Collecting my still-wet hair in one hand, I tuck it all into my fuzzy magenta cap and grab my bag. I’m grateful that it’s wintertime; I’ll be home from the mikvah in time to read the next chapter of Dealing with Dragons to my kids.
I walk through the ivory-painted hallway and head for the door, which is tucked discreetly in the back of the facility and watched by a closed-circuit camera and a security guard. I’ve got my cover story planned out for the kids—I delivered a meal to a friend with a new baby. This month’s explanation of my absence smack in the middle of the bedtime slog has the bonus of being true. I only hope my kids don’t notice I smell distinctly of swimming pool.
I’m only a few strides from my exit when I hear a whimper behind me. Half a second later, it is followed by a splutter. Someone is crying—not the usual experience at the mikvah.
Turning around, I spot an old classmate of mine from high school, Yocheved Levon. I think she’s Gurevitz now.
“Something wrong?” I ask.
“The attendant…” She trails off. Big tears cling to her eyelashes and trickle down her cheeks.
“You mean the new one?” I suggest.
Yocheved nods. “On the way out, she suggested that I have besoros tovos.”
Besoros tovos translates as “good news,” but in our community, within the confines of a mikvah, it refers to a specific kind of good news: a pregnancy.
I slap my cheek. That new attendant had been pretty good to me, politely asking if I wanted her to check my nails for grime and my back for loose hairs, and offering me a washcloth to cover my head for the blessing rather than demanding I use it. But she was clearly under the assumption that every woman immersing wanted a baby, and that was simply not true. “She said it to me, too. Maybe we should make a complaint.”
Yocheved shakes her head. “Maybe that will help for next time. But prayers are powerful! And…”
“You don’t want a baby.”
Sniffle. “I’ve had eight. And they are blessings, all of them.” With the back of her hand, she rubs her nose. “I’m just tired.”
I nod. Even back when we attended high school, Yocheved was more strictly observant than me, and I had heard she now identified as Haredi. In the Haredi world, it’s pretty common to have eight children. But it’s never easy.
“Two of my kids have special needs,” Yocheved adds. “There are appointments, struggles at home, calls from the teachers…”
Putting an arm around her shoulders, I say, “You’ve got a lot on your plate.” After a moment, I whisper, “You’re on birth control, right?”
“Yeah…but it’s not perfect. I’ve gotten pregnant while on birth control.”
No wonder she’s nervous, I think.
Yocheved looks at me. “What about you? You’re not hoping for another?”
“I just don’t want more.” It’s not the kids. It’s the expense of having them. I don’t think we can afford day school tuition for more than two, or a larger home. To Yocheved, that wouldn’t be enough reason to go on birth control, but my husband and I are modern, and our rabbi allows us to consider finances as part of our decision.
Eagerly, she licks her lips. “How about this: you pray that I don’t get pregnant, and I pray that you don’t get pregnant. What do you think?”
It’s funny, really. There’s an idea that when we pray for someone else to receive a blessing we want for ourselves, both prayers will be answered. But usually, an infertile woman prays for her infertile friend. “I’ll do it.”
“When you get home, drop charity in the tzedakah box and pray for me. And I’ll do the same for you.”
I squeeze my old classmate one more time, then withdraw my arm from her shoulders. “You’ve got it.”
When I get home, Ilan is tucking in our eight-year-old, Chaviva. I squat beside him and whisper in his ear, “I dunked. How ’bout you make the bed while I read their bedtime story.” And then I kiss his cheek.
He kisses me back, then says, “Good idea.”
“Do I get a kiss, too?” six-year-old Noam asks.
We both give him smushy hugs and loud, exaggerated kisses on the cheek.
“Ew,” declares Chaviva.
I read the kids their story, and on the way out of their room, I remember my promise to Yocheved. Rummaging through my coat pockets, I find a few coins. I shove them into our charity box and pray for Yocheved. Then I hurry off to the bedroom.
Over the following months, I bump into Yocheved at the mikvah from time to time. I assume we’re both on the Pill, since we so often end up immersing on the same schedule. She waves to me from the waiting room or catches me on my way to the car.
“You’re still davening, right?” she whispers in my ear.
I hug her back and assure her I’ve prayed for her each month to conceive no more babies. And I have, dropping into the tzedakah box a nickel, two dimes, whatever is in my pocket. At the same time, though, I feel increasingly uneasy. On Chaviva’s ninth birthday, I find myself remembering her babyhood, wondering what it would be like having a baby at 38, being so much wiser, so much more grounded. Could I change my mind?
But then I contemplate our small two-bedroom apartment and our bills for the kids’ schools and how will we pay for everything. And I realize that I had three miscarriages before Chaviva was born, and another between her and Noam. What if I get pregnant now? Am I ready for that emotional rollercoaster all over again?
And I sigh.
Despite my personal conflict, praying for Yocheved attaches me to her. When I see her now, I consider her a friend. In the past, I probably would have just waved and thought: There’s Yocheved. She really frummed out. I hear she’s got eight kids! And then I would have moved on. But I see her in the market one day, and we strike up a conversation in the freezer section.
“How are the kids?” I ask, searching for the shoestring fries, the only ones my kids will eat.
“Baruch Hashem, so good. All getting big. We’re, bli ayin hara, making another bar mitzvah in July. And my Mottel—he has a new therapist, and he’s making such progress!”
Her face creases. “Touch and go, touch and go.” She shrugs. “What can I do but pray?”
When I receive an email telling the community that Beila Levon, Yocheved’s mother, has passed away, I feel shock. Mrs. Levon was younger than my own mother, who is busy with a job and Zumba. I remember Mrs. Levon occupied with charity projects and teaching. I can only imagine what Yocheved is going through.
Checking the email, I note that I’ve already missed the funeral. But Yocheved and her father and siblings are all sitting shivah at the family home, and I write down the address and visiting times so I can go before driving afternoon carpool.
I spot Yocheved on a low stool in the living room as soon as I arrive. Family photos in every size adorn the walls over her head—wedding photos with gorgeous brides in white tulle and grooms in black fedoras or even a streimel, school photos of children in navy blue uniforms, and group photos with all the cousins at every bar mitzvah.
Clutching Yocheved’s hand, I gesture with my chin at those photos. “Look at everything she achieved.”
Yocheved smiles even as her eyes fill with more tears. “She was such a special person. A wonderful mother. And a teacher. You know they wanted her to become principal of Ateres Yehudis? But she refused. She wanted to stay in the classroom full-time.”
Yocheved’s brother stands up from the seat next to us. He stretches from his crouched position and leaves the room. The only other people present are her father and two old men from shul, and they are a couple yards away.
Dropping her voice low, Yocheved says, “I don’t want you to pray for me…you know. Not anymore.”
I cock an eyebrow at her. “No?”
“I want to try for another baby. One to name after my mother.”
Nodding, I say, “I can’t blame you.”
We hold hands for a silent minute, then Yocheved whispers, “What would you like me to daven for?” She smiles, and even in her grief, there’s mischief in her eyes. “Your usual?”
I think about a baby, a plump, pink baby nursing at my breast—so lovable, so sweet. But then I think about everything that can go wrong. And I feel my achy back and my tired feet.
“Pray that I have no regrets,” I say.
Yocheved embraces me and says, “I can do that.”