The story is told of an Orthodox man who stepped onto a bus in Jerusalem, eight children in tow. The bus driver, frustrated by all the chaos, barked out at him, “Why didn’t you just leave half your kids at home?” The man paused and then answered, “I did.”
It may seem that the Orthodox have been blessed with high fertility since time immemorial, but, at least in America, this has not always been the case. The latest National Jewish Population Survey data shows that although Orthodox women in their 40s have, on average, double the number of children of their Reform and Conservative counterparts, Jewish women older than 60 have fairly similar family sizes in all three denominations.
This presents a conundrum: Why are both Modern and ultra-Orthodox women who have one or two siblings choosing to have four, six or eight children of their own? And why are they doing so in an era in which all other Jewish women are having fewer children than their mothers?
Interviews with a range of Orthodox women around the world point to a number of possible explanations. Today, not only are Orthodox women more observant than their counterparts in other branches of Judaism, but they also are more observant than their own mothers. This “frumming out” of the younger generation expressed itself in many different ways, but chief among them is raising more children.
Mothers in the yeshiva world told me that they believe a woman’s role is to have “baby after baby,” just like their husbands’ role is to learn “page after page of Gemara.” In a novel adaptation of the term used for service in the Temple in Jerusalem, some women said that childbearing has become women’s avodah, their “spiritual work.” “The more [children] you have, the more your avodah; the more your ego is challenged, the more you’re forced to surrender,” explained Danielle Zucker, 39, a South African immigrant to the United States and a mother of five. For her, learning to parent a large clan is her service to God, and it makes her a better, more spiritually connected person.
Some emphasize the growing social and economic stability of the American Orthodox community as a catalyst for the Orthodox baby boom. After World War II, American Orthodoxy was made up in good part by Holocaust survivors and immigrants who were, in Leah Fine’s words, “mentally, physically, emotionally” weakened by their experiences. Fine, 42, who has lived all her life in Brooklyn, explains that although her mother only had five children, she herself had the “privilege” of raising 10 because “our parents gave us everything.”
Growing families today have grandparents to cushion them through rough times; those grandparents often did not have the same comfort when they were young. Becoming the founders of big, thriving families is a triumph for a generation of whom most have lived through some combination of depression, war and mass resettling. Their generosity means that their children can have, in the words of Keren Shahar, 37, who grew up in Manhattan, a “more laid-back attitude” about finances. She believes that in deciding to have her five children, there was less self-asking about “Can we provide for all of them?” She figures that her parents “could always help out.”
For some couples, the Holocaust is the touchstone in family-size decisions. “How did the third child come about in our family?” asked Kim Feldman, 35, of Cedarhurst, Long Island. “We wanted to do more than just the minimum in the obligation to procreate, also to replace some of what was lost, because my father is a survivor.” For Lynn Stein, a professor of psychology in her 50s, the Holocaust wasn’t a direct motivation to bear her 11 children. But as she said, having had lots of children gives her a “good feeling,” a means of “getting back at the people who did the genocide.”
The question of why more of the Orthodox have responded to the Holocaust by having “replacement” children than the other denominations is a complex one. Orthodoxy was particularly ravaged during World War II, losing all its centers of higher learning, hundreds of Hasidic courts and an entire way of life. Indeed, immediately after the war, American Jewish sociologists predicted that Orthodoxy would disappear. High fertility is a nay-say to both of these threats of imminent death, a reaction not directly relevant to the other denominations.
Backup is a critical linchpin in the Orthodox fertility story. Orthodox communities are geographically tight because members need to be able to walk to synagogue on the Sabbath. This means that a neighbor is more likely to be someone you know well and whose values you share. Women will speak of sharing maternity clothes, equipment and baby sitting with friends, and calling on them to pinch-hit a carpool ride to sports practice.
But the Orthodox community structure to support large families is stronger than these small gestures. After a new baby is born, the family of the newborn will receive meals for a week or two, and the mother may even be able to convalesce at no cost at a maternity “spa.” Such an institution runs year round in the Seagate area of Brooklyn. Women come for a week or two after childbirth to rest and bond with their babies without having to tend to the crowd at home, as well.
Tuition at Orthodox day schools is generally lower than at other denominations’ schools, and greater assistance is available to those who cannot afford to meet their educational obligations. An intricate web of gemachs — benevolent societies — provides everything from interest-free loans to job training to family counseling. An all-encompassing welfare net makes the Orthodox’s risk of bringing children into the world much less than that of the regular American Jewish family.
What of the future? Will the daughters of the dream continue to be inspired by the childbearing ideals that motivated their mothers? Rumblings of change are already in the air, as certain Modern Orthodox parents on Long Island are considering breaking a taboo and moving their children from Jewish day schools to public schools because of mounting tuition bills. Financial constraints are hitting first, but emotional ones are just as important. Zucker said she always fantasized about a big, warm Sabbath table, but she never imagined the bedlam on Sunday night! Another woman said she dreamed of having 10, a minyan, but she has found that “between the ideal and real… you have to have broad shoulders and rings under your eyes.” Will the children born of the Orthodox baby boom be prepared to sacrifice as their mothers did?
Everywhere, the message of the outside world seeps in: certainly into the Modern Orthodox enclaves, and even into the right wing. And the message is, only a family that has a couple of children can live a civilized life, as we define it today, with private schooling, extracurricular activities, camp, a year in Israel, college, weddings. Will the Orthodox be part of this civilization, or will they continue to live different kinds of lives — one clan alone crowding out a city bus — even if half of them remain at home?!
Viva Hammer works in the Office of Tax Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University.