Inspired by Hannah: A Conversation for the New Year
I was ordained eight years ago in a beautiful and sacred ceremony. Standing on the bimah before our beloved Rosh Yeshivah, bordered on the transcendental. When he blessed me, I cried. It was a moment I will carry with me always.
But my ordination marked more than the beginning of my rabbinate. It also marked the beginning of my motherhood too. Just three weeks prior to ordination, I had my first child, a baby boy. My first taste of motherhood was unlike anything I could ever have predicted or imagined. My emotions were fierce and turbulent, and my attachment immediate and unwavering.
My ordination was the first time I had ever left my son, and I was a wreck. Those early post-postpartum days wreak havoc on the mind and body, and I was feeling the strain of excess hormones, total exhaustion, and round-the-clock milk production.
I remember bringing my hand pump with me to ordination, in fact. I stashed it beneath my seat, and dashed to the bathroom when I couldn’t stand the pressure a single second more. I remember standing in the bathroom, robe open, shirt unceremoniously un-tucked and unbuttoned, trying desperately to collect as much milk as I could with this irritatingly inefficient apparatus.
I was sweating, worried on one hand that I was missing my ordination, but on the other that I was neither collecting enough milk nor relieving the pressure that was building steadily in my chest. I hated the fact that my ordination ceremony was happening while I was stuck in the bathroom, but I hated even more that I had left my three week old at home. I was overwhelmed by this emotional face-off, and unnerved by my inability to mitigate this internal strife.
I was a new mother and a new rabbi at the very same time. Two paths, some would say divergent, others, perhaps not, and two very separate worlds of responsibility and meaning. These two worlds appeared simultaneously, with little signage and no GPS in sight. How would my rabbinate pave the way for motherhood? Or rather, how would motherhood pave the way for my rabbinate? I set out in search of balance, a way to honor these two parts of my life.
Eight years and three more children later, I am still searching. I have worked part-time and part-part time. I have prioritized here and prioritized there, working nights so I could have days, and days so I could have nights. I have wiggled and jiggled and maneuvered in more ways than I can count. And while every way had its merit, no way was perfect. I wonder if I stumbled upon the best way to achieve said balance or if some path has eluded me as of yet. It remains to be seen.
These days, I am home, with no work to put a claim on my time besides the work I create for myself. And yet, the personal versus professional dichotomy still remains. In between the diaper duty and the laundry and the dishes, I spend a lot of time thinking about the rabbinate, and how it fits in to the crumby corners of domestic life, and how it spills over from the lofty, dignified walls of the synagogue into the messy, sticky, soggy world of a family. What does it mean to be a rabbi when you are stuck cleaning a toilet? Or changing a diaper? What does it mean to be a rabbi when you’re carrying a baby, along with two backpacks and a lunch bag to boot? What does it mean to be a rabbi when all signifiers of esteem and import and formality have been stripped away? What does it mean to be a rabbi when the title you use most is “mommy”? Where does “rabbi” fit in to this picture?
The truth is, I don’t know. These days, I am not sure where “mommy” begins and “rabbi” ends. I’m not certain I’ll ever know. The view from where I stand is foggy at best.
I know I am not the first or the last to ask these kinds of questions. And I know my struggle to define my identity is not unique to me, or to mothers in the rabbinate, or even to mothers in general. But each of us speaks from a place that is unique, and each of us adds our own voice to the conversation. In the New Year, I want to add to this conversation. I want to be a part of this conversation. I want to start a conversation.
Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City. She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.