by Karen Paul-Stern

A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss

Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss by Nina Beth Cardin Jewish Lights Publishing, $19.95

Sitting in Kol Nidre services, pounding my chest for repentance during the Al Het prayer, I was struck by the power of the words and I understood, for the first time, how the prayer held personal meaning for me. I had left the house an hour earlier, after having shortchanged my four-year-old son in a game of Chutes and Ladders, promising to finish when I returned but knowing that he would be fast asleep and that the game would never be completed. I understood, at that moment, how great a sin I had committed in making a false promise to my child. I was amazed that after so many years of intoning the same words, they could finally come alive for me as a result of such a banal occurrence.

This was a revelation. Prayers, especially communal prayers, were not a large part of my life until 18 months ago, when my second child, my five-day-old son, died after a complicated pregnancy. For months during the pregnancy, while I was on bed rest in the hospital, many at my synagogue said the mi sheberach, the Jewish prayer for healing, for me and my family. While I was not actually present, it was my first real personal experience with prayer. And when Ari died, although it is not required by Jewish law for a child so young, my husband and I said kaddish for a year. Although I did not understand the words well, they acted as a talisman for me providing comfort on a regular basis. I knew that at the same time, every week, there would be a small portion of a day when I could openly mourn and then, afterward, feel surprisingly refreshed. Equally powerful for me was that I knew others were quietly mourning with me. Through my grief, I opened myself to prayer and ritual, which led me through a difficult but solid healing process.

Nina Beth Cardin has composed a small, important book. Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss. Her own experiences with two miscarriages 20 years ago were a startling lesson in how unprepared the Jewish community has been to deal with this type of loss. But she has been struck over the years by how much Jewish prayer and liturgy has the potential to offer comfort and solace for these very losses. Her book offers an amalgam of both traditional prayers and contemporary poems and rituals to help guide the individual or family experiencing such loss.

While there are a number of books about death and the grieving process on the bookshelves today, few if any offer the almost workbook-like approach to ritual that Cardin’s book does, and none of the books about the Jewish “way” of mourning have taken this route. Cardin has compiled prayers, meditations and rituals for every step of the grieving process, and for every type of loss associated with potential motherhood. I was most struck by the many prayers she has found for continuing to love and honor your mate—one of the hardest things to remember to do when consumed by grief, but also one of the most grounding and important. There is a prayer for the ritual of attending the mikveh after a miscarriage or a stillbirth, prayers for fertility, prayers for ending a pregnancy due to medical necessity, prayers for delivery and prayers for Friday night. Cardin makes the reader realize that even in our darkest hours, our lives can be infused with thankfulness, prayer fulness and ritual, and offers a road map for making it so.

Cardin reminds us that the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, could not conceive and carried in pain, but eventually bore the children who brought forth a great nation. She tells us again about Hannah, whose petitions for a child are considered emblematic of rabbinic prayer and whose son, Samuel, would anoint the first king of Israel. These are women who cried bitterly over their infertility. Today, we call them mothers. Through their stories and the prayers that swirl around them, we are reminded of the journey of motherhood—fragmented and imperfect though it may be. Nina Beth Cardin implores us to make use of their stories, to open ourselves up to their poetry, songs and prayers and use them to craft our own personal journey of healing.

Karen Paul-Stern is a writer in Maryland.