Tuesday, July 26, 2005

"We have six."

Warning—extremely long post. I truly hope that it doesn't also prove to be offensive.

This is a thoroughly inappropriate joke with which to open the topic at hand, I know. But, as we say in the world of science fiction fans, “Resistance is futile.” :)

Here’s Vir, assistant to the ambassador from the Centauri Republic, trying to explain to the Babylon 5 space station’s second in command, Commander Susan Ivanova, what the difference is between human and Centauri sexuality:

“We have six.”

Can you hear Ivanova’s jaw hit the floor?

Alright, enough of that foolishness. It’s time for me to get serious.

All my life, I’ve harbored a bitter resentment against my parents for having had, quite clearly, more children than they could afford.

My brothers, being, respectively, two and four years younger than I, don’t remember this, but I do, and I’m sure my older sister does, too: There was a time when my parents were so broke that they rationed orange juice. We were allowed to drink only one glass per day, because they couldn’t afford any more.

And Chanukah presents? We got underwear as Chanukah presents. That’s right. Underwear. Because we needed it anyway, and so, they could just wrap it up in wrapping paper and pass it off as a present. And we had to thank them for it, too. I have no doubt that they were saving what little money they had to buy presents to give to the cousins (and us) at our annual family Chanukah party so that they wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of the entire extended family. I wonder whether that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t stayed in touch with my cousins. It’s certainly the reason why, when the Punster said that it wasn’t his own family’s minhag (custom) to give presents every night of Chanukah, I readily acquiesced to giving only one present. Better to save our money for one reasonably decent present than ever to put my son through what I went through on Chanukah.

Years ago, when I was honored by my former synagogue for being a member of the Board of Trustees, Ritual Committee, choir, and other committees, this is what I wrote about growing up:

“Imagine my surprise when I moved to New York, the alleged U.S. capital of Jewish cuisine, and discovered that I couldn't find a rice knish in any of its boroughs. "How did you learn to make rice knishes?" I asked my grandmother. She shrugged off the question. "We had no money, and rice was cheaper than potatoes."

No money‑‑that was just a simple fact of life when I was growing up.

Shabbat in my family was a study in contrasts between the ideal and the reality. On Friday night, my mother lit the Shabbat candles and recited the b'rachah, my father chanted kiddush over kosher wine, and we all said motzi collectively over challah before eating. But my parents had four children to support. With the dawn came the end of Shabbat for my father, as he left for work. And, in those days, when the supermarkets' business hours coincided almost exactly with my mother's work hours, Mom had little choice but to drop us kids off at shul on the way to do her week's worth of grocery shopping for six.”

“No money.” That’s what being a member of what was considered a large family in the neighborhood in which I grew up meant. Rationed orange juice. Hand-me-down clothing. Undies as Chanukah presents. Parents who worked and/or shopped on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and couldn’t afford a lulav and etrog. And worst of all, the year in which my parents were so flat broke that not only did I have to give up my belovèd ballet lessons, I also had to ask for, and receive, permission to sit in the front row in school, because, by the time my parents could finally afford to buy me a new pair of glasses, I could no longer see the chalkboard from any farther back in the classroom.

Okay, so we weren’t exactly destitute. We were lower middle class. With the emphasis on the “lower.” Our poverty was relatively genteel. Still our relative lack of money was obvious enough to me to make me forever self-conscious about differences between my own financial status and that of others, to make me feel, always, like the “poor relation,” to make me feel uncomfortable visiting people who aren’t even the least bit pretentious, just because they happen to live on Central Park West.

The upshot, in the long run, is that, all my life, I’ve harbored a virulent prejudice against the parents of large families.

Why would any parents want to put their children through that?

How could they do such a thing? How could they be so thoughtless as to bring into the world more children than they could reasonably expect to be able to support? What were they thinking? Were they thinking, at all? Or were they just being selfish, with no concern for the consequences of their actions?

My bias got worse in the seventies, with the advent of the Zero Population Growth movement. How could they be so thoughtless as to have more children than the planet could afford?

And the eighties and nineties added further icing to this bitter cake, as I turned against my people—forgive me for speaking in the singular, but this really is about me, alone—and protested: How can they play off one mitzvah, one commandment, against another? Just because the Torah says “P’ru u-r’vu, Be fruitful and multiply,” does that mean that it doesn’t also say “Lo tignov, You must not steal”? I’m not heartless. If you become ill or disabled, if you have an accident or find yourself between jobs, of course I’ll help you take care of your children. But to go out of your way to have 10 kids knowing in advance that there’s no way that you could ever possibly support them yourself, and just nonchalantly assume that it’s my responsibility, as Charlie Taxpayer, to do it for you?!!! The chutzpah! The nerve! I don’t care who else is doing that. You’re my people, and what you’re doing is g’névah, theft, pure and simple. It’s against halachah, Jewish religious law. It’s unethical, on general principles. And, to boot, it makes our community look bad in the eyes of others, or, as we say in Yiddish, it’s “a shanda fir di goyim.”

And that’s why one of the most unexpected changes that I’ve undergone in becoming a member in reasonably good standing of Olam HaBlog, the Jewish blogosphere, is that, gradually, I’ve found the parents of large families in our community becoming, for lacking of a better term, “rehumanized” in my own eyes.

One of the most beautiful passages in all the haftarot, and the only one that invariably brings tears to my eyes, is this one, from the haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), from Jeremiah/Yirmiyahu, chapter 31, starting at verse 15:

“Ko amar HaShem, ‘Kol b’Ramah nishma, n’hiy b’chiy tam’rurim, Rachel m’vacah al banehah, méanah l’hinachem al banehah, ki énenu.’”

