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Childless In Israel

“It’s a hard thing not to be normal. When you’re ‘not normal’ because you don’t want children, it’s even harder.” Racheli Sharon, a single Israeli with long dark hair and a thoughtful demeanor, looks as totally normal as any 32-year-old woman on Dizingoff Street. But unlike her friends, her siblings, her colleagues and clients — in fact, unlike just about everyone she knows — she has thought about it, talked about it, and sadly come to the conclusion that, indeed, she is not interested in becoming a parent.

Racheli, a third-generation kibbutznik, lives in Tel Aviv, in what sociologist Larissa Remennick calls “the land of imperative motherhood.” With an average birthrate of about three children per Jewish woman, Israel ranks as the Western world’s most pro-natal nation. While other countries lament zero population growth and young people from Japan to Georgia flaunt their “childfree” status, close to 100% of Israelis remain as firmly committed to bringing up children as their ancestors in the shtetl or Casbah.

“Most [Israeli] women don’t choose to have kids or not,” Racheli says of her peers. “They don’t really think about it. In our world, it’s ‘understood’ that that’s what we’ll do. We’re programmed to have children, and it starts when we’re very young.”

It hasn’t changed with the generations, either. Noga Eshed, a married sabra [native] who never had children, came of age in a middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood in the 1950’s. “For years,” she recalls, “I used to get together with my high school friends every week. First they all got Vespas [motorscooters], then they all went into the army. By the time they were 25, they all got married, had kids, bought flats and fridges and cars. Those are Israelis’ expectations: you have work, you have a home, you have a family.”

It’s easy to figure out why. Although the vast majority of modern Israelis do not define themselves as religious, both their public and personal lives are deeply, albeit sometimes unconsciously, grounded in Jewish tradition and values. The Bible’s first commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply,” stands as one of the primary reasons for the Jewish people’s long and unlikely survival; it led, moreover, to the development of a singularly family-oriented, child-centered society that persists to this day in every Jewish ethnic community in Israel. As Hebrew University anthropologist Dr. Elly Teman was quoted as saying in a recent article in The Jerusalem Post, “in both Orthodox Judaism and Zionist ideology, the family is the cornerstone of the nation.”

Other observers note that collective memories of the Holocaust and more recent calamities — wars, terrorism, and a tragically high rate of traffic accidents — prod many families to try to make up for past or anticipated losses, while some Israel politicians push the idea that Jewish Israelis have to counteract, with their bodies, the threat posed by Palestinian demographics. Though a 2005 survey by the Jewish Agency concluded, unexpectedly, that secular Jewish Israelis of childbearing age want large families (three or four children) “for personal reasons,” rather than politico-social ones, it seems reasonable to assume, as Racheli and Noga point out, that most of them have never questioned the psychosocial influences that steered them to this choice.

Whatever the individual couple’s impetus to have children, it’s hardly surprising to find that Israel’s social policies — mandated by a nation of Jewish mothers and fathers — encourage men and women alike to start their families young and make them large. According to Ministry of Health regulations, every woman is “entitled” to have at least two children, and the health funds therefore subsidize fertility treatments — an unlimited number of IVF cycles for any woman under 45 with fewer than two children of her own.

Except for very rare cases, married women who can give birth, do. Those who can’t, go for help, whether it’s at the tomb of Rachel or the womb of a surrogate mother. Israel leads the world in the fertility industry, in terms of scientific research, state-of-the-art biomedical applications, and statesubsidized utilizations of them. Forthose who don’t manage to get pregnant via IVF but are still determined to have a child that is genetically their own, there are surrogate mothers in Israel who will carry the child for them. If all else fails, there is the adoption route — often leading to Brazil, the Ukraine, or other far-off lands — which thousands of Israeli couples have tread in recent decades.

Where does all this leave the woman who, whether for physical or other reasons, ultimately does not have any children? In a society where motherhood is taken for granted, where women and many men, too, have long defined themselves in terms of the children they’ve brought into the world, where much of adults’ daily life is focused on childrearing and family activities and even single motherhood is often deemed preferable to single childlessness, a woman without children is considered, in Racheli’s words, “not normal.” If her childless state is involuntary, she is an object of pity; if she deliberately chooses to not have children, she is an object of curiosity, criticism and scorn. And in a country whose language has no word for “subtle,” the most casual chat — at the grocery store, with a taxi driver, in the office — can, and frequently does, make it excruciatingly clear to the childless woman where she stands.

