How do you make dinner for fifteen kids?
Larry Brown was my first true love. My junior high school notebooks are a mass of arrow-pierced hearts, our names entwined inside. “Larry+Peggy,” “Larry & Peggy Brown,” “Peggy Brown,” “Dr. and Mrs. Larry Brown.” There are two parallel smudges in the creamy paint on my parents’ dining room wall where I propped my stockinged feet during the hours and years of our phone conversations, adolescent musings about poetry and God. We flirted and fought; he read me couplets from Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein—not, perhaps, the most romantic of offerings—and I reciprocated with my own tortured verse. For years I sent his mom Mother’s Day cards; I still confide in his dad.
As we got older, though, Larry grew more devout—or frum—and I less so, unable to reconcile Judaism with my incipient feminism. He stopped mixing milk and meat after his bar mitzvah; I converted to Diet for a Small Planet vegetarianism. A few years later he rejected anything prepared in nonkosher cookware or served on treif plates, including those in his own mother’s home. I stopped attending religious services. By our sophomore year of college he’d banished all shades of spiritual gray: if the Torah was God’s word, how could he neglect any of its commandments? How could he pick and choose? Shared history, rather than shared belief or experience, kept our friendship afloat, though often just barely.
Shortly before graduation, Larry met Beth Karsh. He gushed to me about her intelligence, her compassion, her Jewish values. But there was a problem: he was about to go off to yeshiva in Israel for a semester before starting medical school in St. Louis; she had another year of undergraduate work to complete in Madison. Faced with the prospect of never seeing Beth again, Larry proposed. They’d been dating for just two months.
The following winter I flew in for their wedding from New York, where I’d moved after my own graduation. It was like being airlifted from the pages of Bright Lights, Big City into a Chaim Potok novel. A low wall, a mechitzah, ran the length of the sanctuary dividing the men from the women. The dancing at the reception was sex-segregated, too. On the men’s side, one of Larry’s friends performed Russian squat-kicks to klezmer music, jumping and twirling with a wine bottle balanced on his head. The women fanned out in front of Beth, skipping toward her and away, pretending to sweep the floor, to wash clothes, to rock a baby. I sat on the sidelines horrified. What kind of throwback had my friend become? The mechitzah wasn’t the only thing separating us.
Their first baby was born a year later; the second, sixteen months after that. I, meanwhile, was dating men with foreign accents, riding motorcycles, clubbing until dawn. By the time he finished his residency, Larry had five sons and three daughters; I’d long since lost track of their names. Once, when I’d worked up the courage to ask him how many children they planned to have, he’d replied, “As many as God gives us.” To date, “God” (along with unprotected sex) had given them fifteen. That is not a misprint. Larry and Beth have fifteen children ranging in age from twenty years to nine months old. Larry and I no longer talked much, partly because a guy with fifteen kids doesn’t have time for chitchat, and partly because there was too much tender territory between us. He disapproved of my marriage to a gentile, of the way I practiced (or didn’t practice) Judaism. I was confounded by his fanaticism and the ever-growing family. Our relationship drifted, becoming little more than a party trick I would bring out to stun new friends. But Larry’s mother had tipped him off: I was scheduled to give a talk in St. Louis that fall. He e mailed me, inviting me to his home. I agreed right away; I missed him, missed the piece of my past he held, missed our rambling talks, our private jokes. I wondered whether underneath it all, the fundamentalist was still fundamentally himself.
I had found out about the miscarriage three days before the trip, but didn’t consider canceling. I can’t say why. Maybe I was still in shock, cruising along on autopilot. Maybe it was because as soon as the surgery was over, the nausea lifted and I felt more energetic than I had in weeks. Or maybe on some level I thought it would be therapeutic—Beth was my inverse, the woman I might have become if my life had gone differently. After a few days hanging around her, I figured, I’d be relieved to be childless.
