In his new book, author and journalist Elliot Jager reveals his painful and personal story of childlessness from the point of view of an Orthodox man, as he tells Jenni Frazer
Childlessness, if at all discussed in the Jewish community, is almost always approached from the woman’s point of view.
But at Jewish Book Week recently, Elliot Jager looked at what it means to be an Orthodox Jewish man who does not have children.
Jager, an American Jewish journalist, married to a British Jew and living in Jerusalem, has written The Pater, an extraordinary book that is at times painful to read. The Pater is Jager’s 90-year-old father, who lives in Bnei Brak and is devoutly religious, to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life.
He cannot understand, says Jager, why Elliot and his wife, Lisa Clayton, remain childless, and frequently recommends various “miracle- making holy men” who will, effectively, wave a magic wand over the couple.
And it is the Pater’s preoccupation with the issue that leads the reader to curl the lip at the irony. For Anshel Jager, as he was born in Romania, was a Holocaust survivor who washed up in New York after the war, renamed himself Alan, entered a dismal shidduch with Jager’s mother Yvette, and ultimately abandoned the small family when Jager was eight. For more than 30 years Jager had no contact with his father.
The book is as much an examination of Jager’s difficult relationship with his father as it is an assessment of his childlessness and that of a number of other Jewish men, some religious, some not.
Woven in to Jager’s own personal story are the stories of other childless men; some have resigned themselves to the fact that they will have no-one to say Kaddish for them, some are assimilated and don’t care, some use the issue as an opportunity to give back to the community. One man is Jewish, childless, and gay.
Just one man has a story which buys in – coincidentally – to the Pater’s own devotion to superstition, magical formulae and amulets. And it is by far the most irritating account in the book – of which Jager is only too aware.
“This is meant to be a multilayered book about my father, my Judaism and my childlessness”, says Jager, who admits in the book that “my faith fluctuates like a Wi-Fi signal”. Having had a long, strictly Orthodox education in the US, he was mortified to realise that “in Judaism, if you don’t have kids, you’re being punished”. He knew, for example, that as a childless man, he was not allowed to lead services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, although he quickly adds that he doesn’t really want to. But Jager also found that “in Judaism there is a way to do tikkun olam [repairing of the world] without children, though doing it with children is the easiest way.”
Jager’s conclusion is that if the Jewish community is “childcentric, then at a certain level it needs to be very sensitive to people who don’t fit that mould.
“For example, in the Orthodox community, a man doesn’t wear a tallit in shul until he is married. It looks ridiculous for a 45-year-old man who is not married not to wear a tallit. A bit of sensitivity here wouldn’t go amiss.”
As for the Pater, to whom Jager shouts in Yiddish (because he is deaf) during his now-weekly visits, he was not aware that Jager was writing his book.
“He has very little interest in the temporal and the mundane” says his son. The sad thing, adds Jager, “is that you don’t need a licence to have children. There are many worse fathers than my father”.