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The announcer raised his voice to an agonized pitch that echoed throughout Bnei Brak: "The important woman, Ahuva Klachkin" had died. It happened three weeks ago, before the heated protests began against Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox quarters. Even in the shadow of that drama, this disaster remains a cause for shock and a topic of conversation: It is not every day that a young woman dies and leaves behind 18 children.

The picture of the family's 10 younger orphans saying kadish at the funeral is a difficult one to see: While the eldest is 14 and the youngest is 2, the orphans look very alike in their uniform clothes and bright curly sidelocks. This picture exchanged hands in the community and appeared on the Haredi internet forums to encourage people to donate to a charity fund, which was established to support the family after its principal provider passed away. As usual, the donations were quick to arrive.

Use of the public announcement system is usually reserved for praising and exalting rabbis or well-connected community members upon their deaths. It is not commonly used for women. Also the fact that important rabbis eulogized Klachkin on her funeral is no trivial matter. The reason she won these honors, and was practically transformed into a saint, say Haredi commentators, is that Klachkin, 44 when she died, had mothered 18 children.

Rabbi Yehuda Michael Lefkovich eulogized, "I have known her as a righteous woman who did not need anything other than the members of her household and the education of her offspring. Almighty God took her to her world, which she prepared for herself."

Eulogies in ultra-Orthodox society carry an educational purpose. The words of the elderly rabbi, which exalt the woman who asked nothing for herself, who lived only for the sake of her children, emphasize this society's protest and struggle against the worship of individuality and individual needs, and against the addiction to the consumerist culture which it believes characterizes non-Haredi society. A high birth rate is one way to express this protest, and on this matter, large families such as Klachkin's are a veritable form of defiance.

Mega families

The death of Ahuva Klachkin revealed a relatively new phenomenon: The flourishing of very large families. These are parents who at the age of 40 have long since passed the 12-child mark. They are common primarily within Hassidic communities. Although in the ultra-Orthodox community, and not only there, people refer to large families as "child blessed" families, it seems worthwhile questioning whether it is, indeed, a blessing. What effects do so many births have on a woman's health? And what of the children growing up among so many siblings? Is it to their benefit?

But, as of today, it seems there is not a speck of doubt among the Haredi public, or at least among their leaders. Not all families are very large, but without a doubt these families command respect, and the women in them are objects of adoration.

The deceased's family belongs to the Bobov Hassidic sect of Bnei Brak, but the extended Klachkin family hails from Mea She'arim. The latter is well-known in the ultra-Orthodox community. Israel Klachkin, the husband's brother and the deceased's brother-in-law, is a prolific persona and a well-known figure in Jerusalem thanks to his "Dfus Yashar" printing house, where Mea She'arim's local interest posters are printed. Klachkin, who is himself one of 17 children, admits that there is a rise in the number of very large families. He says that when he was younger, there weren't such large families as his in the neighborhood: "I knew only two other families as large as ours. There is a change today. You can see this also in our family: three of my brothers have 18, 17 and 15 children. I know at least dozens of such families."

Other Jerusalem Haredim interviewed claimed hundreds of such families existed.

Israel Klachkin, whose lifestyle is more modern than that of his brother, has five children - a small family by ultra-Orthodox standards. It is not by choice but because of health reasons, he almost apologizes. He says the many births in his brother's family were "out of choice, and not out of social conformity. Something the mother wanted. She loved to give birth."

He says she also had a baby who died in her crib 10 years ago, a tragedy from which she never recovered. "When she stopped giving birth two years ago," he says, "she went to rabbi Haim Kanievski and asked for his blessing to make her pregnant again." He says that his brother and sister-in-law's choice was clearly backed by the family and community, both morally and economically. The deceased's parents were Holocaust survivors.

"For them, every baby that arrived was a blow to Hitler. The community helps these families make ends meet, says Klachkin, but not on a regular basis: "There are Gmilot Hassidim (charitable acts), the parents and brothers of both parents give gifts of money after every birth and clear the tab at the grocery store from time to time when it overflows. The community donates food and money on holidays."

Just health?

Dr. Hannah Katan, a senior gynecologist at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center who specializes in female health in the Haredi sector, says there has been an increase, which she defines as "moderate," in the number of births in the Haredi sector, but adds that there has also been a considerable increase in the number of births in the modern Orthodox sector. According to Dr. Katan, herself modern Orthodox, "a high fertility rate generally attests to better health. Research conducted in Hadassah Ein Karem showed a corollation between high fertility rates and long life spans and suggested a genetic link between the two ... Research also shows that multiple pregnancies reduce risk of breast and ovary cancer, chronic pelvis disease, and more.

"The phenomenon of high fertility rates does not stem from a halakhic (Jewish law) ban on contraceptives," she adds, "but rather from the women's clear choice. The social reality is that Haredi women love to give birth to many children though they are under no familial, religious or any other pressure."

Without studies examining the population of women who give birth to more than 15 children, it is hard to speak of the health toll these women pay, compared to other women. Information contradicting Katan's statement on the health condition of these women can be found in the protocols of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women from 2000, which discuss female health. There, Me'uhedet Health Maintenance Organization's district doctor, Dr. Shmuel Shrira, said that in the central branch on Mea She'arim's Geula Street - precisely the population where a high fertility rate is common - there are many more men over 70 than women. One can see that "mortality is higher with Haredi women," he said.

Responding to this finding, Dr. Katan says she is not aware of an epidemiological research done on the subject, but several studies were presented to the National Council for Womens' Health showing a similar phenomenon among an Arab population. She claims that the Haredi population is essentially different since it is of a "higher socioeconomic status."

One Haredi midwife from Jerusalem who works mainly with Haredi women, speaks on the other hand of "a social obsession to get pregnant."

"These women give birth out of righteousness. Such a woman is considered saintly in society, and they feel that they devote their souls to follow the mitzvah. The society speaks of them in adoration. They receive respect," she says. She thinks that the basis to the mitzvah of many births is not as is commonly believed the commandment to be "fruitful and multiply," for according to halakha it is sufficient to have a boy and a girl to achieve it. Rather, this stems from a phrase in the Gemara that has been interperted by the Haredim to say the Messiah will not come until all souls have passed through a body.

"Women who give birth many times get used to the condition. To the frequent pregnancies. The same women felt emptiness and therefore asked for a blessing. She is missing something in her abdomen. It is like a factory that is constantly producing and suddenly stops," says the midwife. Israel Klachkin says the community today helps his brother's family a lot. Women have volunteered to wash clothes and iron, cook and bake. The married children also come to help and two daughters, aged 14 and 12, have been in charge of most of the household chores since before their mother's passing. The midwife says that the burden often falls on the girls.

She says that from her experience, and from living in the ultra-Orthodox society, she knows women there are suffering from both mental and physical diseases. She says she can immediately spot women who just gave birth, because they often suffer from being overweight, since they never manage to shed the accumulated fat between births. "You can see them on Geula Street. Most of them walk very slowly and look very old, but they are actually fairly young. When I ask them at the hospital how many children they have, they will also state a lower number, fearing the evil eye."