I met the Pater before he became a book. An elderly man in rumpled ultra-Orthodox garb who walked with a shuffle, he came once or twice from his Bnei Brak home to the old Jerusalem Post building in Romema looking for his son, Elliot Jager, editorial writer and my former long-time office mate. They disappeared into another room to study a page of Talmud, perhaps to discuss the Torah portion for that week – secular matters were of no interest to his father, Elliot told me.
Once he called on the phone when Elliot was abroad; my Yiddish was on a level with his Hebrew, and the conversation was short.
Elliot and I have maintained our friendship since I left my job at the Post, and I know him pretty well. Or so I thought.
But on that day a couple of years ago when he invited me to tea, I should have remembered that, to paraphrase the old saying, “There’s nowt so surprising as folk.”
And the surprise was substantial. Elliot, who, despite his approachability I had always felt to be an essentially private, even reserved individual, told me he was about to write a book that would be something like a “layer cake.” It would include his own personal story – his father had abandoned him twice when he was a child; his inability as a married man to have children; an examination of Judaism’s seemingly harsh attitude to male childlessness, and interviews with several childless men from a variety of backgrounds. Would I agree to edit the book? The subject-matter sounded fascinating and we had always worked well together, so it didn’t take me long to say yes. But it took a while longer to get my head around the fact that my discreet and self-contained friend, wellpracticed in drawing the line between public and private in his own life, was ready to expose himself on such a singularly private, intimate matter as his childlessness.
THAT’S EXACTLY the mistake people make when they hear about The Pater – My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness, Elliot told me recently as we sat over coffee discussing the Jerusalem launch of his book set for next week.
“Everyone thinks that my childlessness is where I expose myself the most. But to me, that part of the book is the least private.”
He explained that everyone who knows him and his wife, Lisa, is aware that they aren’t “anti-baby,” as he puts it, “and that we must have tried to get pregnant, and assumed, therefore, that there had been some problem.”
There’s no shame in being childless, he asserts, “but people are embarrassed because they want to fit in with everyone else – and everyone else seems to be having children.”
I agree that tension exists between our urge to adhere to the norm and the fortitude to follow another path.
Elliot responds by saying he has become “the poster boy for childlessness. By illuminating the subject, I’ve taken the sting out of it for other men.”
ELLIOT’S POINT about “fitting in” in the matter of having children propelled me back some three decades when, prior to giving birth in Jerusalem’s old Misgav Ladach hospital, I shared a room with a kerchiefed young woman from one of the religious communities over the Green Line who was in the first trimester of pregnancy. We became friendly, as women do in such circumstances; she was expecting her fourth child.
Sadly, the prescribed hospital bed rest didn’t fix whatever had caused concern, and her pregnancy was pronounced no longer viable. She became very despondent – which was only natural – but then confided something to me that didn’t feel natural at all.
“Where I live, everyone has six or seven children,” she said. “Now we will have to move somewhere else.”
I couldn’t believe she was thinking of packing up her family and quitting her community on account of the “shame” of having only three children.
Perhaps her projection of her neighbors’ negative reaction stemmed from the volatile emotions of pregnancy; perhaps it didn’t, in which case it was her community’s narrow mindset that deserved the shame.
Had I been able to fast-forward some 30 years and then back, I might have comforted – or confronted – this woman with Elliot’s sensible prescription of “no shame”; in her case, for miscarrying when everyone knew the child had been wanted; hopefully for him- or herself, and not in order to make up some arbitrary “quota” of offspring. I might have added that inasmuch as shame existed, it lay in feeling any shame at all.
SO WHICH part of the book is the most private? “It’s the part about the Pater,” Elliot answered instantly. “That’s the most intimate thing – writing about what it was like to grow up without a father – as a child, as a bar-mitzva boy, as an adolescent – in New York.” How many people in his strictly Orthodox milieu knew about the Pater’s desertion? “Zero people.”
“In shul, when it was time for Yizkor [the memorial prayer for parents], I went out of synagogue along with everyone whose parents were both still alive. No one knew about the Pater. People couldn’t sum me up.”
Afterwards, I reflected that maybe this stubborn clinging to privacy is, in part, what makes the unlikely reconciliation between father and son, after a 30-year gap, so affecting. The new relationship – halting, fragile, yet important to each – is a lesson in generosity and the ability to let go of hurt.
‘THE SECOND most painful, and therefore private, part of the book for me was being on welfare,” Elliot said. “Everyone I knew was either lower middle class or “upper working class.”
They were all struggling – but we were in the pits. It was embarrassing. But no one on the outside knew. I always had clean clothes, and our apartment was clean.”
Maintenance of this brave public front was largely to the credit of Elliot’s resourceful and strong-willed mother, Yvette – who could merit a book of her own called The Mater. She kept their heads above water, often barely, in the dangerous neighborhood that was the Lower East Side of the 1960s and ‘70s. It was a matter of pride as well as of privacy.
SEVERAL FINE reviews of The Pater, including its considerable intellectual and philosophical underpinnings, have appeared, and this column is not intended as a review. But it’s worth pointing out that The Pater is not so much a single book as four or five compelling books in one – and that, to my mind, makes it a tour de force. What binds the different “layers” together is the aged Pater’s enduring obsession, his conviction that Elliot – himself now past middle age and failed IVF treatments notwithstanding – can still father a son via the intercession of miracle-making holy men.
I’VE ALWAYS felt an affinity with the Chinese notion that we have an “inside face” and an “outside face.”
And Elliot’s personal story – I’ve told him it is the stuff of movies – offers more than a moment or two of soulbaring.
Yet it turns out my original assessment of my friend wasn’t so far off the mark. As we left the coffee shop, he remarked: “People read The Pater and think I’m an ‘open book.’ They think they know me, and want to ask more. My answer is: ‘Everything I wanted to say on the issue is in the book, and everything that isn’t in the book is private.’”