Let’s begin on a happy note: “shepping nachas.” Almost all of us understand, at some level, what that’s about – even though I would be hard-pressed to define what the verb sheppen “to shep” means, or even to figure out its derivation. We generally understand that you can’t do it for yourself. Even if you created a gadget that would block out cell-phone reception within fifty feet of you in all directions so that you could get some peace and quiet on a bus; and you won some prestigious award for this invention, you personally wouldn’t be “shepping nachas.” But let your grandchild recite two lines in the school play, you are free to “shep” away to your heart’s content.
That said, is “nachas” something which is quantifiable? Could somebody create a nachometer to measure the joy one is entitled to receive for something that happens? Then, you might ask, what is the most nachas that the average family might be able to receive – short of a member winning the Nobel Prize or being elected President?
Do you want to max out, or come within a fraction of an inch of doing so, on your nachas score? Here’s all you have to do. Attend the bat mitzvah party for your great-grand-daughter and be of sufficiently sound mind to enjoy it and well enough to get there on your own two feet. That’s it. Simple. Oh, you say, that as of this moment you’re not up to that stage in life? We’re not either. But you have to admit that, if you were, you’d be in the red zone on our make-believe machine. Of course, if one were to attend the wedding of this same great-grand-daughter………..
Some people get to be in that enviable position (at least the bat mitzvah part). One of them is Bracha Habshush, the matriarch of a family which Barbara met in 1967 and I became introduced to in 1980. At that time, Mrs. Habshush, the widow of the esteemed Temeni Rabbi Ohad Shalom Habshush – who had supported his family by running a small grocery store – was still living in the small apartment in the Yemenite neighborhood adjacent to Meah Shearim in which they had raised nine children, some of whom had to be farmed out to the homes of other family members because there wasn’t enough room at home for all of them to sleep. In 1980, the family was small enough, though, to gather in the large room of the apartment for Shabbat meals, which were prepared on a neft burner in a kitchen the size of your bathroom – maybe a little smaller – and eaten on a table carried through the streets of Jerusalem by one of the sons.
Let’s fast forward to a Tuesday afternoon in February 2011, and hundreds of people – cousins, close and distant, friends of the family, classmates of the celebrant – were gathered in a large room at the Park Hotel, one of several in a row on Jerusalem’s Sderot Herzl, for the bat mitzvah party for Sheni, the daughter of Yitzchak and Tzurit, the daughter of Bracha’s daughter Zehava. Knowing all of the siblings and having been to numerous Habshush clan celebrations over the years, I recognized most of the cast of characters. As I often do at these events, I look around and consider how the generational goings-on of the Habshush family fit into the broader context of how this wonderful country has grown and prospered. The delicious food we ate (as good as Sephardic cuisine gets) did not have to be prepared by family members as it would have once upon a time, and no one had to bring extra tables with them for all the invited guests. No, this extended Yemenite family has not become wealthy, but they are prospering because the State of Israel is thriving – despite all claims to the contrary.
But the family is having its simchas at banquet halls these days not just because they can afford it; they need the room. The six Habshush children living in The Land and their spouses have spawned over thirty grandchildren, who with their spouses have already produced……… Just do the math. Bracha, who needs to know, has a notebook with the names and birthdates of all her progeny; she showed it to us one day when we visited her in her apartment in Efrat, upstairs from the large home in which Noga, Yehoshua, and their children live. But, as all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren share the same strong Habshush genes, Bracha sometimes has trouble telling them apart. That’s what makes this country so different from many western nations, the sheer number of children turning into adults in front of your very eyes.
