Books: Grappling with childlessness

In a poignant new book, Jerusalem writer Elliot Jager comes to grips with not having children.

The author with his mother and father in 1956 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The author with his mother and father in 1956
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Given the emphasis Judaism places on having children, how does a Jewish man cope with being childless? That’s the difficult subject of Elliot Jager’s new book, The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness. But in his own straightforward, elegant and often humorous style of writing, Jager succeeds in making the book easy to read. His intellectual and emotional honesty shine through the pages as he tells his own story, and that of others, in his quest to understand the purpose of a life without children.
“This book is a personal and spiritual journey,” he writes in the Prologue. “It’s about my relationship with my father and mother, my relationship with my Father ‘Who Art in Heaven,’ and it’s about the meaning of life without children.”
The New York-born Jager, a former Jerusalem Post editorial page editor and journalist who lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Lisa, unravels the taboo issue of Jewish childlessness on a number of levels, almost like a talmudic scholar. The Jagers try everything they can to have a child, but in vain. And all the while, Elliot – an only child – has been rebuilding ties with his own, estranged, hassidic father.
“The Pater,” as he incongruously refers to him in Latin, abandoned his then eight-year-old son and wife in a tough New York neighborhood in the 1960s to go to live in Israel.
A survivor of the Holocaust, “the Pater” started a new family in Bnei Brak.
When reunited with his father, Jager works to overcome his sense of betrayal and anger in a reconciliation process that is not helped by the Pater never missing an opportunity to badger him – out of the best of intentions – to have a son of his own.
“Why, after a 30-year-plus gap, I consented to meet the Pater during a 1994 visit to Israel is something I cannot say for sure,” he writes. “Curiosity was part of it, and maybe I wanted to show him that I had more than survived without him.”
In his ongoing effort to come to terms with his childlessness and at the same time achieve a reconciliation of sorts with his father, Jager talks to other men who haven’t managed to have children – single, married, straight and gay – and examines childlessness from a multitude of perspectives.
One of them, a retired teacher named Raymond Schwartz, strikes a chord when he says, “Anyway, you get to a stage in your life and you say, ‘What’s it all been for, really? What do I leave behind?’ So, yes, I have regrets about not having children.
Oh, absolutely!” Jager probes the issue of childlessness intellectually, spiritually and emotionally, through his own lens and through the eyes of others.
“When I decided to write a book about coming to grips with childlessness, one of the first people I told was Saul Singer, who had been a colleague and mentor of mine at The Jerusalem Post and later wrote the best-seller Start-Up Nation,” he writes.
“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘I’d always assumed you and Lisa had made a decision not to have kids.’ Followed by, ‘The dilemma of childlessness forces a person – and not just a Jewish person – to consider the very meaning of life.’” Jager grapples with such questions as, “What is the purpose of life if you don’t leave anything behind biologically?” And he poses the question to a number of people he respects, including Rabbi Joseph Isaac Lifshitz, a philosopher at Jerusalem’s Shalem College.
“Plainly, the most primitive, physical way of being productive is procreation,” Lifshitz tells him. “But there are other ways.”
One way, according to Lifshitz, is Jager’s decision to write a book on the subject.
Lifshitz suggests that “writing a book can be something greater; or teaching, or enhancing spirituality and understanding of the religion. These are no less meritorious than having children.”
Ultimately, Jager reaches a kind of acceptance, both with his childlessness and his father.
He is no longer irritated by, or dismissive of, his elderly father’s predictable blessing in Yiddish, “You should be blessed with a baby boy.”
He and the Pater, he says, have finally become comfortable spending time together.
“The truth is that although there is a void in my life, my life is not empty,” he says candidly. “Far from it. I consider myself a pretty fortunate fellow, blessed with a loving partner, a support network of good friends who are like family, and an extended family – some of whom are even friends.”
Jager concludes, stealing a leaf from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, that every childless man is alone in his own childlessness, which each endures in his own way.
As he himself notes, although this book may be rooted in a lament, it also includes heartening and wise ideas he picked up along the way.
“On this journey I have worked on forgiving myself for being childless, and my father for being absent when I was a child. The sweetest revenge is forgiveness. It is also the best balm.”
The Pater must have been very painful to write. But it’s an unexpected pleasure to read. I highly recommend it.