Renaissance woman

Today the National Childbirth Education Center has been dissolved, but in its heyday people like Blumfield did important work.

Wendy Blumfield (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Wendy Blumfield
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
If being a renaissance woman can be defined as someone who has mastered diverse disciplines, then Wendy Blumfield certainly qualifies for the title.
She has just passed on the torch of poetry lovers in Israel, having been president of Voices Israel – the association of poetry aficionados here – for the last four years.
A keen poet, she has published a volume of her own verse, but perhaps her even stronger claim to fame is as the co-founder of the National Childbirth Education Center in Israel, which, for over 40 years, has been providing moral and practical support to new mothers.
“It was a big battle in the beginning,” recalls Blumfield, who made aliya in 1974 from England. “Israel was 15 years behind in birth-related ideas.”
Giving birth was an experience strictly for the woman alone.
“It was revolutionary in those days to suggest the husband be at the birth or even give the woman a choice as to where she would have the baby,” recalls Blumfield. “There was a fear men would be put off, but in fact we showed how being at the birth helped the husband bond, both with his wife and the baby.”
Blumfield was born in London and visited Israel twice as a young woman, once during her gap year, during which she worked on a kibbutz, and later when she came with a youth movement.
She met her husband, David, married, and worked in publishing in England, starting out as an editorial assistant. She also began her freelance writer career at about the same time. When they married, she and David had to move out of London and live in the English countryside.
“It was in the early days of computers and the work in which my husband specialized was all outside London in those days,” she recalls.
Her four children were born within a space of four-and-a-half years, so she was too busy being a mother to do anything else. The family lived in Fleet, Hampshire, a nature resort and sleepy town 56 kilometers from London, but somehow managed to lead a Jewish life.
“The nearest synagogue was in Reading 20 miles [32 km.] away,” she remembers. “The children went to heder [Hebrew school] every Sunday and I used to have kosher meat sent down from London on the train.”
Life was good with plenty of friends and social life, but Israel beckoned.
“My eldest son was 10 and we decided it was now or never, before any of the children started high school,” she says.
Job-wise, aliya was not going to be a problem.
“Israel was at the beginning of hi-tech and David’s specific computer skills were very much in demand, just after the Yom Kippur War,” she says.
They packed up and sold off or gave away all the things they thought they would not need in Israel – carpets, lamps and other household effects.
“I thought everything was too bourgeois for Israel, but when I got here I discovered that Israel is more bourgeois than Fleet!” she laughs.
The family went to the absorption center in Atlit, and Wendy started ulpan while David began work, as he knew the language already. The children were registered in the local school.
“It wasn’t at all what I expected,” she recalls. “It felt like a holiday camp being by the sea where we went every evening after lessons.”
She says she picked up the language well enough to argue in the supermarket and in school.
Today the National Childbirth Education Center has been dissolved, but in its heyday people like Blumfield did important work, lobbying to encourage breast-feeding in the hospitals and training other educators to carry on with their work, giving postnatal support to new mothers.
“A few of us had a vision,” she says, “but the younger generation aren’t interested.”
However, she still lectures to students at the Technion and does private counseling. But her other love, poetry, is still going strong.
“When I first came to Haifa I met Reuven Rose, who founded Voices Israel,” she says. “In those days there were groups only in the big cities – we used to meet once a month, read our poems and critique each other.”
When Rose died, “a competition was set up in his memory and more groups were established all over the country,” she says. “Some of our poets are wonderful and have won competitions all over the world.”
After four years, she has passed the banner on to Susan Olsburgh, the new president of Voices Israel.
“There’s a limit how long you can do something like that,” she feels. “One begins to run out of ideas, so I felt the time had come to give the job to someone else.”
But she still has plenty to occupy her time.
“I’m an active grandmother,” she says, and she firmly believes it’s important to keep busy.
As for settling in Israel all those years ago, she has no regrets.
“We might have been better off financially if we had stayed in England, but we wouldn’t have had such a varied and interesting life,” she says.