The Jewishly Engaged Childless by Choice Post

Just when I thought I could continue to live my life based on my own choices, I had to go and read a blog post. Whoops. Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s piece, “Why Being ‘Childless by Choice’ Often Reflects Jewish Disengagement,” featured in the Forward’s Sisterhood Blog on August 6th, actually includes the line, “I don’t know any Jewishly engaged woman who is childless by choice.”
Speaking as the alleged rare bird in this situation, a Jewishly engaged woman who does not plan to have children (that’s right-ever), I have some thoughts as to why Nussbaum Cohen may not know women like me.
Many mainstream Jewish settings claim to be welcoming of all kinds of folks. Some of them even mean it. Still, I have yet to encounter a space where I’ve felt safe enough to profess that my version of family looks drastically different than the one presented to me by the Jewish world at large.
The Jewish community has shut the door on women who choose not to have children. Where will we fit in? How will we become real Jewish women if we insist on listening to our instincts that say motherhood is not the right decision for us, instead of caving to institutional and/or biological pressure? What will we do with our empty lives? Nussbaum Cohen’s reminder to her readers that the Torah commands us to be fruitful and multiply is a prescription: women, have babies. Don’t look to contribute to the Jewish world through your intellect, your politics, your creativity, your passion for Jewish education, etc, because the only legitimate contribution is babies. Got it? Without babies, you don’t count.
Women who choose a life without children are regularly made to feel uncomfortable and guilty for our decision (or circumstances, depending on your reason for being childfree), in and out of the Jewish community. Being constantly contradicted and pathologized for failing to be the “right” kind of Jewish woman is exhausting, especially when it’s the result of our own authentic choices. Therefore, we’re driven to seek out alternative communities or build our own, rather than remain in these painful, narrow spaces.
So to Debra Nussbaum Cohen, I say, thanks for judging the level of Jewish commitment of myself and many other Jewish women whom you don’t know. As it turns out, I don’t so much want to be Jewishly engaged with you.

26 thoughts on “The Jewishly Engaged Childless by Choice Post

  1. Once upon a time there was a Christian sect called the Shakers (not Quakers) who believed that procreation was a bad thing. Oh and they made a certain style of furniture that’s quite popular among some collectors.
    Anyhow there only about 4 Shakers left, amazingly enough.
    Other than a few ‘mainstream’ Protestant sects I’m not sure that there are any religious groups that are welcoming to the intentionally childless.
    Of course the mainstream Protestant sects are falling in numbers, too.
    Hmmm, there seems to be a pattern here.
    Google “Yitta Schwartz”
    A Jewish group can welcome the intentionally childless and wind up like the Shakers.
    Or not.

  2. Dude. I totally want to be Jewishly engaged with you. Thanks for saying this – it’s so important! Why can’t we honor and respect the choices–ALL the choices–of women (and maybe even men) when it comes to reproduction?

  3. I watched a youtube video where Luke Ford is interviewing comedian Rabbi Rabbs, and Rabbs talks about how he is intentionally childless and this has kept from being able to be married by an Orthodox rabbi, even when he found someone who had a similar desire. I’d post a link if I knew where to find it now.

  4. I am both Jewishly engaged and unichilded, but reading DNC’s post made me either want to give my kid to some couple looking to prove their Jewcred or abandon my religion for some faithless good times.

  5. I wonder if part of her impression comes from the fact that many people only are involved in their Judaism when they have young kids. As a result, there are a lot of uninvolved people without children. But file this under correlation doesn’t equal causation.

  6. @Dave, I think the pattern is your own oversimplification of vastly disparate examples! Even if your goal is really the higher quantity of Jews, are you really ready to write off those of us who question natalism from your headcount? And by the way some us have kids and still think it is not the only way to be a Jew.