“Everyone asks me whether I have kids, wherever I go,” says Racheli. “It can be a new client, a total stranger. She’s married, we talk for a few minutes, and she asks how old I am. ‘Thirtytwo!’ she’ll exclaim, ‘and no children!’ It always comes up.”

Racheli doesn’t know any other women in Israel who have seriously, voluntarily said “no” to the motherhood option, or who have chosen careers rather than children. Neither does Noga Eshed or any of the other women who agreed to be interviewed for Lilith magazine. How, then, do they survive, this tiny minority of women forced to the fringes of Israel’s familial society? How do they find self-esteem? Do they ever feel like whole human beings?

Larissa Remennick, the sociologist who studied 26 infertile Jewish women in Israel, suggests that their “barren woman” status becomes a “master identity” that “undermines any other merits and achievements they might have.” Overcoming the stigma of childlessness, she argues, is not possible unless and until a woman questions the motherhood imperative — which Israeli women almost unanimously resist doing. However, in Israel, as in other strongly pro-natalist societies, there are a number of psychosocial mechanisms that do help childless women cope. The less a woman conforms to social norms — like Racheli, who until recently defined herself as “something of a rebel” — the easier it is for her to accept her otherness. Educated, professional women, with greater material and mental resources, are less likely to be devastated by childlessness than extremely religious women, for example, or those in the country’s underserved, underachieving periphery, where a woman’s life aspirations generally revolve around marriage and family. And to endure the daily wear and tear exacted by their pro-procreation environment, all childless women in Israel are likely to adopt coping techniques such as seeking biomedical treatments, hiding their status, changing their social circles, avoiding family-oriented social occasions, or “adopting” friends’ and relatives’ children as substitutes for their own.

Noga Eshed says she stood out from the crowd from a young age: she didn’t even think about getting married till she was 30, when she met Dubon. They lived together for more than a year and thought they’d eventually get married when they were ready to have kids. As it turned out, they gave in to family pressure and had a wedding, but no children. “We were married for about two years when we decided to try to have kids, and found we couldn’t,” Noga recalls. She felt no need to become a mother, but her husband wanted offspring. Thus, in the late 1970’s, before the advent of the high-tech baby industry, Noga willingly began two and a half years of agonizing fertility treatments.

“We wanted to know we’d tried, so we did whatever was available — X-rays, pills, thermometers, baths, you name it. It was disgusting!” When she felt she couldn’t take any more, Noga and Dubon decided to stop the treatments and reconcile themselves to being a family of two. As time passed, they saw less and less of their old friends, who were absorbed in their “flat-fridge-family routine,” and spent more time with their own parents, siblings, and a growing number of nieces and nephews.

“Sometimes people would say how ‘courageous’ I am — as though I should be going through life miserable because I don’t have children!” Noga observes. “But I never had that ‘Mother Earth’ feeling and don’t think it’s necessary to be a mother. Besides,” she concedes, “you get used to things.”

In the religious sector, women get used to other things, like having huge families. In the past generation, the haredi (ultra- Orthodox) birthrate has skyrocketed, accounting for Israel’s high overall rate of fertility (and many of its large pockets of poverty, but that’s another issue). American psychologist Phyllis Tobin, in her book Motherhood Optional: A Psychological Journey, writes that “an Orthodox Jewish woman…who already had eight children told me she felt inadequate as a woman, because according to the conventions of her particular subculture, women were supposed to bear and raise at least 12 — certainly more than 10!”

In this “subculture” — comprising the 15% or so of Israelis who live in largely homogeneous Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox communities filled with pregnant women, young and old, wheeling baby strollers on every street and lane — the anguish of infertility can only be imagined. Childless women in these circles — where 10 barren years constitute valid grounds for divorcing a wife (though in fact this rarely happens) — will not talk about their torment to many people, least of all a journalist. But even in less religious circles, childless women who otherwise appear to be well-adjusted, well-accepted participants in the larger culture are unwilling to discuss a subject they try hard to bury within themselves.

Take Shira (not her real name), for instance: a Jerusalemite born and brought up on a religious-Zionist kibbutz. Shira supports herself as an art therapist, hikes the hills with secular as well as Orthodox Israelis, and hangs out at the cafes in town where other singles her age — around 45 — hang out. But when asked to be interviewed for this article, she thought about it for two days, then politely declined.

“At lunch on Shabbat,” she admitted, “I talked it over with a few of my single girlfriends. They agreed — no one would talk about this to a journalist.” It’s bad enough, apparently, for single, religious women to have to deal with their childlessness among themselves; to voluntarily expose it to a greater public would be heaping insult on this deep and ever-sensitive injury.

