There’s a group of shops in the city, huddled along a few quaint city blocks, very different from the Starbucks, Gap and McDonald’s a half-mile up the street. Hebrew signs hang in the windows, printed in big block letters. There are no vowels underneath the letters to help American readers. These signs are for the fluent. Inside the shops, whether it’s bagels or books for sale, the goods display an aura of separateness, a silent acknowledgement that something out of the ordinary occurred to make them kosher or holy. Shoppers walk the aisles, rambunctious or meek, but everyone behaves as if they live in a small village isolated from the rest of the world, when in fact it’s a crowded suburb ten minutes outside Boston, Massachusetts.
So here I stand in line at the kosher supermarket with the loudest of the villagers. A solidly built woman in front of me adjusts a blue and red printed scarf over her stiff dome of hair and exclaims to her friend, “You know my granddaughter was accepted to Harvard Medical School? Praise God!”
The woman’s friend squints with an interested eye. “Maybe your granddaughter would like to meet my niece’s son, the rabbi? He was just appointed to a congregation of 300 families,” she says. “He’s ready to settle down and start a family, already.”
A gentle elbow in my ribs jolts me out of my eavesdropping. “Move up, Alyssa,” urges my mother-in-law, Sabra. “You don’t want to lose your place in line.”
I fear there’s little chance of that happening with this battleaxe of a woman guarding the way. Sabra is the Israeli version of Superwoman — tall, busty, big-hearted, and unstoppable.
Over the past few months, Sabra has conducted a relentless campaign to get me into this supermarket line, the only one where people are not checking out groceries. We’re waiting to meet Rabbi Minsky, a man dedicated to biblical study and an unusual brand of good deeds: it’s rumored that simply his blessing brings instant fertility. In a quest to increase the Jewish population, he travels to Orthodox communities all over the world. At the front of the line, the rabbi motions to the next woman to sit in the worn wooden chair on the makeshift stage. She takes her place, crossing her ankles and clasping both hands in her lap. Rabbi Minsky’s long, graying curls fall to each side of his face. They bob up and down gently as he speaks. I try very hard to avoid mental comparisons to a shopping mall Santa Claus.
“My daughter-in-law is trying to start a family, too.” Sabra says, barging easily into the conversation of the Jewish ladies in front of us. “That’s why she’s come to sit in Rabbi Minsky’s chair.”
The women look me over, like experienced horse traders eyeing a one-year-old filly. I feel myself blush all the way up to my eyebrows.
“Do you know them?” I whisper to Sabra.
“No, but look. Everyone is happy for another Jewish generation.” Sabra pronounces her o’s like u’s, and rolls her r’s extravagantly, sounding very foreign and old-world. If only she knew how close I came to marrying my college boyfriend, who was British and uncircumcised.
Both ladies nod in agreement with Sabra. “Mazel tov. Good luck.” They smile.
“Thank you,” I murmur, and look at the floor. The green-and-white checked linoleum seems like a safe place to concentrate. The line moves forward.
“This Rabbi Minsky is such a scholar,” Sabra continues. “We’re so lucky to have the chance to meet him.”
“You can see it goes very quickly, nothing to be embarrassed about, dear.” The red-and-blue scarf woman is talking to me.
I look up to meet her eyes, and calculate she’s way beyond childbearing years. “Why are you here?” I ask. Sabra snorts and glares at me as if I’m being impossibly impolite.
The older woman shrugs, “I hear he’s good with menopause, too.”
Three months later, a single cruel blue line still haunts the result window of my pregnancy test. Negative. No sign that Rabbi Minsky’s blessing had any effect. Sabra calls me. I avoid her by scanning the caller ID, but I can only do this so many times before she gets suspicious.
“Alyssa, pick up. I have an idea for you.” Sabra’s voice echoes on speakerphone. I wonder if her phone got stuck in that mode, or if she reserves it for discussing private matters.
I dutifully pick up the receiver. “Hello, Sabra.”
“The problem might be in your ketubah.” She means the marriage contract that Josh and I signed on our wedding day. A local artist painted the colorful border and carefully lettered the Hebrew and English text celebrating our commitment to “support each other as we meet the joys and challenges of life.” The framed ketubah hangs over our bed.
