Meditation on childlessness

Elliot Jager wrestles with how to find meaning in a life without children.

Elliot Jager and his parents Yvette and Anschel in 1956 (photo credit: COURTESY ELLIOT JAGER)
Elliot Jager and his parents Yvette and Anschel in 1956
ELLIOT JAGER’S new book, “The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness,” goes beyond the traditional memoir.
Skillfully balancing commentary on his personal situation with reflections on theology, history, psychology and society, Jager, an American-born Israeli journalist (he is a Senior Editor at The Jerusalem Report), political scientist, and author, invites you to look deep into his head and heart, even as he takes you on a journey to explore a serious issue that has been ignored by mainstream Jewish institutions and viewed judgmentally by individuals.
Reading “The Pater” awakens a slew of feelings, ranging from helplessness to indignation to hope: Helplessness, because the book doesn’t offer any deus ex machina solution to Jager’s childlessness; indignation at a long-standing Jewish tradition that stigmatizes childless couples, especially men, and hope because, in the end, he leaves us with the fruits of his labor: a book that’s well worth reading and discussing.
The Pater is Jager’s nickname for his absent-but-impossible-to-escape Hasidic father (the name is inspired by the British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”). He abandoned the author and his mother when Jager was only eight years old, but keeps seeking ways back into his son’s life over the years, continuing to exert a powerful influence well into the author’s adulthood.
The book describes how the father continually harps on Jager’s childlessness, entreating him to pray and recite Psalms that God may bless him with a son in his old age, much the same as God blessed the biblical patriarchs.
I was born into an observant family, and I, too, was raised on the same stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives – Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.
I also loved the story of Elkanah and Hannah, whose childlessness was the dramatic turning point in the opening chapters of Samuel I. I fell into a similar “traditional” trap, which taught me that infertility could be reversed by prayer and good deeds.
The biblical stories with their happy endings convinced me that the same reward awaits everyone else. But “The Pater” tells a different story, reminding us that prayers aren’t always answered, or, if they are, the answer is “No.”
“The Pater” isn’t apologetic, nor does it attempt to knock down tradition with anti-religious polemic. For the reader who doesn’t have a traditional Jewish background, the book provides insight into some of traditional Judaism’s (and Jewish society’s) prevailing prejudices against infertility and especially the childless man.
Even in the Bible, as Jager points out, there are no explicit stories of male infertility. Childlessness is attributed to the woman, not the man (Abraham has Ishmael as a result of his union with Hagar, while Sarah remains childless.
Jacob has 10 sons from his wife, Leah, and his two concubines, none from his favorite, Rachel). But while the akara or barren woman (the Hebrew word literally means uprooted) evokes pity, she is still included in Jewish social and religious rituals.
The akar or childless male (in this case, as Jager writes, “uprooted from life and the World to Come”) is kept on the periphery of communal Jewish observance – not quite outside the camp but certainly not a full member, because, lacking children, he is not whole. Certain rituals, such as leading services, are prohibited. And, finally, he has no one to say “Kaddish,” on his behalf, since, as he notes, “I have no siblings and no children and I dismiss the idea of paying someone to say Kaddish.”
This is the book’s central torment that Jager underscores when he quotes from the Talmud, “A man who is childless is accounted as dead.”
This is the tradition he grew up with as a child in New York’s Orthodox Lower East Side, and on which he turned his back many years ago. But I think it would be more accurate to say that this is the tradition that turned its back on him and others like him.
This is the paradigm of which “The Pater” makes us painfully aware, and makes us equally aware how necessary it is to question it.
It does so by taking us beyond this personal struggle with faith and the judgmental commentaries to see how other men, and their partners, without children view their Jewish identity. He interweaves their stories with his, setting it all against the backdrop of his strained relationship with a father who abandoned him as a child.
With “The Pater,” Jager creates an ironic psychological counterpoint that ties the entire book together – in effect, balancing the stories of men who can’t have children against the backdrop of a man who had a son but chose not to parent him.
Jager gives us an intimate look into the lives of such couples as Erez and Donna, religious Jews who, in his words, left “no spiritual stone unturned” as they tried to conceive, from challah bakes to regular recitations of Psalms, to praying at Rachel’s tomb and who see their infertility as a test from God. (And when they finally manage to conceive, he leaves us sharing his own sense of doubt and frustration even as he offers them his blessing that “everything should go well.”) We also meet Benny, a filmmaker, who says he is childless “part by planning, part by grand design,” as he and his wife try to conceive through IVF after having his vasectomy reversed; and Rafi, a gay university professor who finds his fulfillment in teaching. His interviews not only put his personal childlessness in a social context but make us painfully aware of how much more we need to do to update the traditional Talmudic view of what defines a Jewish man and a Jewish family.
Jager chronicles his journey into and across the mosaic of Jewish societies, from New York’s Lower East Side to the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, from psalm-reciting devout Jews to atheists, from the halls of secular academia to the epicenter of the global Chabad community in Crown Heights, where Lubavitcher Hasidim wrestle with the messianic implications of the fact that their late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, left no children to inherit his mantle.
Jager’s personal life journey is a tour through the world of Jewish experience, and with “The Pater” he demonstrates his abilities as a highly skilled guide, taking it all in without taking sides.
And hovering behind this journey, indeed the core of the book, is the presence of the Pater himself. The Pater abandons his family, only to reinsert himself into his son’s life, chronically obsessed with his “Kaddish” and desperately seeking reconciliation and closure.
The Pater’s comments about his son’s lack of children, the demands he makes of him, are emotionally painful and difficult.
Yet, to Jager’s credit as a writer, he describes his encounters honestly and objectively, sharing his feelings without mawkishness. The Pater’s recurrent presence and the pain it causes his son makes us wonder if, in fact, it’s sometimes better not to have children than to have them and hurt them.
But don’t get me wrong. “The Pater” is not a depressing book. It is written in a factual, journalistic style, heartfelt without being overly sentimental. Jager pulls no punches in describing his infertility and his frustrations.
It’s a rare gift to be able to tell a tale so personal yet so objectively, and still evoke feelings.
Rabbi Joseph Isaac Lifshitz of Jerusalem’s Shalem College, whom we meet in the book’s last chapter, tells the author that “procreation is not the only production that a person can do.”
That is the power of “The Pater.” With “The Pater,” Jager leaves us a legacy – a “Yad Vashem better than sons and daughters” – a reason for us to look outside our comfort zone, to understand those who don’t fit our idea of the standard model and to welcome them into our community and our lives.