Younger American Jews’ individualistic attitudes are shaped both by American Millennial social networks and the norms and values of a broader Western culture, which often work to undermine conventional familial bonds.
This phenomenon is of course not limited to Jews. In March 2015, one day apart, two highly regarded New York Times columnists – one a moderate conservative and the other a perennial liberal – agreed on the devastating impact of the fading of family norms among significant segments of the American population. David Brooks’ March 10 column, “The Cost of Relativism”13 discussed Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. Nicholas Kristoff’s “When Liberals Blew It” on March 11,14 commemorated the anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report that attributed poverty among African-Americans in part to weakened family patterns. The two columns made powerful overlapping points. According to Brooks, American society is missing “Norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens.” Unlike liberals’ emphasis on autonomy or Cohen and Eisen’s Sovereign Jewish Self,15 Brooks argues that societies need internalized rules, behaviors you don’t think about. But today, “There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.” Kristoff, despite his identification with the liberal camp, accused his fellow liberals of making discussions of family norms off limits for progressive Americans, undermining long-standing emphases on family formation and family continuity, with extremely adverse consequences, as Moynihan had noted in the case of African-Americans.
When considering changes in family formation patterns, two possible vantage points could be adopted. One area of concern is that of larger societies throughout the developed world as they confront the prospect of fewer children. Analysts focusing on the needs of the social group, community, or country involved focus on the economic, political, and security implications when, according to recent figures, birth rates have fallen to 1.4 in Italy, 1.34 in Greece, and 1.39 in Japan. The profound social concerns of these figures are discussed by reviewer Garret Keizer as he comments on “a generation’s failure to generate”.16
A second – and very different – vantage point focuses on the personal impact of family formation decisions on the individuals involved. In the United States, this type of discussion is actually entered into relatively infrequently, as many Americans seem uncomfortable with the conversation. For example, in 2002, Sylvia Anne Hewlett published Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career,17 urging women to plan for parenthood with the same realism and awareness of the facts they planned their careers. Within days of its publication, Elizabeth Cohen of CNN’s Medical Unit reported (April 17, 2002)18 on the swift negative response to Hewlett as a putatively anti-woman conservative whose primary goal was to “scare” women into parenthood. In fact, Hewlett’s stated purpose was to encourage women to make realistic life decisions, but the notoriety she experienced may well have dissuaded others from speaking out in support of her positions.
It is important for American Jews to study and think about patterns of family formation from both vantage points – that of larger Jewish societies and that of Jewish individuals.
Among younger American Jews today, the number of children born is below replacement level. As Steven Cohen, Jack Ukeles, and Ron Miller found in the 2011 study of the New York Jewish population: hasidim had an average of about 6 children; the yeshivish (non-hasidic ultra-Orthodox) had an average of about 5 children; while Modern Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers had an average of 2.5 children per family. The non-Orthodox averaged only 1.5 children, not far from the 1.7 figure calculated by Pew researchers for the national non-Orthodox population.19
In contrast, as Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola reminds us, like the Israeli society around them, hiloni or self-described secular couples are far more pro-natalist than their American or European counterparts. Even hiloni Israeli couples aspire to having between three and four children, and actually give birth to almost three children per family (2.7-2.8).20 Secular Israeli couples’ high birthrates demonstrate the powerful effect of social norms and social contagion – the impact of the people we know and the larger society.21
In all areas of family formation – fertility, cohabitation before marriage, timing of marriage, female labor force participation – the norms and attitudes of one’s social circles exert considerable influence.22
But most well educated Americans – including American Jews, by and large – are hesitant to discuss fertility. Symptomatic of this discomfort is the vocal critique of Hewlett and other pro-natalists, while only conservative columnists such as Ross Douthat23 write recent columns entitled, “More Babies, Please.”24 The lack of individual urgency regarding childbearing echoes and is echoed by conversations in magazines and the electronic media. During the past ten years, popular periodicals and other media outlets have publicized a plethora of triumphalist stories with one punchline: Don’t believe the “scare” stories – you can have a baby much later than you think. But recent medical literature tells a different story: Sara Rosenthal clarifies rates of infertility according to recent research: according to recent figures, between 3 to 5 percent of women in their 20s experience infertility, climbing to 8 percent between the ages of 30 to 34, 15 percent at ages 35 to 39, 32 percent at ages 40 to 44, and 69 percent at ages 45 to 49. 25
American Jewish communal and religious leaders have rightly been concerned with the rising proportion of Jews marrying across religious and cultural boundaries. But while intermarriage animates (often heated) discussions,26 far less attention has been paid to the fact that numerous Jews marry so late that they don’t have easy access to appropriate Jewish partners, and often are not physically able to bear the children they had hoped for. Recently, the norms of marriage and raising Jewish children have retreated in the face of extended singleness, non-marriage, and – planned or unplanned – childlessness.27 Considering the implications for American Jewry as well as the implications for American Jews, patterns of courtship, marriage, and fertility are aspects of American Jewish life that would benefit from thoughtful analysis.