Thursday 25 December 2008

Soul for Sale

When Dante Knoxx offered his soul on Ebay for a ‘buy it now’ price of £700,000, I was tempted to bid. Not particularly happy with the state of my soul, I thought it might be a good idea to try someone else’s. However, before I had the time to investigate the reliability, integrity and flexibility of Mr. Knoxx’s soul, Ebay cancelled the listing, apparently citing its policy that they do not sell immaterial items.

In contrast, the frum community is based on selling immaterial things and the prime example is the Yissochar-Zevulun trading relationship, whereby ‘Yissachar’ studies Torah while ‘Zevulun’ earns money to support himself and Yissachar. In effect, the money given to Yissachar buys Zevulun a share of Yissachar’s heavenly rewards for his Torah study. In the past, in a small town where there was one wealthy benefactor and an acknowledged Talmudic genius who needed support, this model may have been successful. However, in contemporary times, the 1:1 relationship has morphed into something totally different. A relatively small number of very generous philanthropists are supporting swathes of yeshiva students in large institutions. However, as they do not have relationships with individual students, their portion of heavenly rewards are harder to track. On the other hand, these wealthy men are buying the time, influence and occasional favour of the roshei yeshiva, all the while holding sway over the material well-being of thousands of young men.

The culture of dependency underpinning the world of full-time learning for men, limited job prospects for women and a minimal secular education for their children was created by the generosity of these ba’alei tzedakah in collaboration with the rabbinic leaders of our age. However, as more and more businessmen and philanthropic foundations succumb to the global economic crisis, the yeshiva world is in danger of imploding. In the dangerous liaisons made with many of these businessmen, it seems that some of the rabbinical leaders may have already sold their soul.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

The Pink Blackberry

Frum women dangle. Their car keys, usually attached to photos of their children and grandchildren, their house keys, iPod, supermarket card and gym locker tokens are all hanging off them. In one hand they are holding clunky wallets brimming with credit cards, dry cleaning receipts, parking tickets and cash. In the other, they are clutching onto an important database of sociological data currently held on the SIM card of their mobile phone. Find the phone and you will unlock all the important numbers a woman needs to know: shaytel macher, kosher butcher, mikvaot, rabbi, my cleaner and her sister in Poland
However, one item sits on the other side of the electronic mehitzah - the Blackberry. This symbol of manly achievement eludes most frum women, for it symbolises corporate power and importance. It means you've got a well-paying job.
However, this may all change now that the pink Blackberry has been launched in the UK. If a woman's accoutrements are her calling card, then surely the pink Blackberry will become a lifestyle item for the religous woman allowing her to retain her modest femininity while telling the world that she too, is a very important person with a very busy schedule.
Pink used to be an innocent colour: Barbie dolls, bridesmaids dresses
, icing on the birthday cake. Our pinky was for pretending to be posh while holding a cup of tea and we had no idea that a pinko was a communist sympathiser.
How things have changed: now teenage girls around me are fully aware that the pink collar lapel is for breast cancer. Young mothers are dying around them, and many of these teenage girls are involved in charitable efforts to raise mone
for cancer research. They also know that lesbians have politicised the color pink, and that the pink pound refers to the disposable income of gay people. So, who is the pink Blackberry really for - drag queens, soccer moms or lipstick lesbians?
Gay issues now have a prominent place on the social agenda. For example, Stonewall, a gay advocacy group recently put posters up all over the London underground railway, "Some people are gay. Get over it." When my children saw this they giggled, and then were embarrassed when they realised that I had also seen it. I am being forced to discuss these issues with my children at a relatively young age, long before they have had a chance to understand their own sexuality, let alone begin to understand how Judaism views homosexuality.
The media is a prominent vehicle for promoting a gay lifestyle: on YouTube, Lizzy the Lezzy, an English-born Israeli is emerging as a gay icon. In her feature, Lizzy the Lezzie does Gay Israel, she poses the question, 'Why is it good to be gay in Israel?' An attractive woman replies, 'Because there are so many gorgeous girls.'
Thousands of young girls are listening to Katy Perry's popular track, 'I kissed a girl.' The lyrics are very provocative and disturbing:

I kissed a girl, and I liked it.
The taste of her cherry chapstick.
I kissed a girl, Just to try it.
I hope my boyfriend don't mind it.
No, I don't even
know your name,

It doesn't matter, you're my experimental game,
Just human nature. it's not what good girls do,
Not how they should behave.
I kissed a girl, and I
liked it.
Us girls we are so magical,

Soft skin, red lips, so kissable,
Hard to resist, so touchable. Too good to deny

Now I know why some parents only let their children listen to Uncle Moishy.
But I don't live in a bubble and our frum teenagers know a lot more about homosexuality than we can even imagine. The conversation in the religious community tends to focus on male homosexuality, and is usually summed up in a couple of sentences: 'Homosexuality is forbidden by the Torah. You can't be religious and gay.' The fiasco surrounding the Gay parade in Israel, or formal Jewish participation in Gay parades abroad distracts attention from the day to day, and often poignant struggle of religious Jews who realise that they are gay.
I want to know how parents are discussing the complexities of this situation with their daughters, particularly just before they go to 'sem' on their gap year after high school. Eighteen-year-old girls, away from home, are very vulnerable and research has shown a high incidence of eating disorders in the close confines and somewhat pressurized world of the religious seminary. What about sexual experimentation in such an environment where access to boys is usually quite limited? The rules of 'shomer negiah' (the touching of the opposite sex which is forbidden before marriage) certainly don't apply.
Being slightly pinko myself, I try not to judge people's personal relationships and I don't want my children to be homophobic, racist or sexist. If biology is destiny, then surely we are obligated to support a religious person who acknowledges their homosexuality and does not want to lead a double life that will inevitably end in tragedy for all those he or she duped. Nevertheless, a gay religious person is also destined to a life on the margins, whether that be within their own community or when they venture out into the general society that may not understand their religious convictions. Do we want our children to have conventional married lives merely because it removes the angst of not belonging?
So, until our daughters are married they may just have to settle for a pink Blackberry which advertises itself as "the phone that gives you everything you need - without sacrificing everything you want." Yes, the pink Blackberry may just be the man that every single frum woman is waiting for.

Monday 1 December 2008

The Tehillim Tipping Point

Q. How many Beis Yaakov girls does it take to change a light bulb?
A. 100. One and 99 to say Tehillim.

Women scuttle to each other's homes during the week to huddle and recite Tehillim (Psalms) in an attempt to ward off illness or death or entreat God's kindness for a good shidduch or income. Women are the corrections of a community: when disasters strike, the rabbis often blame the women for gossiping or immodest dress. (Gossiping while dressed immodestly is a double whammy and even worse)
As if women don't have enough to do, now they are responsible for the spiritual well-being of a whole community and are instructed to say Tehillim as the remedy needed to avert further disaster. What was the Tehillim tipping point? How did these verses come to substitute serious learning and empowerment for women? Isn't is strange that while women's voices are accorded tremendous power to change the divinely ordained course of events, they have virtually no voice in the decision-making process of a religious community. Perhaps that is the real reason why communities start to go awry.