Thursday 25 December 2008

Soul for Sale

When Dante Knoxx offered his soul on Ebay for a ‘buy it now’ price of £700,000, I was tempted to bid. Not particularly happy with the state of my soul, I thought it might be a good idea to try someone else’s. However, before I had the time to investigate the reliability, integrity and flexibility of Mr. Knoxx’s soul, Ebay cancelled the listing, apparently citing its policy that they do not sell immaterial items.

In contrast, the frum community is based on selling immaterial things and the prime example is the Yissochar-Zevulun trading relationship, whereby ‘Yissachar’ studies Torah while ‘Zevulun’ earns money to support himself and Yissachar. In effect, the money given to Yissachar buys Zevulun a share of Yissachar’s heavenly rewards for his Torah study. In the past, in a small town where there was one wealthy benefactor and an acknowledged Talmudic genius who needed support, this model may have been successful. However, in contemporary times, the 1:1 relationship has morphed into something totally different. A relatively small number of very generous philanthropists are supporting swathes of yeshiva students in large institutions. However, as they do not have relationships with individual students, their portion of heavenly rewards are harder to track. On the other hand, these wealthy men are buying the time, influence and occasional favour of the roshei yeshiva, all the while holding sway over the material well-being of thousands of young men.

The culture of dependency underpinning the world of full-time learning for men, limited job prospects for women and a minimal secular education for their children was created by the generosity of these ba’alei tzedakah in collaboration with the rabbinic leaders of our age. However, as more and more businessmen and philanthropic foundations succumb to the global economic crisis, the yeshiva world is in danger of imploding. In the dangerous liaisons made with many of these businessmen, it seems that some of the rabbinical leaders may have already sold their soul.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

The Pink Blackberry

Frum women dangle. Their car keys, usually attached to photos of their children and grandchildren, their house keys, iPod, supermarket card and gym locker tokens are all hanging off them. In one hand they are holding clunky wallets brimming with credit cards, dry cleaning receipts, parking tickets and cash. In the other, they are clutching onto an important database of sociological data currently held on the SIM card of their mobile phone. Find the phone and you will unlock all the important numbers a woman needs to know: shaytel macher, kosher butcher, mikvaot, rabbi, my cleaner and her sister in Poland
However, one item sits on the other side of the electronic mehitzah - the Blackberry. This symbol of manly achievement eludes most frum women, for it symbolises corporate power and importance. It means you've got a well-paying job.
However, this may all change now that the pink Blackberry has been launched in the UK. If a woman's accoutrements are her calling card, then surely the pink Blackberry will become a lifestyle item for the religous woman allowing her to retain her modest femininity while telling the world that she too, is a very important person with a very busy schedule.
Pink used to be an innocent colour: Barbie dolls, bridesmaids dresses
, icing on the birthday cake. Our pinky was for pretending to be posh while holding a cup of tea and we had no idea that a pinko was a communist sympathiser.
How things have changed: now teenage girls around me are fully aware that the pink collar lapel is for breast cancer. Young mothers are dying around them, and many of these teenage girls are involved in charitable efforts to raise mone
for cancer research. They also know that lesbians have politicised the color pink, and that the pink pound refers to the disposable income of gay people. So, who is the pink Blackberry really for - drag queens, soccer moms or lipstick lesbians?
Gay issues now have a prominent place on the social agenda. For example, Stonewall, a gay advocacy group recently put posters up all over the London underground railway, "Some people are gay. Get over it." When my children saw this they giggled, and then were embarrassed when they realised that I had also seen it. I am being forced to discuss these issues with my children at a relatively young age, long before they have had a chance to understand their own sexuality, let alone begin to understand how Judaism views homosexuality.
The media is a prominent vehicle for promoting a gay lifestyle: on YouTube, Lizzy the Lezzy, an English-born Israeli is emerging as a gay icon. In her feature, Lizzy the Lezzie does Gay Israel, she poses the question, 'Why is it good to be gay in Israel?' An attractive woman replies, 'Because there are so many gorgeous girls.'
Thousands of young girls are listening to Katy Perry's popular track, 'I kissed a girl.' The lyrics are very provocative and disturbing:

I kissed a girl, and I liked it.
The taste of her cherry chapstick.
I kissed a girl, Just to try it.
I hope my boyfriend don't mind it.
No, I don't even
know your name,

It doesn't matter, you're my experimental game,
Just human nature. it's not what good girls do,
Not how they should behave.
I kissed a girl, and I
liked it.
Us girls we are so magical,