The main floor of the Browns’ brick and clapboard house is a straight shot from the living room through the vestibule to the dining room. There are no rugs, no knickknacks, no coffee tables, no sharp corners. The most distinctive piece of furniture is a life-sized wooden sculpture of a zebra curled on the floor in front of the hearth. It was carved by Beth’s stepfather. “That zebra is indestructible,” Beth would tell me. “Larry can stand with his full weight on one of its ears.”
Larry was still at work when I dropped by from my hotel the first evening. Beth was in the kitchen making grilled cheese sandwiches for the youngest eight children, slapping butter onto bread, peeling American cheese from a block of one hundred slices. She cooked them on her milchig, or dairy, stove. Kashrut demands complete separation of milk and meat, though the laws never say why. As practiced by the Browns, it requires not only two sets of utensils, dishes, and pots (one each for milk and meat) but also two ovens, two stovetops, two microwaves, two sinks, two sets of dish towels, and two dishwashers. They also have three refrigerators (one for holidays) and a freezer in the basement, though that’s more to accommodate the sheer quantity of food they require than to satisfy any rules of ritual.
I had never felt comfortable with Beth—her choices, her lifestyle, were (I have to say it) inconceivable. Even the way she dressed freaked me out. She’d cut her hair short when she married, according to the customs of tsnius, or modesty, and covered it with a wig. She had three of them, each made of human hair and costing several thousand dollars; the one she wore today was a lustrous auburn, cut in layers that grazed her chin. I wouldn’t have pegged it as a fake, except that occasionally when she scratched her head the whole thing moved. I’d never understood why a woman’s own hair, no matter how frowsy, was considered alluring, but a beautifully coiffed wig wasn’t—I guess the rabbis of yore didn’t make provisions for feminine ingenuity. Beth even wore the wig, called a sheitl, when giving birth. Although it was unseasonably, uncomfortably hot, she also wore long sleeves and a skirt reaching her shins; thick, nylon knee-highs; and low-heeled pumps. (Men, too, are subject to laws of tsnius, though less stringently; the racks of Larry’s closet were filled with identical white shirts and black pants. He doesn’t wear shorts, and his sons aren’t allowed to go shirtless, even in the house.)
My friends always assumed that Larry had “made” Beth have all these children, but that wasn’t the case. He would’ve stopped earlier. Orthodox Jews can, in consultation with a rabbi, use birth control due to financial strain, overly close spacing of children, or to preserve the marriage. Beth and Larry could have claimed any of those pressures. Among other things, Beth developed gestational diabetes with several pregnancies and, unsurprisingly, had grown dangerously overweight. I had always figured that Larry and Beth were compensating for Larry’s younger brothers and male friends who’d married gentiles, whose children (because Judaism is traditionally matrilineal) they didn’t consider Jewish. But that wasn’t it, either. They had so many children, Beth told me, because she wanted them. Unlike Larry, Beth grew up in an Orthodox community. “When I was young I spent a lot of time at our rabbi’s house,” she said. “They had eleven kids. I liked the atmosphere there. I wanted a big family, too. And I’m excited every time I find out I’m pregnant. It never gets old. It’s such a miracle. It’s the same with the milestones; it was just as exciting when number fourteen took her first steps as it was when number one did.”
I didn’t know how to respond, I who wrestled with the decision to have even one child. But it didn’t matter—with so many kids scampering in and out of the kitchen, banging into one another like bumper cars, further conversation was nearly impossible anyway. Nine-year-old Menashe, who wore a jersey emblazoned with the number ten (his place in the birth order) and—lucky for me—his name embroidered on his velvet yarmulke, had hitched a jump rope to a toddler ride-aboard and was pulling seven-year-old Gav through the house in a wild game of crack the whip. Four-year-old Noam was crying because they wouldn’t include him. I glanced over Beth’s shoulder and noticed Hadassah, twenty-three months, wielding a pizza cutter like a cutlass. A moment later I grabbed her as she toppled from a folding chair she was using to scale the kitchen counter, nearly tripping in the process over baby Ahuva, who was sucking her pacifier next to the stove. None of it fazed Beth. I had once read that parents of large families thrived on activity and unpredictability, yet I couldn’t figure out how that jibed with Larry’s and Beth’s fixation on arcane rules about the blending of cotton and wool. I wondered if the mayhem was an antidote, a counterbalance to such hyperregulated lives.
