And She Laughed: A Kitchen Ritual for Healing from Miscarriage

Background

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day is a national day of remembrance for pregnancy loss and infant death, which includes but is not limited to miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, or the death of a newborn. It is observed annually on October 15.

“And She Laughed: A Kitchen Ritual for Healing from Miscarriage” is envisioned as a communal experience for a group of women who have personally experienced pregnancy loss.  

After my own miscarriage, I was on a journey of searching. I devoured every book, every blog, every personal story that I could on the topic of miscarriage. It was like being a member of a secret sisterhood—it was a quiet, and often lonely experience to move out from the initial grief toward healing, new plans, and new hopes.

I specifically sought wisdom and guidance from our Jewish tradition; in some ways, it felt like hidden wisdom. There are poems and rituals, prayers and blessings that have been written by Jewish women (some rabbis, some not) to honor their own personal experiences of pregnancy loss, infertility, or infant loss. One book in particular was invaluable to me was Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin.

In the weeks after my own miscarriage, I found myself unable to do anything "normal." All of my personal routines and practices felt alien to me. Everything that felt familiar, felt sad. A few weeks after my miscarriage, I found myself at home on a Friday morning, and decided to make challah for Shabbat. I often bake challah on Fridays, whenever I am home. I had not done so in over a month—not since I had lost the pregnancy. That morning, as I measured the flour and cracked the eggs and watched the yeast froth up in the warm water, I did so without thinking about it. I know my recipe by heart, I was just doing it, and as I sunk my hands into the dough I realized, I felt good. And it felt really good, to feel good. There is something to be said for just “feeling good”. Not for declaring “I’m all better now. All that sad stuff is over and behind me”, but to find a single moment of calm, and to just be in it for as long as you can.

A few weeks after that, I decided to experiment with the challah. Usually, I braid four stranded loaves. This time, I decided I would attempt to make a pull-apart challah. As I rolled the dough into small balls to set in the pan, I realized I didn’t have enough to fill the whole pan. So, I set the balls of dough in a ring, circling the pan. I left it to rise again, and after slathering it with the egg wash, and sprinkling it with a carpet of poppy seeds, I put it in the oven to bake. When it came out of the oven, it was unmistakable: this was my “circle of life” challah! And then, I had to laugh just a little bit—all at once it felt a little bit silly and funny, and yet, inherently “meaningful.” There was a touch of gallows humor for me—the rabbinical student who had had a miscarriage, baking a challah that looked like an empty womb, and calling it the “circle of life.” But despite my own laughter, I loved that challah.

The Jewish calendar and the American observance of “National Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day” offers us an interesting confluence, as it often falls on or near the Shabbat on which we read from Parashat Vayera. Out of my personal experience, the inspiration for this ritual emerged. I looked at Parashat Vayera, and saw it with new eyes. I looked to Sarah, kneading those “cakes” and encountering the malachim, and I heard her laughter in a totally new way.

This challah-baking ritual could take place in a synagogue kitchen, or in someone’s home. This midrashic ritual was imagined for a group of women who have experienced pregnancy loss, which I differentiate from infertitlity, or infant loss. These are important distinctions for those who have experienced these things, and I also honor the experience of partners of these women. I believe this ritual could be adapted and expanded to reflect a broader range of experience. 


And She Laughed: A Kitchen Ritual for Healing from Miscarriage

“Making challah is something like mothering—first you mix the ingredients and hope that the alchemy of honey, warm water, and yeast make its fragrant and mysterious magic. Then you stir and shmush them together with a firm hand, but with a sense of delicacy, too. Then you put the dough in a warm place, cover it with a soft cloth, and hope that your work pays off…[I]t is an affirmative, joyous process, my favorite bit of Jewish women’s work, perhaps because of the mystery of the melding…” —Debra Nussbaum Cohen

While making the dough:

As we begin making challah, I would give participants the opportunity to share their own stories of pregnancy and loss, if they are comfortable. One of the most common refrains from those who have experienced pregnancy loss, is that people don’t often want to hear the whole story. It’s common to ask a healthy, pregnant woman “So, tell me everything!” but less so to ask a woman who has miscarried, “What was it like?” Further, in many cases, there were weeks, maybe even months that that woman did experience the thrill and joy of pregnancy, and those experiences are often untold. She may hold onto those memories, but does not often feel invited to share them.

The humble beginnings of challah are not so unlike the humble beginnings of life. We honor those moments of joy—the moment when you first realized you were pregnant, the moment you told your partner. Those of us who bake bread regularly know that sometimes the yeast fails to rise, and you start again—but that does not lessen the intention with which you sent out to bake bread. Though these pregnancies were lost, that does not lessen the intention with which you set out, and the joy and hope that you felt.

As the Dough Rises: A D’var Torah

This week we read in Parashat Vayera about the three visitors who come to Abraham’s tent. These visitors, called malachim, are imagined in our tradition as angels. Upon their arrival, Abraham calls to his wife Sarah, and tells her to quickly prepare cakes for their guests.

יְמַהֵר אַבְרָהָם הָאֹהֱלָה, אֶל-שָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, מַהֲרִי שְׁלֹשׁ סְאִים קֶמַח סֹלֶת—לוּשִׁי, וַעֲשִׂי עֻגוֹת.[1]

Sarah, who was sitting in her tent, at the ripe old age of 90, is told “hurry.” And she does. In the heat of the day, she begins the task of baking bread. Sifting and measuring, mixing and kneading.

