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.