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.

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