Writing from a Paradoxical Place
A writer considers her tradition’s inheritance of childless women and finds strength in her heroines of Jewish literature.
By Courtney Sender
This September tenth, I sat in the temporarily repurposed memorial Church in Harvard Yard and tried to listen to a reading from the book of Genesis. It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the beginning of the Days of Awe that make up the holiest period on the Jewish calendar. Jews read from the Torah in a specific liturgical cycle over the course of each year, and the New Year’s reading always begins with the same words: “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.” (Gen. 21:1–2, RSV)
It was a woman’s story, I thought, if not a story that extends much bodily agency and reproductive ownership to women, at least one that centers on a woman who is gifted a child after decades of infertility. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I winced, but ignored it. I listened to Sarah referring to her son, Isaac, as her God-given gift of laughter. The haftarah—a reading from a book of the Prophets—followed: This time, God remembers Hannah, who also has trouble conceiving, and grants her a much-longed-for baby who becomes the prophet Samuel.
As the haftarah chanting rang out, my phone buzzed again. I slid it from my pocket, hid it under my hand, and read the notification: another Twitter message.
“Courtney Sender offers NOTHING to a potential husband. Her childbearing window is about to SLAM shut, and her promiscuous nature GURANTEES [sic] she’ll cheat. Plus, careerwomen always put their husbands LAST . . . behind the children, HER career, and HER interests. Best stay away!”
The text on my screen was a public statement from a faceless man I didn’t know, who didn’t know me. He had bothered to tag me in the Tweet, to be sure I would see it. Even before I could put the phone away, another ping:
“Liberal, promiscuous, careerwomen are NOT desirable to men. This is why she’s STILL single, & quickly aging out of her childbearing years.”
The strangers around me turned the page in their prayerbooks. What I had done to incite the ad hominem remarks of this Twitter stranger, among hundreds of his compatriots online, was to write an article that had been published three days before in The New York Times as a “Modern Love” column.1 The article called for normalizing a culture of compassion for other human beings. It drew on my understanding of ethical and humanistic caretaking as a form of secular ministry, a concept I had learned during my studies at Harvard Divinity School. Within the #MeToo moment, it asked for a deeper consideration of consent, suggesting that the goal be “less about [legalistic] caution and more about care.”
I had expected some trolling from the right—I was a woman writing about sex, and so I had already planned never to read the comments section of my own article—but I had not expected the volume I would receive.2 I simply didn’t think that people who felt this way about women would bother to read the Fashion & Style section of the paper that Donald Trump insists is “failing.”
Clearly, I learned this Rosh Hashanah, I had underestimated the voraciousness of their disdain, the righteous power they must feel at telling a woman they’ve never met that she will never find love or have children.
I shut off my phone and tried to focus on the rabbi. Late-arriving congregants wished me shana tova umetukah, a good and sweet year. Later, we would dip apples in honey to represent the sweetness of the New Year. I tried to tell myself the truth beneath the bitterness pinging unceasingly in my pocket: that these Twitter users were simply indoctrinated into a patriarchal ethos I do not believe in; that they were not engaging with the content of my essay at all, only with the fact that a woman had written it; that I and all women and all human beings are worth more than our reproductive failure or success; that the people I care about and respect, the people who populate my life and with whom I wanted the article to engage, would find such a valuation system reprehensible.
And in the rabbi’s voice, poor lucky begging Hannah was blessed with the incomparable gift of a child.
To be a Jewish woman is to exist in a lineage of childless women. An inheritance of childlessness: a paradox, of course, an impossibility and yet a narrative truth: according to the Torah, the story of the Jews is a story of genealogical near misses, of children born to mothers for whom childbearing seemed impossible. Of the four matriarchs, three—Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel—are said to have struggled with infertility. (Only Leah escaped their particular brand of suffering.)
Of course, readers can view the matriarchs less as specific characters than as theological archetypes, the bearers of God’s covenant with Abraham down the generations. Yet this New Year, I held in my hand the real and specific and horribly contemporary inheritance of traditions whose foundational stories portray women rendered desperate by their longing for children. These unknown internet men had fundamentally, indeed ironically, misread an article that was calling for kindness. They were not responding to the content I wrote, but rather to me, and to their assumptions about me. For all they knew, the article’s author had gone on to be happily partnered with a brood of loving children; for all they knew, I wouldn’t accept a husband or a child if you paid me. They knew nothing about my current circumstances at all.
