Feb. 20, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 11

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    Blending her research and her motherhood, Frymer-Kensky presents guide to connect women with 'chain of eternity' Seventeen years ago, the day before giving birth to her first child, Tikva Frymer-Kensky knew something was wrong. She went to see her doctor, who told her that, due to a previous injury, her birth canal was blocked -- she would need a Cesarean section and had to check into the hospital immediately in preparation for the birth.

    "I knew I would be alone for most of that evening, so I took two novels, the TV guide and a folder of Mesopotamian birth incantations that I happened to be collecting for my dissertation on water symbolism in Mesopotamia," said Frymer-Kensky, Professor in the Divinity School. "In the hospital, I found that neither the novels nor the television could distract me -- and really, I didn't want to be distracted. I wanted to focus on giving birth. So I turned to the study of these incantations, and they connected me to the chain of eternity -- to all the women before me who had given birth."

    "Later, after I had fully recovered from the birth and the general anesthesia -- around 10 and a half months later -- I began to get angry. Why was it, I wanted to know, that I, well-educated in Judaism and in Christianity, had to go all the way back to ancient Babylon in order to find something to read before childbirth? And what could most women do, who do not read Sumerian?"

    After more research, Frymer-Kensky's anger dissolved. "I realized that Western religion was a religion from the neck up. Neither Judaism nor Christianity had paid a lot of attention to issues of the body -- except in a negative way. For a while, I thought I would respond by writing a theology of the body for most of a woman's life -- from menarche to menopause. Then I decided that was an enormous task, and since I was pregnant with my son at the time, it seemed logical to write a book on childbirth and pregnancy."

    The result was Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman's Spiritual Companion. The book is a compendium of poems, essays and rituals to enhance a woman's reflection on her pregnancy, or the pregnancy of someone she cares about. "Many letters I've gotten have been from women whose daughters are pregnant," Frymer-Kensky said. "They use my book to let them better understand the experience. So often, we don't have time to reflect on pregnancy and birth while it is happening. We get caught up in what's good for the child instead of what's needed for ourselves. Motherprayer provides a way to understand what's happening to us spiritually and emotionally."

    Other letters have stressed the freedom some women feel after reading Motherprayer. "They feel like they've been given permission to undergo all parts of labor -- to shout during labor and not feel like they need to shut up, to not be embarrassed by giving birth."

    Most of the writings in the book are Frymer-Kensky's own, though she uses the metaphysical imagery of ancient sources. She translated texts from Sumerian, Akkadian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Old French and French, Latin and Aramaic, searching for concepts -- what does roundness mean in poetry and literature? What does size mean?

    She then used those concepts for another purpose -- to explore what it means to create a human being. "There is a lot of poetry that uses a woman to symbolize the city of Jerusalem," she explained. "The intention was to make people love Jerusalem with a personal love. But I looked at what the texts said about the roundness of the city, about the sense of sacredness of being in an enclosure, and applied those things to pregnancy."

    To write Motherprayer, Frymer-Kensky read everything she could on childbirth -- which in 1979 was not that much, she said. "I was at the University of Michigan library, and I walked past stacks and stacks of books on death and dying. Then I got to the birth section and there was one shelf!" she said, laughing. "Since then, there's been an explosion of books on childbirth, but finding books on spirituality and childbirth is still uncommon. In religious texts, there are prayers for fertility and conception and prayers for a safe delivery, but those focus on the child. There was silence when it came to the mother."

    Frymer-Kensky asked midwives and mothers where they thought those silences occurred, and from those interviews, she derived several key issues that she discusses in Motherprayer -- size, pain, weariness, anxiety and a sense of something cosmic.

    "Women wanted to talk about their sense that something was happening that was greater than themselves, but they didn't have the words," Frymer-Kensky said. "What I don't want to say is that pregnancy is a woman's crowning achievement. But I do want women to use this book to understand that pregnancy is a cosmic and significant act.

    "In doing this work, I derived, little by little, a sense of the divinity of pregnancy. That it is, above all, a creation of a sacred being. We tend to think of physical acts as not being sacred because they are shared by animals. But I read texts that conveyed a powerful image -- that the body does not just carry a divine spark, but is itself part of a divine sacredness -- the body contains the name of God."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco