Monday 25 August 2014

A Modest Year in Seminary: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Young Women

Eighteen year-old girls in New York, London and Paris are packing their suitcases. Slightly worried that their suitcases are overweight, they are even more worried that they will return overweight from their year abroad in Israel, in a religious seminary, or midrasha, in Hebrew. Across Israel (well, actually mainly across the affluent areas of Jerusalem) the doors of the academic Jewish year 5775 will open in the first week of September, 2014. A well groomed cohort of young women will immerse themselves in an intense year of advanced Jewish studies complemented by extensive touring and volunteer work. I’d argue that ‘sem’ as these places are affectionately referred to, is a microcosm of contemporary Orthodox life and are a powerful tool for the socialisation of young women.

The competition to attract girls is fierce and for a seminary to succeed, it needs to have a strong brand, an effective marketing campaign and a strategic business plan. Parents who are paying an average of $20,000 USD for 10 months (this covers fees, accommodation and some food) need to be convinced that the seminary is going to cater to their daughter educational, social and emotional needs. Further, in Orthodox circles where gender relations are more circumscribed, some parents are often concerned that the choice of sem will influence the type of boy their daughters will be introduced to for potential marriage. Therefore, in loco parentis for the year, each seminary must establish its credibility to attract its clientele and online fora can be helpful.

Recent allegations regarding improper behaviour towards young women by Rabbi Aaron Ramati and Rabbi Elimelech Meisels highlights some of the difficulties parents face when choosing a seminary. Other than knowing students who went to a particular seminary, the first place to look is at their website. These sites consistently show groups of attractive, slim and smiling young women in certain poses – there’s the group hug on a tree top or during water sports, the girl poised with a pen over her notebook, girls helping in a range of charities and teachers with beatific grins. However, for a more pointed analysis, one must look to the curriculum.

As Torah and Talmud study is mandated for men, the male yeshivas have much less variety in the core curriculum, however, the seminaries are free to develop their own timetables as advanced Jewish women’s education for women is a relatively recent phenomena, largely in response to women’s advanced secular education. While all seminaries will structure their day around the study of Jewish texts, it is the selection of texts, the attitudes of the teachers and the approach to learning demonstrate the seminary’s Weltanschauung. The sem that is teaching Talmud will attract a different sort of young woman than a sem with a track record of girls getting married the year afterwards. A sem that engages these young women in rigorous Talmud study every morning, encouraging them to study ‘b’chevruta’ in pairs, has a very different view of women’s education and their role in the intellectual life of the community than a sem that shuns Talmud study and focusses more on Bible and personal development.

Further, a small number of sems offer an integrated study/volunteering option; for example, one is closely affiliated with a Jerusalem hospital and offers volunteering opportunities within the hospital, another offers arts and music activities to complement their Torah studies while another is based in a foster home for disadvantaged Israeli children and the girls study and also help care for the children. Rather than look at these seminaries as 'soft options,' it's wonderful that there are a range of opportunities to suit areas of interest and skills - it's a much healthier approach than the male yeshivot which are generally much narrower in their selection of texts and opportunities for extra-curricular activitiy.

Despite these variations, one thing is constant: notions of modesty permeate the sem experience, and with rare exception, girls are expected to wear knee length skirts and loose fitting tops. There are nuances to this code: in some places, sleeves must cover the elbow, while in others, the sleeves may fall shy of the elbow by a couple of inches. Some places require stockings be worn summer and winter while others allow bare legs but demand covered toes. A small number are more flexible when it comes to hikes, allowing the girls to wear loose baggy trousers to preserve their modesty. Peer pressure and social norms ensure that inappropriate text on T-shirts, excessive jewellery or outlandish hairstyles are discouraged.

This year of intense 24/7 communal living, away from one’s family, heightened by charismatic teachers and influenced by the seminary’s ideology, is also a harbinger of a life to come. A seminary offering opportunities for women to become religious leaders and arbiters of certain aspects of religious law is very different to a seminary focussed on encouraging women to be dedicated homemakers supporting their future husbands who will continue to learn in a kollel, supported by their parents or charitable donations. Unfortunately, religious society is structured so that these two approaches are essentially mutually exclusive. A year in seminary is an expensive gamble and parents need to ensure that their eyes, as well as their wallets, are open before they send their daughter away.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Buying A Burnt Egg and Salt Water: A Modest Shopping List

What sort of modest housewife buys a burnt egg? How low have we sunk as a community when we are being sold jars of salt water for our Seder? Kosher Kingdom in Golders Green is selling these 'must have' items - but must be a trick, the salt water, the burnt egg and even the Seder plate are clearly marked  in Hebrew - just next to the Hoffman's logo  'Rak Le'yemot Hashana, Lo L'Pesach'  Only for days during the year, not for Passover.'  