Soft skin, red lips, so kissable,
Hard to resist, so touchable. Too good to deny

Now I know why some parents only let their children listen to Uncle Moishy.
But I don't live in a bubble and our frum teenagers know a lot more about homosexuality than we can even imagine. The conversation in the religious community tends to focus on male homosexuality, and is usually summed up in a couple of sentences: 'Homosexuality is forbidden by the Torah. You can't be religious and gay.' The fiasco surrounding the Gay parade in Israel, or formal Jewish participation in Gay parades abroad distracts attention from the day to day, and often poignant struggle of religious Jews who realise that they are gay.
I want to know how parents are discussing the complexities of this situation with their daughters, particularly just before they go to 'sem' on their gap year after high school. Eighteen-year-old girls, away from home, are very vulnerable and research has shown a high incidence of eating disorders in the close confines and somewhat pressurized world of the religious seminary. What about sexual experimentation in such an environment where access to boys is usually quite limited? The rules of 'shomer negiah' (the touching of the opposite sex which is forbidden before marriage) certainly don't apply.
Being slightly pinko myself, I try not to judge people's personal relationships and I don't want my children to be homophobic, racist or sexist. If biology is destiny, then surely we are obligated to support a religious person who acknowledges their homosexuality and does not want to lead a double life that will inevitably end in tragedy for all those he or she duped. Nevertheless, a gay religious person is also destined to a life on the margins, whether that be within their own community or when they venture out into the general society that may not understand their religious convictions. Do we want our children to have conventional married lives merely because it removes the angst of not belonging?
So, until our daughters are married they may just have to settle for a pink Blackberry which advertises itself as "the phone that gives you everything you need - without sacrificing everything you want." Yes, the pink Blackberry may just be the man that every single frum woman is waiting for.

Monday 1 December 2008

The Tehillim Tipping Point

Q. How many Beis Yaakov girls does it take to change a light bulb?
A. 100. One and 99 to say Tehillim.

Women scuttle to each other's homes during the week to huddle and recite Tehillim (Psalms) in an attempt to ward off illness or death or entreat God's kindness for a good shidduch or income. Women are the corrections of a community: when disasters strike, the rabbis often blame the women for gossiping or immodest dress. (Gossiping while dressed immodestly is a double whammy and even worse)
As if women don't have enough to do, now they are responsible for the spiritual well-being of a whole community and are instructed to say Tehillim as the remedy needed to avert further disaster. What was the Tehillim tipping point? How did these verses come to substitute serious learning and empowerment for women? Isn't is strange that while women's voices are accorded tremendous power to change the divinely ordained course of events, they have virtually no voice in the decision-making process of a religious community. Perhaps that is the real reason why communities start to go awry.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

The Perfect Prefect

Now I know how women become secretaries: it starts at primary school when the class is asked to nominate themselves for specific prefect tasks. There are a range of options – library, sports, recycling, assembly and office administration. The teacher asked the children to write her a letter explaining which job they wanted and why they were the most suitable child in the class for the job. My daughter desperately wanted the office gig and when I asked her why, she explained that all the girls want to be the office prefect. “You get to help the people in the office to tidy up things and organise stuff for everyone else,” she sweetly said. “All the boys want to do is sports and recycling.”
While a couple of nerdy kids want to be in the library, the gender lines are so predicable - the boys want any opportunity to exert some physical energy while the girls are keen for responsible and bossy positions.
When she told me that the all the other mothers were going to help their children, I went into overdrive. I could write a better letter than all those other mothers put together. I taught her to spell exuberant, exemplary and proactive. I suggested she embellish some of her musical achievements and make a note of her good deeds to old ladies. I encouraged her to write down how confident and self-assured she is, about how she would do an excellent and professional job.
“ Mummy – no one talks about themselves like that. That’s really showing off.”
I was crestfallen. Doesn’t she realise that she will come to naught if she doesn’t promote herself? Being modest was going to get her nowhere.
She turned her back on me and scribbled a note. I stole a glance.
Please let me be the office prefect because I really, really want to and I promise to try my best.
Well, at least there was no concern that a pushy parent had written that letter for her. It was obviously the work of a mediocre 10 year old.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Spirituality and Kids

