The members of Jewish Artists Collective Chicago write about our stories, struggles, experiences, and musings, and how they inspire us to create contemporary Jewish art.

Sefer Hana

Art and Text by Ellen Holtzblatt

It begins in the depths of intimacy - our experiences, emotions, and physicality - which colors our perceptions, choices, and actions. Sometimes we behave unconsciously, reaching into different life directions in order to control, mask, or distract from our motivating factors. But other times we live our lives like a package that is in a state of being unwrapped – kind of like a joke present that is enclosed in ever-smaller nesting boxes or innumerable sheets of tissue paper. We remove the layers, thinking that eventually we will find the prize hidden inside, only to discover even more layers.

Twenty-seven years ago I was living in Woodstock, Illinois. One fall day, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I was at the McHenry County Jewish Congregation preparing the newsletter for mailing – folding, stamping, and sorting a few hundred Xeroxed sheets of paper. My three year old daughter, Maya, was with me. I was about 8 weeks pregnant – not far enough along for my pregnancy to be obvious to anyone who looked at me.

I had a miscarriage that day. As I sat on a metal examining table a few hours later, a doctor said that it was “for the best” because the baby probably would have been defective. There were no words of comfort and condolence when I waited in a hospital room in the maternity ward, or as I was being strapped down before my D & C.

But I did not lose the baby in the hospital. I lost that baby in a synagogue, just a few days before Yom Kippur. I called the doctor in a panic from the office phone. Except for Maya, I was alone in the building, which was not unusual. At that time the only paid staff was the Rabbi. My doctor told me to go directly to the hospital, that there was no point in coming to see her because I had already miscarried.

When I was pregnant with Maya I was overwhelmed by how many women wanted to tell me their birth stories. Likewise, after my miscarriage so many women told me about their own miscarriages – some raw with emotion and some distant and blurry.

For the past twenty years I have been fortunate to chant the Haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashana. I love this Haftarah. Most of the narrative belongs to Hana. She is lost in the desire to carry and give birth to a child. Instead, each month she experiences death, as her body flows out the potential for life. Before each of my own pregnancies I felt strong physical urges to have a baby. Every time I saw a pregnant woman or an infant my belly would tug at my psyche. This was not a rational decision. My feelings lured me into what felt like a purely creative process.

In Shmuel I, Hana becomes so depressed by her unfulfilled desire for a child that she stops eating and drinking. She loses her desire to live. It is only the desperate and soulful plea from her husband that breaks through her darkness and grieving. This enables her to take action, and she prays from her heart.

I am always moved by this story, but this year was different. As I was chanting the familiar words, my internally-bound package opened another layer to reveal Hana and Elkanah’s pain; I wept with them.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I walked home after services, sat on a comfy blue chair, and felt my inner package blow open to reveal another layer. I had never realized before that moment the relationship between this Haftarah, this narrative of sadness and longing and loss and love and birth, and the being of my second daughter, Hana – the timing of the miscarriage and Hana’s birth, which happened one year after my miscarriage and three days past Yom Kippur. Either unconsciously or coincidentally, Hana is named for both the loss of my second child and the blessing of my third. Indeed, her middle name, Shai, means “gift” in Hebrew. This time of year is literally about life and death: the flooding of my womb with blood and destruction, and the birth of Hana. 

Ellen Holtzblatt, Sefer Hana, artist book: woodcuts on Japanese paper

8" x 9.25" closed, 8" x 144" open

To Hana, there were no children.

God closed her womb.

In her wretchedness, she prayed to God, weeping all the while.

She vowed a vow.

Hana spoke with her heart.

Hana conceived and bore a son. She named him Shmuel, meaning, "I asked God for him."