October 19, 2019

Special Delivery – Jewish Lamaze Class Reunion

We were so much fatter then — and younger and more naïve.

We were nine pregnant women, accompanied by our husbands, sitting together on the floor of a Temple Sinai classroom for 10 Thursday nights in the fall of 1983. Strangers to each other and strangers to the concept of becoming parents, we were preparing to welcome our firstborn into the world according to the traditions of Judaism and the techniques of Lamaze.

It was Jewish Lamaze, a two-pronged childbirth preparation program that had recently been introduced in Los Angeles.

On the physical side, we learned about the anatomy and physiology of pregnancy. And we practiced the focused breathing exercises (the “he-hes” and “he-whos”) developed by Dr. Ferdinand Lamaze in France in the early 1950s and optimistically called “childbirth without pain.”

On the spiritual side, we learned about the customs and rituals, blessings and bubbe meises surrounding the birth of a Jewish child. Some of these included brit milah, the almost 4,000-year-old custom of circumcision; brit bat, an innovative alternative ceremony for girls, and pidyon ha’ben, the redemption of the first-born.

But most important, Jewish Lamaze gave us an opportunity, amid the excitement, anxiety and physical transformation, to take a deep breath (not a “he-he” or “he-who”) and contemplate the emotional ramifications of going from a couple to a family and the spiritual ramifications of raising a Jewish child.

Of course, we wanted to do this perfectly. Thus, in addition to Jewish Lamaze, we took baby care and breast-feeding classes, we read “Secret Life of the Unborn Child” and “The Rights of the Pregnant Parent.” We interviewed pediatricians, researched the best strollers and called day schools to add our babies’ names to the waiting list.

And we planned a reunion for February 1984, to show off our 2- and 3-month-old infants.

Tonight, 18 years later, we’re gathered together for a second reunion, joined by our instructors, Fredi Rembaum, then a consultant for Jewish Family Education at the Bureau of Jewish Education, and Sandra Jaffe, then — and now — a certified Lamaze teacher.

We’re five of the original couples, accompanied by our now-18-year-old children and their siblings. (Of the families not present, two are traveling, one has moved to Minnesota and one, when contacted, said, “I don’t even remember taking Lamaze. It didn’t do me any good.”)

We have come to reconnect and to reminisce at another watershed moment in parenting — as our firstborn have begun or are about to begin their first year in college.

We introduce ourselves and catch up. Some of our lives have intersected through the years — in preschool, day school and day camp, at Jewish lifecycle events, fundraising dinners and at Ralphs. Some of us are remeeting for the first time.

We gather around an enlarged photo of the babies taken at the first reunion.

“Yes, that’s Josh. Crying.”

“There’s Nathan, sound asleep.”

“Sharona, what do you think of your tie-dyed outfit?”

We chat informally. And easily. The talk centers on high schools, colleges and other children. The subtext is middle age and empty-nest syndrome.

After dinner, we gather in a circle. The teens formally introduce themselves.

Some are already in their first year of college — at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA. The others are leaving in the fall — also for UC Berkeley and Williams. They talk about Jewish life on campus, about Hillel and about finding kosher food.

“Why did you decide on Jewish Lamaze?” Rembaum asks us adults.

Harriet Sharf answers: “We were having a Jewish baby. Why would we want to go to goyishe Lamaze?”

“I grew up in a nonreligious Jewish family,” Andy Hyman says. “I wanted to learn about the traditions and to instill in my kids a deep love and appreciation of Judaism.”

“I needed help with the Lamaze part,” says Neal Weinberg, an ordained rabbi.

“But that Lamaze bag was worthless,” Debbie Spindel adds. “I remember everything in it — the shoelaces, the tennis balls, the small paper bag.”

“It wouldn’t have been useless if you had needed any of those items,” Lamaze instructor Jaffe says.

“The change for the pay phone was helpful,” Bart Sokolow says.

Jewish Lamaze was first sponsored by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education in the early 1980s and taught in various synagogues until the funding ran out toward the end of the decade.

And while it’s no longer being offered in Los Angeles, as far as anyone knows, similar programs exist elsewhere.

“I absolutely loved our program,” Rembaum says…. The class was not just about birthing but about connecting to the Jewish community.”

Eighteen years ago, together, we welcomed these children into the world.

Tonight we realize we’re releasing them.

“Let’s do this again in another 18 years,” Sokolow suggests at the end of the evening. “With our grandchildren.”