As I Faced the Loss of an Ovary, I Found Guidance in These Jewish Texts

I don’t expect a rabbi or midrash to answer my questions, but they give me scaffolding to hold onto during this confusing time.

Four hours after learning that I need surgery that will likely remove one of my ovaries, I attended a Jewish class on minimalism. The irony of this timing is not lost on me, but all I thought I wanted that night was a little Talmudic inspiration to accrue fewer books and hair products — I hadn’t intended to put the potential reduction in my reproductive organs under a Jewish philosophical microscope.

I have a large multiloculated cyst on my left ovary. After several medical appointments and scans, I finally know what has been causing intermittent cramping and other uncomfortable symptoms. Thankfully, the mass seems to be benign. But it’s large and growing where it is not safe to stay, so it has to come out. And it’s highly unlikely that that can happen without taking the whole ovary with it.

Even after learning that this is done surprisingly often with minimal negative impact, the idea of suddenly having one of my ovaries cut out of my body feels jarring and scary. I’m confronting the loss of an organ that is central to how I experience life as a woman — especially one who is 34, single, and deeply wants to have children. These things were already hard enough to hold, and now I have to lose an ovary too? It feels like a frustratingly complex extra hurdle.

I’m nearly a year into a profound spiritual exploration of my Jewishness, an aspect of my identity that I’d been curious about yet kept dormant for most of my life. I’m drawn to Judaism’s teachings on accepting how much of life is outside our control and its poetic embrace of pain and challenges as an inextricable part of life, holding the bitter with the sweet. Deepening my Jewish learning helps me slow down, reflect and imbue my life with more meaning and understanding. When I first met one of the wonderful rabbis I’ve been learning from, I told her that I was trying to better accept how much of my life is beyond control. “So learning to live with surrender?” she asked. Yes, surrender, that sounds right, I said. If I only knew.

The minimalism class focused, logically, on our relationship with material wealth and things, not body parts. I know that. No Jewish thinker or minimalism guru would encourage me to apply their teachings wholesale to what I’m going through right now (“Hello, Marie Kondo? Both of my ovaries spark joy, I think I’ll keep them”). But I can’t help but see some cosmic meaning in the timing, and my curiosity about that does spark joy. So I’m keeping it.

The sage Ben Zoma mused, “Who is rich? One who is happy with their portion…” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Portion. It feels like my ovaries, vitally important organs for living the life I want, are being cut into a smaller portion. Could I be happy with that? Or, to use an important distinction we explored in class, could I be satisfied with it?

In class, I raised a question that had already been on my mind, seemingly unrelated to the medical update I was still freshly processing: How should we navigate the tension between environmentalism and the part of minimalism that encourages us to offload items we’re not using? I’ve happily given away many things I’m not using, which feels positive and practical. But what if, a few years from now, my life has changed and I do need that kitchen appliance I gave away? Maybe I should have kept the original to avoid contributing to environmentally destructive mass production.

I know that my ovary is not the same as a discarded Instant Pot (though both make good eggs). Plus, only the Instant Pot allowed me the choice to keep or discard. But in some ways, it was never about the kitchen appliance. It was about asking: What will my life look like in a year, in two years, in five? Will I have the family I dream of? Will this medical journey feel like a distant memory? Or will I be sitting in a fertility specialist’s office, analyzing how one day in 2022 changed my life forever? Will I be there alone or with the partner I still hope is out there for me?

I don’t expect a rabbi, Jewish text or midrash to answer these questions for me. Such resources do, however, give me more scaffolding to hold onto as I become more patient with not knowing all the answers just yet. Guidance shows up in truly unexpected places; even a discussion of minimalism can be surprisingly comforting. As I wrap my mind around losing this physical piece of myself, I hold the bitter with the sweet, the knowledge that as I lose something of tremendous value, I will value the one — or the portion — left behind even more dearly.

Again, the class I was part of on that particular day dealt with material things, not my body. And yet, as we examined Jewish concepts of making room for faith, not being able to make sure every possible need is met and finding satisfaction in what we already have, I felt my hand gravitate to rest over where my right ovary lives. I listened to the class discuss a passage from The Shelah’s “Sha’ar Ha’Otiyot” that cites the story of King Solomon praying, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but provide me with my portion of daily bread” (Proverbs 30:8).

That word again, portion. As sad and even angry as I am to lose this ovary, I felt my focus shift in that moment to the healthy one that I will keep, the one that suddenly becomes all the more precious to me. It’s quite possible (if not likely) that it is all that I need to have the healthy pregnancy and child that I so deeply hope remains in my future. I can’t tell Ben Zoma that I’m happy with this portion quite yet; that feels a bridge too far. But I am learning to be satisfied with it.

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