The news that Spirituality for Kids, intimately and unashamedly connected to the Madonna-made-it-famous-and-I-want-a-red-string-too-Kabbalah Centre, has wormed its way into several London state schools and has made the rabbis quite antsy. Perhaps rightly so, as the celebrity cult status of the organisation is enough to make me wary.
However, I'd like to see a lot more small 's' spirituality for small 'k' kids. All around me are parents focused on providing for the material needs of their children including designer (modest) clothes, lavish (separate dancing) parties and fancy (glatt kosher) holidays while pointedly ignoring some of the more complex issues of spirituality and morality that should also be part of a religious lifestyle.
While spirituality is a highly personal experience that cannot be regulated by the number of times one should wash their hands, many young people would like their rabbis to show a form of spiritual leadership that focuses on the quest to understand life's big questions rather than political maneuvering and obsessive concern about the minutiae of ritual observance. If you speak to young teens who go 'off the derech" (i.e. the in-vogue phrase for ceasing to be observant), you will often find that they are thoughtful young people who became disillusioned with a system of control that did not meet their spiritual needs.
Rabbis often describe women as more innately spiritual - some rabbis will patronisingly explain that this is why women don't need to wear a kippa because they don't need reminding of a higher authority. Some rabbis will say women don't need to learn Talmud because their innate sensitivity and spirituality would not allow them to cope with the rigors of Talmudic argument. Does that mean being spiritual is a code word for being a bit stupid and not having a 'gemora kop?'
On a recent visit to the UK, Mrs. Devorah Heller [the "
challah maven"] told her female audience to search for the spirituality in making challah. Women are often reminded how they can create a 'Torah-true' atmosphere by thinking holy thoughts as they wash the floor and cook the evening meal. Most women I know are too tired to be spiritual.
Devorah described how, on the day of a wedding, she visits the bride, taking along a prepared dough. As the bride performs the mitzvah of "hafrashat challah" (taking a piece of the challah dough and setting it aside) she prays for a list of people who may be ill or need to find their own groom. Then, a few hours later, a freshly baked challah is awaiting for the newly married couple in the Yichud room where they go to immediately after the chuppah.
Many brides may have preferred one of Devorah's challahs to putting their faith in Wrapit, the online wedding gift service that closed down last week in the UK. Founded by a Jewish woman, Pepita Diamand, many of Wrapit's 2000 clients were Jewish and featured in a recent article in the Jewish Chronicle. Hundreds of guests who bought gifts for friends and relatives getting married will have lost money
(unless their credit card company reimburses them) and newlyweds across the country will be starting life without that matching dinner set or fluffy set of bath towels.
Mr. Blasé refused to set up a wedding list, and I am still regifting (see Seinfeld, The Label Maker) to unsuspecting friends. However, like my stance on many of life's big questions, I am ambivalent about wedding lists. On the one hand, it makes sense to give the couple something they would like, but on the other hand, when an invitation arrives in the post with a note telling me where to purchase the gift, it does seem to reduce our relationship to yet another financial transaction, albeit under the barter system. The groom and bride will provide a meal with loud music and boring speeches, and in return I will pay for a babysitter and a gift of their choosing.
Lists are instructive in Jewish life. There are the lists of people you want to invite to your simcha, and then there is the longer lists of people you have to invite. There are the lists of shomer Shabbat families in the neighbourhood who are compiled into a booklet of small businesses and local professionals assumed to be reliable and trustworthy. There are the Rich Lists, published in national newspapers, and from which the Jewish newspapers make their own Jewish Rich list. This is often the preferred Friday night reading material. There are the bikkur cholim lists - a list of Jewish people in local hospitals who would welcome a visit from someone to relieve the boredom of their sick bed. At shul there are lists: those who donate money, those who complain, those who make things happen and those whoare dead.
A woman's lists are never done: not only does she carry around a list of kosher brands, indispensable phone numbers and school holiday dates in her head, women are expected to attend tehillim groups where a list of those who are ill, having fertility problems
or looking for shidduchim are presented and women spend an hour or so reciting psalms with these names in mind. Women are matchmaking all the time and they receive lists of attributes: from the boys, they want girls who are slim, pretty and slim; from the girls, they want boys who are tall, good learners and funny. Women have lists of places to be, food packages to deliver, kindnesses to mete out.
There is only one list a woman dare not make: the list of things she would like for herself.

Monday 3 November 2008

Sports Day and Saggy Breasts (originally published in July)

Sports day next week. Followed by the end of year concert. Hot on the heels of graduation day. And they expect me to go to each event. Couldn't I just send a tired, badly dressed, breasts sagging, blow up life-sized doll that I could remotely contol to wave and cheer when one of my kids appear? It has to be a more effective use of my time than actually being there.
Fathers have it easy: they are not allowed to attend the concerts at my daugter's school due to the religious code of the school
(to which we freely signed up, so I shan't moan). They cannot watch the mothers' race on sports day for fear of seeing real sagging breasts bobbing up and down across the 100 metre finishing line.
However, in a fairly new initiative, they are actively invited to attend a Sunday business skills workshop specifically for Fathers and Daughters. The message is very clear: it is much easier to deal with fathers if schools reinforce their hierarchical relationship with their daughters. They are the bearers of business knowledge, and their daughters are the passive recipients of this superior wisdom.
To be fair, the school means well and it is a nice idea to give fathers the opportunity to spend quality time with their daughters. However, increasingly, women are actively engaged in the business world and it would encourage our daughters to think more widely about their future employment possibilities if women role models were able to offer practical guidance.
Further, in a community where some women will take on the burden of supporting a family while her husband learns in a kollel (yeshiva for married men) , it is vital that young women are given exposure to a wider range of opportunities than kindergarten
assistant or beauty therapist.
I was once asked what I would like for my daughters in the future. Would you choose happiness? What about a wonderful husband? Clearly, you want them to have beautiful children? Who asks these sort of questions?, I wondered to myself.
'To be able to earn a fortune,' I replied without hesitation. To borrow a Freudian concept, it was a clear case of projection.
In another clear case of projection, I was struck by news that a man in Australia put his entire life up for sale on EBay. He sold it for £192,000 which included his house, car and a few friends. I couldn't give my life away.
What sort of person can sell their life? Only someone who doesn't have to fill several
lunchboxes with cheese sandwiches, breadsticks and an apple every single day of the week. Only someone who has no concept of communal obligation could even contemplate walking away. Orthodox women are not programmed to be so selfless: after all, who would supervise the mikvah, who would prepare women for their burials at the chevra kadisha and who would wash and style my shaytel? Orthodox women cannot imagine life without a community and fulfilling their responsibilities towards the community are the drivers that offer self-esteem and a chance to clock up lots of mitzvoth (good deeds).
However, it's easy to understand that when the Community, with a capital C, just gets too overwhelming, you might want to sell your life and run away. But there is an easier solution: stick a tired, badly dressed, breasts sagging, blow up life-sized doll in your front window, and take a slow boat to China.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Ms. Sheitel 2008

