Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Mine is bigger than yours

"A person has to check the level of his income before he determines the size of the family he wants. He must think about his obligation to provide a good education and a respectable standard of living for his children. With a monthly income of 200 or 300 lira and eight or nine children how can one support them? If, on the other hand, you have two or three children, you'll be able to provide them with clothes to wear and give them the best possible education."

The author of this gem which was recently widely quoted in the Israeli press is none other than Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Our Rabbis have a different logic; Maan deyuhiv chaya Yuhiv mezona ('He who gives life will give food' for those not fluent in ancient aramaic). In other words trust in the same G-d that provides the kids to provide the means to support them. The talmud states that the world was created to be populated (lo sohi bru) and it is understood that G-d demands of us that we fulfil our obligations in that respect as far as is possible. The Talmud does however stipulate that that there are circumstances in which birth control may be practiced albeit always by the woman as the man is instructed to beware of 'destroying his seed'.

Well I suppose I can accept the Torah argument in as far as it is impossible to argue with it without denying the right of a person to believe in G-d and live his life accordingly. Someone who genuinely believes that he is doing G-d's will by having a baby (or rather not avoiding having one) against the financial odds can be condemned by those who do not share his faith as irresponsible yet on the other hand faith in the stock market or the liklihood of remaining in work is often just as subjective.

I suspect futhermore that if you were to ask a child that was brought up in an economically challenged family if he would have preferred not to have been born many would probably reply in the negative. Those who might have preffered that he had never boosted the birthrate figures would be those that had to fork out part of their own or the collective allowance to help his parents support him. Personally that argument does not move me. As long as single mothers recieve family support and drug addicts and smokers are entitled to health benefits so should the over fruitful be.

Where I do have an argument with the policy for popcorn style birth-rates is when the problem is not financial but emotional or physical. I live in a community where the norm is around 8. Some of my friend who are in their mid-30's count among their blessings 13 or 14 children. One of my brothers has 13 and his eldest is 14.

Now I have heard all the comments that are made to outsiders about how wonderful it is to have a big family and some it is true. I agree that when you are 73 and you have 143 grandchildren you will have less problem finding someone to talk to than if you have one black granchild born out of wedlock to an underage drug addict. But I also know that it is very rare to see families of that size where the children get the kind of attention and care that they would have if there were a two to three year gap between births.

See I am not arguing that we should go for the two-kid-one-dog formula. What I am saying is that even the Halacha solemnly declares that for two years after a child is born the mother is considered to be nursing even though today most mothers do not nurse that long. What I do believe is that it is rime to revise this ridiculous system in which Chassidim have to wait until their wives are on the point of breaking, following multiple births in the shortest possible time, to ask permission from a Rabbi whether he may use some form of birth control. The Rabbi can arbitrarily decide to refuse or (as is more likely the case) give some symbolic 6 month reprieve which is then rarely extended more than once. It is well known that the Chassidic Rabbis will base their answers upon their own understanding and experience (such as they are) as their is no formal training in this field. They will of course earnestly advise on the best form of 'kosher contraceptive', based on their own wife's preferences. As a general rule what will be reccomended is vaginal mousse, as in the short term it is easier and quicker to get up and running and better still it needs no perscription so those meddling doctors wont interfere.

So my advice to those who want to help to make a difference
is learn the Halacha and use it to prove that G-d does not want families living with PPD (post partum depression) and too many kids running around seeking attention from their overworked big sisters because that is the only place thay are likely to find it while their mother circumnavigates her enormous belly to change the diaper of the one younger than the one who has just spilled his bottle on the one who is feeding a piece of lego to his bigger sister who is waiting for her biggest sister to finish feeding the other four before the big boys come home from school...

Sunday, December 28, 2003

In this season of goodwill and cheer for the goyim outside there is something that bothers me immensely about our society.
I was invited to the Office party at the place where I work. Just so as to get the picture straight – I dress like a chassid. That is to say I wear a dark long-jacket suit, a white shirt (why do we always wear a white shirt?) a full beard and conservative dress shoes at all times (well almost) and a round black felt hat if I wear one at all. Yet I was still invited to the office party so I went.

I grant you that it felt a little funny at the beginning, but it did not take long before I began to enjoy myself. To give credit where credit is due, my non-jewish colleagues did their very best to accommodate me. They together figured out what drinks I was allowed to drink and which not. (If anybody can tell me definitively whether Cointreau is Kosher…) They spent ages trying to work out what I could eat (although Jewish comedians certainly have a point. The gentiles really don’t seem to eat much between the drink after drink that go down the hatch.) It was a fun party. As the participants got sousder and sousder some of them dared to approach me and talk about many of the things they must have been scared or embarrassed to ask in the five years that I have known most of them.

The most noteworthy comment was one young man of about 30 called Evert. He is an accountant and he studies philosophy as a hobby. Although we work pretty closely together on occasion, we have never chatted about anything outside the job on hand before. To be brutally honest I always thought he did not like either me personally or what I represent as the only Jew in the company. After we did get talking - and with the help of an advisor who has stood behind the wisdom of many a great statesman, Johnny Walker- he told me that he had been meaning to talk to me for years but never had because “you people are always so aloof”. He then went on to tell me that he had seen this program about OJs on TV and had learned that on Saturday one was not allowed to use the phone except for preservation of life. “In my mind I had this picture,” he told me, “of this Jewish tailor who goes past his shop on Saturday and notices it is burning. He can’t call the fire brigade because the danger is to property not life. He runs home and gets his wife and kids sends them upstairs above the shop and then Preservation of Life he calls 999.”

That story aside though what struck me really hard at that party was that even in a society where the media image of Jews is somewhat less than inspiring and with Israel having hit its popularity low of decades the interpersonal relationships between Jews and gentiles can be good. I could go even further and say that if our friendships are shallow at best it is because we Ojs and recovering ex-OJ are wary of letting ‘them’ get too close rather than the opposite. In Israel on the other hand, the opposite is true. The religious are not welcome in non-religious society and those making me (us) unwelcome are not ashamed of it. It is a sad truth that I am perfectly happy to go to a cinema and watch a film in peace in London, NY, or even Antwerp (one of the least Jew friendly of European cities) yet in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem I can expect at least verbal abuse.

For my money if I need a friend outside the Shteeble it would be Evert over Uzi any day.