A rabbi walks into a bar… and tells his birth story
Now is the perfect time to celebrate dudes, dads and their unique perspective on birth, doncha think? When I first published Cheers to Childbirth a decade ago, the men I interviewed couldn’t wait to tell me about their rite of passage. World champion boxer Danny Green punches people in the face for a living, but he had a tear in his eye when he spoke of the birth of his babies and the strength of their mother as she birthed them. In the latest edition, reality TV guy and author Osher Gunsberg, shared his hopelessness at a stalled labour then delight in a screaming baby covered in goo.
To celebrate 2020, the Year of the Curve Ball, I give you one of the coolest birth stories I have heard in a long time which has been added to the ever-growing collection called From Lads to Dads: birth stories by blokes. Happy Father’s Day punks.
Tzuri Avila is a rabbi at a synagogue in southern Sydney where he lives with his Australian-born wife and two children. He was born in Mexico, the eldest of eight children, whose parents had a dream to live in Israel. Living in the Promised Land was tougher than planned as a family of Spanish speakers in a country of Hebrew and so they eventually headed back to Mexico via Los Angeles with almost nothing. The generosity of strangers in the Jewish community of Los Angeles kept the Avila family there where Tzuri did the rest of his growing up. In the early 2000s, he arrived in Sydney to work as an Assistant Rabbi at the synagogue in Double Bay, the Jewish capital of Australia. His mother told Tzuri not to meet any girls and so he met Fiona, his future wife. “I am Shrek and she’s Fiona.” Tzuri is not only a rabbi. He’s also a mortgage broker – combining business and religion as tools for living life. Tzuri’s story of becoming a father is one of elation and then shattering realisation, followed by enormous community love and support and a sense of peace and joy that could never have been predicted.
Fiona and I married when she was 19 and I was 22. Mexican Jews have pretty cool weddings. We invited 100 guests and 200 showed up. Fiona and I had five years together before we had children so we essentially grew up together.
Our first child was born in San Deigo, where we started a business hiring Bentleys, Ferraris and Lamborghinis to the high net worth market there.
I had seen my mother pregnant for much of my childhood so that all seemed pretty straightforward and normal to me. When we had our first ultrasound the technician said, “Oh, you’re having a boy.” Then she left and the doctor came in and said, “Oh, you’re having a girl.” I said, “you know what, we’re back to square one here so let’s just not find out until the baby is born.”
Fiona wanted to do hypnobirthing but that was way too hippy for me. My wife is very good at educating me and so we did hypnobirthing.
Fiona went into labour on the Friday of Jewish New Year or Rosh Hashanah. Everyone goes to Synagogue that day. Even non-practising Jews go to Rosh Hashanah. I asked Fiona what I could do to help and she said, “just be quiet.” During that day there’s a service called the Blowing of the Shofar so with Fiona’s permission, I went to synagogue for this service but when I got back she was ready to go to the hospital.
Being a practising Jew, I had never in my whole life driven a car on the Sabbath. But you gotta do what you gotta do. The underlying principle of observing God’s commandments and living the Torah is that you do everything possible to conserve and extend life. So I drove. We took the Camry, not a Lamborghini. (Lamborghini’s are actually really uncomfortable.)
I had butterflies getting Fiona to the hospital. I was such a first-time dad. I hadn’t done a test run and completely missed the freeway exit and I was freaking out. The movie scene in my head either went really really well or terribly wrong.
It all worked out OK and once we were settled in our hospital room, a doula came in. She was part of a trial program at the hospital and she was from Sydney. She was an angel. We were so blessed to have her with us. She had cool smelling essential oils which helped Fiona focus.
My job became defending the birth plan. We didn’t want to be rushed into anything by the doctors. I made sure we were given all the time we needed to talk together and make decisions as labour progressed.
Things got intense and Fiona put in such effort to push out our little girl. It was so hard to see her work through that. Finally, our daughter was born but she was silent, purple and flat. In that moment I was scared shitless. It was really only a few seconds of concern but then she cried and it was all OK. The midwives put her straight on Fiona’s chest. Babies aren’t born super clean like they are in the movies.
