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Delivering Jewish Women from Postpartum Depression

When a new book on postpartum depression (PPD) from a Jewish perspective arrived the other day listing a man as the first author, I must admit that my first reaction was the same as it was when Tom Cruise saw fit to comment on actress Brooke Shields’ decision to get medical treatment for her PPD, and as it is when I hear about celibate priests telling (Catholic) women that they may not use birth control. My first thought was: What would he know about it?

The new book, “Delivery From Darkness: A Jewish Guide to Prevention, Detection and Treatment of Postpartum Depression,” (Feldheim, 2009), is authored by Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein and his wife, Michal Finkelstein, a certified nurse-midwife, along with therapist Doreen Winter, who are all Jerusalem-based.

It is, they say, the first book about postpartum depression written for a Jewish audience and, and when it comes out in Hebrew next week in Israel, will be the first book ever published on the topic there.

The book has been written specifically for an Orthodox readership and is, essentially, a primer on the disorder and its treatments, along with Orthodox Jewish cultural context and the relevant parts of halacha, or Jewish law.

Despite my initial hesitation, I found it to be an excellent book that will hopefully serve as an introduction to PPD to many Jewish women and men, as well as their rabbis and those who provide social services in the frum community.

PPD, like any other condition, knows no denomination. It affects women in the frum community just as it does Jewish women who identify as Conservative, Reform, independent, secular…you get the idea.

But the response to PPD differs, particularly in the fervently Orthodox community, where the conventional response to all things that could be described as psychological or psychiatric problems is generally to turn to a rav, a rabbi who provides advice on personal and Jewish legal matters, rather than a doctor.

And let’s be honest – most of these rabbeim have no idea of how to approach serious mental-health disorders, and few have training in the area.

Even on other medical issues the approach can be totally different than one would expect from someone who lives in the modern world.

I have a vision disorder that makes my night vision very poor, and one night awhile back I was waiting to meet someone outside a Chabad-run shul in Brownstone Brooklyn. The rabbi, with whom I’ve been friendly for years, was walking into the shul as I stood there, and when he saw me with the blind cane I use when I’m out alone at night, asked if everything was okay.

I told him that I’m fine, and that I just have an inherited eye disease that makes it hard for me to see at night.

His next question was: “Have you checked your mezuzahs?” I thought: Are you kidding me? This is the next question? From a 40-ish rabbi in a sophisticated, modern community who has sophisticated, modern congregants?

I mustered every ounce of politesse possible to respond in a respectful tone that the genetic mutation had occurred when I was conceived decades ago, and that I don’t think the current state of my mezuzah scrolls has anything to do with it.

My rabbi-acquaintance is typical of the approach that many fervently Orthodox rabbis (and others) bring to bear on these kinds of things.

In the frum community there also remains an entrenched, if slowly changing, bias against seeking psychiatric help for any reason out of concern that it will be regarded as a problem by potential spouses when it is time for a child or sibling to find a mate.

Much of “Delivery From Darkness” addresses the need to overcome this bias, though does support the idea of consulting with one’s personal rabbi as well.

The book has the rabbinic approbations right in front that are needed these days in any book written for the frum reader, and a Foreward by the esteemed psychiatrist and Chasidic Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski.

The book’s co-author, Michal Finkelstein, starts it off by discussing her own bout with PPD – after the birth of her 6th child – describing it as “being buried alive.”

That’s an apt image. I had PPD after the births of two of my three children and it went undiagnosed, the first time, for many months. I felt as if I were at the bottom of a deep pit with no way to climb out, and reached a very dark place before getting the help I needed.

I hope that this excellent book is displayed prominently in Jewish bookstores, and that it helps other women to get the help they need.

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