I'm just a woman, so I am quite confused. At the bottom of the packs, the items indicate that the Kedassia Kashrut Authority has certified them as Kosher for Passover.  This is the kashrut authority of the Union of Orthrodox Hebrew Congregations - an organisation that has asserted itself to have very high kashrut standards, if not some dubious rabbis. 

If I was Mrs Hoffman, I'd be very annoyed.  

Sunday 10 March 2013

Rape on Demand

[Hat Tip: False Messiah via Heathen Hasid]
Not a very modest advertisement: is it so hard to find a decent proofreader? 

Sunday 9 September 2012

Mother wants a secular education for her kids

Their names have not been released yet, but a mother has been taken to court by her ex-husband for wanting to give their children more opportunities for a secular education. No doubt the story is messier than this brief article but what's most interesting to me is that, according to the report, the mother decided on this approach after she attended an Open University course. This certainly feeds into the fear of university and strong-willed women that pervades the charedi world, but she must have realised that denying her children a secular education would leave them unskilled, unemployable and unable to choose how to live their lives. 

Modest Words of Inspiration

I like to be inspired before Rosh Hashana and look for words that force me to reflect upon my life and resolve to be a better person in the coming year. That's why I was so grateful that the United Synagogue published its Top Tips on the women's section of their website. Extraordinary to think that they have managed to boil it all down to getting your hat right.  

Thursday 6 September 2012

A Modest Update

Due to modest demands on other aspects of my life, I  have not been blogging as regularly as I had hoped. With Mr Blase's encouragement, that's about to change and you'll be reading more of me. Here's a few choice tidbits of things going on recently....

Iranian medallist refuses to shake hand of Duchess of Cambridge 

When paraolympian Mehrdad Karam Zadeh moved forward to receive his silver medal, the demure Duchess of Cambridge gently placed it around his neck and took a couple of steps backwards. He bowed reverentially and put his hands to his heart in a show of appreciation. There was no handshaking and no air kissing. It was totally respectful and actually quite refreshing. There was a bit of a media fuss, but it  quickly dissipated after newspaper reports suggested that Kate had been briefed on Iranian cultural codes that forbids physical contact between men and women who are not related to each other. A bit like us really - Israeli politicians and public intellectuals are familiar with these codes of conduct  - when the talented Or Asuel won the Bible Quiz in 2010, PM Netanyahu understood that shaking her hand would be inappropriate and he deftly handed her the winner's trophy instead. There's something refreshing about those who understand that the frisson of a momentary touch is something to be savored, and not handed out like candies at a children's party. 

Pink pens for the girls

Bic has developed a range of gender sensitive writing materials. Perhaps they were taking a lesson from Lego, the company that targets young girls with a set of 224 LEGO pink pieces from their Bricks and More range. Up-market store Selfridges suggests "you can create your very own pretty pink world with car, house and cute dog" Clearly their copywriter was using one of those Bic pens. Mothers - watch out for any seminaries suggesting that your daughters arrive with their own set of pink pens. 

Va Va Voom in Venice

Frum filmmaker, Rama Burshtein, is all wrapped up in Venice while one of the leading ladies leaves her modesty at home. Fill the Void, Burshtein's film set in the haredi community of Tel Aviv, sounds very evocative. Replete in a very modest embellished gown and matching head piece, Burshtein walked confidently along the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival, accompanied by a man presumed to be her husband. One of the young stars of the film chose to wear something much more revealing than her film costume of long sleeved shirt and below-the-knee skirt. A bit of shame really - it would have been a modesty coup for the frum fashion industry. However, I am most intrigued by Mr (Rabbi?) Burshtein - I just love the fact he turned up in Venice in his long black coat, large hat and untrimmed beard, seemingly unfazed by the gliterrati, but there to support his wife. So cool, so Blase. 

