Women cannot win.
If we have children, we are criticized about the way we raise them, how many of them we have and who they turn out to be. If we don’t have them, we are pathologized, essentialized and told that we don’t know what we want. Most insidious, I think, is when these painful attacks comes from other women. In her recent Sisterhood piece, “Why Being ‘Childless by Choice’ Often Reflects Jewish Disengagement,” Debra Nussbaum Cohen contemplates the ability of Jewish women who elect not to have children to be active members of Jewish communities.
For me, this piece zeroes in one of my worst fears as a Jewish woman who has made the choice not to have children — the accusation that because of a very personal choice that I have made, my Jewish commitment will never be sufficient. This is what we do to each other, Jews, we compete with one another to be “enough”: religious enough, Zionist enough, and in this case, to have enough children, or any.
By targeting women who are childless by choice, we are letting men off the hook, and creating a rigid binary where women are responsible for nurturing family and Jewish values, and men for learning and supporting the Jewish home. The result of this is a Jewish community that is incapable of tolerating varied gender roles, family structures and, ultimately, change.
Judaism at its core is dynamic and pluralistic, and can actually accommodate various decisions and circumstances that face us as a modern people. A powerful example is found in the “From the Expert” section of The Wedding Yentas, a website for Jewish brides. In the ketubot category, artist Rachel Deitsch discusses adapting the wedding contract to fit the wishes of the couple. “For instance, one of my popular texts refers to future children. Some couples know that this is not their plan and I’m happy to remove the sentence — no worries.”
If we are really serious about imagining a Jewish future, we must be able to re-envision the Jewish family, and not limit ourselves to what exists in the communities where we feel the most comfortable. We should not target those who make choices outside of the realm of our understanding if our goal is to secure the commitment of a new (and current) generation of Jews. When Nussbaum Cohen references “those who, through annihilation or assimilation, would see the Jewish people winnowed away to nothing,” she might also consider the consequences we face when we criticize the way others live their Jewish lives and values.