8.18pm, 10/8/5 was one of those life-changing moments. Into that world came Edward Max Cohen and I knew life would never be the same.
Within seconds of his arrival, I witnessed changes within the family unit. Parents became grandparents; newly-weds became parents; and I and a couple of others became aunts. In that moment, we all aged and none of us could escape from this weight of responsibility.
As I beamed and cradled his flawless 7lb 4oz frame, worry swept over me. From the general – what kind of world was he entering? – to the more specific: What is my role as an aunt and how best will I fulfil that function?
As my father recited Jewish psalms I questioned the extent to what his Jewish heritage will matter to him. And then the Jewish guilt crept in. Shouldn’t I, like my sister, be breeding (and giving my family nachus)? Isn’t this what Jews expect?
These momentary thoughts were prompted by comments that had been coming my way over the past nine months (and, if I’m honest, the past 30 years).
During my sister’s pregnancy, I visited my parents for a supposedly pleasant Sunday afternoon. As I entered the kitchen, my mother told me that one of her friends whom I’d only met twice had told her that she felt pity for me. Before I had a chance to ask why, my mother continued, ‘She feels so sorry for you because when she saw you last week you had to hear Joanna speak non-stop about the new baby and you haven’t even got a man.’ Outrage engulfed me. How dare this (well-meaning) person presume to know how I’m feeling? Hadn’t I over the past several months expressed nothing but delight at becoming an aunt and joy that my sister’s dreams were being met?
Yet, to this person (and let’s face it there are bound to be others), at only 15 months older than my sister I’m an old maid, on the shelf or, worst of all, a spinster. I’m missing something – that special accessory – that says you are a woman: a child. Without it I am probably still viewed as a child. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jewish Bridget Jones has far more to worry about than weight gain and tobacco intake.
After the birth, these thoughts were reaffirmed when my mother told me that she was keen to give me a present for becoming an aunt. For a few seconds my curiosity delighted in wondering what this gift would be. A a DVD player? A holiday? No. I was being offered an all-expenses paid visit to Speed Dating (Jewish, of course). Whilst there is nothing wrong with Speed Dating (I once went and ended up dating a man for six weeks, but stopped on realizing all we shared was our religion and different approaches to that), the ‘gift’ felt like bribery. (Yes, you too can meet a man and have a baby if you take this golden ticket.)
When I challenged my mother, she told me that no ill will was meant and that it is ‘normal’ for parents to want to see their children settled. She tells me she has three daughters and Joanna doesn’t have to be the only one with happiness – as though happiness can only come through marriage and children. At the bris this was reaffirmed when I received a more than healthy number of ‘Please god by yous’ (please god by you, snip, snip, snip, please god by you, snip, snip, snip, please god by you, snip, snip, snip, and make it soon, chop).
Family members have commented on how happy I look since I’ve become a doting aunt. The younger spinster tells me ‘You’re so good with him.’ My parents say ‘You’ve always been very maternal’ and Joanna says ‘From three months upwards I’d be happy for him to be a pageboy at your wedding.’ Meanwhile, Edward just looks for my nipple and I have to point out that there are some things that even an aunt can’t provide.
Occasionally, non-conformist that I am, I go to a Jew-do – a terrifying experience which I hope young Edward will never have to endure. Ironically I invariably have fun. Only recently I went to a Jewish singles Friday night dinner at a North-West London synagogue. Despite the copious amounts of kosher food, there was a desperate hunger within the packed room, with each male and female frantic to find love and be loved.
Jewish dating can be a cut-throat business and it seems as though the men – more Woody Allen than Brad Pitt – are looking for perfection, whilst the women are searching for normality. It seems they (or should I say we?) are looking for a prince on a horse, but sadly most Jewish men are so short they can’t even get on a horse. A friend tells me: ‘If a Jewish guy comes to me and asks to be introduced to a woman, I can find him anything: tall, small, thin, fat, bubbly, quiet. You name it. But if a woman asks me for a man, I can’t give her anything. All there are are the left-overs.’
