Yitta Schwartz, centre, in the late 1980sHere’s a nice change. Usually it is Christian families causing a sensation by having extra large families (Remember the Duggar family of Arkansas? More about them later.) But this story in the New York Times is about a Hasidic Jewish woman who died last month aged 93 leaving probably 2000 living descendants.

Hungarian-born Yitta Schwartz was a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect, whose couples have nine children on average, but even by those standards her fertility was remarkable. She bore 18 children in total, two of whom died when she and her husband Joseph and their first six children were held in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II.

In 1953 Yitta and Joseph emigrated to the United States with 11 children and proceeded to have five more. One died during a summer camp aged 8. Their 15 surviving children have had more than 200 children — and so the number of their descendants has grown exponentially. Joseph died 34 years ago. But this is how things were earlier on:

While her husband sold furniture on Lee Avenue, Williamsburg’s commercial spine, Mrs. Schwartz, who never learned English well, tended the family. She sewed her daughters’ jumpers with mother-of-pearl buttons and splurged for pink-and-white blouses — 20 for 99 cents each — at that late lamented discount emporium on Union Square, S. Klein.

With so many children, Mrs. Schwartz had to make six loaves of challah for every Sabbath, using 12 pounds of dough — in later years, she was aided by Kitchenaid or Hobart appliances. (Mrs. Mayer said her mother had weaknesses for modern conveniences, and for elegant head scarves.) For her children’s weddings, Mrs. Schwartz starched the tablecloths and baked the chocolate babkas and napoleons.

Mrs Schwartz was not keen on being photographed. “Just keep me in your heart,” she used to say. “If you leave a child or grandchild, you live forever.”

It seems very likely, indeed, that there will be descendants of that couple for a long time to come. Especially if they stick to their faith in the biblical command: “You should not forget what you saw and heard at Mount Sinai and tell it to your grandchildren.”

To return to Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar: the Christian couple had their nineteenth child, a very premature little girl they have named Josie, at the end of January. She is still in intensive care. People magazine ran a cover story titled, “Duggars under fire: How many kids are too many?” The question is inevitable given the family’s media profile:

“Having a mega-family turned the devoutly Christian couple into reality sensations: Their TLCshow 19 Kids and Counting… is in its 3rd season…. But for every fan of the show – the TLCspecial covering Josie’s birth garnered more than 3 million viewers – there have been detractors in online chat rooms, on parenting Web sites and within the medical community, who have been critical each time Michelle has announced a new pregnancy on average every 18 months….”

The couple have agreed to make their fertility, their faith, their parenting capacity, their ability to provide, very public issues. It almost seems they have made it into a numbers game themselves. I think this is regrettable because it distances them from real “reality” and perhaps from ordinary couples who might otherwise be encouraged by their generosity and optimism. The media would have hounded them anyway, I suppose, but inviting television into the home seems over the top.

Lucky for Yitta Schwartz that she brought up her family before the era of reality TV, I say. What do others think?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet