I watched the glow of the fire flickering on his face as he took a sip of beer. The sky was cold and starry, and I pulled my hands into my coat sleeves to keep them warm.
We’d just spent more than a week together criss-crossing the Negev in a bus. Me, one of a group of nine journalists invited to adventure in the desert. Him, our charming Israeli tour guide. With shaggy hair, a close-cropped beard, and dusty, lace-up work boots, he was rugged and philosophical. Measured and witty. In short, he was the ideal gateway drug to my Jewish identity.
Our group was scattered around the site, huddled around campfires after a long day mountain biking into the interior of southern Israel. He and I had been chatting for a bit — and, in my case, sipping wine for a bit — when I ventured into fraught terrain.
“Do you and your girlfriend want kids?” I asked, bracing myself.
He stared into the flames, then looked at me with eyes like pools of ink. I took a deep breath.
“How can you know creation,” he asked, “if you don’t create?”
This was an existential gut-punch that I hadn’t expected. Forty at the time, single and childless, I was used to the land mines of reminders that I was unmoored, missing essential markers of successful adulthood. On Instagram, it was the photo of a faraway friend, 20 weeks pregnant and radiant. At parties, it was the couples who held hands, even while awkwardly balancing plates of hors d’oeuvres. In the water, it was a handsome young father with his chirpy toddler, pushing her into waves on a surfboard.
I had been prepared for standard self-comparison. But not for a deeper, spiritual case — a Jewish case — for parenthood.
Before I’d even set foot in Israel, the prospect of motherhood was, for me, already contested, anguished territory. It had become a race against a fast-closing window; a logistical equation of love, biology, and ambitions that all had to add up before my child-bearing opportunity had vanished.
Or not. As I crept deeper into my thirties, the march of time and gender became like a vice, slowly crushing external expectations that I couldn’t separate from my own and hurling me headlong into one disappointing fling after another. Biological drive tugged at my sleeve at every turn, no matter what my life actually looked like. It was during one particular flop of a romance, involving a nuclear physicist with a penchant for weed, that I decided to freeze my eggs.
Alone in my apartment late at night, I’d unwrap a new syringe and fill it with liquid hormones, double-checking amounts on a detailed chart. Next, I’d pull up my shirt, pick a spot, and plunge the needle’s contents into my stomach. As the weeks went on, my ovaries swelled ever-larger, becoming more tender by the week. I wasn’t walking then so much as waddling, each breath pushing my waistband painfully against my abdomen.
More painful, though, was what wasn’t visible. While I waited for my appointment, inevitably an expecting couple would arrive, hands intertwined. If they were in this office, their pregnancy was hard-won and their fragile hope was palpable. The male partner would hold the pregnant woman’s coffee as she’d settle into her seat and place a hand on her big belly.
I’d think about the man I was dating, who wasn’t there with me. I couldn’t imagine him holding a baby, much less putting down his joint long enough to change a diaper. Self-loathing would slither out from the deep as I’d wonder what, exactly, I was doing.
By the time we arrived at our desert campsite, it had been two years since the procedure. I had broken up with the physicist and begun to second-guess wanting kids. Maybe age had softened the sharp edges of biology’s injustice. Or maybe it was the mild comfort that, somewhere in Beverly Hills, my eggs were still sitting on ice.
But if I was beginning to find peace about my decidedly un-storybook path, this jaunt in the desert complicated things. I was in Israel to cover adventure sports, not religion. But religion, I soon learned, would confront me nonetheless.
Back home, I had long felt that Judaism was part religion and part cultural badge. After facing disapproval on both counts as a kid — yes, I was Jewish, but my mother was raised Catholic, and other families in our town frowned on us for not being “Jewish enough” — I preferred to keep my distance. In Israel, though, in my brief experience, Judaism felt less suffocating. Welcoming, even. There, Jewish stars appeared everywhere from bus doors to banks. They weren’t a sign of belief, per se, but of culture. For the first time, Judaism held out the possibility of being easy. Accepting. Something I didn’t have to prove.
I had only ever dated one Jewish man before, when I was in my twenties. I’d never considered whether that might be contributing to my difficulties in finding a good match. Living in Los Angeles, a town brimming with bachelor dreamers, adding yet another qualifier seemed daunting. Still, when I returned from Israel, I tentatively tested it out.
The first Jewish suitor I met was everything I thought I’d been missing: stable, a dad already, even a member of the local Reform temple. He was also, it turns out, newly separated and still pining for his wife. No, he wasn’t looking for a new one.
The second, I learned two sips into my Old Fashioned, was a Trump-voting right-winger. I pressed him on his politics and tried to imagine myself at Shabbat dinners at the home of his Orthodox sister. I like dinner parties, I thought. I then considered my low-cut shirt and bare arms, which delighted me, as did my political conviction. After our animated discussion, we parted ways.
The third, I thought, might be my last first date. A lawyer. A literature aficionado and a liberal. The pandemic had shut the world down, but I embraced our longer courtship. Six weeks into chatting, it was time for a socially distanced drink together. Nervous-excited, I did my hair and put on makeup for the first time since March. Thirty minutes before date-time, I got a text. He was having a panic attack, he said. He couldn’t go on a date with me, or anyone.
That was six months ago. Online dating, for me, is still very much in progress, with all the same glimmers of enjoyable, maybe-there’s-something-there banter and disappointing, dead-end how-R-Us. Any notions I bore about a new age of courtship, however, have since disappeared. If anything, the pandemic is a collective, existential pause button on the ability to make plans, romantic or otherwise — much less for biological and partnered motherhood.
Instead, I’ve focused on pursuing my career in new ways. No longer bouncing between airports and flings, I’m focused on building a life I love. There’s a documentary project with a dear friend, a dream I’ve carried forever. There’s surfing, which has long been a passion of mine. I don’t have to ask for anyone’s permission, or hand a baby off to be able to paddle out. And there’s praying: not Jewish prayers, per se, but a practice that has been especially grounding at a time when dining out can be a life-or-death decision, much less criss-crossing the globe.
In the Israeli desert that night, I drank in the cool air and big, purple sky and the smell of firewood as it popped and burned. I did want to know creation. Desperately. I had put myself through a long, lonely gauntlet just to have that chance.
Yet since that conversation, still vivid in shadows and firelight, it’s shifted slightly in the kaleidoscope of memory. With the world on hold and illness looming, each day, these days, is a kind of miracle. While my frozen eggs still lie in wait, I don’t anticipate having a child anytime soon. Creation, however, is still happening.
This article was made possible with the generous support of UJA-Federation of New York.