A number of well-known international groups are very unhappy with my wife and me.
We are, you see, “multi-children” parents, violators of both the law of averages and the sensibilities of folks like those at Zero Population Growth and other such organizations. Yes, my wife and I helped contribute, even more than most American parents, to the world population’s recent passing of the six billion mark.
Many of our friends, for the most part Orthodox Jews like us, have similarly chosen to raise large families, sometimes with six, seven, even ten or more children. To others, we must seem at best unbalanced, at worst irresponsible, for our choices – choices we regarded, and still regard, as entirely wise and proper.
Those who disapprove are entitled to their opinion, of course. But it can become irksome when strangers, confronted with the sight of my beloved family, offer unsolicited judgments.
The smiles and even the pointing fingers don’t bother me; I try to follow the Talmud’s dictum to judge others favorably, to assume the best: here, that the smilers and pointers are happy for us. But commentators like the fellow in the airport who snidely query-editorialized, “Catholic or careless?” leave very little room for good will. (“Jewish and caring,” I responded; it was all I could summon at the moment.)
And then there was what was probably my personal nadir of incivility, years ago in a California supermarket, when a severe-looking lady with an unmistakably Teutonic accent scolded a much younger and brasher me – wheeling a daughter-filled double stroller – with a humorless comment, something like, “Well YOU certainly don’t believe in population control!”
On that occasion, I must admit, I was inexcusably rude. My Polish-born father and father-in-law each had siblings who never managed to make it out of young adulthood, thanks to some folks’ efficient determination to starve, shoot, gas or burn them. Several of my children carry the names of those unmet great-aunts and great-uncles.
Maybe it was the matron’s accent that sent me, relatively speaking, over the edge. “When I reach six million,” I heard myself intone through clenched teeth, “I’ll consider stopping.”
Though I think that, over the years, I have become more understanding of others’ dismay at large families, I haven’t quite managed to bring myself to regret that particular retort, graceless though it was.
As it happens, though, the Fraulein was quite right. My wife and I are unrepentant infidels when it comes to the ZPG movement. The “expert” predictions in the 1960s about a world swarming with wall-to-wall humanity within a decade or two have proven silly. And although new claims have emerged about a future “population crisis”, they, like their predecessors, are impelled more by ideology than by empirical evidence. One need do no more than take a drive across the vast empty spaces even within our own relatively crowded country to realize how lightly populated the planet really is.
And, if that doesn’t do the trick, return across Canada.
A subsequent stroll, moreover, down any Manhattan, Chicago or Los Angeles restaurant-row, taking note of the prodigious amounts of food daily discarded in modern cities, would be an equally eye-opening experience. Human malnutrition, informed folk know, is the result not of new babies but of old problems. Humans still starve, tragically, at the turn of the millennium not because there is too little food but because of poor management, inefficient distribution and – perhaps primarily – because of the unconcern (or worse) of other humans.
In any event, much more than disbelief in doomsday scenarios or determination to re-establish truncated genealogies figures in my wife’s and my choice of a large family. We would have endeavored no less even if Canada resembled Calcutta, even if the Holocaust had been only a bad horror film instead of history, even if we had needed to pull names for our children from the void.
For our faith-system, that of all Jews’ ancestors over millennia, views procreation in and of itself as the holiest of endeavors, and children as the greatest of blessings. And when it comes to blessings, as most folk seem to naturally (though less aptly, to my lights) understand with regard to the monetary sort – the more, the merrier. How ironic, I often reflect: Were children shares of blue-chip stocks, my wife and I would be regarded with neither disapproval nor curiosity but envy.
Which is not to say that having children is, in the end, a self-serving vocation. It is true that life offers no joy remotely approaching the resplendent sight, at the end of a long, hard day, of a joyous, squeaking two-year-old face one has loved since its appearance on earth bobbing above a pair of little arms opened wide. But the challenges of raising children, especially several times the average number of children per family, are considerable. Barring a lottery-win, my family won’t ever retain a housekeeper or own a boat – or, for that matter, a road vehicle that someone else hasn’t driven for 50,000 or 60,000 miles first. And any disposable income we manage to amass is quickly absorbed by one or another worthy but costly educational institution.
At the same time, though, and above all else, we believe with our hearts and souls that our children are gifts beyond all earthly value. And my wife and I are doing all in our power to help ensure that our progeny will use their precious lives for the good of their fellow Jews and of humanity.
So if you should find yourself at a playground or highway rest stop and spy a group of Jewish kids of various ages who seem to resemble one another, please don’t think their parents irresponsible. Try to remember that a profound commitment and deep love likely lie behind the striking sight.
And if it should happen to be my family, we’ll all do our part, and try to interpret any smiles we elicit as expressions of delight.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as public affairs director of Agudath Israel.