News that two young Jewish women, Leah Green and Samantha Freedman are in the running for the Miss England title was apparently meant to make me feel proud. After all, Miss Green told the Jewish Chronicle, "I thought that maybe I could try to get the message out that it's not a bad thing to be voluptuous and a size 12," while Miss Freedman does the tzedaka shtick, "All the contestants have to raise money for a particular charity."
Their accidental Jewish birth hardly seems relevant. They are not being judged on answers to soul-searching questions about their Jewish identity and they are just too skinny. Neither have the zaftig [Yiddish for 'plump' or 'juicy']beauty we associate with a little too much lokshen [Yiddish for 'noodles'] in Friday night's chicken soup. Are we so insecure that we need to prove that Jewish women can also aspire and achieve the socially acceptable paradigm of Western beauty?
Advocates of the hijab have come up with the perfect counterpoint. In May 2008, Denmarks Radio's youth club, 'Skum' announced a competition entitled 'Miss Headscarf 2008'. The idea was to present 'cool Muslim women' who 'often make up a very fashion-conscious and style-confident part of the Danish street scene'.
While only the actual hijab was being judged, the rules suggested "it should not be too flashy, expensive, show class or race differences, or draw too much attention to the wearer." Muslims and non-Muslims were allowed to enter and 18-year-old Huda Falah was chosen because of the bright blue colour of her headscarf..
Here's my plan for 'cool religious Jewish women' - Miss Sheitel 2008. Send in a photo of yourself in your favourite sheitel [Yiddish for 'wig']. Whether it's the 'Jackie' with cascading curls, 'Sandee,' with luscious locks, or 'Randy' with a hint of mystery, you could be in the running for this prestigious award.
There are rules: no hair from the undernourished please. As one sheitel seller explains, "nutrition affects the quality of hair. Therefore, we do not buy hair from the poorest places in the world and we do not take advantage of people's misfortune. Rather, we buy the hair at decent price, and use only virgin, healthy and strong hair...So the hair we provide is healthy, gorgeous, bouncy, silky-soft and full of life."
Good thing the hair is full of life, because I don't want any faces full of life, otherwise I can't publish photos of the winners in the haredi newspapers where photographs of women are not allowed, or when they cannot be completely eliminated, their faces are airbrushed out.
In Golders Green, women who use George may have the competitive edge. Gorgeous George - half man, half Greek God - he has the Jewish women swooning as he snips and shapes their sheitels. With his bag of tricks, he performs trichological miracles for women behind the safety of their oak panelled doors and expensive security systems. Anyone winning this competition would have to dedicate it to George.
Bushra Noah, a young Muslim wannabe hairdresser could learn a lesson or two from George. She recently brought a case of discrimination against Sarah Desrosiers, the owner of a trendy hair salon owner who did not offer Bushra a junior position. Sarah argued that when Bushra made it clear that she would not, for religions reasons, remove her headscarf at work, Sarah felt that this young Muslim woman would not fit in with the image of the salon. Bushra was angry, appealed to the English legal system and to the public's horror, a judge actually ruled in Bushra's favour and ordered Sarah to pay £4,000 for "hurt feelings."
While Bushra might be feeling vindicated in the short- term, if she had any sense, she would learn a long- term lesson from George and others who service her sheitel wearing cousins. Here is a perfect opportunity to become THE Muslim hairdresser for Muslim women who may want their hair trimmed in the privacy of their own homes. Combine this with door-to-door hijab selling (cash only) and Bushra could be on the way to running a real yiddisher business.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Hefner, Playboy and a pencil case

It was our turn to host Charlie, the school rabbit for the weekend.
It died.
Seeking to comfort my distressed children, we went to WH Smith, a large stationary shop to buy some colored pencils.

