Painfully Honest

 I was given Elliot Jager’s book, ‘The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness,’ as a gift, and must admit that it is not a book I would have chosen to read in the normal course of my reading experience.

This is a book that is full of pain. First of all, it is painfully honest. Second, it addresses an issue that is a major cause of pain – the fact that the author is unable to have children. The issue assumes additional prominence given the author’s Jewish roots and identity. This last is further aggravated by the writer’s ambivalent attitude to the orthodox Jewish observance with which he grew up and his intellectual and emotional departure from adherence to every minute feature of orthodox Judaism. And over and above all that is the fact that many years ago his ultra-orthodox father (the ‘Pater’ of the title) abandoned eight-year-old Elliot and his mother in New York and went to live in Israel.

I must admit that I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading this book. It is really unfair that most people seem to be able to beget children without so much as a second thought, and in many cases turn out to be unfit or inadequate parents. In this day and age many cases of infertility can be remedied by IVF, and the ‘tragedy’ of being childless averted. In the case of Elliot Jager and his wife, however, this was not the case.

Being unable to procreate raises many questions about God, Judaism and faith in general, and Elliot Jager goes into these subjects at great (some might say inordinate) length, while also interviewing other (mainly observant) Jewish men in a similar position, interspersing those segments with the account of his own experiences as an only child in a single-parent family and his feelings about his absent father. The story is complex, and after a period of thirty years in which there was no contact between the two, Elliot reached out to his aged father and was eventually reconciled with him to some extent.

That extent is limited by Elliot’s rejection of what he regards as his father’s irrational and superstitious version of fanatical adherence to every jot and tittle of Jewish observance, and he even goes so far as to mock it. But somehow their reconciliation also seems to give him some kind of consolation. In sum, the reader comes away with the sense that the author has achieved closure of a kind, or at least found a modicum of serenity and acceptance of his fate.

While, of course, I don’t envy him. i cannot help admiring his extensive research, wide-ranging knowledge on various allied subjects and his insuperable honesty in tackling subjects whether medical, Jewish or personal.