  7. I have no children, and I am purposefully vague when people ask me whether this is by design or misfortune. It makes me an interesting human Rorschach test. Some people will assume it’s infertility and offer pity, others will assume that it’s a choice and act superior. It is uncommon for anyone to drop the inquiry, taking the hint of my vagueness. It is rare for anyone to sincerely try to ascertain what I really mean, as one might expect of someone who would ask such a personal question to begin in the first place.
    Shmuel suggests the question I was thinking when I read this, and I’m feeling to lazy to chase down the answer right now. Are Jewish men choosing parenthood at higher rates than Jewish women are? Do we view a man without children differently than a woman who doesn’t have any?

  8. Dave, get a grip. I don’t think chaneld is saying that Jews should stop having children. If you reread the post real carefully you may be able to see that she’s advocating being welcoming to everyone. She’s also informing us that she doesn’t want babies. If your biological clock it ticking, Dave, I suggest you see to that, rather than being angry with others who don’t have that problem.
    Jen, I should hope men matter somewhere in a discussion of reproduction. That is, unless you’ve figured out meiosis and mitosis for yourself.
    MS, word. Because DNC doesn’t know any Jewishly engaged women hwo are childless by choice, there must not be any. It’s so clear!
    Ruth B, I don’t know, but I doubt that we look any better on a man with kids than on a woman with kids. I’m 21 and I feel like a loon when I tell my peers that I know for certain that I want to raise a kid. Or two. Or maybe just one. Or maybe two…

    1. DAMW writes:
      Jen, I should hope men matter somewhere in a discussion of reproduction. That is, unless you’ve figured out meiosis and mitosis for yourself.
      I think we’ve all figured out meiosis and mitosis for ourselves; fertilization is the part that’s harder to do on our own.

  9. DAMW– are you saying that the majority of your cohort of early-twenties Jews remains ambivalent about whether or not to have children?

  10. Ruth, I don’t think it’s a majority. And I also don’t see it as particularly peculiar to my Jewish peers. But I think my generation in general doesn’t want to talk about it at this stage, at the very least; are very ambivalent; or, at the very most, actively espouse their hopes for childlessness.

  11. If the childless ever feel the need to hang with children for a little while you are welcome to babysit my kids. I wish there was more help for working parents who constantly run from their job to their kids and back again without anytime left for themselves. Certainly I prefer to have this life with my children then without them but I admit to being very human and I/we could use more help. Someone without children could show up at my door lets say 1 PM on Shabbos afternoon, and if you have energy to run around after my children. Kol Hakavod. Come right in.

  12. Not to rain on the parade here, but the line used as the main violation against the choice of not having children and feminism is taken out of context.
    I don’t know any Jewishly engaged woman who is childless by choice. Perhaps it’s reflective just of my little corner of the Jewish world, but those I know who are childless are so not by choice but because of infertility. This is not to say that everyone who makes the choice not to have a child is Jewishly uninvolved.
    With all due respect to the choices made by anyone person or family, DNC’s opinion piece on the Sisterhood blog was about one family’s life and how they choose to live. Perhaps the open-mindedness that we all claim to ascribe to should also be applied to those with whom we disagree.

  13. agree DCC….many people who claim open -mindednees cab often be the most closed. unless of course its their cause

  14. @DCC, I think it is your quote that is out of context, DNC makes a show of granting the existence of such curious Jewishly engaged childless creatures exist and then goes on to utterly marginalize them.

  15. This is all about numbers, in the end, needing Jewish women to produce more Jewish children for the continuity of some vague Jewish enterprise (Zionism? The messianic era? Comedy Central?). For Jewish men, you know, they don’t pass on the hereditary Jewishness (well, okay, maybe in some circles they’re considered as doing so), so there isn’t the same type of pressure put on us.
    But I mean, in the coming age of biotechnology, the whole matrilineal Jewishness thing is going to run into some problems. Does matrilineal Jewishness require the ovum of a Jewish woman, or the uterus of a Jewish woman, or both? Some sources I’ve read seem to suggest “the Jewish soul” (whatever that means) is imparted during gestation, which would mean that a Jewish woman who used a non-Jewish surrogate, or an artificial uterus, would not then produce a Jewish child. And if you say it is the ovum, what about a Jewish woman who produces no ova, yet concieves through the use of an artificial ovum? Is the child then not Jewish?