'Imma, there's Charlie,' my little one shouted. "They've put him on the pencil case. Look he's on the folder as well.'
There, in full view, next to Minnie Mouse was the eponymous Playboy symbol plastered over a range of children's stationary.
'Can I have the pencil case?' my little one asked.
'What about Winnie-the-Pooh? It's so cute,' I replied.
'I want Charlie.'
Could Hugh Hefner ever imagined that one day, little girls would aspire to own Playboy branded stationary, blissfully unaware of its associated connotations?
'But darling, it's not Charlie. It's a different rabbit - what about Minnie?' 'Minnie is an idiot. I want the one with the rabbit.'
'But don't you understand, DARLING, you've been conned by this whole pink glittery thing. Can't you see that even your sweet young kodesh teachers, freshly minted from a year at sem, are walking around school carrying pink folders, furry pencil cases and packets of cute mini neon highlighters suggesting a permanent state of infantile sexuality. Playboy represents the exploitation of women's bodies and promotes a sexualized view of women that frankly, I find quite offensive. Don't you see that by putting this cute logo on everything, the company is seducing unwitting young children into supporting this adult brand. Parents who buy this stuff are just colluding with the sex industry.'
She's looking at me strangely. 'What?'
'Nothing. Choose something else - the rabbit is naked - it's not very tznius [modest] and your teachers won't like it in the classroom.'
I always play the modesty card when I am stuck. I am pathetic.
A newspaper cites Louise Evans, the head of media relations for WHSmith. "Playboy is probably one of the most popular ranges we've ever sold. It outsells all the other big brands in stationery. . .We offer customers choice. We're not here to act as a moral censor."
Of course not, that's my job - Moral Mother. If only I had the same courage as Reverend Tim Jones - a vicar who found his 15 minutes of fame in the national media when he initiated a petition objecting to the sale of these goods to his local store and moved all the Playboy products to an empty shelf. This could have been an excellent spot of interfaith collaboration, but a rabbi-t was nowhere to be found.
We eventually settled on Minnie Mouse. After all, when Minnie and Mickey debuted together in the film Plane Crazy, she did not agree to his request for a kiss in mid-flight. Further, when Mickey eventually forced Minnie into a kiss, she heroically parachuted out of the plane. Minnie definitely had the makings of a Beis Yakov icon. Shame her skirts were just not long enough.

Netball and Jewish women

Recent news that the Israeli netball team found glory in Ireland brought a warm glow to my face that I almost confused with the beginnings of a hot flush. A couple of years ago, I heard about a friendly Jewish netball game in London. As I started to explain that it had been many years since I last played and that I was not in the best shape, Jenny, the team organiser, gently interrupted me: "Don't worry," she said. "Everyone says the same thing. You'll be fine." And so it happened, that after 25 years of self-imposed netball exile, I picked up a ball again. Although I felt the coach staring at me in disbelief as I struggled with the complicated and unseemly warm up exercises, I was feeling great. The bibs were distributed and I was assigned GA - goal attack.
Apparently, new-comers are always given the less-favoured positions of GA or GS (goal shooter). After five minutes of play, I understood why. I was completely exhausted and ready to go home, willing to admit defeat and delusions of grandeur. But I persevered and made it to the end of the game, feeling very proud of myself and determined to return the following week.
And I did. I have returned nearly every week, and have been upgraded to Goal Defence, the same position I had as a teenager and that allows me to run across two thirds of the court. Netball distinguishes itself from basketball by the rule that a player cannot run with the ball. In a fast paced game, the ball is barely in your hands before it has to be passed to the next person. People are running around the court in their assigned areas with speed and focus, following the ball in anticipation of its destination. No dribbling and no wimps here.
However, there is one considerable difference between the delicacy of women's netball and the sweat of men's basketball. Women say sorry when they miss a catch, ill-time a throw or snuff a goal. It's sorry, sorry, sorry. It's as if they don't even believe they're entitled to be on the court. Aside from the obvious physical benefits of running around for an hour, there are existential benefits that are harder to measure. As I play, I'll often smile to myself because of a fleeting flashback to my teenage playing years. I'll suddenly remember the embarrassing moments such as getting a period in the middle of a game or the euphoric memories of blocked goals and brilliant throws. It seems as if everyone is carrying the repercussions of their teenage years around the court. When people ask me who I play with, I usually answer that it's a bunch of 40-year-old overweight Jewish mothers. But the truth is, as usual, more complicated and I have come to see this group as a microcosm of the fractures that make-up the lives of contemporary Jewish women.
Some are much older than 40, and some are their teenage daughters. Some are devoutly religious while for others, chicken soup is as Jewish as it gets. Some have scarves tightly bound around their hair and are wearing a skirt on top of their long tracksuit bottoms, while others are in skimpy shorts and singlet tops.
Some are s
ingle professional women, others are working at home looking after their large brood. Many are struggling to juggle work and family commitments. Some are married, some are looking for marriage and a couple are happily settled in lesbian partnerships.
Some are avowed Zionists who visit Israel regularly, while others prefer Majorca. In the milli-seconds of friendly chit-chat between goals, our partners (or lack thereof), financial troubles, children and beauty anxieties are shared. This hour together is an opportunity to see each other as women, stripped of our Jewish allegiances that have so often served to separate and stereotype us. It is an hour that has spawned great friendships across these divides and if women in Israel can also use a game of netball to enable these sort of relationships, and also with Arab women in their neighbourhoods, then it's certainly a sport worthy of some funding from private and public sources.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Treadmill in the Sukkah

