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B’sha’ah tovah and superstition during my pandemic-era pregnancy

Persecutions, pogroms, and power struggles have programmed Jews to expect the worst. This manifests most in oft-stereotyped Jewish worry. Stuck in traffic? We will never get to our destination and every gas station along the way will be closed. Our food delivery is ten minutes late? They forgot our order and we will go hungry tonight. You’re not sleeping well? I heard about that illness. Judy’s cousin from her second marriage had it and it’s very bad. See a doctor.

This worry is so embedded in the Jewish psyche that we have built religious customs for it. The customary greeting for one who is pregnant is not mazal tov, “congratulations” but b’sha’ah tovah, “in a good hour.” A pregnancy is a state of unknown, and so, to “congratulate” is too worrisome for Jews. What if something goes wrong? What if the pregnancy miscarriages, and we have congratulated prematurely? What if—and here Jewish worry is in a league of its own — our premature mazal tov somehow induces a miscarriage? Instead, we pray that no matter what happens, may the child and the mother be healthy, “in a good hour.”

Seven months ago, when I discovered I was pregnant, this worry felt none too worrisome. It felt true and right to me and my husband. Coming off of a few years of family illnesses and deaths, we did not want to be congratulated for this pending joy. We prayed, and wanted others to pray, for everything to happen “in a good hour.” Like generations of Jewish families before us, we planned to not plan – no cradle and no toys, no remodeling the tv room into a nursery – for fear that such preparations would be for naught, for worse than naught. We thought of names tentatively. We made no announcements on Facebook, shared no budding belly pictures on Instagram. We would wait for the “good hour” to celebrate joy, and to feel it.

Then, pandemic. We could not rely on the immediacy of either Amazon or real-life stores (remember those?) for baby essentials once I gave birth. We stopped seeing people in person, so people stopped seeing me grow—a loss I never knew I would feel because I never knew it was important to me to be seen. Quietly, our baby-naming conversations became less playful and more dutiful, providing a semblance of control and continuity.

Superstition is a luxury of a good hour. When everything is going well let us catastrophize about everything that could go wrong. Let us spiritually mitigate forecasts of doom. However, when the world is so stricken, with grief and illness, despair and death, superstition is unwarranted suffering. Why make any of this harder?

Instead of praying for a good hour, we are finding the good within the hour we are living. We giggle at in-utero kicks and flips. We congratulate each other for setting up the stroller and bassinet. I relish the heartbeats I hear at the doctor’s office. I hold onto that glee so I can share it when I return home to my husband, who cannot join these check-ups. He laughs every time I cannot finish a sentence because of pregnancy brain (it’s real). Amidst the mess and the heartache, we no longer postpone joy for a good hour.

To be clear, this is not a good hour. It is not a good hour for our world, our nation, or our Jewish communities. It is not a good hour for us as expecting parents and rabbis. It is not a good hour for parents caring for and teaching their children while working. It is not a good hour for any of us worried about loved ones. It is the worst hour for families grieving those lost.

Yet, there is joy in bad hours. Mothers, with only their partners present, birth new lives. Couples, with weddings postponed, celebrate their life commitments otherwise. High school and college seniors, with campuses closed, receive hard-earned degrees from their living room sofas, poised to repair the word, tikkun olam . Children, with summer camp canceled, jump into blown up pools and revel in bike rides. People, anxious, bored, or both, adventure into cooking and baking, hiking and zooming.

My prayer for all of us is a renovated b’sha’ah tovah. In this difficult hour, may we look for the good now instead of expecting the worst later; may we find some joy together, today; may we celebrate the good we know is here.

Rabbi Eliana Fischel is an Assistant Rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., where she works with teens, 20s/30s, and young couples. She and her husband, Rabbi Eric Abbott, excitedly anticipate their firstborn at the end of July.

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