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Nancy at 44

Sept. 19. It’s been ten years since my youngest child was born, and today my gynecologist “strongly recommends” a hysterectomy. If I don’t have the hysterectomy now, he says the likelihood of further complication and later surgery is high. But it’s my choice, he adds.

Oct. 17. I’m helping Sara, my activist daughter, to organize her high-school pro-choice group. Soon to march for Roe v. Wade, she is anxious about her future right to choose. She’s just beginning. How ironic that, at this same moment, her mother is faced with a different right to choose.

After extensive research and discussion, I’ve decided to go ahead with the operation. Sara is 14; I’m 44.

Oct. 20. Suddenly I find myself constantly thinking about where my womb is going to end up: the hospital trash bin. That idea is so upsetting to me. I calm myself by thinking that I might return my uterus to the earth in a more reverent way.

Four times I was privileged to have the life-force begin (and twice be fulfilled successfully) in my uterus. How could I just throw such an important part of me away?

Retrieving my uterus is not about worshipping an object (as someone critically suggested to me). It’s about feeling whole, completing a process, respecting life. It’s about claiming what is ours — a different rung on the same pro-choice ladder.

Oct. 22. I telephoned my mother today to tell her about the hysterectomy. “And I plan to take my uterus home with me after the surgery and return it to the earth, probably in my garden,” I add.

There is a long “pregnant” pause. Mom, who is rarely at a loss for words, just doesn’t get it.

My mother has never spoken about her own hysterectomy. Now, she says, “It was nothing. There’s nothing to talk about!’

I hang up the phone feeling lonely and sad.

I hope my journey through this process leaves my daughters feeling more encouraged.

Oct. 29. [my 44th birthday] At 301 had my first child. At 35, my second. At 40 I gave myself two gifts: a bat mitzvah and a tubal ligation. The date is set for my surgery: April 24. I’ll be almost 45.

Nov. 15. This morning I call three rabbis. Is there a Jewish way to return one’s uterus to the ground? I ask them.

“Limbs that are amputated get buried” an Orthodox rabbi tells me. Another rabbi says, “Limbs, but not organs!’ The third says, “Limbs get buried in the plot where you eventually go!’ As they talk, I realize they’re all talking about burial. But this is not about death. It’s about the passage of my life into another stage. I just don’t know what to call this thing yet. One rabbi adds, “No prayers. Just put it in the ground!’

It is truly amazing to me that menopause rituals (or, in my case, hysterectomy rituals) don’t exist in Judaism. It feels so obvious to me, so basic to feminine being. Judaism has blessings for so many things — why not this?

Jan. 6. Where is the comfort and blessing of Judaism, now as I prepare to go through this midlife transition? Judaism tells us to live our lives with kavanah, with deliberate intention. But the more thoughtful I get, the more alone I feel.

My life and work have been guided by the “Sh’ma” — to truly hear, to know that God is one. But when I look in the liturgy I see only one-half. The male half.

Jan. 18. A colleague of mine tells me that when she had her uterus removed she understood for the first time the true meaning of the expression, “to feel beside oneself!’

Another friend tells me that after her hysterectomy, she dreamt for months about menstruating, and was preoccupied with feeling there was an “empty space” inside her.

So it’s not just me.

Feb. 1. More calls to Jewish sources, more reading of Jewish texts. Traditional Judaism is no help with these issues. A knowledgeable member of my chavurah, tells me the midrash of Miriam’s well. It’s a parable: Miriam had access to her own well of water while in the desert, and she could go and drink from it whenever she needed. Sometimes, in other words, we’re on our own… and we have to establish our own sources of sustenance.

Feb. 15. Today I muster up the courage to try something New Age, and I call Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the hip, Chassidishe rebbe.

I hear myself describing a ceremony in which my womb is returned to the earth in my own backyard, surrounded by a minyan of women. He suggests that I sit shiva. No, I say. This is not about death, but about a new stage of life.

Then he suggests that I bury my uterus under a pear tree, because the womb looks like a pear. Suddenly I realize I have been picturing a vine — not a tree at all — but a vine spreading out in many directions. The fact is, if we look long and hard enough, we do, on our own, have the “right” answers (our own Miriam’s wells).

But then there’s that other part of me that feels completely intimidated by mainstream Judaism. Who am I — a lay, lone woman — to step out in this way? To create a new ceremony and dare to call it Jewish?

Mar. 1. Today I talk to Carol Rose, a Conservative rebbetzin in Winnipeg. After four sons and a hysterectomy, she tells me she had planned to put her womb in a crystal jar in the earth on Mount Scopus. But the pathologists at the hospital wouldn’t release it. “Be careful’,’ she warns me. “Don’t sign a blanket permission. Stipulate that your uterus be returned to you after lab tests!’