On the campus of Bar Ilan University, the religious institution just outside Tel Aviv, modern Orthodox women much younger than Shira grapple with issues facing contemporary religious feminists in the Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies, founded by Dr. Tamar Ross. One day last spring, on the eve of an international conference co-sponsored by this program, Dr. Ross and an associate wrote a piece for The Jerusalem Post. “We’re Not against Motherhood,” blared the headline. In the Jewish world, in the year 2006, this was news! Though willing to pay lip service to modernity and diversity, to acknowledge that “motherhood is not the only means to realize womanly potential,” these religious feminists in Israel — many of them with their heads covered and babies in their arms — still feel compelled to convince the world that they do, indeed, overwhelmingly embrace the traditional ideal of motherhood. To reject that, to refuse to buy into prevailing Jewish mores and values, would mark them as rebels or worse.

Debbie Weissman, a prominent educator in Jerusalem, never married, and never seriously considered the option of having a child without a husband. “I thought of kids in the context of family,” she explains, “and wanted to be able to share the fun and the hard parts of child raising.” However, her life is hardly that of the mythical spinster, perhaps because she is that rare religious woman who has been able to turn to powerful, childless role models for guidance and comfort. Born in the U.S. in 1947, she wrote her MA thesis on Sarah Schenirer, who founded the ultra-Orthodox Beit Yakov school system for girls; she studied with the renowned Israeli scholar Nechama Leibowitz, who transformed the study of the Bible; and she identifies with the founder of Hadassah, Zionist pioneer Henrietta Szold, a “religious but liberal American olah who remained single.” Despite their regrets at not having birthed children of their own (Leibowitz reputedly confided to friends life was from what she’d expected, it was by no means worthless. “My life has meaning, purpose, and joy,” she says now with equanimity. “Not every married life has that. I even began to see that some of my married friends are jealous of me: they don’t have the choices I’ve had.”

Debbie knows that her professional legacy — students she has taught, articles and books she’s published, the groundbreaking Orthodox congregation, Yedidya, that she helped found and lead, the teachers’ college she directed for many years, and her interfaith work around the world — will carry her memory well beyond her lifetime. She knows that she has fulfilled her religious obligations: the Jewish commandment to procreate falls only upon men, not women. And she rebuts the Zionist argument for childbearing with Israel’s relatively high Jewish birthrate: “Our survival is pretty secure on that level,” she says, “so I don’t feel unpatriotic about not having children.”

Debbie has a sister in Israel and nieces and nephews she adores; she travels an enormous amount, and her absence is keenly felt in her synagogue when she’s away. When she catalogues the things she’s missed, it’s without self-pity: “I never gave someone a name. I’ve never made a simcha. As a single immigrant, I didn’t have the social opportunities that parents have to meet native Israelis who are very different from me. And I never learned the Hebrew songs and slang that Israeli kids bring home from school.” At the end of the day, Debbie claims to have no regrets, but notes — along with the childless Jewish women she reveres — that, “all other things being equal, I’d say it’s better to be married and have kids than not.”

For Noga and Dubon, Debbie and Racheli, childlessness (or the prospect of it) is made easier by very close ties to their families — parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. But for women, especially older ones, whose families are very small that she would have happily exchanged her lofty career for the privilege of having had children), these well-known women all led lives filled with meaning for their own and future generations. With a plethora of “spiritual children,” they managed to find some consolation in the words of the Sages: “If you teach someone, it’s like giving birth to him or her.”

Debbie herself was in her mid-40’s, moving along her high-powered career track, when she began to realize that she might never become a mother. “I always assumed I’d have it all, like my own mother did: marriage, a career, and two kids. Single mothers weren’t so common then. I thought about adopting, but felt ambivalent about it.” Confronting these issues at 45, she had “kind of a breakdown.” A good friend helped her out of it, pointing out that, different as Debbie’s and/or distant physically or emotionally, the existential loneliness of being can be compounded, often unbearably, by the lack of children. Through no fault of their own, their best efforts to create an “adopted” family or alternative community may meet with failure or collapse after years of nurturing.

After retirement, when work and its perks no longer fill up her life, the best-adjusted childless woman may in fact face the equivalent of “empty nest syndrome.” Just as effusive friends and relatives are beginning to reap the pleasures of grand-parenting, she is once again stricken with her “otherness,” with a sense of deprivation and social isolation.

