Alex Levac
"I am not happy about [using contraceptives], but it is a way out," says H. Photo by Alex Levac
Text size

Each time, the news was declared as if a gong was being sounded: "Mazal tov - you have a new sister." That imaginary gong was struck every year until I was 10 years old. However, when my brother was born, I was still a baby and I guess nobody troubled to formally inform me about it.

In any case, one day, during an ordinary afternoon and without any prior warning, my father turned up in the yard where we used to play. His appearance, before sundown, was unusual; most of the time he was busy with his own affairs and did not have contact with his children. This time, however, he came over and reported the news of yet another birth dryly, standing by the carriage I was guarding, which as usual had two toddlers, my little sisters, inside. There was no happiness in his voice.

I did not comment and did not ask questions. I knew that life would go on as usual, just with a bigger load of laundry to fold and a new baby in the carriage. But it was still a heavy moment: The playing stopped at once, the other children disappeared and my father and I went silently back home, to the absence of my mother's usual dominant and enveloping presence.

As a child, I did not like to be trailed by my younger sisters wherever I went, or to put them to bed. This familial-communal life was not something I chose. It was not easy. But over time, irritating memories faded and were replaced by recollections of a childhood in a house packed with siblings and also girlfriends, and with talk and laughter that continued until dawn.

The refrigerator did not burst with food back then, but the clothes closet was full. Thanks to that pool of shared clothing, we were never short of something to wear. We managed almost without quarreling amidst the crowding and entanglement. We grew up in it until we emerged into the world.

My sisters and I did not follow in our mother's footsteps, as a matter of principle. Nor could we ever imagine giving birth to so many children. We left the ultra-Orthodox world and moved to another one, in which the rules concerning pregnancy and birth are different.

A few weeks ago a Haredi woman from Bnei Brak, a mother of nine, told me that her daughters, who are also strictly ultra-Orthodox, did not follow her example and have "only" six children each. She mentioned, with evident appreciation, that "they did not give birth naively, with a lack of understanding as I did, one after another." She added that, in conversations with young women her daughters' ages, she hears that "the pressure and the atmosphere that once existed in the home, where there was no individualism," made them decide to have "reasonably sized" families.

Such a backlash might explain, at least in part, the decreased number of children born to many Haredi women in recent years. And among such women, the time span for bearing children begins at about the age of 19, with marriage, and lasts until about 49, or when they are no longer fertile.

A study conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics on fertility among Jewish and Muslim women, covering the years 1979-2009, noted interesting trends in Haredi society - among them, a drop from an average 7.6 births per woman some six to seven years ago to 6.5 births three years ago. It also showed that the peak age in terms of fertility is 30.

The author of the report, Dr. Ahmad Hleihel, explains that Haredi women apparently want to stop giving birth at the age of 30, since this is when many opt to use contraceptives. He notes, however, that "the research does not take into account the frequency of pregnancies - that is, the time that passes between giving birth to one child and another, or the respondents' attitudes toward use of contraceptives."

Some sociologists and economists believe that the cutting of child allowances in 2002 by Benjamin Netanyahu, while he served as finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government, was a factor that contributed to the lower number of births in the Haredi population. Members of that community, however, vociferously rejected, and still reject, the idea that there is any link between the stipends and the birthrate. For his part, Hleihel, a demographer and a sociologist, is also doubtful about such a connection: "In the Arab sector too there were such arguments - meaning that perhaps the [cuts in] allowances affected the birthrate, but in fact it began to drop even earlier, in 2000." Yet he acknowledges that the reduced payments may have expedited the trend.

"I believe in trends and social influences more than in the idea that a couple makes its decisions on the basis of allowances," he adds. "Today the Haredi community wants to raise its standard of living, to live more comfortably. Women too want to improve their quality of life and not invest all their energies in producing children."

An unprecedented, dramatic increase in the birthrate of Haredi women occurred in the early 1980s. Until then, the average family had fewer than six children. In the '80s, the number rose to seven children, and in the '90s there was a drop to between 6.5 and 6.7. In 2005-2006, according to the CBS data, there was another uptick, with an average of 7.5 children per family. Such fluctuations might reflect other phenomena in the Haredi community, between religious extremism and lenience, between being open and being insular.

A 'career' of births

In my childhood landscape, a few decades ago, in the (non-Hasidic ) Lithuanian community of Bnei Brak, families of six or seven children like ours were the bon ton. Families with 12 children were very rare, and even looked down upon then. But about 10 years ago, things changed and families with more than 10 children became a model for emulation.

Sociologist Tamar Elor, who specializes in the Haredi community, says that in the 1970s, bearing a large number of children was a means for ultra-Orthodox women to distinguish themselves.

According to Prof. Elor, "If you wanted to be outstanding you had to give birth and be a go-getter, a champion and an achiever, to look good and succeed at everything. Today, more venues in which women can excel have opened up - for instance, in education and professional training; there are more women who now focus on careers. This generation of the new 'superwomen' felt what it meant to be a mother to 12 children [from their own childhoods]. Nowadays it is more difficult to return to having a big family supported by only one breadwinner. In earlier generations when families were big, [grandparents] were sometimes in a position to help and contribute to the household, but today there is no help."