If it is desirable to eat and sleep in a sukkah, should one also use the treadmill in a sukkah?
It's chol hamoed, I'm at the gym and judging by the number of men and women sweating off those extra kugel calories, it's clear that Jews are not obligated to exercise inside a sukkah.
The housewives' preferred gym in Golders Green is situated in a busy shopping strip, sandwiched between a popular adult education centre and an even more popular kosher restaurant. It has a few advantages over the other more glamorous and cleaner gyms within a short driving distance: fat women are especially welcome, there is a women's only gym room and the swimming pool has hours reserved exclusively for women.
Interestingly, the most glamorous are the young newly married religious women. They turn up in ankle-length skirts hiding their sweatpants which, if you look carefully, are peaking out just where their skirts meet their trainers. Their workout T-shirts are covered by the bulky sweatshirts worn by anorexics and they cover their hair with demure snoods, although occasionally, a brightly coloured scarf can be seen. They arrive at the gym carrying very little save for their car keys, membership card,
mobile phone and a bottle of water. They enter the gym and disrobe in the womens' changing rooms - emerging as svelte nymphettes in slinky figure-hugging leotards.
Adorned with expensive diamonds, they look sexy on the treadmill
in bodies yet to be ravaged by pregnancy and childbirth. The only thing that gives them away is the shmutter on their head An occasional intellectual reads a book while on the stationary bike, but I have yet to see anyone daven while running on the treadmill. Often they come in pairs, but if not, they all seem to recognise each other and enjoy a schmooze and a whinge. The complaints are long: the mother in law, the teacher and the cleaner. The rumours are short: suspected divorces, potential engagements and in these financial times, people about to lose their jobs or their businesses. The schadenfreude is delicious.
Then there are the older women who have a completely different approach. They arrive fully dressed in their day clothes, sensible shoes and sheitel, shlepping a travel bag which I am sure has sandwiches inside. They go into one of the private cubicles of the changing area to put on their baggy tracksuit pants and extra large t-shirt. They take off their sheitel and slip on a scarf or snood. Their sheitel is discreetly packed away in a private locker - although I have on rare occasions, noticed a sheitel hanging loosely from a clothes peg, inadvertently placed next to hanging hijab. As long as they don't mix up their headgear when they leave, everyone is happy.
What strikes me is that the frum women dominate the space in the gym - and I don't necessarily mean physically. Golders Green is actually a very multicultural area, and there are an assortment of women at the gym, however, none seem to claim ownership of the public space in the same way that the frum women do. Having colonised the running machines, they pant loudly and then speak even more loudly about their personal issues and the community with little regard for other women who may be there. These women may have very large physical spaces in their own homes, but may have very little emotional or mental space in which to maneuvre. Ironically, the womens' gym room is quite a claustrophobic physical space, but somehow acts to liberate these women emotionally.
Let's not forget the single frum women who come to the gym. Despite the lack of a hair covering, you can still tell them apart. They are anxious around the married women, and eager to perform because they never know if it could lead to an introduction to a suitable husband. After all, if you still look good while you're schvitzing, then it's easier to sell you as a hot date to a prospective yeshiva bocher.
The gym is also the best place to catch up on all the television that you can't watch because you can't have a television in your house or your children won't get into the school of your choice. While some schools ask intrusive questions about your family life, I have yet to hear of a school that ask if you watch TV in the gym. Unfortunately, Desperate Housewives is only on after the gym closes, so there must be a secret TV in Golders Green where all these women are gathering to find out the latest on Lynette's cancer, Katherine's violent ex-husband and Bree's flirtation with the pastor. I know there must be a secret TV, because all these women know exactly what is happening on Wisteria Lane.
And let's not forget the men in the gym. While it is a mitzvah to look after our bodies, the men must be asking themselves if the mitzvah is worth the trouble when so many sins are committed along the way? There is no separate men's gym, so they must avert their eyes from the women jogging, stretching and sweating all around them. Heads down and they can't see what they are doing; heads up and there's a lot of sinning. Buxom bouncing women make it hard to concentrate on the shiurim on their iPod and while the loud pulsating music may be conducive to upping your speed, it is usually very suggestive and certainly not very frum..
In the coming weeks, as winter sets in and Shabbat ends early, the gym will be the place to go to on a Saturday night. It's a routine I've enjoyed for many years. But my favourite time to go the gym is just before I go to the mikvah - a vigorous workout, a 5-minute walk to the mikvah, a refreshing shower, a quick dip, a short drive home and some more exercise. The question remains: which uses up more calories?