I can tolerate the occasional Friday night dinner or lecture, but anything more I find loathsome. It was the same when I was younger. I would return home complaining about Jewish people (the women were carbon copies of each other and with the men all I could ask myself was ‘Is there any wonder intermarriage is so high?’). Vexed that I wasn’t enjoying these functions, my mother would respond ‘Go to a Catholic event then.’
Recently I saw an advertisement in the Jewish press for a ‘singles trip to Bournemouth’ and momentarily considered joining the motley crew. It transpired that the average age was at least 20 years older than me. I refrained from going as I don’t believe my idea of fun is mixing with divorcees on the pull or men looking for a dolly-bird.
Up and down the country it seems that Jewish unmarrieds are being urged to do the same. I once had a Jewish flatmate who hysterically told me that if she were still childless at 40 she would not see any point in living. At the time I strongly believed she was living out her parents’ wishes and wanted to shake her for not getting in touch with her own. A single Jewish friend recently told me that her mother complains that she feels she has ‘poor dividends’ because she has only ten grandchildren from five children. Another Jewish friend has a black Muslim lover overseas, but I suspect that she keeps him at bay because she wouldn’t feel comfortable walking arm in him with him down the glistening streets of Golders Green. Guess who’s coming to dinner would be too terrifying a consequence.
Another friend cries as she says that her family comment how her 12-year-old niece will beat her down the aisle. They tell her: ‘You’d better get a move on. You’ve only got a few more years left. All the times we’ve said “Please god by you” haven’t really helped.’ And it’s not just the women. A male friend laughs when I tell him my mother’s proposed speed-dating gift and says that most Jewish families are the same. Another male friend bores me when he repeatedly confides how he thought he would be married by now.
When I relayed these sentiments to my gentile childless colleagues, who are at least twenty years my senior, they laughed and looked at me as though I was an alien. I questioned one, in her 50s, as to whether she had had any pressure to procreate when she was in her early 30s. She was shocked and told me that she hadn’t. A few days later she told me she feels sorry for me because of this pressure.
It seems everyone is feeling sorry for me. But thankfully I don’t feel self-pity. I feel enriched that I can focus on what makes me happy in this one life I have and that I don’t have to agonise over what school to sign mini-me for.
Whilst I am close to my family I am fully aware that people judge – especially Jews. After the bris, my mother urged me to take a bouquet from her home as, since becoming a boobele, she had received so many. I sarcastically answered that she might as well enjoy them, as it could be a long time until she receives any more.
But, sarcasm aside, what of those who, for whatever reason are childless? How should they deal with this state? Is the answer to wear a badge with a crossed-out foetus or a colour-coded bracelet in solidarity? And, more important, to what extent does the Jewish community embrace and respect these have-nots?
People like me, who refuse to conform in this way, can have a rocky ride. In a religion where family is sacrosanct, being true to yourself can be difficult. Rather than encouraging self-development, some find this desire to do your own thing abhorrent. (Shortly after Edward’s birth I made a joke to a family contact being the ‘spinster aunt’. She said: ‘Don’t worry, in a few years he’ll be able to take you out.’)
At present, my lack of children does not bother me in the slightest. Like Nancy Mitford, I can admire them and then hand them back to their parents when they cry. I know I could make a terrific mother, but, if you’re remotely conventional, it takes two to tango and so far I haven’t found The One/Mr Right. (Dear Reader: If you know a nice Jewish man, who would pass the Garfinkel test, tell him to email me at email@example.com.)
If in ten years’ time I am still childless, will the negative comments be tenfold? Will I be viewed as a nebech: ‘Poor Sharon, still childless at 40’? Will I feel a failure for not having children? Will my life be over because I haven’t conformed to these standards?
For now, my thoughts are with the cute new man in my life. Over time young Edward will learn from Aunty Sharon that the world needs fewer Jewish accountants and lawyers, but more Jewish freethinkers. If he comes to me for counsel, I will instil in him that it doesn’t matter what he does, but who he is.
Sharon Garfinkle is a writer, theatre critic and public relations consultant.