  16. I have said this before, and I will say it again: I do not want to hear ONE MORE WORD from the established Jewish community about Jewish women having children until it gets its act together and starts helping out with quality, widely available, reasonably priced childcare. And I say this as a person who has a child and who works with children.

  17. I start with the hypothesis that just because someone is a published journalist, it doesn’t prove she’s smart. But I also point out to those childless-by-choice Jewish women that no one can make you feel guilty without your permission. And if anybody asks about it, the correct answer is MYOFB.

  18. The family unit is clearly of central importance in Judaism. We recite daily that we are to “impress our children” daily with the teachings and commandments. From Devarim through rabbinic writings, to have many children is to be blessed, and to have none is tzouris or worse. I can certainly understand those who are perplexed about people like me who haven’t created a family by having children. I understand, I can even forgive them when they insinuate that since I have no children, I am not qualified to be an officer of my congregation. But Larry, don’t underestimate the amount of love and resolve it takes to face that kind of insult from parts of your community.
    In BT Yevamot and elsewhere, it is made clear that women are not obligated to have children–men, however, are. It’s one argument you could use, if you felt the need to explain yourself, regarding being a “childfree” woman. I suppose, for those of us who believe now that men and women have similar religious obligations, we could either say that both sexes are obligated now, or that neither is. I confess I find it hard to argue the latter though…

  19. I never wanted children. Ever. Not as a catholic, not as a Conservative Jewish convert. Over the years of my life, I made it clear to those who think I was “selfish” over not having a child was saying : ” I have a temper, I throw things. You think I should have a child, just to see what happens?” That usually shut them up. Over the years, I now am far less likely to throw anything, and I don’t get all that angry anymore. BUT…
    No, I do want to watch YOUR children, I do not want to spend a day listening to married women discuss diapers, baby food and ” what little Gittel or Shloime did today”. Now all women are cut out to be mothers (and DON’T give me that ” it’s different wehn you have your own..stuff…it’s isn’t, and YOU KNOW IT!!)
    I stay out of being Jewishly involved because there is NOTHING to get ME or single women involved. If there is something that interests me, like the Bang it events, I go, I have fun. There are few events in my area that appeal to me. The last “Jewish Singles” event at my former shul was horrific!! No one there but widowed men in their 90’s!!
    Judaism will survive, in a more Orthodox form, because they marry, procreate and stay on the public dole (Kiryas Joel). Everyone else…?

  20. Ever since I had a baby, I have had no time to be Jewishly engaged. I think the last time I made a public bracha was at his bris. Damn.

  21. KRG I agree with you. But perhaps I should forget about blaming the whole Jewish community when there is such lack of support for those who provide child care in my own Conservative community. In my local Conservative synagogue the rabbi makes more than 6 figures. The cantor almost makes 6 figures. The teachers in the preschool make $10-12 an hour with no benefits. Full time care in the school is well over 10,000 a year per child. Membership is down in the shul. And debt is up. But the preschool has waitlists with parents hoping to get in because its a great school. And the only significant money maker in the shul is the preschool. And this is a shul in the movement that calls for others to adhere to the Heksher Tzedek but not themselves? Are there any conversations going on in Ravnet about this going on elsewhere? Are Conservative clergy laughing to the bank on the backs of a lot of line staff such as preschool teachers (99% of who are women) who do the real gritty work? If the only egalitarianism going on in Conservative Judaism is happening on the bima but not in the shul budget then why bother with Conservative Judaism?

  22. When DNC’s column ran in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, I (a childless-by-choice woman in her 50s) was in Israel as part of my rabbinical school program. I’m already a cantor, so you could say I’m Jewishly engaged. I wrote a scorching response to the Exponent, which it published.

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