradition on Hannaton to create a “birth circle” for pregnant women. We sculpt the pregnant mother-to-be’s belly into a keepsake “mask;” we drink tea, and last night, we shared our birth stories.

It’s taken me some time to feel comfortable in a circle like the one I participated in last night. I blame it on the fact that I grew up without sisters.

Others, like me, who grew up with only brothers, or those with no siblings at all can back me up: What might be seamless and normal for women who grew up alongside sisters often takes a lot longer for us.  When you grow up with sisters, you have years to learn the ins and outs of interacting with other women, of being comfortable in the girl group dynamic. Even if you aren’t close with your sister, you’ve likely figured out the subtleties and intricacies of female conversation.  You know how to fight fair and eventually make up. You’ve shared beds and clothes; you’ve taken your bras off in front of each other.

The rest of us arrive at summer camp or at college completely clueless – and it takes us most of our adult lives to figure it out.

Fortunately, as I’ve discovered, giving birth speeds up the sense of sisterhood. There’s nothing like the aches of pregnancy and pains of childbirth to bond you with other women. And, in all seriousness, there’s nothing that creates kinship like sharing birth stories…even when, like me, you consider your birth experiences to have been less than ideal.

Last night, I smiled when we were invited to share our birth stories with each other.  Having already experienced the intimacy that comes with sharing birth stories in a circle of women, I was really excited to be part of this exercise with this group of women…my friends in the making.  I saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn more about each other, to open up, to move past the everyday niceties, to connect.

Until it hit me…again.

It would all be in Hebrew. I felt my smile fade and my stomach turn.

You would think that by now it would take less time to compute – the Hebrew element. But it doesn’t. There is still a time lapse during which it occurs to me that my understanding of how an experience might be is not how it will be in actuality. Meaning: Hebrew makes it harder.  Tiresome. And eventually, mind-numbing. When it’s in Hebrew, I find it hard to engage; frustrating to participate; challenging to connect.

So I disengage. And the moments that might have moved me instead become tests…not just of language comprehension, but of pure will.

I did my best to keep up. But then, as it often does in these situations, my mind started to wander. First to that insecure place that masquerades as boredom…checking my watch and checking out; wishing I could leave and go home to watch reruns of The Office (in English).

And then the transition to the outsider’s feeling of sadness and longing…The inner thoughts of “I bet I would have laughed too if I had understood the joke” or the inner shame of “I wonder if they know I’m just nodding along.”

And then to the place where fear and desperation lives: Fear that I will never learn Hebrew well enough to blend in; to feel a “part” of anything meaningful here. That my relationships will always be surface-based; that my interactions in Hebrew will always be met with challenges and confusions; that I will never be able to fully participate. That no one will really know me and I won’t really know them.

Which might not be a big deal for you, but is for me. Because meaningful connections are what moves me. And without them, my life suffers.

Despite my discomfort, I didn’t leave the birth circle. Instead, I stayed and shifted my focus. I ate watermelon. I observed instead of listened. And at some point, I realized I could follow the stories without understanding the words. I could hear the subtle differences in the stories coming from the veteran moms of three versus the new mothers. I could catch the different expressions on my friends’ faces…of wonder…of embarrassment…of confidence…and of pride.  And each was moving and telling.

At some point, I realized too that just being a part of this circle, no matter how little I comprehended or contributed to the conversation, indeed connected me to the women sitting there. I realized that these women weren’t strangers to me anymore. That at least half in the room were women I had already confided in on some level and the other half were women I would want to.

While not quickly enough for my taste, I am moving from outsider to insider. And it’s simply because I’ve chosen to show up, and be as “me” as I can be in spite of the language barrier, in spite of my insecurities, and in spite of my fears.

Much like giving birth. Much like becoming a mother. There’s only so much you can know and absorb from sharing information…the rest comes with time and experience…and the courage to simply show up.

(This post originally appeared in August 2011 as “Israeli in Progress” on The Jerusalem Post blog.)

Jen Maidenberg is is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/.

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