“The sheer number of children……” Most mornings I recite my morning prayers in front of the window of our living room and I can look out to a street, parts of Ma’ale Adumim, the neighboring Arab town, and the highway to Jerusalem. Right below us is a parking lot with ten spots, parallel to each other and perpendicular to the curb (like the supermarket lots in New Jersey). Here the spots are rather narrow, and it’s almost never that ten cars manage to squeeze in. But at 8AM, there’s a constant stream of vehicles coming in and out. A mother or a father will get out of the car and get his child or children out of the back seat and bring them either to the Leumit Clinic or to the gan (day care center) which shares the building. All kinds of people and all ages of children, but for an hour or so every morning, a constant stream. And then there are other parents walking their children to one of the several schools a few blocks from our building. That’s what we have, here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, children galore: boys in kippot or with spiked hair, girls in long skirts or skin-tight clothing. There are times when there is no room to stand on the #174 Egged bus because there are forty school kids taking up all the room. Somehow they all count as part of the as-of-yet unfulfilled promise to our patriarch Avraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
There are, however, people – even some living in The Land – for whom the Divine promise to Avraham is a nightmare. Consider the following headline in a recent edition of Haaretz:
“Green Movement: Israel’s high birth rate not sustainable.” The accompanying article was about the conference Israel’s ‘Green Movement’ held the previous weekend in which, to be absolutely politically correct, they selected a male and female co-chairperson and signaled “an intention to address the ignored topic of the environmental implications of Israel’s high population growth rate.” According to the male member of this dynamic duo, Prof. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion U. of the Negev, “The current population growth rate does not allow for sustainable development in Israel.” Therefore, he proposes that child allowances and other incentives to encourage larger families should be eliminated. “We are subsidizing our own ecological suicide,” Prof. Tal opines. “If the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea reaches twenty to thirty million…there will be no nature left to preserve.” In addition, the country will be unable to provide a decent standard of living to its citizens.
Interesting. Let’s put aside the fact that the professor’s projections may include everyone who lives here: Bedouins, Druze, and the other Arabs, none of whom are particularly interested in being Green. Let’s just consider the Jewish population for a moment. I wondered, if we start with 6,000,000, which is a few hundred thousand more than what our part of the population is these days, and we factor in an annual growth rate of two percent – which is what the article says it is – how many years would it take to get to 20,000,000? Math is not my strong point, and I’m a little rusty putting together spreadsheets, but with a little bit of effort I created a simple one, which told me that we would hit that number sometime around 2070. (Imagine how many progeny Mrs. Habshush would have by then!) Of course, there are other intangibles which no one can predict: like how long it will take you guys in The Exile or your progeny to make your way over here. That would throw a monkey wrench into my spreadsheet, if I may mix a metaphor or two. On the other side of the equation, the Green Movement, being Leftist in its orientation, probably assumes that large chunks of the area “between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean” will be given away to those ‘who are not particularly interested in being Green.’ That would also alter the number of people per square kilometer ratio.
But let’s go back to the original premise, that our birthrate here is “not sustainable.” And let’s put aside what we know to be true, that falling birthrates in China and parts of Europe are creating a demographic nightmare of a different kind. Let’s just focus on the meat and potatoes of the Green Movement’s thesis, that there are now, or soon will be, too many Jewish people in The Land, and perhaps in the world. Too many Jewish people, imagine that… We are just about reaching the number of us who were around in 1938, but our birth rate is too high. Collectively, we should stop having so many children. I would turn it around and say that what is “not sustainable” is the predicament we were in seventy-three years ago and one hundred and seventy-three years ago and five hundred and seventy-three years ago when The Nations were free to mow us down, as if we were grass on a suburban lawn. I would say that it was our extinction rate was “not sustainable.”
Is it not enough that Israel needs to spend up to half its budget to defend ourselves against our neighbors, do we now have to do battle with disciples of Thomas Malthus in our own midst? Even though the newspaper article (written by Zafrir Rinat) mentioned us that “The Green Movement failed to gain Knesset seats in its first election, in 2009 and its membership has declined since then………” and that other leaders within the party disagreed with this position, should we let down our guard and not be concerned? Never underestimate the ability of bad ideas to spread in inverse relation to their merit. Never for a minute underestimate the willingness of the Nations to think badly of us: for example – and this wrinkle was new to me – that Israel committed ethnic cleansing or genocide in 1948 when we were defending ourselves against the Arabs who were doing their damndest to drive us into the sea. Never overestimate the effects of our appeal to reason: that our tiny bit of room is too small to divide further, that we are entitled to defend ourselves against our enemies, that even twenty million Jews is a pittance when there are billions of Chinese, on and on.
I therefore nominate Bracha Habshush to be our Defense Minister. She and her little notebook, along with the similar efforts of matriarchs and patriarchs throughout The Land, may well be our best weapon against our external enemies and the “Useful Idiots,” the well-meaning folks within our midst who tell us that we have too much land or too many people, that we defend ourselves too well or that we aren’t nice enough to our foes. Keep adding more names to your little book, Mrs. Habshush. May you never run out of pages and may your ink never run dry. And keep “sheppen nachas,” or whatever Yemenites do instead.