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.