Hasidic Women Feel Pressure for Children, But Fathers Fret About Providing

No Easy Way for Observant Dads To Limit Family Size

A Father’s Burden: The ultra-Orthodox population in Brooklyn has skyrocketed in recent years because of large families.
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A Father’s Burden: The ultra-Orthodox population in Brooklyn has skyrocketed in recent years because of large families.

By Shulem Deen

Published March 22, 2013.
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I remember speaking to my rabbis and mentors about this. They offered thoughtful advice on whether it was time to give up full-time study at the kolel and begin my career as a supermarket cashier, or running deliveries for the fish market.

Some thought there might be openings for schoolteachers at the cheder, and while I was probably too young for a full-time position, I could do substituting jobs for several years and if I stuck around long enough, I could probably have a full time position before the arrival of our sixth child or so.

The one thing that no one mentioned: birth control. I didn’t know the thing even existed.

Once, back when my then-wife and I were expecting our first child, I overheard an acquaintance say that in Boro Park — a comparatively liberal Hasidic community in Brooklyn — people had fewer children than in other places. Eight instead of 12, the person said. I was baffled, but too embarrassed to ask the question burning in my mind: How do they do it?

Eventually I learned about birth control the way I learned about most of life: on the Internet.

Even then, it was still not an option. I quickly learned that yes, birth control existed, but no, it was not permitted. Or permitted only under special circumstances. Or permitted only by certain rabbis, and our rabbi was not one of them.

I was ready to disregard the prohibition, to “cut out the middleman,” as the saying goes, and use contraceptives without rabbinic permission. My wife, however, wouldn’t hear of it.

We are accustomed these days to hearing of Hasidic women facing a lack of choices, reproductive choices being one of the most significant. We have deep reservoirs of cultural sympathy for such women, as well we should. But we hear less about the lack of choice available to Hasidic men, which can be similarly devastating — not just to the men themselves, but to their entire families. And in some cases, it comes with a twist that turns the usual narrative on its head.

After three children, I decided it was the responsible thing to take a break. My wife — pious, strong-willed, and obedient to the rabbis and tradition to a fault — would not consider any form of birth control without rabbinic permission. Since our rabbi wouldn’t permit it, any rabbi who would was, ipso facto, not a good enough rabbi.


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