I imagine Sarah in that tent—a tent quiet without the voices of children. And as she listens to these angelic visitors, I can only imagine her barrage of emotion as she hears them say:

וַיֹּאמֶר, שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה, וְהִנֵּה-בֵן, לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ…[2]

After all of these years, now she will have a son?

And then, our tradition tells us,

 וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה[3]

And Sarah laughed.

Those of us who have waited any length of time can identify with any number of possible emotions Sarah was feeling: hope and hopelessness, joy and despair, excitement and an unwillingness to dream too much.

That laughter really caught my attention. I think back to the days and weeks after I lost my own pregnancy, and remember the odd moments of laughter. For anyone who ever felt like the experience of pregnancy loss was a “secret club,” then you’ll know what I mean when I remember the gallows humor—the slightly darker jokes and moments of levity that provided respite from the sorrow. This humor doesn’t always make everyone else comfortable—but it’s the silly things that distract us even if only for a moment.

For me, it was the shelf of chocolate in my kitchen. In just a few short weeks after my miscarriage, that shelf grew: fancy bars of chocolate with sea salt and chilies, bags of Hershey kisses, a box of chocolate-covered espresso beans. I called it my “miscarriage chocolate,” because whenever I saw a friend, inevitably, they would have “gotten me a little something,” and that little something was chocolate. Chocolate was a good guess, but it didn’t tempt me as much as salty things, and so for months, whenever anyone came over, I would offer them some “miscarriage chocolate.”

And so, in Sarah’s laughter, I’m hearing something a little darker. Was Sarah laughing at the absurdity of the idea? Or perhaps something more ironic had tickled her funny bone? The biblical text doesn’t tell us exactly, but as we prepare to shape and bake our loaves, I want to invite that laughter into this space.

Question for Conversation

What made you laugh in your time of loss and pain? (Invite participants to share their story)

“Taking” Challah

Tradition teaches us that baking challah is one of the three positive commandments that women are obligated to, along with lighting candles and family purity. With the commandment of challah, comes the mitzvah of “taking” challah, of removing a small piece of the dough before we bake our bread, and setting it aside.[4] Out of this mitzvah, the practice of offering prayers as you separate a small bit of dough as a divine offering has emerged.

Each of us is on our own personal journey—whether your miscarriage was recent, or long past, whether you have gone on to have children, or chosen other paths and decisions—we come to this community with different needs on this Shabbat.

I invite each of you to take a small piece of dough (k’zayit) and set it aside. The biblical source of this mitzvah tells us that this is to be offered to God. As you set aside this offering, I want to invite you to think about what you need to give over to God on this Shabbat—as you imagine taking in the nourishment and laughter of this challah, what can you give over? What can you let go of?

Baruch ata Adonai, Ruach ha’olam, asher kidishanu bimitzvo'sav, vitzivanu lihafrish challah min ha-issa.

Blessed are You God, Spirit of the World, you have made us holy with your commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough.

Shaping the Loaves

I want to invite each of you to braid your loaf, or form it into whatever shape you want. I want to offer one possible kavanah for you as your shape your challah:

Our tradition imagines that the three visitors who visited Abraham and Sarah were actually the angels: Michael, Gavriel, and Raphael. Michael (Micha-El) who is like God, is the angel who “announces" Sarah’s pregnancy. Then, we have Gavriel (Gavri-El) who offers God’s strength, and Raphael (Refa-El) who reminds us of the God who heals.

If you would like, you can choose to braid a thre-stranded challah, one strand for each of the angels, inviting possibility, strength, and healing into this process.

Placing the Bread in the Oven

Finally, as we prepare to bake these challot, we join our voices with the voices of our past. Throughout history, women have offered their prayers and blessings in these quiet moments before Shabbat, and as we place the loaves in the oven, we say:

Lord of all the world, in your hand is all blessing. I come now to revere your holiness, and I pray you to bestow your blessing on the baked goods. Send an angel to guard the baking, so that all will be well baked, will rise nicely and will not burn, to honor the holy Sabbath (which you have chosen so that Israel your children may rest thereon) and over which one recites the holy blessing—as you blessed the dough of Sarah and Rebecca our mothers. My lord God, listen to my voice; you are the God who hears the voices of those who call to you with the whole heart. May you be praised to eternity.[5]

Closing Blessings

As we take these challot from the oven, we prepare to join our community and our families to welcome Shabbat. Our tradition teaches that in the first year of marriage, we eat honey on our challah instead of salt, to bring sweetness into the space.  Though our joy may be tempered, we wish to find laughter and light wherever it may be, and tonight—rather than salt, we will again eat our challah with honey, reminding ourselves of the ancient words of our tradition: “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy[6]”.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’motzee lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You , Eternal God, who brings forth bread from the earth.


[1] Genesis 18:4

[2] Genesis 18: 10

[3] Genesis 18:12

[4] Numbers 15:19

[5] Tkhine, 1796. Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook (HBI Series on Jewish Women): Ellen M. Umansky, Dianne Ashton.

[6] Psalm 126:5

 

Complete Ceremony

Found in: Pregnancy Loss

Tags: miscarriage