Dr. Chana Katan – the mother of 13 and grandmother of close to 40, ka”h – is a senior physician at the Shaare Zedek Hospital Fertility Clinic and teaches medical ethics and halacha at the Shlesinger Institute in Jerusalem.
She also runs a “College of Life” online on such topics as dating, marriage, pregnancy, and career enrichment, and writes for such publications as Pnima, Eishet, and the Asiya Journal. Among her books are Family Life: Current Questions in Medical-Religious Discourse, The Wedding Path, and A Woman’s Life: A Personal and Medical View.
The Jewish Press: How did a nice girl from the Lower East Side wind up in Israel?
Dr. Katan: My parents were ardent Zionists. Ever since I was a little girl in Stuyvesant Town, I heard that we were going to move to Eretz Yisrael. My parents didn’t purchase a house in New York or acquire more than the most basic furniture because we were always “in transit” on the way to the Promised Land.
When I was 14, my father, who was a school principal and the head of our kehillah, had a heart attack, and his physician told him he had to stop working. At the end of the year, shortly before the Yom Kippur War, we moved to Israel to a neighborhood in Ramat Aviv.
The apartment wasn’t ready yet, so we took up residence in a center for olim. Neither of my parents had work. We didn’t have a telephone or TV. When the war broke out, we didn’t know what was happening.
My father refused to accept money from the government of Israel, saying there were people who needed aid more than we did. The adjustment wasn’t easy, but my parents never complained. They both projected a great joy just from the fact that we had reached the Promised Land.
When my father passed away a few years later, and my mother had to raise eight children alone, she never regretted that we had moved across the globe to Israel. The opposite – she always thanked Hashem that he had brought us to our own Jewish homeland.
How did you become a doctor?
My parents pushed me to earn a degree that would enable me to help people and make a decent living. I chose to specialize in gynecology because there weren’t many dati women in the field.
What have you been hearing from your patients over these last three months?
One interesting theme is an added appreciation for Medinat Yisrael. There is no question that, medically, Israel’s government dealt with the emergency in a wise and efficient fashion – perhaps more successfully than any other country.
Sending soldiers to help stop the outbreak of the virus in Bnei Brak is one example. The supreme concern for human life and the welfare of the elderly is also worthy of praise.
And while other governments mixed economic and health factors, Israel made its initial vital decisions on the basis of public welfare alone. That gave people a sense of security that helped them abide by the strict regulations.
Cases of depression, stress, violence at home, and drug and alcohol abuse increased sharply around the world – much more so than in Israel where people had the feeling that their fate was in good hands, both medically and financially. Not that Israelis weren’t worried about the future, but the parent-like “we are in control” attitude of the government put people more at ease, helping them weather the storm.
What about in the sphere of religion?
I was astounded by the number of young women who wanted to talk with me about the laws of taharah. Before corona, no one gave these matters much thought, but suddenly, with all of the dos and don’ts surrounding hand washing, and what and whom you could touch, and how close you can approach someone, the subject of communal purity is no longer science fiction or taboo.
Also, it often happened that women telephoned me seeking guidance in any one of a dozen matters, and the conversation turned into a private workshop on humility and uncomplaining acceptance of the often exasperating situation of being at home with hyper-active kids and a husband who demands quiet and insists on being the boss.
For many women, the quarantine was time to work on their character traits and to discover creative talents they had never thought to develop, or for which they never had time.
You lecture widely to young women on the subject of dating. Did the lockdown put shidduchim on hold?
Yes and no. Actual meetings and going out on first dates didn’t happen a lot, but young people kept active via the Internet.
I know of couples before the pandemic who met via digital encounters and ended up getting happily married. On the other hand, finding one’s bashert via a virtual medium can be fraught with danger. Who knows if the fellow you are talking with on Zoom is the “real” person or just his Facebook or Instagram image he screens to the world?
Today, one of the problems young people face is that everyone is looking for perfection. With all of the choices orbiting in cyberspace, who can decide whom to choose? I agree with Rav Shlomo Aviner that if you enjoy a person’s company, and he or she has a reverence for Hashem and Torah, that’s reason enough to continue meeting with the steadfast faith that the creator of heaven and earth will bless the match.
Emunah is the main thing, and not the shape of a person’s nose or which exotic countries he or she has toured.
Did fertility treatments continue during the lockdown?
There was an order from the Israel Health Department to cease all fertility treatments. We didn’t know how the virus would influence the first three months of pregnancy or if it would cause more spontaneous abortions. There was also a suspicion that the virus could be transferred between reproductive cells.
But because of the public pressure from women older than 39 who worried that they might miss their opportunity, the stop order was cancelled. The pluses and minuses of this decision are still not clear. The couples had to sign a statement freeing the fertility institution of liability for any unwanted results.
Were pregnant women worried during this period?
Certainly. There were reports of early births, and there were concern about the birthing itself, about the need to wear a mask, how long could the mother stay in the hospital while the coronavirus was present, if the baby could be infected, and the possible need to separate the infant from the mother, who would then not be able to nurse the child, etc.
You recently began your own online clinic. Why?
Many women find it difficult to come to a doctor in person, which involves arranging a babysitter, finding a parking space, and waiting their turn in the office. The simple act of leaving one’s home under corona conditions can be very stressful. So for women seeking advice, speaking on the phone or via WhatsApp is much easier.
Also, for some women, it’s often easier to speak about intimate matters over the telephone rather than in person. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing.