REVIEW: The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness by Elliot Jager

Reviewed by Cate Hodorowicz

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pater cover - three old images of authors family with one empty space where a photo would goAs the heart-wrenching experience of infertility gains more public attention, many of the voices belong to women. But Elliot Jager’s multi-layered memoir,The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness (The Toby Press, 2015), takes a different tack: what happens when a man confronts infertility in the context of a Jewish faith and homeland that place an extraordinary—even crushing—emphasis on fatherhood?

The answer is pain, loneliness, and an obsessive spiritual quest. Jager now lives in Jerusalem, but when he was nine and living in Manhattan, his Holocaust survivor father abandoned him and his mother for Israel. Thirty years later, Jager finds himself facing a strange confluence of forces: he begins to reconnect with his dogmatic father—dubbed ‘the Pater’—at the same time that infertility causes the author to question his lifelong Orthodoxy.

While the father/son relationship causes Jager great frustration, his true crisis occurs when, bereft at his and his wife’s infertility, he turns to the Torah for solace. Instead, his newly childless perspective leads him to stories and faith practices that seem to “disrespect, disregard, even disdain … the childless.” His subsequent “quest to give God a right of rebuttal” offers a fascinating look into Judaism, as well as Israel’s investment in procreation: IVF treatments are covered without charge for citizens as a matter of national security.

Wary of personal motives and navel-gazing, Jager wisely alternates scenes from his fatherless childhood with interviews of other childless Jewish men, straight and gay, married and single. The perspectives are thoughtfully and sensitively done, providing a welcome window into the challenges that sexuality and marital status lend to infertility. Even more engaging is the way Jager’s contemporaries challenge or complicate his view that Judaism diminishes childless men. It is here, where theology is messiest, that Jager is at his best, refusing easy answers and relentlessly interrogating himself and his interviewees.

Although The Pater is ostensibly about fathers and sons, Jager’s story is in many ways a song of thanks and praise to his mother, Yvette, who despite discrimination and health problems, worked tirelessly to find safe housing in New York and keep her son at yeshiva. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that while Yvette raised Elliot largely alone, she relied on a network of family and friends when she had to. The same happens for Jager on his spiritual search: though he conducts a personal journey, on the darkest part of his path the voices of other childless Jewish men help him see a way forward.

The importance of community, and giving back to the world outside of family, is key for several interviewees who invoke tikkun olam, “a mystical concept best defined as mending or restoring our broken world.” But does Jager come to closure, or an acceptance of how tikkun olam works in his own life? Both questions are too black-and-white, too steeped in the language of resolution, for a book that embraces the gray areas of life and thought. It is to the reader’s immense pleasure and anguish that this liminal space is where an intense, wry, and broken-hearted man is most illuminated.


Cate Hodorowicz’s essays and reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming from Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, PANK, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. She received a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and her work has been noted in Best American Essays.


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