When the news broke Monday that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William, had gone into labor, it seemed that London could not have been more prepared.
For weeks, reporters and photographers had been camped out in front of the maternity ward at St. Mary’s Hospital. The choreography of how the royal baby’s name would be announced was well-known: A car would drive from the hospital to Buckingham Palace, where the new name would be posted on an easel.
Yes, some crucial elements were missing surrounding the world’s most highly anticipated birth since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had their twins in 2008.
Kate, now known as Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, and William had said they wanted the baby’s gender to be a surprise, so nobody knew whether to expect a prince or princess. Prince Charles, heir to the throne and the expectant grandfather, did not rush to the hospital’s Jewish-funded wing when the news came that Kate had gone into labor. Instead, he stuck to his planned schedule with a visit to the National Railway Museum in York.
It was a restraint that seemed, well, Jewish.
Like the royals, Jews traditionally have shunned pre-birth celebrations, and many stick to traditions in which they try to say and reveal as little as possible about their pregnancy until the baby’s arrival.
In the haredi Orthodox world, most women don’t even announce their pregnancies at all out of a reluctance to trumpet good news — for reasons of modesty and superstition.
“Jewish women feel conflicted because it’s incredibly helpful to prepare for the baby’s birth, but they still feel strange and think it will invite the evil eye if they celebrate their pregnancy,” says Deborah Kolben, editor of the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com. “When you try to talk about superstitions rationally they seem ridiculous, but it’s something that has been passed along and makes you feel like you have control over something when in reality you don’t.”
Some women wear amulets during pregnancy to stave off the evil eye, or “ayin hara.” In Jewish medieval mythology, the figure most threatening to a woman, Lilith, is notorious for strangling babies, robbing mothers of their children.
Jewish folklorist Howard Schwartz says the day his mother found out she was pregnant with him 69 years ago, she and her husband were planning a trip to the zoo. Her grandmother, hearing of the zoo excursion, warned her daughter not to look at the monkeys.
“Whatever you see before you’re pregnant can affect the baby,” she told her daughter, according to Schwartz.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, says the superstitions surrounding pregnancy and birth are not based in Jewish law and may even contravene them.
“As Jews, we are supposed to believe that God protects us, and sometimes these superstitious practices rely on forces other than God,” Lopatin said. “It’s almost in the category of magic.”
Historically, magic and superstitions were a way for expectant mothers to deal with the complicated, unpredictable and dangerous process of pregnancy.
While technology has eliminated some of those unknowns and dangers, pregnancy is still a fraught process, and superstitions have persisted, says Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University.
“Pregnancy superstitions remain a combination of fear of evil wishes and a very practical response to medical realities,” Fishman says.
Today, many Jewish women say superstitions have no place when it comes to pregnancy. Many plan full baby showers without concern about whether celebrating before the birth tempts fate. Others hold smaller celebrations, such as tea parties, that do not involve gifts.
Jewish educator Sarah Wilensky, a mother of two, said she did not want a baby shower when she was pregnant with her daughter, but her sister-in-law insisted on a party so she relented.
“But I told her no gifts for the baby — just casual brunch for friends and family — and that if people really wanted to bring gifts, maybe something small for me and my husband to enjoy while we were waiting for her arrival,” Wilensky said. “It ended up being lovely and I received many gifts.”
Connecticut-based Jewish blogger Cara Paiuk said she told her close friends and family immediately when she discovered she was pregnant with her first son. She did the same for her twins, who are nearly 3 months old.
“I firmly believe in sharing with your friends and family,” said Paiuk, who blogs for Kveller. “If, God forbid, something went wrong or was going wrong, it gives them the opportunity to love and support you rather than be in a vacuum where no one knows and you feel isolated and lonely.
“I had some complications with this pregnancy and I was very open about them. The community and friends rallied. They brought food, kept me company, looked after my son when I was in the hospital.”
Jordana Horn, a journalist, lawyer, blogger and mother of five, says she holds on to some superstitions.
“I would never buy things for the new baby before the baby was born and keep it in my house,” she said. “But I have five children, and I like to find out what the gender is when I can — in no small part to tell the older sister or brother what is coming to them. It’s fun to get excited.”