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?