We named her Shira Tikva which means song of hope. In September there is a portion of the Torah that we read called the Shira or song. Tikva is the Hebrew name of the generous elderly woman who gave my dad our first apartment in Los Angeles. She never had her own children and so our little girl was named in her memory.
Because Shira was born on the Sabbath, her birth remained a secret for a whole day. We don’t use telephones on the Sabbath and this was no emergency. It was wonderful. Fiona slept and I held Shira in my arms for the first entire night, listening to her little sounds. She’s ten now and maybe that’s why I still need to hold her in my arms when she goes to sleep.
Life with a baby as new parents was exhausting but we had a lot of wonderful family support.
Our second child was a little surprise baby we hadn’t planned. This time around, Fiona said she wanted to have our baby at home. “No way!” I said. “That just does not work for me. What if something goes wrong?” Fiona ‘expanded my wisdom’ again and had me meet the home birth professionals. We talked about contingency plans for what might happen until I was reassured.
We didn’t share with our friends that we were planning a homebirth. They were having their babies by c-section and medicated births with epidurals which is great for them but wasn’t for us.
Not long before the due date, Fiona said she wanted to have a water birth. “I’m thinking, how’s this going to work in a two-bedroom apartment?” I was sent off to buy the pool.
Fiona started labouring at three in the morning, so as soon as the day began I was setting up the pool with no clue what I was doing.
As Fiona laboured, she was so in control. She knew exactly how to birth our second baby. When it was time to get in the pool, she wanted me in there with her, so in I went and I held her as she laboured. Suddenly our son just came right out after one massive push. My gosh, it was so quick and smooth.
We named him Rafael Matisyahu. We call him Matis for short. Rafael means angel of healing and Matisyahu is his great grandfather’s name which means gift from God. Matis is a great leader in the story of Hanukkah.
Fiona was so relaxed. Matis was so peaceful, calm. Our home birth was such a different experience to the hospital birth. No beeping machines, no white hard surfaces, no people coming and going from our room. We all had a shower and then Fiona and Matis got into bed and went to sleep. It was so incredibly beautiful and calm.
A few days after he was born, Matis had serious jaundice and had to be admitted to hospital. This was so stressful for all of us. I was in tears and men never cry, right? Then the doctors mentioned the possibility of Down Syndrome and that more tests were needed over the weekend. But Matis looked fine. We were young and there was no family history at all.
A few agonising days later, the doctors confirmed that our boy had Down Syndrome. It felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. There was overwhelming pressure on my chest as the reality hit. I didn’t know whether to feel sad or angry. For nine months you prepare for a new baby and then it is suddenly all out the window. Jaundice was the least of our problems.
I called my boss, also a Rabbi, and he dropped everything he was doing and came and took me for a drink. We sat in his car and I bawled my eyes out. Men do actually cry. That was a powerful turning point as I felt a shift for me as the support gathered around us.
We invited all my siblings and my parents to our house and introduced them to Matis all in one go. I had a big smile on my face and said, “This is our amazing baby and he has Down Syndrome. I don’t know what that really means for us, but he is ours.” I made a commitment to embrace whatever this would be with a smile on my face, together as a family. Matis’ diagnosis really made me step up as a man, a husband and a father.
The diagnosis felt like a shattering moment at the time but we soon learned that he would do great things. He goes to a mainstream school where everyone knows him and he has constant requests for hugs and high fives. Matis is capable of so many things. He’s reading and writing, and swimming. His EQ is enormous. This kid can read a room so quickly.
We are fortunate that our beautiful boy was born into a generation where he is given the opportunity to live life like every other child. He is offered the same opportunities. The whole family is blessed to have Matis in our lives.
My son Matis has taught us all how to live in the moment. He is the gift we all needed.
As told to Lucy Bloom, September 2020
Read more birth stories like Tzuri’s in From Lads to Dads: birth stories by Blokes complied by Lucy Bloom, 2020
Read also Cheers to Childbirth: a dad’s guide to childbirth support by Lucy Bloom, 2020