A Shehechiyanu for Shitty Times

Reimagining this classic Jewish prayer helps me find joy and beauty in life’s big sadness.

The past two years have been, in a nutshell, very shit.

In August 2021, I lost my mother to a brain aneurysm. Two weeks later, a very old and very dear friend succumbed to a sudden pulmonary embolism and joined my mother. Four months later, at age 29, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, 11 months after my diagnosis, my 32-year-old sister has also been diagnosed with breast cancer.

And yet, while there have been no silver linings, I have constantly found myself surrounded by moments of grace — small jokes, big gestures of love, short messages from family I had never met, mornings I wake up feeling a little more ready to meet the day. There is still room for light in this mess. Often, I find myself meeting these moments with one of my favorite Jewish prayers: the Shehechiyanu.

Traditionally recited to mark the first time something is done in a given year, this prayer — which thanks the spirit of the universe for bringing us into our current moment, no matter what that moment is — has always resonated with me. There are a few different translations of it; my favorite one reads:

“Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to arrive at this moment.”

However, I always find the most beauty in this prayer when it’s reimagined and rewritten to meet the specific moments of life.

The first time I wrote my own Shehechiyanu was in 2016, when I was in graduate school in Ireland. It was the year before the country legalized abortion, and, after an ill-advised night with a boy from the internet, I needed plan B. I was well-versed in Ireland’s history with reproductive rights, so I knew that my ability to access emergency contraception, which had only become available over the counter five years earlier, was a big deal. Standing in the bathroom of Third Space Cafe, I opened my mouth and, without thinking, my first custom Shehechiyanu came out:

“Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who has brought me to this moment with 20 euro for the pharmacist and the ease of totally legal, totally safe, over-the-counter plan B.”

I took the pills with a deep sense of gratitude for the decades of Irish feminists who made this moment possible. Then, I high-fived myself and went to class.

Since then, I’ve returned to the Shehechiyanu over and over again as a sort of accidental gratitude practice. Sometimes unintentionally and, in the last year and a half, often very intentionally, I find myself saying versions of the Shehechiyanu to remember and to savor moments of grace — and to find ways to laugh at the absurdity of life.

At my mother’s shiva: “Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who has brought me to this season surrounded by a community of Jews who dress me, and love me, and feed me fancy Pickle Barrel party sandwiches.”

On the birthday of my friend, eight months after her death: “Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who brought our community together to celebrate our friend and indulge in her favorite activity: eating a lot of dairy without taking any Lactaid pills.”

When I received my cancer diagnosis: “Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who gave me a Grey’s Anatomy-level hot radiologist and brought me to this moment when cancer screening for BRCA 1 carriers has never been better.”

When I had my mastectomy: “Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who gave me a few good years with an incredible rack.”

When I had a breast reconstruction on my 30th birthday: “Blessed are you, eternal spirit, for marking my birthday with a boob job and a lot of drugs.”

When my sister got her diagnosis: “Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who brought us to this moment together instead of alone.”

As I look forward to having my fallopian tubes removed next month as a preventative measure against ovarian cancer: “Blessed are you, eternal spirit, who brought me to this moment now, even though I would have saved a lot of money on birth control had you brought me to this moment when I was still dating men and before I married my wife.”

I suppose that for me, the Shehechiyanu is my meditation on life’s little joys found in life’s big sadness. It is for every emotion that lives in the cracks between grief and loss and apathy and silence and gratitude and laughter and hope and joy. It is for the celebration of finding something to celebrate.

My mom used to say, “Smile, the world is a beautiful place.” For me, the Shehechiyanu is for when I find that beauty.

Jordana Starkman

Jordana Starkman (she/her) is a New York-based archivist, Dolly Parton enthusiast, and cultural Jew. The shehechiyanu is the only prayer she knows.

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