Bearing the Chosen Children: continuity and the South African Jewish Community

By Gabriella Saven (This article first appeared on on 24 March 2022 and is republished with permission)

Babies are always on my mind. Not because I have any, or plan on having one soon, but because as a young South African Jewish woman whose identity revolves around family and community, conversations around reproduction can feel ubiquitous.

My Honours thesis explored reproductive attitudes in the South African Jewish community amongst self-identifying progressive women. Despite a growing field of reproductive research in South Africa and abroad, there is little research into the intersections of reproduction and religion. I asked how progressive Jewish women in Cape Town reconcile communal expectations around gender and reproduction with their secular and progressive outlooks. 

But this question is merely one part of our understanding of South African Jewish continuity, the role of women in our community, and the paradox of our community’s simultaneous interest in and seeming apprehension around open discussion of reproductive issues like adoption and infertility. ​

Though diverse in its interpretation, to the Jewish community reproduction essentially means ‘survival’. Considering that the Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (2019) (JCSSA) ‘strongly suggests the South African Jewish population size is considerably smaller than most current estimates indicate’, the question of ‘survival’ becomes that much more pressing. The maintenance of our community’s highly organised structures and remarkable vibrancy depends on deeper engagement with issues that are leading to demographic and affiliative decline, including that of reproduction. 

​Reproduction and Jewish continuity are complex and emotive topics. This is not a condemnation of any sector of the South African Jewish community, nor a suggestion that the experiences of my study’s participants are representative of the experiences of all South African Jewish women. Instead, the purpose of this article is to draw from the findings of my study in order to encourage dialogue and inclusion when it comes to reproductive experiences, particularly those considered to be on the ‘fringes’ of the Jewish community, for example LGBTQIA+ community members, adoptive parents, and those who choose not to have children. Additionally, some heteronormative assumptions on how reproduction “should look” and how the “natural order” of life should evolve (find a match, get married, have babies…) need to be challenged and certain contextualisation needs to be made so that we are able to have these conversations in nuanced ways.

First, the female reproductive body is inherently connected to women’s social identities insomuch as “Women’s ability to bear children has become their externalised signifier, and the place that they have come to occupy within society is derived from their wombs”. This statement is true for South African Jewish community where many women of childbearing age are expected, at least, to be considering when they will start to have babies. This is especially true for married women in heterosexual relationships. 

Second, for Jewish South African women, reliance on black women for domestic labour has allowed greater freedoms and opportunities for Jewish women to prioritise careers, leisure time and involvement in communal development as compared to other South African and Jewish diasporic communities. The assumption of paid, child-rearing assistance has altered our perception of reproduction and child-rearing. The way Jews have children in South Africa is deeply connected to the presence of black women — who often have to leave their own families and children — employed by white women.

Third, Judaism’s ‘preoccupation’ with reproduction originates in the first mitzvah, ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Though intended for men, the implications for women are obvious. Culturally, the expectation on women to ‘continue’ Jewish lineage remains dominant and is intensified by the memory of the Shoah, fears around assimilation, and Orthodox Judaism’s matrilineage. This is further exacerbated by a global Jewish preoccupation with Jewish continuity. 

Lastly, this expectation provides further challenges for women who contribute to the social and cultural but not necessarily the biological reproduction of Judaism, including those unable to have biological children (or who choose not to), queer womxn and unmarried women.

But continuity, and survival, are big words. What then is the relevance of studying, understanding and discussing reproduction in our community? Why are the opinions of an unmarried Jewish woman with no children important? 

Our community is facing a reproductive crisis, but one that has been conceived narrowly as biological rather than encompassing the metaphorical reproduction of culture and identity. All South African Jews need to be responsible for the latter, irrespective of gender identity or parental status. 

As opportunities for Jewish women increase, professionally, economically, politically and socially, the prioritisation of biological reproduction is changing. For many in the community, the “Nice Jewish Girl” narrative is being disrupted. As one of my study’s participants put it, “[T]here was this wonderful Roy Lichtenstein poster that I once had with a woman putting her hand to her forehead and saying, ‘Oh my god, I nearly forgot to have children!’”. With this shift, comes a shift in our understandings of womanhood, femininity, gender, sexuality, and family structures. 

What to do then? If we do, in fact, need increased birth rates to address our reproductive crisis, how do we encourage reproduction without placing excessive, gendered pressure on women in our community?

There are many methods that could encourage inclusive and increased reproduction. Some examples include organised community organisations further advocating for and embracing LGBTQIA+ community members; greater cooperation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities on issues of Jewish continuity and reproduction; the acceptance of adopted children as Jewish by virtue of their adoption; and lowering the cost of communal education. According to the JCSSA, as a result of the cost of a Jewish education, “almost two out of five households (39%) with school-age children” consider in “their decision to limit the number of children they chose to have.” To ensure South African Jewish continuity, educationally, our community schools should be educating on gender, sexuality and family structures that extend beyond Orthodoxy. According to the JCSSA, sexual identity/orientation and gender make up around 14% of those who felt “Not very well accepted” or “Not accepted at all” by the Jewish community. This could incentivise many young people to stay in South Africa and affiliated to Judaism, knowing that there are spaces in the community for variance of identity and Jewish expression. 

Representation of our community’s women also matters. Women need to be further empowered in Jewish communal leadership. Currently, according to the JCSSA, men are twice as likely as women to be board members of Jewish communal organisations (10% of men versus 5% of women). Women need to be seen not only as supportive wives and mothers, but as valued members of the community. 

Perhaps most importantly, we need to initiate more open conversations around reproduction. We must talk about infertility; pregnancy termination; reproductive healthcare; the fact that not all women want children; single fathers; single parent households; and queer parenting. 

Expanding and opening these conversations will not only allow our community to better live in accord with the constitutional values of dignity, equality and freedom on which the South African democracy is built, but to fulfil the promise given to us as Jews to be “numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore”.

​Gabriella Saven is the Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Initiative and is passionate about youth development within the Jewish community. Having completed her undergraduate in Law and Politics & Governance, and Honours in Development Studies at UCT, this year she will study an MSc in Security Studies at University College London. 

Published in the PDF edition of the May 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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