Sisterhood Blog

If You Must Be Fruitful and Multiply, a Sister Wife Sounds Appealing

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images
A Times Square billboard for HBO’s ‘Big Love’

Leah Berkenwald discussed how the reality show “Sister Wives” has joined HBO’s fictional “Big Love” in shining the spotlight on polygamous lifestyles, and in raising interesting questions about our ideas about marriage, monogamy and religion.

Her conclusion? “I came to realize that my problem with “Sister Wives” is not a problem with the family itself (they are actually quite likeable people), nor is it a problem with alternate polyamorous lifestyles. What I do have a problem with is religious fundamentalism and its adherence to biblical notions of marriage and paternalism. And that applies to Jewish fundamentalists as well.”

Probably because because I’m the harried mother of three, but when I watch portrayals of these strictly religious, patriarchal, and fundamentalist Mormons I’m thinking less about the sex and more about the kids. And, of course, I’m thinking about the Jews.

In addition to hard-core religion and patriarchy, when it comes to having children, ultra-Orthodox Jews and the polygamist Mormon fringe have an identical philosophy — they believe that more is more. The difference is that, unlike their Biblical forefathers, even the most Orthodox Jews believe in one wife at a time. Being fruitful and multiplying to one womb per family.

While it’s fun and entertaining — and titillating — to focus on the sexual hijinks of the televised Mormon families, one of the main goals of the polygamous exercise is for every man to maximize his procreation potential – the real purpose of having multiple wives is having a the biggest possible brood as possible.

When I compare the two, I think that if a woman is going to belong to a restrictive and patriarchal religion that believes in maximizing childbirth, and lays all responsibility of raising children and caring for the home on the woman - polygamy seems like the way to go.

When I drive the streets of certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, I stare with fascinated horror at many of the women, who to me, look pale, exhausted, and broken-down at a very young age, after spending their entire adult lives either pregnant and nursing, while overwhelmed with a Sisyphean load of household responsibility — often under severe financial strain since their husband is encouraged to put Torah study first, and making a living second.

The 2005 documentary “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” which profiles Haredi women in the U.S. and Israel (all of whom have more than 10 children), graphically demonstrated how shockingly oppressive the burden of so many children can be in such a restrictive society. Some of the women profiled in the documentary literally did not sleep; the care, feeding and laundry of their household would not allow them the luxury of non-waking hours.

I contrast this with the Mormon polygamist sects where — since the birthing burden is shared among many — the women can limit themselves to having two, three or six children, and can leave the house to run an errand or hold down a full-time job with no child-care worries. In polygamous families, there are often designated “career moms,” who bring home the bacon while one or two or three of the others keep the home fires burning. They don’t have to worry about finding a babysitter or tensely juggling schedules with their husband. If one Mom isn’t available, there’s always another.

Currently, nearly 60% of Israeli Haredim live below the poverty line. One can’t help but think that they might be better off without the rabbinic and legal restrictions against Bible-style polygamy, giving them multiple breadwinners for so many hungry mouths to feed.

Yes, indeed, sharing a husband looks like a serious bummer. So if the choice was Mea Shearim — caring for 10 or 12 or 16 children on my own — or a polygamous pocket of Utah, I think I’d have go with the fundamentalist Mormons. In the context of patriarchal oppression, polygamy may be the best path to a modicum of freedom.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sister Wives, Polygamy, Haredim

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.