Saturday 25 February 2012

Feldheim Books: a parallel universe

The 48 page catalogue was plopped unceremoniously through my letterbox. Feldheim: Jewish Books for the Whole Family. 48 pages of books offering a 25% discount during its annual Purim sale. Everything you’d expect from a religious publisher is available - hagiographies of rabbis including the Satmar and Klausenberger rebbes, Torah with classic commentaries and an assortment of legal texts covering Sabbath observance and laws of Kashrut. There are a myriad of prayer books, and Tefillas Channah caught my eye: “an exquisite book of stirring prayers, specially compiled for the Jewish woman. This beautifully designed, Hebrew-English, pocket-sized book is the Jewish woman's best friend--in good times and in challenging times. With prayers for candle-lighting, marital harmony, pregnancy, childbirth, child-raising, and mikveh immersion, along with many others, this prayer book is one-of-a-kind.”

On page 19, the catalogue starts to get more interesting. Religious Compulsions and Fears: A Guide to Treatment by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek ‘describes some of the obsessive compulsive disorders related to halachic matters as well as specific psychological techniques that can be helpful in treating sufferers. “ The website description elaborates: “He's so rigorous about netillas yadayim that he washes his hands the whole day! She's so careful about keeping kosher that she seems literally obsessed. He prays for hours on end, worried that he's mispronounced a word or lost concentration. Under the guise of religious observance, countless Jews are held prey to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and this book has what it takes to break out of the horrible cycle of entrapment."

There are other psychologically orientated books, but I am most keen to read Windows of the Soul -A Guide to Mastering One’s Eyes by Rabbi Zvi Miller, described as a “lesson-a-day format, assisting men with the difficult talks of mastering one’s eyes in the today’s world. Complete with anecdotal journal entries and focus points for every day.” Alternatively, try It's All a Gift by Miriam Adahan. “From birth, we encounter and endless series of events which are irritating, frightening or tormenting. Situations such as over-crowded living conditions, criticizing relatives or the loss of loved ones can trigger depression, hostility and bitterness. Or, these same events can be used as catalysts whereby we develop our hidden spiritual potential! …Adahan presents the philosophy and methodology which will enable the reader to achieve greater appreciation for the wisdom of Torah and a sense of closeness with G-d in the midst of distress.”

Of course, no Jewish book catalogue would not include some Jewish cookbooks. New to the market is The Bais Yaakov Cookbook by Jamie Geller which includes 200 original recipes with stunning, full color photography, a personal brocha and challah recipe from Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, a pictorial history of Sara Schneirer and the Bais Yaakov movement, a color guide to checking fruits and vegetables and tips on shopping for, preparing, and serving gourmet meals.” The Bais Yaakov movement, founded by Sara Schneirer in Poland, was a radical revolution that offered Jewish education for girls in the early 1900s. What’s fascinating about this is that Schneirer, a stout, dour looking and determined woman who had a short lived marriage and no children is hardly an inspiration for a cookbook. Yet, by appropriating her for a cook book the authors are recasting the role of the educated Jewish woman into the ultimate homemaker.

The catalogue has a series of novels published by Sapir Press, a Feldheim imprint that “brings you the best in contemporary Jewish literature… .all distinguished by their appropriateness for a Torah home." I was somewhat shocked to read the blurb about Charades by Riva Pomerantz. “On the outside, they're a perfect family. But what's really going on, beneath the surface? This is a novel like none you've experienced before. True-to-life characters, a fast-moving plot laced with suspense and mystery, and a message so powerful and so contemporary it will leave you reeling, Charades is an epic, exquisite story. Renowned author Riva Pomerantz weaves a riveting tale, opening a window on domestic abuse in the Orthodox community, presenting a compelling picture of the reality, the process, and above all, the hope. This is truly an unforgettable, transformational read.”

Since when did the religious community write about domestic violence or personal growth? One would have to embark on an academic study of these sorts of catalogues from years past, but I can’t imagine that these psychologically orientated and self-help books were written 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. These books indicate a shift in the social realities of the Orthodox world that merit further study as do the publishers who play an ideological role to ensure that these issues are brought to the fore, even if they are ultimately motivated by the profit margin.

Keen to expand their international reach, Feldheim have commissioned me to write their next novel. It’s set in a typical middle class Jewish family in London. I’ve got a rather long working title: The girl who wanted to be Chief Rabbi, but married him instead.