But faced with a woman about whom they knew basically nothing—that is, faced with the blank archetype of a woman—the content of their assumptions was that I was aiming and failing at traditional roles of marriage and motherhood. In other words, the content of their assumptions was exactly the content suggested by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy I was listening to that day, which portrays the deep suffering of women unable to fulfill their reproductive destiny: Sarah’s hardening of heart, her turn to cruelty or jealousy toward her banished rival, Hagar; Hannah’s wordless praying, misunderstood as drunkenness because of its furious and single-minded intensity.
How, then, to respond to this paradox of an inheritance? For a writer, the need to answer received narratives with original narrative is especially strong. My own heroines of Jewish literature have offered myriad avenues through which to grapple with our place in the tradition. Some breathe psychological realism and heart into the old personages themselves: Alicia Ostriker’s Hagar describes Sarah’s thin son as “Just what you would expect / From those threadbare sacks of parents”3; Anita Diamant’s version of Dinah, Leah’s only daughter, blames the limitations of this lineage for the fact that “[t]he chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing.”4
Other writers address the lived realities of that old, longed-for motherhood. Grace Paley’s characters embody the endless disappointments of wife- and motherhood in zingers like, “I left the kids alone and ran down to the corner for a quick sip among living creatures.”5 Still others mourn the onus for reproduction in less overt ways; I think now of Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” as implicitly documenting the Holocaust as an irreparable break in the line of women who, though threatened with childlessness, were ultimately able to bring children to adulthood.6
This New Year, I was most attracted to a tongue-in-cheek approach to childlessness as less physiological than circumstantial, as in Elisa Albert’s fictional proposal to Philip Roth that she have his baby:
Perhaps I am just blinded by my own maternal desperation. I’m twenty-six, Philip. That must seem impossibly young to you—I am, after all, almost half a century your junior—but I don’t feel particularly young. I recently broke up with a guy (the aforementioned fiancé) I thought I’d be with forever. I am the youngest child of rapidly aging parents who have no grandchildren. . . . I feel doomed. I feel done for. Do you know what I mean?7
I did not, at the end of the service, feel done for. Before the Memorial Church returned to its Sunday services and Gregorian calendar year 2018, I committed myself to inhabiting paradox as a writer in the year 5779. Perhaps I have inherited a tendency toward ending lines of inheritance. Perhaps the strangers of the Internet have stumbled accidentally upon this truth, in my past or my future.
Or perhaps not. I have only a skewed and limited view into the past; I can only guess at the future. What I can see, with greater clarity than ever before, is the now. The ways in which women are systematically disenfranchised, cut off from institutional support and power, became overwhelmingly clear to me on this Jewish New Year. After all, Internet trolls don’t only come after women writers; they also come after the institutions and sites that promote our work. Since women are more likely to be trolled in threatening, sexualized ways, then it’s women writers who become not worth the trouble to support. And if we scale that up, how many women’s voices are being squelched, materially if unintentionally, because institutions around the country decide some other voice will cause them less trouble?
Nine days after Rosh Hashanah, I would enter Yom Kippur, the day of repentance and the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. I would fast that day—not for the sin of being an unmarried woman owning her body, but for the sins of silence and for not fighting loudly or consistently enough against the minimization of women in all its forms. After all, the New Year offers its own form of paradox: we do not start in the beginning of Genesis 1; we start each year already 20 chapters in; we begin by remembering. There’s been a promise made to women somewhere in the past, it seems, and we are playing catch-up from the start.
- The essay, “He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost,” appeared in The New York Times on September 7, 2018.
- Trolling—posting deliberately antagonistic, offensive, and/or inflammatory content online, directed at a particular individual—is a large-scale problem that disproportionately affects women. For more on the scale of this problem, see: Hannah Storm, “Confronting Journalism’s Misogynistic Trolls,” Project Syndicate, August 15, 2018; “Online abuse affects men and women differently—and this is the key to tackling trolls,” on theconversation.com, October 30, 2014; and “Yes, Trolling Does Affect Women More than Men,” Pacific Standard, August 14, 2014. Among the most public examples this year, Christine Blasey Ford endured such threatening trolling that she was forced out of her home and into hiding.
- Alicia Suskin Ostriker, “The Opinion of Hagar,” in The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers University Press, 1997).
- Anita Diamant, The Red Tent (St. Martins Press, 1997).
- Grace Paley, “Living,” in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974).
- Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl,” The New Yorker, May 26, 1980.
- Elisa Albert, “Etta or Bessie or Dora or Rose,” in How This Night Is Different: Stories (Free Press, 2006).