Psychologist Phyllis Tobin, author of Motherhood Optional, convincingly encourages all women of childbearing age, and their therapists, to consider childbearing or non-childbearing as a con-scious and empowering choice. Life without children, she argues, can be a valid and liberating option for those who embrace it.

“Loss can also be an opportunity for gain,” she writes. “If a woman without children can accept the parts of herself that [unconsciously] held off from motherhood, she is likely to find somewhere within her an attachment to the freedom her life affords her. She can capitalize on enjoying that… She can be generative and creative in ways more appropriate to who she is.” Ultimately, however, Tobin’s words provide little comfort for the childless Israeli woman who would have chosen otherwise. Ruth (not her real name), a psychologist who has lived in Israel for more than 50 years, epitomizes Tobin’s “generative acceptable to me then… When I count my mistakes, that’s the top one. I had the chance to have children, and I chose not to.” Had she realized in those days, she adds, what life in Israel without family or children would one day be like, she might well have stayed in America.

For Ruth, Debbie, Noga, Racheli, and those other women throughout Israel — usually Ashkenazi and middle class — who are lucky enough to have the “generative and creative” resources Phyllis Tobin lauds, life without progeny may well offer manifold achievements and rewards. But for most of these women, and even more for those without such resources, there is no compensation for childlessness. “Child-free” is not and creative” woman. She has a long and impressive list of professional firsts to her credit, and has been an inspiration and role model for at least two generations of Israeli feminists. In the decade or so since her second husband died, she has found new friends and backpacked around the world, tracking dervishes in India, Buddhist monks in Nepal, gourmet gardeners in England. In her eighties, she is blessed with both the material and mental resources which sociologist Larissa Remennick says are necessary to resist the “stigma of infertility.”

Nevertheless, Ruth’s grief is palpable as she looks back at the opportunities she missed for having children of her own. Married twice, she became pregnant twice during the 25-year gap between her marriages. Both times she chose, painfully, to have an abortion rather than a child out of wedlock. Ironically, it was the second pregnancy, while she was happily working and studying for an advanced degree in the U.S., that brought her back to Israel for an abortion (which could not be obtained legally at the time in North America).

“My childbearing years were mostly in the 1940’s and ‘50’s,” Ruth explains, “and the idea of single motherhood wasn’t part of mainstream Israeli discourse, and whatever benefits can be eked out of their child-free lives, they do not ameliorate the longings for what-might-have-been shared by almost every childless woman in Israel.

Under these circumstances, would Ruth ever advise a woman to not have children, as her American colleague Tobin might? Looking back at her extraordinarily successful, accomplished life, and the many women she counseled over the decades, Ruth answers with a resounding negative. “Of course not, if she’s together enough to be a mother!” For a moment, she is pensive, and one hand moves to cover her eyes. “Mothering is such a powerful thing for a woman’s soul. Not having that experience is an irreparable loss.” 

Barbara Gingold, a “generative and creative” woman withoutchildren, is a writer/editor in Jerusalem who nurtures gardens,friends, and friends’ children.


Fertility and The Israeli Woman

  • Sperm donations are sold at hospitals (for about $75 – 100) throughout Israel, though those under religious auspices, such as Sha’arey Tzedek and Bikur Holim hospitals in Jerusalem, do not make them available to single women.
  • Though single (and married) women have to pay privately for anonymous sperm donations, other medical bills for their fertility treatments are largely covered by Israel’s compulsory health insurance — the equivalent of a huge state subsidy for the baby industry, at the expense of Israeli taxpayers.
  • Gestational surrogacy, limited to Jewish parents’ own egg and sperm impregnated into a married Jewish surrogate via IVF, has the Knesset’s authorization as well as a Halachic stamp of approval from several leading rabbis. (Liberal Israeli feminists and other leading rabbis have objected to these limitations for a variety of social, political, and religious reasons.)
  • At a price of $25,000 – 40,000, surrogacy is generally well out of range for many Israelis. This, however, does not stop doctors and rabbis from recommending it as a feasible option.
  • An on-line “child-free” forum is located, among 20 other titles, under the heading “Family,” at Tapuz.co.il, a popular Israeli portal. The forum, established in October 2005, features a total of only six Hebrew articles, and fewer than a dozen responses to its editor’s opening message. It is sponsored by a major chain specializing in the maternity trade, and anyone surfing the Child-Free forum encounters pregnant bellies and smiling babies being flashed across the screen several times a minute.