By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
Dozens if not hundreds of books have been written about the childlessness of Jewish women—and the stories are told from their perspective. But in his recently released volume, The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness, Elliot Jager explores a topic that to his knowledge has never been deeply examined before: childlessness from the vantage point of Jewish men.
“Pater” is the Latin word for father. The author, a former editor at The Jerusalem Post, tackles his relationship with his father, as well as his own inability to become a father, in a way that critics describe as brave, poignant, and sentimental.
“Men sort of brush it (childlessness) aside or make believe it is of no consequence. What I try to do is really lift the lid on how many feel about this,” Jager says in an interview.
The very first Jewish commandment in the Torah is to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). The Jewish sages said, “A man who is childless is accounted as dead” (Nedarim 64b), as the biblical verse states, “Rachel realized that she was not bearing any children to Jacob. She was jealous of her sister and said to Jacob, ‘Give me children! If not, let me die!’” (Genesis 30:1).
“If childlessness is seen as a negative or as a punishment in Judaism, if it is so closely identified with Jewish tradition, how do [those who are childless] see their position in Jewish tradition?” Jager asks.
To help answer that question in the 189-page book, which was published by Toby Press, Jager shares his own story of failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments and then embarks on a series of interviews with other childless men. Dan Lobel (a pseudonym) takes the reader through his emotional journey with wife, Tzipi. The couple married slightly older—he was 44 and she was 37—and began IVF treatments two years after they were married.
“It turns out that Tzipi has an unbearable fear of needles, and the IVF process requires that you inject yourself at the same time every day with hormones. She tried it for a while, but just couldn’t do it herself. So Dan would go to her workplace to give her the jab. ‘There we were in the storage room among grimy documents, decaying newspapers and stale, empty beer bottles. Me with the syringe in my hands, Tzipi often bursting into tears. Finally, she just completely dissolved. She couldn’t carry on. I can’t say I was surprised. When Tzipi goes for an immunization, she practically passes out,’” Lobel recalls in the book.
Lobel talks about how he was angry at his wife, himself, and God for a brief period of time, but ultimately concludes that anger is unproductive. The couple decided to go down the adoption path instead. But at the same time, as they were accepted into and approved by the adoption program, Lobel was diagnosed with cancer.
“We were at the cusp of adoption, and God said no,” Lobel tells Jager.
Readers also learn to dispel a widely held myth that IVF treatments are successful in the majority of cases. IVF is expensive, and as many as 75 percent of treatments fail, according to The Pater.
The book’s story of childlessness is interwoven with two additional storylines. One is Jager’s personal memoir of growing up Jewish on New York’s Lower East Side. The other is Jager’s relationship with his own father, a Holocaust survivor, who abandoned the family for Israel when Jager was eight. They reconnect 30 years later when Jager makes aliyah. But the relationship with his Chassidic father is overshadowed by the elderly man’s desire for Jager to have a son, and his refusal to accept that Jager and his wife Lisa feel they have done all they can. The father encourages Jager to visit the graves of holy men and seek divine intervention that will surely end his childlessness. Jager is unwilling.
Jager instead ends his Orthodox Jewish observance (though not solely because of his father)—which he also discusses in the book.
“I grew up in a very traditional Orthodox environment and Orthodoxy demands certain things of you. But I find that a lot of people don’t give a second thought to the philosophy of Orthodoxy. Instead, they focus on minutiae: ‘Am I wearing shatnez?’ or whatever,’” Jager explains. Through his journey of childlessness, Jager says he realized he could not “embrace comfortably” the theological demands that come with being Orthodox.
But he does not encourage everyone to be hard on Judaism (or Orthodox Judaism) in the book. He calls his book “pro-children,” and infuses in his philosophical discussions with other childless men a message that even without children, Jewish life can be rich, beautiful, and meaningful.
“I am not here to give advice,” Jager tells JNS.org. “But I will say that while Judaism places great emphasis on having children, it doesn’t say that if you don’t have children you cannot have a meaningful—or even Jewishly meaningful—life….Men without kids have to work a little harder.”
In the book, Lobel is the one to deliver that message.
“I would say that tikkun olam is definitely a central goal,” Lobel observes, “but that it has to be done, or chiefly done, through children? I can see why people who have children would think that, because it’s really where all their energy and focus go for the best years of their lives. But I don’t think it’s necessarily so.”
He continues, “So what is the meaning of life if you don’t leave anything behind biologically?…I don’t think leaving stuff behind biologically is the only way to leave a lasting legacy.…I would say everything we do can—and should—be tikkun olam….[It is also] about building yourself up, working through your own issues, trying to realize your own spiritual potential on a personal level. And if it’s not going to be through children, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it, or shouldn’t do it.”
Jager dedicated the book to his wife, from whom he said he had complete support in sharing their story. While Jager believes the book demonstrates that he is content and has come to terms with what life has given him, he says the loss of not having a child still hurts daily.
“No matter how successful or fulfilled you are,” Jager says, “no matter how meaningful life is, if you lost a child because of an accident or because you wanted one and never had one, there is still an element of mourning.”