Preparing My Tombstone

I have been thinking about my tombstone. Every year, during these days surrounding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I get a little nervous. The words in the machzor make it clear that between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur one's fate for the following year is determined. It's only the method that is yet to be decided. Today, I am healthy, but who knows about tomorrow? Be prepared: it's the Girl Guide in me. I'd also like to save Mr. Blasé the effort and anyway, his punctuation is terrible.
I could opt for the standard phrases: devoted mother, dedicated wife, cherished daughter, beloved mother, selfless sister (but I feel a tombstone is not a place for alliteration) blah blah. But this is not a time for accolades, and I just don't like the fact that these benign phrases are all about me in relationship to others. These descriptions, albeit worthy - are not about me as a person, but rather acknowledge events in my life that offered me a mortgage
, school fees and the same person to grow old with.
I have been working on a few options

She had an edge. Too short and too obscure. What's the point of being remembered for the edge when any recollections of my sarcasm would be out of context.

Her cynicism belied her sentimentality. True, but would anyone really believe it?

Multi-tasker extraordinaire. Isn't every woman? Hardly anything unique.

She wanted to make a difference
but was never sure she did. I'd like to be remembered for my altruistic streak even though it was never fully realised. I just don't want to sound too self-righteous.

Kind to misfits and loyal to her friends. Pots of soup across Hendon and Golders Green attest to this.

Her instinct never let her down. This instinct led me to marry the wonderful Mr. Blasé, so that is surely worth a mention.

She tried her best. What happens when our best is just not enough?

Lots of people annoyed her. And why did I waste so much time trying to placate them?

The Holocaust walked in front of her. Challenged to name my primary identity: British, Jewish, woman - I always chose child of Holocaust survivors.

She was grateful when everyone she loved woke up in the morning. It's true.

Modest, inside and out. Can there be a greater tribute for a Jewish woman?

It's not really about the tombstone, it's about the legacy. What will be worth remembering? How do we construct a memory that reflects a person's life when that life is fractured, complex and filled with it's own memories. I have thought about this a lot in recent years. Holocaust survivors are dying around me and there are no adequate words for their tombstones. Young mothers in our community are dying of breast cancer and their children are barely old enough to read the words engraved above their mother's grave.
Naturally, during Yizkor on Yom Kippur, I will be thinking of the deceased who are close to me, but I know I will also be wondering if I will be here
next year to mourn them.

Frum women know how to help

Billed as the 'largest kosher bakery in Europe,' Mr. Baker is a great meeting spot, punkt in the heart of one of London's main Jewish thoroughfares. Israeli taxi drivers, Polish builders, Slovakian au-pairs and Hendon housewives can all be found drinking coffee and eating fresh pastries in this huge bakery-cum-coffee shop.
In a country where trees are not adorned with notices and their tear-off telephone numbers, kosher shops are an important part of the information highway. Free notices about shiurim, items for sale and job vacancies within the community are common.
Last Friday, I saw a 14 page booklet - The Gemach Database - on the information counter. An acronym for 'Gemilut Hasidim' (trans. acts of kindness), a Gemach is essentially an organization that loans useful items for free. This Gemach Database has a comprehensive list of facilities including all the typical ones such baby equipment, bedding for extra guests, clothing, medical necessities and catering equipment. However, there are also the unusual ones including 'Humane pest control - animal friendly traps for catching mice, rats, squirrels, etc without harming them,' 'Bubble blowing machine for use at parties,' and the 'Cut Price Bris Service,' (did they intend the pun?), while the most sensitive Gemach has to be the spare breast milk supplied by nursing mothers for premature babies.
Women in the religious community know how to organise themselves in ways that other communities can only dream of. I showed this Gemach database to a friend who is not connected to the religious community at all - she was very impressed and immediately labelled it as a 'model of community empowerment, resource sharing and grass-roots social action.'
'No,' I said, 'you've completely missed the point. This is just frum women doing what they do - it's part of being frum and belonging to a community.' While it may serve as a good example of the sociology of religion, it is more significantly, religion writ-large. These women keep the social engines well-oiled, organising the nitty-gritty of day to day life with total selflessness and modesty. 'Social action' is currently being touted as an important tool for strengthening Jewish identity - I'd say the wider community have a lot to learn from these women.

What is it with religious women and Sex in the City?

