Index: Conception, Middle Pregnancy, Labor and Delivery, and Early Infancy
Wear a red bendel, a red string around your wrist, or a yad necklace, which depicts an open hand. These are thought to have kabbalistic, or mystical, powers to ward off evil spirits and encourage fertility. Jews from a range of observance levels may also wear these objects whenever an important life event happens, or simply in daily life for the benefits they are thought to bring.
Undertake a tzedakah, or charity project, to mark the occasion of your trying to conceive. This can signify that as you ask God to bless you with a child, you are also working to do good deeds in the world to honor God. In many Jewish communities, this type of activity is undertaken any time a significant life event is approaching, or any time a person is making an especially important request of God. Visit the kevarim, or gravesites, of holy people and pray there for successful conception. The most sacred of these sites is Kever Rachel, the grave of the biblical matriarch Rachel, in Israel. The book of Genesis tells how Rachel said in desperation, "Give me children, otherwise I am dead." After a long period of infertility (during which Rachel is thought to have tried an herb called dudaim, which was thought to aid in conception), "God heeded her and opened her womb," and she gave birth to Joseph. Jews of all stripes may do this, but it is more common in observant communities.
Ask a kallah, or bride, to daven, or pray, under her wedding canopy for your fertility. This is usually done only in ultra-orthodox communities, although it is also seen in other types of communities. Among Ashkenazi Jews (Jews who trace their ancestry to northern Europe), tradition holds that nothing should be purchased or prepared for the baby until he or she arrives, so as not to attract the attention of evil spirits. One tradition of Sephardic Jews (Jews who trace their lineage to Spain and Portugal) is to celebrate a first pregnancy with a kortadura de fashadura, or "cutting of the swaddling clothes." Held during the fifth month of pregnancy, this custom involves a party featuring a ceremonial cutting of cloth to make the baby's first outfit. At the moment the cut is made (usually by a relative), the pregnant woman throws white sugared almonds onto the cloth--symbol of a sweet future for her unborn child. To find out more about this and other traditions, read "A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth" by Michele Klein. Recite Psalm 20, which begins "In my distress I cry to the Lord" and has long been associated with childbirth in Jewish tradition. So has verse 5 of Psalm 118: "Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free."
Follow the ultra-Orthodox custom and pray for your childless friends while you are in labor, believing that God will view as righteous one who pleads for others during her own travails. Have a brit milah (also known as a bris), the best known of Jewish infancy rites. Performed either in a synagogue or at home, this ceremony is traditionally held on the eighth day after a son's birth and includes blessings, prayers, a naming ceremony, and the boy's circumcision. The latter is performed by a mohel (pronounced "moyel"), who is specially trained and certified to conduct this ancient ritual. Traditionally, girls are given a simple naming ritual, called brit habat, in the synagogue. However, a more complex ceremony for daughters, called a simchat bat, is growing in popularity and may include many liturgical elements of the brit milah, such as prayers and songs, as well as naming. This ceremony is usually performed on the eighth or 15th day after birth, in either the home or the synagogue. (For sample ceremonies, see "Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter," by Debra Nussbaum Cohen.) Shalom Zachor, meaning "the peace to the male," is held on the first Friday evening following the birth of a son. Prayers and songs precede a festive meal featuring chickpeas, whose circular shape symbolizes life's continuity.
Consider planting a tree to mark the event of your child's birth--cedar for a son, pine or cypress for a daughter. Traditionally, the wood for a couple's chuppah (wedding canopy) came from the two trees planted when they were born. The al-wafaa is a traditional Yemenite Jewish women's celebration marking the mother's successful birthing of her baby. In the evening on the 30th day following delivery, the woman's female relatives and friends gather to celebrate the survival of both mother and infant. Cakes, roasted nuts and legumes, and coffee and tea are served. Each guest brings food and a gift, and sings and dances before the mother and baby, often to the accompaniment of a tarbuqah (hand drum). Read more about this and other ceremonies in "A Ceremonies Sampler: New Rites, Celebrations and Observances of Jewish Women," edited by Elizabeth Resnick Levine. If this child is your first, consider holding a Pidyon Ha-Ben, or "Redemption of the Firstborn," on the 30th day after birth. This ritual involves paying money to a kohen, someone descended from the ancient priesthood, who then gives the money to charity. Mostly performed by Orthodox and Conservative families, this ceremony ritualistically "redeems" the child from priestly service. Traditionally, this ritual was done only for a firstborn male not born by cesarean section, but some couples are performing it for a firstborn child regardless of gender.