“When one woman speaks the truth” she paraphrases, “the world cracks open!’

Mar. 15. Our family is going to Israel for Passover, and I have two “hysterectomy” contacts: Camille [not her real name] is an octogenarian, North African, Kab-balistic healer whose knowledge has come down many generations; Rabbi Levy [also a pseudonym] is an aged, Kabbalistic, Jungian-trained rabbi living in Safed.

Mar. 18. Imagining Rebbetzin Rose’s crystal jar, I realized I wanted a plain greenware vessel, easily re-absorbed into the earth. I can make it myself. I have a seldom-used pottery studio behind my office. Fittingly, I learned to make pots there when Sara and then Anna were newborns.

Mar. 27. For our chat, Camille (the North African healer) arranges herself on a huge bed of pillows. It feels like a Jerusalem version of Alice in Wonderland’s caterpillar’s lair. I half-expect her to take out a hookah. I suddenly ask myself, What in God’s name am I doing here? Why is a middle-class, middle-aged, formerly sensible professional woman shlepping herself and her two daughters to some New-Age, old-age casbah? I have never done anything this way out in my life.

“Close your eyes and imagine opening your belly and removing your womb with your hands’,’ Camille says. This is absurd, but I take the plunge.

As directed, I put my imaginary womb on the table. Then she says, very slowly, “Now take your forefinger and make a circle around the crown of your head. Then take both hands, and very gently lift the top of your head off and put it on the table!’

“Now nudge your brain and gently move it over’,’ she says. She is very caretaking, in a rational, no-nonsense way; kind, but not warm. “Take your brain and place it carefully next to your uterus. The brain is going to absorb all the wisdom of your womb!’ We pause for a long, long time.

“Now take the womb, and toss it,. whatever, you don’t need it anymore. The brain knows it doesn’t need the womb anymore, and the womb knows it is time to go!’

I put my imaginary brain back in its proper place and put back the top of my head.

“Who suggested you create a special ceremony?” she asks.

“I did’,’ I say.

She says, “Well, you won’t need it now!’

Later that day I realize, Camille aside, that I still very much need my ceremony.

Apr. 3. Up the winding road to Safed, we arrive at the aged Levys’. After a while I say, “I’m interested in creating some sort of ritual to return my womb to the earth. I want to find Jewish precedents. Can you help me?” Rabbi Levy leans towards me and whispers. “Beware of paganism, my dear. You know, fertility cults!’

“With all due respect, rabbi, to me, mikvah has always seemed like a fertility cult!’

“Perhaps’,’ he says, “But it’s a permissible fertility cult!’

What??? A “permissible” fertility cult? Suddenly, something in me snaps. This is bizarre! Why am I still slavishly seeking the blessing of hoary Judaism? That’s it — I am finished tiptoeing around the “permissible!” Suddenly Yudit Levy, teary-eyed, takes me aside. “I had a hysterectomy ten years ago’,’ she confides. After her surgery, she missed her monthly mikvah visits, which she had always loved.

One day a stranger on a bus saw her crying. “Why are you so upset?” the woman asked. Yudit explained that the bus had just passed the mikvah, and that she’d had a hysterectomy. “Why don’t you go back for a final goodbye?” So, she says, “I did. It helped. Water is purifying and wonderful. Why don’t you go to the mikvah after your operation? In this way you can join with other Jewish women!’

Water. Miriam’s well.

Yudit and I hug. When it’s time for us to leave, the rabbi takes a short step towards me but then stops himself (I think he wants to hug me, too). He shakes my hand. I guess shaking is more “permissible!’

Apr. 10. Fourteen days until my operation. I sit down this morning to begin writing my ceremony, fortified by the rabbinic saying, “Human beings are partners with God in finishing creation!’ I also remember something Rabbi Laura Geller once wrote: “Women’s spirituality begins with the acknowledgment of marginality coupled with an act of courage and faith!’ I impulsively call Rabbi Geller in Los Angeles.

“Of course’,’ she says to me, after hearing me out, as if my idea for putting my uterus in the earth is the most natural, Jewish thing in the world. “And did you know that the foreskin is often planted after the bris? I hadn’t known, but, well, well, well… my intuition had guided me to Jewish precedent after all. Geller uses the word ‘planting.’ “Planting is different from burying’,’ she says simply. Indeed.

Suddenly it all begins to fall into place. I take up my paper and pen again and watch as the ceremony of covenant begins to create itself.

Nancy Helman Shneiderman’s ceremony, which took place during the summer solstice, will be included in a book on women’ s spirituality due out in 1991 from Women’ s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education in San Diego, CA. Shneiderman is a psychotherapist in private practice in Washington, DC.