Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

American Jewish life is a tale of two cities. The Orthodox city is akin to one huge kindergarten, the liberal Jewish city to a moshav zekanim (an old age home). Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s getting close. I’ll give a few examples.

In an Orthodox Jewish world, especially in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, the birthrate is very high. It is not a rare occurrence for a pregnant mother, or a mother of an infant, to marry off her child. When a young Orthodox couple marries, it is very likely that one or both have unmarried siblings. After a few years of marriage and a few children, it is not unnatural for parents to begin thinking of their own children’s marriage. As they age, their own children and the children of all their siblings are marrying, only to be followed by another generation that before you turn around, is beginning to think of marriage. The upshot of all these babies and marriages is that the thought of shiduchim is never absent in traditional Jewish life. Someone or other just got married, is about to get married, looking to get married, hoping to get married, or divorced/widowed and dating again. Jane Austen, the great chronicler of the world of shiduchim would be in complete ecstasy had she grown up Orthodox. It’s Pride and Prejudice day in and day out. Because young children are so lovable, and because marriages are simchas (joyous occasions) their abundance gives Orthodox Jewish life the feel of a comedy in the classic sense that everything is going to end well.

When you look at the Orthodox Jewish community and you see the day schools and yeshivas opening up by the handful each year, it becomes apparent that there are many new young children each year that require education. Because of the growing demographics, the kolel and other rabbinical types have found it relatively easy to find employment. There’s almost an elastic demand for teachers at these schools. Since it is becoming increasingly difficult to find excellent yeshiva teachers, salaries are bid up accordingly. Once the birthrate levels off, and level off it will, and considering that yeshivas are like graduate schools that when going full blast tend to outstrip the demand for their services, Torah people over time are going to find it harder to land jobs in Jewish education. Meanwhile the Jewish education business is booming.

The second city is predominantly non-Orthodox, and almost 75% are living without children at home. According to the 2001 NJPS Survey and I quote” Among all Jewish households, 30% are comprised of a single adult living alone, 37% consist of two adults living with no children, and 7% are comprised of more than two adults with no children. Children (defined as age 17 or younger) reside in 26% of all Jewish households, in most cases with two adults. Approximately 3% of all Jewish households are composed of a single adult with one or more children.’’

The North Shore of Chicago, from Evanston all the way up to Lake Forest, is a Jewish place, so to speak. There are 125,000 Jews on the North Shore and many of them are congregated near the lake. If you drive up at night along Sheridan Road and look at the homes a significant percentage are dark. The reason they are dark is that there are either one or two people living in the homes, empty nesters and widows, not a child in sight. The entire area is what HEW calls “a naturally aging community.” People bought the houses when they were young and are waiting to be carried out. The homes are empty because the birthrates of the children are below replacement level. The kids marry in their thirties, have one or two kids, and intermarry at an astonishing rate, only to be followed by the next generation that repeats the process one more time. Despite the absolutely gorgeous homes, many of these communities have a gothic feel. Here we have left Jane Austin behind and entered the Bronte sisters world of ‘’Wuthering Heights’’ and the ‘madwoman in the attic‘. For example, I have never ever seen a couple with children walk in the streets of Kenilworth, the ritziest of the ritziest of these towns. Similar stories can be told about Jewish communities in Scottsdale, Palm Springs and many towns along the Florida coast, both on the Atlantic side and on the Gulf .

The differential birthrates of the two communities have other interesting effects on Jewish life. If you read the Jewish magazines aimed at the general Jewish population, there’s more than a fair amount of ads for assisted living communities, old-age homes, private nurses, and undertakers. Doctors love to advertise. There is a small army of people servicing older Jews. It’s just a fact of life. Liberal Jewish life has ultimately a more tragic feeling tone.

With a little optimism and hard work the trend in liberal Judaism can be reversed. I sincerely believe young liberal American Jews want larger families. For all sorts of reasons we need not discuss today they need to be told what to do. Here is a simple idea: Every year for the next ten years on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liberal rabbis should stand in front of their congregations and say the following in no uncertain terms: Every Jewish man and woman of childbearing age has a solemn religious duty to have at least three children or Judaism as we know it will disappear. The only exceptions are the health of the mother or child, infertility, dire poverty or mental illness. Anyone who puts personal careers or interests ahead of their duty is a shirker.

What are the chances of this ever happening?

13 Comments:

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Another meshugannah mommy said...

I'd disagree. I live on the North Shore in a liberal Jewish community (although not on Sheridan Road :) We have two children, and are one of the few families that have only two. Most of my children's friends have at least two or three siblings. This is in stark contrast with my childhood, where two kids per family was the norm. While it is certainly true that Orthodox familys tend to have more children, I would say the size of the liberal Jewish family is going up.