The text message on my phone the other day read: "Come and see Sex and the City and raise money for underprivileged the same time."
Hundreds of religious women are flocking to see Sex and the City. 'It's a charity thing,' said one. 'It's just a bit of fun,' protested another. Seems to me that the money collected might be better spent on a bit of stomach stapling for these SATC doppelgangers from the London suburbs of Hendon and Hampstead Garden Suburb.
What is it with religious women and SATC? Carrie's masochistic relationships with men (before Mr. Big decides to commit) Miranda's accidental single motherhood (before Steve decides to commit), Samantha's ruthless pursuit of sex without love (before Smith decides to commit) are hardly the values of Orthodox women determined to pursue marriage and family. Even Charlotte, the WASP-turned-JEW, relies on all the negative stereotypes of contemporary Jewish life to stake her claim: married to the wealthy lawyer, revelling in materialism, and relentless complaining about nothing. Of course, she does all this in an apron making gefilte fish.
Carrie's life is the antithesis of the religious woman, and yet it is funny how the lure of supporting a soup kitchen will get hundreds of them out in their heels to watch Carrie's denouement.
Are married religious women so bereft of imagination that they have to rely on SATC for entertainment? Are their husbands so boring?
Similarly, it would be easy to think that religious single women have nothing in common with the untrammelled sexuality of Carrie and her friends. Au contraire. While the necklines are higher and the skirts are a little longer, single religious women are also looking for Mr. Big.
Carrie and her friends might not be subject to a community of rabbis, but they are also surrounded by smug marrieds regarding them with suspicion, pity and ambivalence.
Smug marrieds who should stick to texting each other and stop bothering me.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Honey Cake Honesty: A Rosh Hashanah Reflection

Overheard at the butcher the other day.
"I really want to organise a mother and baby morning that has a bit more substance to it. Some learning or something more interesting than just baby talk.'
'That sounds great. I'd love to come. Did you have any ideas in mind.'
'I was thinking about swapping recipes. I need a really good honey cake recipe."
I have never made a honey cake. I don't bake my own challah. 
My children don't eat home-made cookies. And I have never served strawberries hand dipped in chocolate.
And I am proud.
The race to prove one's domesticity is endemic in Golders Green and Hendon. Highly educated housewifes who have abandoned their career aspirations are channelling those energies into producing festive treats that come to define their role within the family. I argue that we must support local businesses such as kosher bakeries 
if we want a sustainable community. I am also not convinced that it is cheaper to make one's own honeycake. Aside from the costs of eggs, honey, flour, electricity and water to clean up, there is the cost of a woman's time - a figure that many women don't value and never bother to calculate. In the run-up to Rosh Hashanah, we are exhorted to use our time to prepare spiritually for a new year of challenges. How did a woman's spiritual preparation get hijacked and transformed into baking the tastiest honey cake in town?

Monday 25 August 2008

Au Pairs and Sem Girls: Spot the Difference

Ellul is a month of transition: young girls from the community leave their families and depart for 'sem' - be it Gateshead in northern England, Jerusalem or New York, while a new stream of Eastern European au pair fodder enter these families and can be found at the gates of every Jewish primary school as the new term begins. The experiences of these two groups of young women - roughly the same age - could not be any more different. Esti, Sara and Michal are leaving home with a credit card and a suitcase full of new clothes with sleeves just that bit longer than what they could get away with in London. Petra, Jana and Olga will arrive on a bus at Victoria station in London with a small amount of cash and a rucksack filled with workday jeans and plastic slippers.
Esti and her classmates know that they will be indulged for a year in what parents regard a 'reward' for their daughters' hard work during high school. Esti plans on meeting her friends in Emek Refaim, Jerusalem's trendy café strip, where they will demand latté and cake in condescending tones. Their parents will text several times a day and phone regularly and there will be constant monitoring of their activities by a cabal of mothers who fly out for the weekend to visit their daughters. If they could install an international baby monitor in their daughters' dorm room, they would be listening to it all day long from the comfort of their Hendon triple lounge.
In stark contrast, Petra and the new friends she has just met on the bus, have no idea what is waiting for them as they cross the threshold of the religious Jewish family they have agreed to work for. Her parents can't afford to visit, she will spend Christmas alone in her bedroom and it's likely that she will work second or third jobs to supplement her au pair income. For many young girls the au pair experience is a wonderful time, but occasionally it is a disaster and the au pair finds herself in a dangerous position.
Every Jewish mother who sends her daughter to sem feels fairly confident that a relative, friend or yenta on the block will look after her daughter if she is in trouble. Every mother in Eastern Europe is also worried, but she is not so confident that there is a safe and supportive environment waiting for her in London.
It's easy to dismiss the au pairs that we have come to rely on. I have often heard women refer to their au pair as a 'peasant' or they make a joke about her family's role during the Holocaust - 'I'll bet her grandfather was raping my grandmother.' These "jokes" are borne of deep suspicion and internalized trauma that deeply damage the relationship between the au pair and her family. Sometimes I think that hiring these au pairs is an unconscious form of revenge: by regarding the au pairs negatively, they are defending their own family's honor.
Here's an Ellul thought: instead of imagining that the au pair's family were collaborators, perhaps they were actually righteous Gentiles.
Fortunately, there's still enough time to ask for forgiveness before Yom Kippur.