“Remember how we objected to the blind man as your witness?”
I remember. Josh had chosen his friend, Mitch, as the best man. Before the wedding, a loud and protracted debate had erupted in Josh’s family about whether a man who couldn’t see was a valid witness. Thankfully, Mitch didn’t have to hear it because Josh and I thought the ketubah was a quaint custom, not a binding legal document.
The Old World and the New crashed against each other in my ears, like surf on the Maine coastline, giving me a headache. On one hand, Judaism provided a strong foundation for our marriage. Josh and I took the obligation of chesed seriously: we almost competed to do acts of kindness. I knew this must be the reason we woke up every morning and smiled at each other.
On the other hand, the strict black-and-white dictates of Orthodox Judaism conflicted with my American lifestyle and feminist ideals. I did not keep kosher. I did not think men and women should sit separately in synagogue. My rejection of the big things caused me to waffle when it came to the details: how much did I care that we followed the letter of the law when signing the ketubah? It was easiest to dismiss the family’s concern about Mitch’s blindness as another bit of superstitious junk.
So during the ceremony, Mitch had signed as a witness, even if Josh had to hold a ruler below the line so Mitch could feel the place for his signature.
Sabra’s insistent voice draws me back to our conversation. “There’s a rabbi in Israel who specializes in ketubah corrections,” she continues. “I corresponded with him by e-mail. He said because of the defect in your marriage contract, the egg and sperm are now cursed by blindness: They cannot see each other to unite. Fortunately he agreed to look at your ketubah and try to fix the problem. Just ship it to him in Jerusalem. Here’s his address.”
Because Sabra’s speakerphone is on, I can hear my nephew in the background, “Grandma, what’s sperm?” Sabra must be babysitting him today. I miss her answer because of a clunking sound as she picks up the receiver and switches the phone back to private mode.
“Gotta go,” I say. “I’ll be sure to discuss your idea about the ketubah with Josh.”
That night I tell my husband we’ve waited long enough. “I made an appointment with an endocrinologist,” I say over dinner. A friend had given me the name of the best fertility doctor in the city. “You can tell your mother he’s a rabbi of reproductive science.”
It was a long journey from Rabbi Minsky’s chair to the in vitro clinic, where the miracle of life is broken down into component parts and then reconstructed. The scientists smoothly incorporated modern-day conveniences into the treatment: A nurse put a fresh condom over the end of the probe for each vaginal ultrasound to guarantee safe hygiene. When our sperm and egg were ready to meet in the Petri dish, I was told the sperm got a shot of caffeine to ensure their spunkiness, kind of like a laboratory location Starbucks. The clinic itself had a retail chain aspect to it — with an office downtown and one in the suburbs — staffed by the same doctors on different days.
Here in the magical realm of high technology, a drug that wards off infection replaces the ancients’ spell to ward off the evil eye. Still, like some witch doctor with a terrible cure, the endocrinologist measured progress in vials of my blood. When Josh and I knew the exact moment of conception, it was miraculous anyway.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” Sabra asks during our next conversation.
“Too early to tell. Maybe in another month.” I pause. I have a question of my own. “What do the Orthodox think of artificial methods?”
“However you bring a life into this world is a mitzvah, a blessing,” she responds.
I don’t ask my next question. How is creating an embryo any less like playing god than destroying one? Sabra has expressed her disapproval of abortion many times. The hypocrisy sets my teeth on edge. Instead I say, “I hope the baby will have Josh’s blue eyes.”
“And your strong teeth,” she replies. Her comment stings. Are my teeth the best compliment she can think of? In Sabra’s world perhaps good orthodontia is the ultimate status symbol. I chalk it up to another cultural difference in the cavernous gap between us. She adds, “As long as it’s healthy.”
I think about the healthy part for a long time. How would the result of this artificial combination be different from what nature intended? Oddly enough, it was the rabbi’s blessing that came to mind: When I was sitting in that chair at the supermarket, just me and Rabbi Minsky together, I whispered in his ear, “What do you think about in vitro fertilization?”
He smiled ever so slightly and said, “Even the workings of Science are created by God.”