Sisterhood Blog

Why I Envy Supersized Jewish Families

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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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.

Zissy Fried Mon. Sep 21, 2009

Happy New Years!

I am a 30-year-old chareidi mother of 5 children under the age of 9, who also moonlights as a freelance writer. I agree that any extreme is dangerous, and it smacks of cruelty to have little girls serve as the surrogate parent for their siblings because the mother is overwhelmed.

However, I feel compelled to respond to your innuendo that being a mother of multitudes precludes the pursuit of an "internally satisfying" job or life. Perhaps, if "serving" others all day long is viewed as a drudgery and denial of self, then this would indeed be so. However, the makeup of man is otherwise. The makeup of man is such that we thrive and find it "internally satisfying" to be on the giving end of the great journey called life. Yes, it's fun to play king or queen for a while, but then, like a prolonged vacation, the enjoyment dissipates and we yearn to turn subject once more. A google search of books and articles related to the enriching power of giving turns up an endless amount of data, and for good reason. I'm sure you've sometimes tapped into your little bubbles of goodness and felt the warm flow of giving spread deliciously throughout your psyche. To deny the satisfaction of being a giver is to deny simple reality.

What better place to learn to be a giver than within the structure of a family? It is within the family structure that we first learn to tools of the trade of life, isn't it? And what more beautiful place to learn to be a giver than within the family structure that often fails to provide the accolades of applause a mother truly deserves. That selfless giving, devoid of the string attachments of power and acknowledgment, provides self-satisfaction at its best.

So, to paraphrase the last line in your blog entry: Here's to Mrs. Krishevsky. If she ate dinner with G-d, I hope she had a chance to serve Him, even if only by waiting until He received His portion first. As Viktor Frankl so aptly noted, albeit in an unrelated topic, "One need not be a servant to be able to serve" (Man's Search for Meaning, Chapter 7).

the happy savta Tue. Sep 22, 2009

As a grateful mother of three,I appreciate Debra's comments. As a Savta to a hopefully growing haedi brood, I think Zissy's comments are right-on too. My haredi daughter-in-law certainly logged plenty of litlle mommy time, but she is well-read, has career ambitions that match her desire to help provide for her family and certainly enjoyed her teenage years with fun and dream time paraphrase Tolstoy, successful parents/ families are all the same in making children feel valued whether they are small, large or supersized!

Sarah Tue. Sep 22, 2009

The problem with looking at selfless giving as a path to true happiness/meaning is that not all of us experience it the same way. I think Debra's point - and one I relate to - is that it is possible to share those values in theory, but not feel fulfilled anyway. Few of us really are completely selfless beings. Indeed, if you think about giving as a means by which to achieve meaning and fulfillment, ultimately you are really serving yourself - even selflessness is rarely selfless. So why, Tanya, do you need to label Debra as selfish for her comments? Is everyone who is torn between different ideas and values and desires and needs, automatically "selfish" and that's all there is to it? Can we not be complex human beings? I love my two children, and hope, G-d willing, to have more. I enjoy taking care of them, and I am grateful (and humbled and terrified) for the opportunity to raise them. But I am not perfectly selfless. I get frustrated with the tantrums, grossed out by potty training, insane from lack of sleep. Do I need to devote myself to years and years of wiping noses and changing diapers and attempting to patiently diffuse tantrums and set proper limits and and and... in order to be a giving person, to not be "selfish"? Like Debra, I am a little wistful; part of me wishes I could be that person, with that single-minded devotion (and the energy) to care for x children and keep the house clean and inspire my children in Torah and follow the career of my heart's desire... But I know my limits, and try to do my best with them while admiring those who do more.

Esti Tue. Sep 22, 2009

As a chareidi mother of 8, I began reading this article eagerly. My anticipation was unfounded,however,as what I read was little more than a jealous woman trying to legitimize her own shortcomings. All women are created differently. Some have the emotional reserves and stamina to nurture multitudes, and others a precious few. There is nothing wrong with recognizing our individual limitations, whether they are because of our own unmet needs as children, physical abilities, talents, or personalitites. There is something very wrong, however, to generalize, the way Debra has, just to make oneself feel better. My oldest daughter (who is my third child) rarely "mommies" her siblings. When she does, it is because she wants to, not because she has been forced into servitude. She is given plenty of time and space to enjoy her childhood, while reaping the benefits of growing up together with sisters and brothers who are close enough in age to double as playmates. Parenting is a demanding career. Regardless of how many children one has, it is always a challenge to know the correct way to nurture, teach, and discipline. There are only children who do not receive enough attention and "quality time' with their parents, who are "lost in the shuffle" of their parents other interests. It can happen in any family, no matter the size. I agree with Debra, that the chareidi life she describes is not one that I'd want for my daughters. But neither would I want my daughter to be unable to "get her priorities in order" the way she claims she'd like. To feel herself unable to reach her spiritual goals, to put values ahead of material pleasures. To view "Sex and the City" reruns as an equal pleasure of the joy that each child brings into the world. I don't know why Debra assumes that Mrs. Krishevsky never had enough time for herself, or to the opportunity to explore her gifts. Perhaps, through mothering and nurturing so many souls, Mrs. Krishevksy discovered more depth, talent, and creativity within herself as she successfully wove together the many different threads of her life. None of us is perfect. We all need honest reflection and self awareness, to recognize our failings and set our goals for personal growth. One woman should never measure herself against the yardstick of another woman's life. That is a recipe for either self defeat, or judgmental stereotyping.

Jill Hamburg Coplan Wed. Sep 23, 2009

What a brilliant conversation. I applaud Debra, as always, for starting it.

Charnie Fri. Sep 25, 2009

In your article you said "What’s more, children in charedi 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", and wondered which paper this appeared in. I remember seeing a listing of reading scores for public and private schools, and the yeshivas and day schools were consistently near the top.

With regard to the article in general, it is one of the best I've read here. While I don't have a large family by charadei standards (due more to the fact that I married late then desire), each of my children is the most precious being on earth. While I enjoy my job, especially now that they are older, I don't regret for a moment the years I took off to be at home with them. After all, I'll never "shep nachas" from my employer!

Ruth Book Sun. Oct 4, 2009

It's great to have large families if the parents are willing and able to nurture every child with a full heart. We know nothing of the heredi womanin Jerusalem except that she had a lot of children. We know nothing of how she parented her children--maybe great, maybe horribly. Having lots of children is not the point. The point create a society in which parents can have the number of children they really want. And to set up social norms that accept women's choices to have or not-have children.

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