The room was hot. I fought to keep my eyes closed, focus on the words being spoken, and not pass out. The Patriarch of my church was praying over me, his hands pressed into my head. My thoughts went in and out of consciousness as I struggled with controlling my bodily sensations while also listening to the drone of words that I was taught to believe came from the mouth of God himself.
When the Patriarch placed the oil on my scalp and his hands on top of the oil, he was no longer speaking of his own volition but instead speaking the sacred words of Christ to me. Words that Christ had only for my ears. We weren’t allowed to discuss our blessing with the other teenagers waiting their turn for a “Patriarchal Blessing.” I wonder, now, whether we would all find the exact same points and phrases in each other’s blessings.
I half listened as the Patriarch spoke about my duty, honor and privilege to become a “Mother in Israel.” But not the literal Israel, as in a place and people in the Middle East. Or even the nation of Israel, as in converting to Judaism. No, he meant the Israel of “true” believers. Those from our specific church who were deemed worthy to be welcomed into the lost tribes, the true tribes, of the sons of Jacob, Israel, from the Old Testament.
I thought about the paradox of not being in any way related to anyone Palestinian, or Israeli, or Jewish, yet suddenly becoming anointed as a descendant of the tribes of Israel. Because of this anointing, I had a special calling. A calling that meant my body was not my own. Repeated over and over in different words, I heard the requirement of becoming a Mother. It was my blessing to be fruitful and bear children to my husband.
It all seemed very noble and honorable. The only problem is, I wasn’t given the choice. In the days and months after my blessing at the age of fifteen, I grappled with conflicting thoughts about it. There were times when I thought that my doubts about my blessing were a result of the “enemy” – Satan – trying to lure me away from the truth. And then other times when I began to listen to my inner most gut. My gut said, “There is something deeply wrong with this.”
My conflict continued in my girl’s Youth Sunday School. They engrained in us toxic lessons that would stay with me the rest of my life.
Keep yourself covered. Your skin is a temptation to the boys.
Your body is for child-bearing. Don’t show any pleasure or enjoyment of it.
If you touch yourself, you must confess to the bishop and be cleansed.
Only date boys in the true church, who have been anointed as Men in Israel with their Patriarchal blessing. If you have sex before marriage, God will no longer bless you, your marriage, or your children. Following the requirements placed on your body is the only way to fulfill your calling to become a Mother in Israel.
And if these boys falter in their way, if they get tempted to get too physical, then you, as the girl, as the woman, must guide them back to the light. For the woman’s flesh is sinful. But, apparently, the man’s flesh is not.
I was required to wear clothes that covered my shoulders and knees, high-necked tops that didn’t show cleavage, and skirts that touched the floor when I knelt down.
Through my teenage years, it was drilled into me that my body was not my own. That my body was for bearing children only. And sex was for child bearing only. If a boy wanted to have sex with me and gave into temptation, it was my fault. And within marriage, sex was only on the occasion to get pregnant. No connection, no pleasure, no birth control. Just bear children to the “true” kingdom of Israel.
I left that church at age seventeen. But I didn’t leave the shame of my body behind me. For another two decades I struggled with the belief that by body was sinful. In my thirties, I tattooed my shoulder so that I could have pride in wearing clothes that showed my arms.
Finally, I had children of my own. When I held my daughter in my arms I realized the lies I had grown up to believe. How could a body so beautiful, so precious, be sinful? How could I believe that my flesh, as a woman, was bad?
I don’t have all the answers now, and every now and again the old thoughts of my body being ‘bad’ haunt me. But I know I will not be perpetuating this lie to my daughter. I left that church and those false beliefs behind me, along with the false “Mother in Israel” I was supposed to be. I get to be my own mother now.