I thought this was an interesting turn of events in the Haredi community. It seems as though the number of children being born is actually decreasing. According to this article (h/t Failed Messiah) from Haaretz, many families are opting for less children as a means of creating a better quality family. For many women, visions of being in the middle of the pack of 10 or so children was something that they could not impose on their children as well. Other women are asserting their desire for a better quality of life as well, so that they are not merely baby-making machines. They are not expressing any less of a desire for children so much as an increase in their health as well. This article clearly goes a long way to show the varieties within the Charedi community with regard to childbirth. Other discussions about this subject take place below.
Sociologist Tamar Elor, who specializes in the Haredi community, says that in the 1970s, bearing a large number of children was a means for ultra-Orthodox women to distinguish themselves.
According to Prof. Elor, “If you wanted to be outstanding you had to give birth and be a go-getter, a champion and an achiever, to look good and succeed at everything. Today, more venues in which women can excel have opened up – for instance, in education and professional training; there are more women who now focus on careers. This generation of the new ‘superwomen’ felt what it meant to be a mother to 12 children [from their own childhoods]. Nowadays it is more difficult to return to having a big family supported by only one breadwinner. In earlier generations when families were big, [grandparents] were sometimes in a position to help and contribute to the household, but today there is no help.”
Elor acknowledges that “there are families who lived off the allowances and when they were cut, their [financial] situation deteriorated. In the face of poverty, when families are forced to move from one apartment to another … there are those who admit, very quietly, that things cannot go on this way. The power of poverty has hit the Haredi community hard. In the present generation it is difficult to justify being poor in the name of religious piety.”
Moshe Grylak, founder and editor of the Haredi paper Mishpacha (Family ) sees the ultra-Orthodox tradition of having large families as an expression of “a feeling of responsibility for the Jewish people,” which must fight what it sees as a demographic threat.
“I remember that after the Yom Kippur War there was a general surge in births,” he says. “It was seen as expressing a fear of ‘extinction.’ But today, the low birthrate among the public at large and the fact that women are giving birth later reflect indifference, hedonism and a feeling of everyone for himself. The Haredi community, on the other hand, still feels committed to the struggle.”
Grylak adds that “the women have taken this upon themselves … The rabbis never said women must keep having children; and even in the [women’s religious] seminaries there was no such explicit statement.” However, he adds, “competition has developed: ‘You have six, I have eight.’ Like men who lift weights to prove who is manlier, women want to show they have more children. It is true that in a closed society like ours, where it is difficult to make a living and help is not always available, this sometimes causes problems.”
While Grylak generally does not see a dramatic change in the trend of having many children – “Nothing has changed around me,” he asserts – a younger man who is very active in the Haredi community, and preferred to speak anonymously, says: “It is known that the great granddaughter of an important rabbi in Bnei Brak told that rabbi, ‘I do not want to give birth now’ – and he told her, ‘No problem, wait for two years.’ There is a sense that ‘the generations have changed.’ One can no longer demand that women have a lot of children and also work from morning to night. More than once you see couples with four or five children, and that is not always because of problems of fertility. Today every rabbi authorizes contraceptives, even after the first child and not just when there is a health problem. If a woman asks for it, it means she’s having a tough time.”