Elor acknowledges that "there are families who lived off the allowances and when they were cut, their [financial] situation deteriorated. In the face of poverty, when families are forced to move from one apartment to another ... there are those who admit, very quietly, that things cannot go on this way. The power of poverty has hit the Haredi community hard. In the present generation it is difficult to justify being poor in the name of religious piety."

Moshe Grylak, founder and editor of the Haredi paper Mishpacha (Family ) sees the ultra-Orthodox tradition of having large families as an expression of "a feeling of responsibility for the Jewish people," which must fight what it sees as a demographic threat.

"I remember that after the Yom Kippur War there was a general surge in births," he says. "It was seen as expressing a fear of 'extinction.' But today, the low birthrate among the public at large and the fact that women are giving birth later reflect indifference, hedonism and a feeling of everyone for himself. The Haredi community, on the other hand, still feels committed to the struggle."

Grylak adds that "the women have taken this upon themselves ... The rabbis never said women must keep having children; and even in the [women's religious] seminaries there was no such explicit statement." However, he adds, "competition has developed: 'You have six, I have eight.' Like men who lift weights to prove who is manlier, women want to show they have more children. It is true that in a closed society like ours, where it is difficult to make a living and help is not always available, this sometimes causes problems."

While Grylak generally does not see a dramatic change in the trend of having many children - "Nothing has changed around me," he asserts - a younger man who is very active in the Haredi community, and preferred to speak anonymously, says: "It is known that the great granddaughter of an important rabbi in Bnei Brak told that rabbi, 'I do not want to give birth now' - and he told her, 'No problem, wait for two years.' There is a sense that 'the generations have changed.' One can no longer demand that women have a lot of children and also work from morning to night. More than once you see couples with four or five children, and that is not always because of problems of fertility. Today every rabbi authorizes contraceptives, even after the first child and not just when there is a health problem. If a woman asks for it, it means she's having a tough time."

By contrast, however, one young ultra-Orthodox woman told Haaretz that rabbis give women permission to use contraception only after they have borne two or three children.

Sara Pachter of Betar Ilit, a living advertisement for large families, and thus a sort of "superwoman" in Haredi terms - she recently gave birth to her 11th child - noted with regret that the trend has changed. Pachter, who says she easily maneuvers between family and a career, writes a column on parenthood on Yedioth Ahronoth's Ynet website under the pen name Mali Green, and says, "Most of my female friends and sisters have the same number of children as I do, but I have already heard from one friend that the economic situation is a consideration - that she will at least slow down between having the third and the fourth child."

For younger women in her circles, Pachter says, "parenthood is very important. They think that if the children are born in quick succession, their ability to care for them declines. This is a generation that has more opportunities ... and not everyone is willing to live frugally."

Pachter is currently writing a guidebook for pregnancy and birth with Prof. Simcha Yagel, a gynecologist from Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. Says Yagel: "More women are seeking contraceptives, and it is clear that they have received permission from the rabbi to do so. The period of time between having one child and another has lengthened. Fewer women give birth after 40. There was a time when many would give birth with their daughters. Today that is less common."

'Why this madness?'

Y., a 32-year-old Jerusalemite and a mother of six, grew up in a family with 11 siblings. Her parents, born to Holocaust survivors, grew up in families with four children.

"My mother was crazy about having a big family," she says. "We have a wonderful family. All of us have an excellent relationship, but we had far fewer children. With my sister and me, it did not happen right away: I gave birth to my older kids practically every year. It took us time until we said, 'Hey, it is difficult for us. Why this madness of having children one after the other?' Today every rabbi accepts the fact that after three children, a woman needs a break to gather strength.

"My husband is not ready for more, and every time he sees me with a baby who is the child of a friend or a sister, he says: 'Take him away.' I think that among the young women, thoughts about contraceptives start earlier.'" Y. notes that there are still Haredi circles "in which the norm is to have 12 children. But when I look at the younger groups, my neighbors, I do not see them with 12. All [the women] are working and are very career-minded, and their parenting is very influenced by psychology. They invest in their children, in extra-curricular activity and enrichment programs, in buying them brand-name clothing ... And their husbands still study in the yeshivas. Such a woman tells herself: 'I cannot do all that with 12 children.' I agree, but on the other hand I am debating with myself. Perhaps we are less spiritual."

The cries of her month-old firstborn can be heard in the background when H., a 20-year-old Haredi woman, speaks with Haaretz on the phone. Her view of family life involves children but also a career - and thus perhaps contraceptives.

"In theory I would want even 16 children, but I cannot afford it," she says. "I study in a college and must complete my degree. If I become pregnant again, I would have to quit studies, and who will provide for my husband? That is why I am debating whether to use contraceptives. Of course, I will consult a rabbi. My sisters and I talk about it freely. This is a possibility that did not exist for us women in the past. I am not happy about it, but it is a way out."