“Dinner!” Beth called. Eight children thundered in, performed the blessing for washing their hands, said grace, and dug in to the sandwiches, a salad of prewashed lettuce, and bowls of homemade salmon chowder. A few minutes later Beth excused herself to sort through hand-me-downs with a friend, and sixteen eyes turned expectantly toward me. Noam, who was wearing a magician’s cape, wanted to show me how he could pull a stuffed rabbit from a hat. Avishai, ten, wanted to describe in mind-numbing detail a roller coaster he once rode at Six Flags over St. Louis. Yonah, eleven, couldn’t figure out how I knew their dad, since in his world boys aren’t allowed to fraternize with girls. I tried to pay attention to all of them at once, to answer every question. Then Esther Neima, five, asked me how many children I had. I froze. “I have ten nieces and nephews,” I fudged, pasting a smile on my face. My response satisfied her more than it did me.
Suddenly it seemed that coming here had been a mistake. I had to get away from all of those kids, at least for a minute. I asked Esther Neima to show me upstairs to the bathroom. After their eleventh child was born, the Browns had added a second story to their home with six bedrooms and three baths. The rooms were spare, not holding much more than a bunk bed and a desk. One of the boys’ rooms had a computer (with no Internet access), another a drum set. No one had gotten around to putting anything on the walls, but streams of children’s belongings—dirty clothes, water bottles, rollerblades—overflowed from each room, merged together in the central hallway. Esther Neima gave me a tour of the bathroom, pointing out the toilet, the sink, the soap.
She gestured to the door handle with a flourish. “And this,” she said proudly, “is the lock.”
By the time I collected myself and headed back downstairs, dinner was over, the kids scattered. Beth beckoned me into the living room, where she sat with three of the girls. Already I was adjusting to the distorted arithmetic of the Brown household; it felt like we were nearly alone. When I had left for the airport, Steven had told me to be sure to look in the Browns’ cupboards. “How do people with fifteen kids get through the day?” he wondered. “Do they have gallon-sized peanut butter jars? Do they buy ketchup by the barrel?”
I was too dispirited to play Nancy Drew, but I did ask Beth for a few details. Every Brown child over the age of five had a job, she explained, such as setting the table, doing yard work, or taking out the garbage. Avishai packed all the lunches, though since that was one of the hardest tasks, he got summers and holidays off. Once they were twelve, they did their own laundry, too. Even so, keeping ahead of the clutter wasn’t easy. “You can pick up fifteen times a day,” Beth said. “You can wash thirty cups and two hours later there are thirty more.”
The family has almost never eaten out, which, when you consider the number of years of incessant meal preparation, is mind-boggling. Even if they could afford it, there are no kosher restaurants in St. Louis. Beth pops by the grocery store for odds and ends at least once a day in her fifteen-seat van, the kind hotels use to chauffeur guests to and from the airport. She drives the kids to school, to synagogue, to orthodontist appointments, to piano lessons. And with all of that, she still feels guilty when she misses a Little League game. “All of the other parents are there,” she said.
I smiled sympathetically, but I was actually thinking, Please, God, get me back to my superficial, self-absorbed friends who spend all their time discussing which overpriced eatery makes the best anise crème brulée.
Gav came running in. “Ima!” he shouted excitedly, using the Hebrew word for “mother.” “Hadassah said my name! She said my name!” He picked up the baby, spun her around, planted a kiss on her cheek. “Ahuva! Hadassah said my name!” Gav beamed, the joy on his face so intense that I had to turn away.
Avishai came in to see what the racket was about and noticed my pained expression. “Are you enjoying St. Louis?” he asked. “Or is there too much talking?”
After months of avoiding the big decisions, we finally began making the small ones