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Why I Envy Supersized Jewish Families

I read this week on Failed Messiah, a blog by Shmarya Rosenberg, about Mrs. Rachel Krishevsky, a haredi woman in Jerusalem who passed away a week before Rosh Hashana at age 99, and left at least 1,400 descendants.

This blessed woman passed away at home surrounded by some of the many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren produced by a marriage that began over 80 years ago.

On the one hand, I can’t imagine getting married (or having any of my children marry) at age 18, to a cousin, as she did.

On the other, I feel a faint twang of something like envy for her prolific fecundity.

I feel so grateful to have three (thank you God) healthy, delicious children. But part of me has wanted more.

I think it’s great when we have large families. The more Jews in this world, the better, for both the Jewish people and the world. It’s also the best answer we can offer to the countless branches withering on the family tree because so many of our sisters and brothers don’t realize what a gift it is to be Jewish.

After my mother died, almost eight years ago, I felt an enormous desire to have another child and continue her name. But we didn’t feel we had the room, or the money, for a larger family, and so, with some sadness, I put that desire aside.

Mrs. Krishevsky raised her family right next to Jerusalem’s open-air market, Machane Yehudah. I’d venture a guess that she lived in a simple apartment and raised her 11 children in just a few bedrooms, where they bunked together and made do with no real private space.

Again on the one hand, I think that that’s great, in theory, because it puts values ahead of material possessions.

But on the other, I’ve seen very large families in my own extended, haredi family, where kids get lost in the shuffle of their hectic homes because parents simply don’t have time or resources to closely attend to the emotional needs of each of their children. In those very large haredi families the oldest daughter (even if she has brothers ahead of her) invariably serves without choice as “mini-mommy,” attending to the many needs of her youngest siblings. She doesn’t have much time to enjoy the pleasures of girlhood – daydreaming, playing – herself, because she is busy wiping noses and tying little ones’ shoes.

This is not a life I’d want for my daughters.

What’s more, children in haredi school systems often do not get much of an education in secular subjects. A few years ago, when New York City started grading its schools, even the non-public ones, one of the tabloid papers ran a big story on the schools that scored best on measures like reading (English) and math, and those which scored worst. It was horrible to see that something like five or six of the worst-performing schools in the city, by those measures, were yeshivas. I thought it shameful for “The People of the Book” to be producing children unable to read.

This would never work for me.

Surely Mrs. Krishevsky, with 11 children and at least 150 grandchildren, didn’t have much time to call her own or explore whatever personal gifts for much aside from mothering that she may have had. But one grandchild said in the article about her, that her door was always open to the homeless and poor who congregate near Machane Yehudah. I have enormous admiration for Mrs. Krishevsky, who sounds as if she was a truly righteous woman.

But I confess that I cannot live as simply as my haredi friends and family do. I feel unable to put my priorities in the order they do. I need a room of my own.

And, while I definitely see shortcomings that often come with the haredi lifestyle, I also appreciate its richness.

Part of me wishes that I were strong enough, selfless enough, spiritually expansive enough, to live by those values myself.

Then the other part remembers that I like being able to work in a profession that is more internally satisfying than it is remunerative (any job I’d take as a haredi wife and mother would have to be focused on earning money rather than personal satisfaction). And that I like to watch “Sex and the City” reruns.

So, as we start a new year and mark, Jewish tradition tells us, the birth-day of the world, I want to pay tribute to Mrs. Krishevsky, who I hope this year is enjoying Rosh Hashana dinner with God — and not serving it.

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