It was 2013, the year that Thanksgiving in the United States and Hanukkah coincided to create “Thanksgivukkah”, and my husband and I were newly pregnant. We had been trying for a few months, and were elated to share our news. We planned to bring a framed first sonogram picture, taken the week before, as a Hanukkah gift for our families.
Dave and I went into that sonogram appointment thrilled — and when an anomaly was apparent in the Nuchal Translucency screening, it felt like my life came to a screeching halt. We were rushed from the ultrasound across the hall to have a CVS done — a procedure where a long needle takes a sample of chorionic villi from the placenta. These pieces of placental tissue carry the same genetics as the fetus, and so they can be studied to determine if any genetic abnormalities are present.
I was terrified, not just because of the sudden 180-degree turn my pregnancy had taken, but also because it was a moment that broke my fantasy about becoming a parent. It left me without answers, and it highlighted how much we like to think we know about such a basic human function but really how little we do.
Tests came back clean genetically, but there was something there, something that the doctors couldn’t explain and really couldn’t give us answers about. I went through the next two months of my pregnancy in a fog. I was depressed. I had discussions with my doctor that I never thought I would be having. I was in a holding pattern, waiting for my 20 week anatomy scan (a more comprehensive sonogram) to see if the anomaly was still there. Needless to say, our Thanksgivukkah plans were ruined. We didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant because we didn’t know what was happening. And, as much as my husband was there, loving and supporting me, I felt very alone.
At 20 weeks, our much-anticipated scan came back normal. The anomaly had miraculously resolved. We were shell-shocked, grateful, and hesitant, and began looking forward to the second half of our pregnancy.
Throughout the whole pregnancy, I remember thinking about how modern science really dropped the ball. The app on my phone could tell me that my baby was the size of a grape, but not what these invasive tests and strange measurements meant to us and our baby. It really shed light on the fact that even in 2014, we really didn’t understand pregnancy and fetal development.
I remember longing for some sort of ritual to ground me in Jewish tradition, to remind me that procreation and childbirth have been happening since the beginning of time — and that even if we don’t have the answers, our ancestors walked this path before us with even less knowledge.
I wanted to create something that brought all this together in the most comforting way at this very precarious moment on the cusp of the unknown.
A year before, my best friend asked me to write out the Hebrew prayer Shir Hama’alot (The Song of Ascents — traditionally associated with birth and used as a talisman to keep babies protected) for her labor and delivery. I considered doing the same, but the prayer didn’t resonate with me. I wanted the experience of my own family and the experiences and wisdom of our soon-to-be baby’s grandparents and great grandparents to have a presence during the remainder of the pregnancy and the delivery.
As we discussed birth plans with the doctor (while walking the fine line between superstitiously not planning too much and preparing ourselves), we were bombarded with advice about Lamaze, hypnobirthing, epidurals, and doulas. I stumbled on the idea of a focus point to use during labor, and remembered the Jewish artistic tradition of a Shiviti, a kabbalistic and calligraphic representation of the Menorah from the Temple formed from the letters of chapter 16 verse 8 of Psalms.
Traditionally used as a reminder during prayer, a shiviti would be hung on the eastern wall (to point you in the direction of Jerusalem) and would serve to help the supplicant concentrate on the name of God in order to reach the proper mental state for prayer. The verse of psalms begins with the words Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid, I have placed G-d before me always.
I felt like giving birth was a liminal experience, in which you are literally bringing something completely new into being, hanging between the spiritual and the living — but also a unique and holy moment in time, like I felt on my wedding day, to be a conduit for something much larger than myself. The idea of having a focus point really resonated with me, reminding me of the power of G-d and the holiness of this moment.
I’m a Judaica artist, and a Hebrew Calligrapher, but what I love discovering most about our traditions are when average people create their own versions of art, amulets and even prayers. For me, intentions are powerful, and a layperson concentrating and adding intention to something with a holy purpose is incredibly humbling. I studied different Shiviti designs online, and decided that the piece felt not only like a tool to ease labor, but also like a protective “amulet”.
In ancient representations of the Temple Menorah in Jewish art, the flames all lean toward the shamash, the leader candle in the center, as a symbolic representation of God and how we are all drawn towards holiness. I papercut the flames, and encircled the entire piece with the names of my husband’s and my own maternal and paternal grandparents, this new and very precious baby’s ancestral legacy. (We were very lucky, and all our parents were alive and able to be with us at the hospital or very shortly after birth to be a part of the experience.)
After all we had been through, it was incredibly comforting to have created this piece of art that was imbued with the beautiful intention of ancestral protection and a sense that everyone was present and watching over this momentous moment.
The piece hung in our nursery, and was present at our second daughter’s birth two years later. It has hung in hospital rooms during and after medical procedures, and has become one of my most prized family heirlooms. Someday, maybe we’ll add more outer rings, so it functions as a living family tree as our children go on to have families of their own, and hopefully allow this piece to be a witness and protection for the next generation.
Creating our own piece of ritual art, steeped in both our Jewish traditions and our families’ history, was a spiritual practice. When I see this piece in my home, I feel embraced by our ancestors and feel a deep gratitude for the sense of guidance and protection that this piece has given me — and that connection continues to root me more deeply in my Judaism.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Conduct During Childbirth (including Shir Hama’alot), Chabad.org
Shiviti Plaques, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life
To see examples of other Shiviti artwork: https://magnes.berkeley.edu/digital-projects/power-of-attention-shiviti-manuscripts-at-the-magnes/