 
At 8:50 PM, Anonymous quietann said...

I think that in upper-income neighborhoods, where one parent (usually the dad) brings in a good salary, bigger families are not all that unusual. But for those of us out in the secular world, well, it's *expensive* out here and we're not so trained in the idea that "G-d will provide." So having one or two children is all most people can handle.

I think liberal Jews are also *much* more aware of the size of their footprint on the environment. My brother is a public school teacher and so is his wife; she'd love to have 4 kids but he's saying 2 (she's pregnant with their first). Even with extra income from her family investments, they really cannot afford more than 3, and my brother is very much an environmentalist -- very aware of how much is consumed by the average American child. He does not think that any couple should have more than 2 except in extenuating circumstances. Many liberal Jews would agree with him. Again, he lacks the "g-d will provide" attitude.

I have no children and my husband and I will not have any because of physical/mental health issues. I am "on the border" of people who make this decision; other women with Type 1 diabetes and dysthymia have children successfully, but there are many whose health is ruined in the process. Had I married a man who *really* wanted children, I would have been willing to try for *one* and no more.

I think liberal Jews also recognize that not everyone is cut out to be a good parent. I have certainly read enough sad accounts from young Orthodox kids whose parents really, really were not cut out to be parents but felt they had no choice.

 
At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

"If you read the Jewish magazines aimed at the general Jewish population, there’s more than a fair amount of ads for assisted living communities, old-age homes, private nurses, and undertakers. Doctors love to advertise. There is a small army of people servicing older Jews. It’s just a fact of life. Liberal Jewish life has ultimately a more tragic feeling tone."

I would also say that 1) perhaps on the average they have more longevity than some other populations, barring outside factors (though perhaps religious more than non-religious), the truly religious lifestyle (even if only partial) is healthier, saving people from vices and violence. 2) Another thing that can be explored is if assisted living, old age homes and the like are more prevalent among non-orthodox. I would assume so, but by how much ? Those things seem to have been making greater inroads among the orthodox of late.

 
At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are the chances? Less than none.

lawrence kaplan

 
At 3:05 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

another m.m….the current NJPS data provide no such solace. Perhaps the 2010 numbers will be more optimistic. I sure hope you are right.

Quietann…my heart goes out to you and the excruciatingly difficult choices you have faced.

The other reasons you describe as operative in liberal circles from income constraints to ecology to quality of parenting are internally good enough reasons but looked at from the outside seem more like rationalizing not doing one’s share. I would conjecture most do not care if the community became very small. They do not feel a personal responsibility to maintain liberal Judaism.

 
At 6:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

R. Elliot Dorff, a prominent Conservative rabbi from the east coast, has been banging the drum of procreation for people while still in grad/med/law school for decades -- he goes around to all the Camp Ramahs (talking to the staff!) and anyone else who will listen. I doubt it has had an appreciable effect. OTOH, the Conservative shul in my neighborhood does have a pretty decent-sized crowd of 30-somethings with 2-3 kids.

I think you need to address two of the biggest obstacles to having kids (at least from my liberal-intellectual space): 1) They suck a lot of time and energy away from personal growth/talmud torah/etc. -- potentially a major reason why Orthodoxy is so stagnant (and therefore rightward-moving) is that the intellectual foment, study, and comfort with change that is necessary for a dynamic community is impossible with kids (this coincides with the general tendency to see the maintenance of a community for its own sake to be a dreary way to spend one's time); 2) It's really hard to maintain an egalitarian division of labor (let alone _ritual_ labor) with tons of kids. There's a special place in heaven for the person who can solve these two puzzles.

 
At 8:23 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 9:29… I disagree with you first conjecture. It is true that ’the truly religious lifestyle (even if only partial) saves people from vices and violence’ but it is not healthier. Many religious don’t exercise, are overweight, smoke, etc. Charedim don’t die fighting for Israel and no one does heroin, but neither do most American Jews. Do you have any data showing Orthodox Jews live longer? Your second conjecture sounds a bit more plausible.

Anonymous 6:46…infants and toddlers are time consuming. Pre-teens and teenagers, and then until they are over 75, keep the parents young and awake. There is no better way to become stagnant and out of it than to be away from young people, or at least so I believe. Please explain why being comfortable with religious change is so very difficult with larger families. As for the impediments to egalitarian division of labor, perhaps this is true when the children are very young. It takes many years after college to feel comfortable that the children are securely established…more than enough time to achieve a global sort of equality.

 
At 9:34 PM, Blogger e-kvetcher said...

evanstonjew,

Go to Port Clinton square in Highland Park in the summertime. You'll see so many families with kids outside, you'll kvell. Then drive west to the new downtown in Deerfield. Then head over to Northbrook Court on the way back to Evanston - hang out by the Treehouse for a while.

