My Story: Mortality

By Amy Agigian —

by Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Last week, I had a miscarriage.

That information seems maybe too personal to be sharing on a website. But the experience of this pregnancy and its spontaneous termination taught me something important about what it means to live in America, and what it means to live in Israel, and that’s why I’m sharing it.

A year ago, my husband and I were satisfied with the size of our family. Ours is the imagined ideal, minus the dog:  one boy, one girl, a mother and a father. Our kids are at a perfect age: young enough to need us, but not every minute. Why would we want to mess that up with diapers, night feedings, choking hazards, car seats, etc., etc., etc. — not to mention the risks of complications? Besides, the world’s population topped 7 billion a few weeks ago. 7 billion! More people are alive today than the total of all people who have ever died. This exponential growth rate cannot continue, and even replacing ourselves is really a luxury.

Then, we spent a year in Israel. Israel has one of the highest birth rates of any western country: 2.97 per woman. In Jerusalem, where we were staying, the average family has 4.5 children! Our family of one lovely boy and one lovely girl felt paltry there. Over time we met a few small families like ours — but every single one of them had suffered fertility problems. It seemed that small families by choice did not exist.

We loved the family atmosphere in Jerusalem. Our five-year-old daughter could leave our apartment and walk all by herself to the apartments of any of three of friends. For the first time, we felt comfortable leaving our son alone — we knew if he got into trouble, he could run to any of 10 different neighbors for help. The kids could walk to a local park by themselves, and even to the closest makolet (little grocery store), where they would greet the owner by name and he would give them their purchases on credit.

As an American, my gut assumption is that the large size of Israeli families is a result of Israel’s religious culture. Certainly that explains why Jerusalem, the most religious of Israel’s large cities, has an especially high birth rate. Many an American has returned home from an extended stay in Jerusalem feeling more devout, and more pregnant, than we were when we left.

But what is that religious experience that drives fertility? And why, judging by my husband’s physics colleagues, are secular Israelis more family-oriented than their American counterparts? A friend of ours who did almost the same thing we did said to me: “Our youngest was conceived in Israel, where all things seemed possible.” This friend is not religiously observant, and his statement was not inspired by tradition. All things seemed possible.

In Israel, life and death are closer together. You don’t have to be religious to feel that. You simply have to walk into a shopping mall and open your bag for inspection, and realize that in the not-so-distant past people came to Israeli shopping malls equipped with explosives. Far more importantly, Israeli children enter adulthood by way of the army, where they cannot help but confront their mortality.

When you realize that life is fleeting, all things really are possible. Nothing is guaranteed, and everything is possible. You must cast your bread as best you can, as often as you can, and hope it lands well.

My very first pregnancy, over ten years ago, ended in miscarriage. I was 29 years old, but an American 29 year old — young and immortal. I wanted to have my babies when I wanted to have my babies, and I was not interested in accepting what nature had to offer. That miscarriage was a dreadful shock.

This last pregnancy was an Israeli one, conceived under the lingering influence of the Israeli air: religious, optimistic, and aware of my mortality. Its termination was disappointing, but not a shock.

But the aftermath — the doctor’s visits, the ultrasounds, the medications —  jolted me back to American soil, where all things do not seem possible; where life seems under our control, and possibilities and impossibilities are determined by our human capacities; where raising children is hard, and careers and family are in competition, and a family of two healthy children (baruch Hashem and kein ayin hara!) seems perfect.