“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not [do not exist].”

The photo still throws me—a mother, a father, and ten kids, the oldest one old enough for college (or maybe older), the youngest literally a babe in his mother’s arms.

But the description, written by a friend of the family, herself a mother of six, silences me. Sisters, weeping, holding one another, passing a younger sister from lap to lap, from sister to sister, from one relative to another relative, from family friend to family friend. Like Rachel in reverse, they refuse to be comforted because their mother is not, because she no longer exists. Because she died all too young, tragically killed in a truck-car collision.

This ”mother and father in Israel” made their choice years ago. And some of the “results” of that “election” are now “in.”

Sisters supporting sisters. Families supporting families. And the larger family—the community—supporting a family in need.

The larger community. A family of families. Ten kids. Five kids. Nine kids. Six kids. Eight kids. Seven kids.

Auf simchas,” said a friend of the family, himself a father of six. “Only joyous occasions”—we should be blessed never to have such sad times.

And this, from a friend of one of the newly-motherless sisters, herself one of six siblings:

“i keep trying to write a song for a friend of mine, whose mother passed away recently in a car accident...but i can't work on it for more than forty-five minutes at a time without bottoming out. i'm beginning to wonder if it's even worth the attempt...i want to write something comforting, that will help her, not depress her even more. but i don't know how.”

They have a term for that in the Torah community. They call it midot, “attributes,” character traits. I see two. Midat chesed, the character trait of kindness. U-midat rachamim, and the character trait of compassion.

And what about the rest of the time?

Three brothers in a kosher pizzeria keeping their youngest sister out of trouble by having one brother hold her in his arms. “You’re a crazy kid,” he says, grinning. “Crazy kid” grins back.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Absolutely nothing.

And that’s what’s so surprising to me.

I’ve always resented bitterly the fact that my parents had two kids more than they could support. Or maybe even three. Heck, maybe I shouldn’t be here, either. I’ve always been convinced that the reason why my sister never wanted kids, and never had any, was that she got so sick and tired of sharing everything with the other three of us that she decided she’d never share anything with anyone again.

No, it isn’t easy, being responsible for younger siblings. It was no picnic for my older sister.

No, it isn’t easy scrounging up the money, either. After my father broke his leg and was disabled for several months and my mother went back to work, she decided that she would never be a stay-at-home mother again, because, heaven forbid anything should happen to our father, she wouldn’t have enough work experience to be able to support us.

But the truth of the matter is that I do love my brothers. I even love my sister, occasionally, when she’s not being a condescending know-it-all noodge. Sigh.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the patently obvious fact that the number of children that a person chooses to have (or not to have) and the reasons for that choice are none of anyone else’s bleeping business. I include myself in that criticism. I remember all too well—and not particularly fondly—how my fellow and sister congregants nagged me half to death, and my mother nagged me more gently, to have a second child despite the fact that I was barely managing to be something remotely resembling a passable mother to the one borderline-hyperactive heck-raiser whom I already had.

Leaving that fact aside, the truth is that, a year ago, I would have said that anyone who had more than three children was out of his and/or her mind, inconsiderate of the larger community, and not terribly concerned about the earth’s ecology, either.

Well, I’m hardly paragon of virtue, but I would hope that my current state of ambivalence is at least a small improvement over my former state of flat-out condemnation.

“We have six.”

Can I get back to you on that?


Blogger Barefoot Jewess said...

well, okay, it was a long post so I did not read it all.

If it helps at all, I came from a working class family where presents were kinda scarce, yet meaningful.

It totally sucks to be in any family without means, and perhaps, without love. Know that you are not alone. I don't have resentment as much as just really being disappointed at the hand that was dealt to me.

I have seen families, now, that just make me ache. It hurts, and all I can do is live it. You are not alone.

Wed Jul 27, 12:26:00 AM 2005  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

That was a beautiful post, Shira.

Kena Hora, I can support what I have. No trips to Maui, but...

We rise to the occasion. We accept the challenges that the Almighty gives us.

Between the Holocaust and assimilation, my family has a lot of catching up to do, and I'm just doing my part.

BTW that's a great B5 reference.

Wed Jul 27, 02:58:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

barefoot jewess, I know a thing or two about coming from a working class family. The best job my father ever had was as a mail sorter with the Post Office.

To me, the equation was always lots of kids = little money. There was plenty of love to go around, I'm happy to say. But no amount of love could make up for the fact that I went a year without new glasses because my folks couldn't afford to pay for them.

Wed Jul 27, 09:35:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Mark, thanks.

And I'm always happy to throw in a good B5 quote. :)

I'm fortunate enough not to have had a family that was directly affected by the Holocaust. To be honest, I wasn't thinking in terms of either replacing those lost in the Shoah or trying to replace the assimilated--being half assimilated myself--when I decided, long before I met the Punster, not to have more than 2 kids. For me, it was just a matter of not risking having more kids than I could support. It's amazing, what going blind, more or less, for lack of money to buy new glasses can do to one's perspective.

Wed Jul 27, 10:01:00 PM 2005  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I've heard the family size gene skips a generation. People from big families have small families and vice versa.

My partner comes from a family of 12. He has one kid.

And it's the first time I've had my family compared to Alien Genitalia.

Thu Jul 28, 12:08:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

So I shouldn't be shocked if my kid decides that kids are cheaper by the dozen.

As to the alien, uh, er, never mind. Okay, guilty as charged. :)

Sat Jul 30, 10:47:00 PM 2005  

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