The Conspiracy

Children are Good for the Jews

There is a wonderful story about a village whose residents wanted to present their feudal lord with a gift: a full barrel of whiskey.  There would be a grand celebration on the lord’s birthday, when the mayor of the town would present the gift accompanied by choir and song. To spread the cost of the whiskey, each villager was asked to contribute one cup to the barrel. One enterprising villager decided that he would add water instead, thinking that no one would notice.  On the day of the festival, this villager put in his “cup of whiskey,” confident that he had saved himself money and trouble. Unfortunately, everyone noticed when the lord tasted from the barrel. The nobleman was disgusted by the gift. Everyone had had the same idea and the barrel was filled with water.

Debra Nussbaum-Cohen’s recent piece, asserting that child-free Jewish women do not engage in Judaism, reminds me of this story. Her rebuke is also painful to me. I am single, have no children and don’t know if I want them. My dreams of world travel and sleep-filled nights do not work with children, and I am still shellshocked after babysitting my beloved niece and nephew for three days. Furthermore, I understand the bloggers who said that they are child-free because it’s more “green” and that the “world is overpopulated enough,” stating those as Jewish values.

There are other Jewish values as well, though–more important ones–and having a good reason to do something can still mean that what you do is problematic. While the world’s population  has skyrocketed, Jewish population has not. Seventy years ago, our growth was stunted by the Holocaust and our numbers haven’t recovered. According to Harold Damerow, a historian at Union College, the world Jewish population in 1939 was 16,648,000.  In 1989, three years after my birth, the Jewish population was 13,276,300.   According to the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, we’re currently at 12.9 million. We have had negative population growth.

While many of Nussbaum-Cohen’s critics talk of their commitment to Jewish education and community, there is little point to their endeavors if there are fewer Jewish children.  No one should be forced to have children if they do not want them, but they should not cloak the choice as pro-Jewish. Judaism is an ethno-religious culture that thrives when passed down from parent to child and from teacher to student. Take away the children and the students and you come to a dead end.

Nussbaum-Cohen is right. Judaism needs more children. I am the product of four Holocaust survivors who made the ultimate act of defiance against Hitler by choosing to reproduce and perpetuate what the Nazis tried to eradicate.  My niece and nephew may be a shrieking handful, but they are the next generation of Judaism.  They will continue when their parents are gone and will hopefully pass on the traditions to their own children.

There are excellent reasons to not have children and I don’t condemn any family’s choice.  Yet, we cannot say that choosing to be child-free is an attitude positive to Judaism. Rather, it’s just adding water to the whiskey.


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5 Older Responses to “Children are Good for the Jews”

  1. David A.M. Wilensky
    August 11, 2010 at 9:38 am #

    I found her post extremely wrong-headed and full of lunatic leaps of logic. The biggest offender is this gem: She knows that Jewish women who choose to remain childless must be less Jewishly engaged because all of the Jewishly engaged women she knows that are childless are not childless by choice.

  2. Elke Weiss
    August 11, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    I never said her piece is well written, but her point is correct. I’m staying by a family right now who have three children, and nine grandchildren. Should they continue (they have one single daughter and one daughter who has only been married five years) they could produce up to eighteen or twenty grandchildren. Should each of those children produce three children, that’s sixty Jewish children, all from two people. That’s a big asset to Judaism. Her examples may be flawed, but her point is sound.

    We need more Jewish children.

  3. David A.M. Wilensky
    August 11, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    No argument from me there. But to judge someone’s Jewishness based on how many children they have seems off to me.

  4. Debra Nussbaum Cohen
    August 12, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    hi Elke – thanks for cross-posting this Sisterhood post, which proved far more controversial than I ever expected.

    Wilensky, I’m not judging someone’s jewishness based on the number of their children – I’m surprised to find you making such a baseless leap, for that is not what I wrote.

    For those who are married/partnered (a distinction I frankly neglected to make in the original post but should have), choosing to be childless is often a relfection of Jewish dis-engagement.

    That’s it.

    Elke, thanks again.


  5. David A.M. Wilensky
    August 12, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

    “That’s it”? I object to a quantity claim being made (the word “often” here identifies this as such) without numbers to support.

    You acknowledge that childless Jewishly engaged women exist, but marginalize them in the post.

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