In the olden days, Jewish offspring were begat by their fathers, seemingly without intervention by women. The Bible is full of begotten children.
For the most part, the Bible has only two reproductive narratives: long lines of uninterrupted male begetting and women suffering from infertility. Women seemed to have all sorts of trouble having babies, while men were stalwart procreators. Thank goodness for our biblical men; they kept the Jewish people going almost all by themselves.
But that was then. Today, reproduction has allegedly become an entirely female responsibility. It’s the women who are begetting, and if there aren’t enough Jewish babies, well, then it must be the women’s fault.
Such is the logic now being put forth by, among others, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Wertheimer, who may very well be the seminary’s next chancellor, recently expressed annoyance with contemporary Jewish women for not producing enough babies. Apparently we Jewish women are causing the problem by either refusing to marry because we like our careers too much, by marrying but refusing to have children because we like our careers too much, or by marrying but having only one child because we like our careers too much.
The implicit assumption in this argument is that Jewish men are begging to marry us and we are saying no. And when they do marry us, they want to have children and again we say no.
Now, think about it. Does anyone actually know any people like this? Are Jewish men asking us to stay home and are we, in turn, refusing? Are we turning down all these marriage and motherhood proposals? Are we keeping our wombs to ourselves despite all the Jewish guys who want to beget with us?
Why is it that women are always blamed for the lack of Jewish babies? Because women are blamed for most Jewish problems.
In case you haven’t lived on this planet, even Jewish women who find a Jewish guy who will marry them and stay home on the “Wertheimer track” are likely to have gone to college. After all, we are the people of the book, for both girls and boys.
If a Jewish woman has had a good education — and 80% of young Jewish people attend one of the top 100 colleges or universities in the United States —becoming a “Wertheimer mom” does not bring her actual kudos. That’s because her choice, while admirable to some, is condemnable to others.
By dropping out to stay home, she is supposedly wasting her education. She is contributing to brain drain, because she has unfairly taken someone else’s place in graduate school if she doesn’t use her training. Anyone who thought that this old accusation is dead has only to look at a recent New York Times article that practically gloated over the fact that some young women, at Yale no less, want to have babies rather than balance sheets. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Wertheimer tells us he can’t figure out what kind of Jewish woman a Jewish man wants: “Is it true,” he asks, “that Jewish men do not want to marry someone who reminds them of their mother?… Might it be the reverse — that Jewish men want to marry someone more like their mother than the typical young Jewish woman of today, and that gentile women happen to fit the bill?” So, are we gals supposed to be like our mothers or not? Are we supposed to be gentile versions of our mothers?
If you’re Jewish and female and young, you are blamed if you have a career and blamed if you don’t. Blamed for Jewish men not marrying you, and blamed for dating non-Jewish men. Blamed for being like your mother and blamed for not being like her. Blamed for having children by yourself and depriving them of a “normal” family life, and blamed if you remain single and childless. Give me a blame break.
The one person who seems to have gotten it right is demographer David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. He wrote recently, “Men marry too late from the point of view of women, especially educated men. It leaves more women single, or marrying beyond the age of childbirth.” His data show that “men wait longer than women to marry in every state.” Men, according his study, actually have a role in determining whether a woman begets.
Instead of reading yet another report on why we Jewish women are to blame for our people’s dwindling numbers, I’d like to come across an article with a headline like, “New study of college men finds they want to balance work and family, and seek early marriages to women who want same.” Or hear breaking news that Jewish men, committed to their faith and no longer in love with their careers, are marrying Jewish women at a young age.
Or — dare I imagine — read about Jewish communities throughout the United States offering free child care and free day school education, in order to enable Jewish couples to afford larger families. Now that would change the beget story considerably.
Shulamit Reinharz, a sociology professor, is founder of Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.