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.