Tons of on North Shore Jews are having kids. I lived in Deerfield for some time - population is 40-60 percent Jewish. Most of the young couples like us were 2-3 kid families and 4 kids were not unusual. Same with Northbrook. These are mostly Conservative families, going to Schechter or public schools. I was surprised myself.

I know this is not a statistical sample, but probably as good as driving up Sheridan Rd. Although I'd argue that Evanston on Sheridan is mostly goyish, Kenilworth is all goyish, and so is Winnetka. At least compared to Northbrook/Glenview/Deerfield/Highland Park. Also, the houses are so expensive there now that few young couples can afford them. We're talking millions and millions of dollars.

Am I off base?

 
At 7:14 AM, Blogger Bob Miller said...

EJ said "...liberal rabbis should stand in front of their congregations and say the following in no uncertain terms..."

Because they are liberal, the congregants will not respond as instructed.

 
At 11:24 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

e-kvetcher…I agree with everything you said except your characterization of east Evanston and Winnetka where I would estimate 15- 20% Jewish. My thesis is really based on the full NJPS data...the rest is my trying to add some color and make it more vivid. Even in Chicagoland I forgot to mention East Rogers Park where the Jews are old and live along the lake. Glencoe, Highland Park and Fort Sheridan are very Jewish and aging. The Deerfield example is biased to the extent they are Schechter /Moriah families. In fact it proves my point that vigorous Conservative teaching and preaching can change the atmosphere and make a big difference. There is more to talk about, maybe some other time.

bob miller…we have a bit of disagreement. I contend that the core fault line in liberal education is that parents and teachers refuse to give clear guidelines and set outer limits. I feel many young people yearn for limits and overall direction. How many parents/rabbis tell the young ’your goal in life IS to marry, have children and find a decent way to support yourself’. Too many say ’It is up to you, depending what you want…marry or not, children or not, study or not…whatever You choose we’re behind you.’ In my experience when a liberal rabbi is ready to be a bit of a bully the results are generally positive.

 
At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anonymous 6:46…infants and toddlers are time consuming. Pre-teens and teenagers, and then until they are over 75, keep the parents young and awake. There is no better way to become stagnant and out of it than to be away from young people, or at least so I believe."

Different families probably have different experiences, but from what I've seen even amongst the people whom I respect the most is that the time spent with the kids involves kid-things (games, books, etc.) and precious little time is left for one's own learning projects. (Unless one kicks all the time-consuming child-rearing responsibilities to one spouse.)

"Please explain why being comfortable with religious change is so very difficult with larger families."

Change involves expending resources and taking chances; more kids means less resources and less willingness to take chances.

"As for the impediments to egalitarian division of labor, perhaps this is true when the children are very young. It takes many years after college to feel comfortable that the children are securely established…more than enough time to achieve a global sort of equality."

Can you explain the connection of the seifa to the reisha, and what that has to do with achieving a global sort of equality, and what you mean by that?

My point is that amongst the halakhic egalitarian communities I frequent, no one has yet figured out a way to be comfortably halakhic (at least in terms of daily community-building rituals and responsibilites) and comfortably egalitarian when even one kid, let alone many, come into the picture -- one or the other, or both, get sacrificed. These people aren't looking for "global equality" -- they just want to maintain the kind of meaningful individual and communal lifestyle they've chosen. If you substitute some other set of high-culture activities for "halakhic" in that sentence then I think you get what's true in general for liberal people. (True, many are not high-culture, but that's a separate problem.)

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 6:46...I don't think I can fully speak to your concerns;I'll try..By global equality I mean that in a long lived marriage there is time for everyone to shine and advance their lifeplans. In the early years of life there is a certain special importance from a developmental pt. of view for close child-mother bonding. I do not see this as an egalitarian issue any more than the embryo must be housed in the mother's body and not the father's. For me the egalitarian quality of a marriage comes down to the issue if over a lifetime and not measuring every small increment both spouses are willing to limit their goals so that the other can flourish. When this condition fails couples have a hard time even with no kids.

 
At 1:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think you need to address two of the biggest obstacles to having kids (at least from my liberal-intellectual space): 1) They suck a lot of time and energy away from personal growth/talmud torah/etc. -- potentially a major reason why Orthodoxy is so stagnant"

You cannot seriously be telling us that there is more talmud torah going on in Conservative circles than in Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox circles. This is too amusing; if I didn't know better, I'd think it was parody.

"2) It's really hard to maintain an egalitarian division of labor (let alone _ritual_ labor) with tons of kids. There's a special place in heaven for the person who can solve these two puzzles."

You might want to rethink your premises; any egalitarianism that leads to the demographic death of the promoters of egalitarianism is not a sustainable ideology.

 

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