Buoying the American Jewish population

Good luck piecing this family tree together. That’s the first thing I thought when I saw this story in The New York Times about Yitta Schwartz, who died last month and left as many as 2,000 living descendants. The next thing I thought was that this story seemed like quite the one-upping of Rachel Krishevsky, who when she died in September was said to have 1,400 descendants.

NYT reporter Joseph Berger wrote:

“She would appear like the Prophet Elijah,” said one of her daughters, Nechuma Mayer, who at 64 is her sixth-oldest living child, and who has 16 children and more than 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “Everybody was fighting over her!”

There were so many occasions that, to avoid scheduling conflicts, one of her sons was assigned to keep a family calendar. But her family insists that Mrs. Schwartz had no trouble remembering everyone’s name and face.

Like many Hasidim, Mrs. Schwartz considered bearing children as her tribute to God. A son-in-law, Rabbi Menashe Mayer, a lushly bearded scholar, said she took literally the scriptural command that “You should not forget what you saw and heard at Mount Sinai and tell it to your grandchildren.”

But as I read on, my attention to turned to what was missing from Joseph Berger’s article. In a word: context.

To be sure, Berger did some of the necessary reporting, noting that Schwartz, a Satmar Hasid, AKA a Jewish denizen of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., felt a religious obligation to be fruitful and multiply. He also provided a nice portrait of Schwartz’s life, from her birth in Hungary to her time at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to her making six loaves of challah each Shabbat. But what about the bigger picture? Here is a woman who had 15 children. Why so many when, for the past few decades, the Jewish birth rate has been less than two?

There are many reasons for the declining Jewish population. (One was hinted at in Mollie’s post this morning.) And the phenomenon is neither mystery nor secret. From a 2002 AP article:

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found 5.2 million Jews live in the United States, compared to 5.5 million a decade ago. Their median age rose from 37 to 41 in the same period, fueling concern that the faith is not being passed down to a younger generation. …

Researchers found Jews are having fewer children than needed to keep the population stable. Half of Jewish women age 30-34 have no children, compared to 27% of all American women. Nearly half of American Jews are age 45 or older.

So here was Yitta Schwartz, on a one-woman mission, to save the Jewish people. Actually, she is a member of a part of the Jewish community that is by itself buoying the American Jewish population

Was this essential to the story? No. But it certainly would have added a lot of context.

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  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    WOW! What an amazing woman!

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    Very large families are common in Hasidic families where they feel a need to counteract the Holocaust by repopulating Judaism. (They see the low birthrate and intermarriages of secular Jews as finishing what Hitler started.) One of my clients, a mother of four, comes from a family of 17 and despite difficult personal health issues feels compelled to not close off the possibility of future multiple children. Women in this community may get rabbinical permission to use birth control but may not let their husbands know for religious reasons- if I understand the reason it is so the men will not treat the sexual act with less sacredness than if pregnancy were not a possibility.

    But all this context is probably more than the NY Times needed to say. Anyway I was delighted to read this story and the story on the breast whisperer in the same online edition of the Times.


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