Monday, May 25, 2009

Sixth Generation and the Defeat of Demography

The Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has just had a great-great-great-grandson. That means, his grandson is now a great grandfather. Or if you prefer, his great-grandson is now a grandfather.

The Rav is either 99 or 100 years old (there seem to be no witnesses left to confirm which), so if you do the maths you'll see that such a thing is possible, so long as each generation gives birth at 20, or even if one generation misses but the next recompenses by starting at 18.

Elyashiv, the most important Rabbi in the Misnaged (non-Hassidic) part of the Ashkenzi Haredi world, and as the patron of some of the Haredi MKs also an influential political figure, is by all accounts lucid, active and thus aware of his new status, though I'd be surprised if he can keep track of all his descendants. He and his wife had 12 children; one was killed in the War of Independence and another died in infancy, but all the others so far as I know had children. But then, his contemporary, Benzion Netanyahu, also closing in on 100 and lucid, doesn't have any great grandchildren at all, so far as I know, and by the time they get born and become grandparents the present generation of Elyashivs will easily be ahead by another six generations.

The story of the Haredi fecundity is truly an oddity. Those of you who have studied demography know that the demographers have their models, and along with the sociologists and others they have all sorts of neat explanations for why birthrates rise and fall; I remember when I took some courses about this it all sounded plausible. Nothing I learned then explained how an entire section of society, living in a country with modern medical facilities and low rates of child deaths, could have a birthrate that rises from generation to generation over generations. And no, it's not Israel's willingness to subsidize their children, because that willingness flows and ebbs according to the Haredi MK's ability to coerce the government while the birthrate rises steadily; anyway, the Haredi birthrate in America is also consistently high. It's not economics, because extraordinarily wealthy Haredi billionaires have lots of children, and impoverished ones with five kids in one room also do. And no, having Haredi women enter the marketplace doesn't seem to make much difference, either. There's a whole brigade of 30-something Haredi women trained as system analyst-types in the high-tech world (my experience has consistently been that they outsmart everyone in sight), and each of them has six or eight children alongside her career.

If I had to name one single reason for all this, my guess would be the Holocaust. The Haredis are trying to refill. There's ample anecdotal evidence for this, of course, but I doubt anyone has proven it.


annie said...

I'm not so sure it's the Holocaust, otherwise the Jewish birthrate in all segments of society would have risen dramatically immediately after the Holocaust, which it didn't except in religious circles. The reason to my mind is fulfilling the mitzva of Pru u'revu (be fruitful and multiply) which the religious, and the Haredim in particular, fulfil to the utmost. And with the advances in modern technology and medicine, most of the children survive to adulthood, something which was not common before the early to mid-20th century.

ShrinkWrapped said...

I suspect that an important reason is that the Haredi still believe in the future. Secular Jews, in adopting operational atheism in concert with the increased narcissism of the post-war baby boomers (this is primarily about American Jews since that is who I know best) do not believe in a future that doesn't include them. In such a case, why sacrifice current pleasures for your children's future? (Please note, this is an unconscsiou dynamic that leads to one or two child families, where the two children can get all the best that money can buy. More than two children requires accepting personal limitations and sacrifices for the parents.)

Anonymous said...

No birth control. Better access to health care. Better diet.


Joe in Australia said...

Large families in Haredi circles are a source of status for both the parents and the kids. There aren't many ways to display your family in secular culture. You can take the family to Disneyland but will any of your neighbours see you there? If you take your kids to a sports match you're there with only one or two of them. There really aren't public events where the whole family appears. Status in the secular world comes from money and connections - and kids hurt both your wealth and your ability to socialise.

In contrast, Haredim have lots of family events. Being a single guy means that you're pitied; being a paterfamilias is a source of status. Every shabbat or moed is a reminder of this. Of course you want to have kids: it means that you're a substantial person and that your kids come from a substantial family. So not only do you want to have kids, but your own kids want to have siblings. It's a virtuous cycle.