Toby Press sent me a review copy of Elliot Jager's memoir, "The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness", which is being released this week.
Jager's story is moving, and his writing is clear and, at times, engaging. His book alternates accounts of interviews with other childless Jewish men with the life's story of his damaged relationship with his father.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book.
The men Jager speaks with are childless for various reasons: Some never found a wife, some face medical fertility challenges, some made a conscious choice not to have children. Jager gives one man in each "category" the chance to tell his story, but there's not much of an attempt to put them in a larger coherent framework: we don't know how many men there are in each "category", we don't know whether the subject is representative of his "category", we don't know what the community can do so support the men in each "category."
Women are absent from the case studies except when the subjects choose to discuss their partners. I get that Jager's theme is "Childless Jewish Men," but when he talks about his own personal narrative, he and his wife are clearly partners in this struggle. Why then does he ignore the perspective of women in his case studies?
The autobiographical sections of the book made me even more uncomfortable. Jager's father seems to have mental-health problems, and his abandonment of his wife and son was tragic. I'm sure that writing this book was cathartic for Jager, but I felt like a voyeur for reading these parts of it. For Jager to better understand his relationship with his father is an important personal need; for him to explain it to us does not serve a constructive purpose, and left me feeling sullied.
Jager briefly discusses childlessness from a Jewish religious perspective, but this is fairly superficial. The Judaism in this book is mostly cultural/tribal, and somewhat specifically Israeli. I'd be fine with that, except that the subtitle and the opening paragraph seem to promise more than that.
When the reader arrives at the end of the book, all we've been given is a parade of people to sympathize with, and an embarrassing sense of peeking into the private lives of a dysfunctional family. Jager doesn't use his case studies stories to build a coherent picture of those Jews facing infertility. He offers neither comfort to the afflicted nor vision to those who would help, and his omission of women is curious at best. His tell-all memoir may constitute lashon ha-ra.
I am sorry for the difficulties that life has presented the author, but I wish he had written a different book. I do not see what purpose this book serves, but I am certain that there is need for a book that places the struggles of childless Jews into a larger social and religious context.