Wednesday 5 August 2009

Summer Camps - a privilege for the pampered

Now that the fasting of Tisha B’Av is over, the folly of summer camp begins. Talking about ‘getting the kids ready for camp’ is a favourite Shabbat lunch topic, while ‘shopping for camp’ is a specific activity that Hendon mothers (and yes, I generalise) undertake with a specific passion usually reserved for, well, things I am too modest to mention. New T-shirts, shoes, suitcases, underwear, bedding, hair accessories and skirts are standard. How the world has changed - when I begged my parents to let me go to camp, I had to choose my words carefully - camp only meant Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.

“Going to camp” exposes the wealth divide in much of the frum community. Bnei Akiva, the movement aligned with the national-religious Mizrachi movement, costs £655 for a two week residential camp, and while there are bursaries, these are usually reserved for those on welfare benefits or single parents. While your average family on middling-incomes may be lucky enough to have the money in the bank, understandably it may not be their first priority to send one, if not more, children to camp. For children who are not at Jewish schools, camp is the best way to develop Jewish social networks, learn more about Jewish texts and experience a Jewish lifestyle in a non-threatening environment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish communal leaders are inspired by their formative experiences of Jewish summer camp, and this is reflected in the fact that only the wealthy men and women can afford to be our lay leaders.

However, some consider camp a pernicious influence. Last year, the German government banned the far-right youth organisation "Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend", or German Youth Faithful to the Homeland, for trying to indoctrinate children and teenagers at their summer camps which include military-style drills and courses on "racial purity." This year, David Cameron has announced some half-baked idea for young people to get involved in summer camps and community projects as a means of raising the self-esteem and sense of social responsibility of the underprivileged. In Israel, concern about the extreme religious teachings in summer camps organised by Fatah and Hamas has been a long-standing issue. In Uzbekistan, the government has accused the Baptist Union of brainwashing children with religious ideas at their summer camp. Some may wonder if it is so different at Jewish summer camps that celebrate Jewish nationalism, reinforce Jewish insularity and solidarity and see the world solely through the Jewish lens. For example, Camp Gan Israel advertises itself as “Where Jewish kids are Happier, and Happy Kids are Jewisher!” Jewisher than what?

While it’s simple when religious camps are sex-segregated, it gets a little more complicated where boys and girls are together. Naturally it is expected that they will be kosher and Sabbath-observant, however, the dress code and the relationship code is a little more ambiguous. At Bnei Akiva, there is much less talk of its revered Torah v’Avodah ideology, and more obsession with ‘shomer negia,’ (literally ‘guarding the touch’) which forbids any physical contact between the young male and female campers and their leaders. While it is comforting to parents to know that it’s unlikely their daughter will be deflowered at Bnei Akiva camp, this skewed focus on the physical relationships has ironically, created more sexual tension between its senior members. It’s no surprise that many a marriage in modern Orthodox circles was first imagined at a Bnei Akiva camp. Singles cruises geared for all the religious unmarried men and women in their 30s is all about re-creating the romantic possibilities of a Bnei Akiva summer camp.

What about the homesick child at summer camp? In my day, you’d cry yourself to sleep and put on a brave face during the day and soon afterwards, it would all be fine. The mobile phone has changed the summer camp experience forever. For a while, they were banned from summer camp, but this year, most youth movements have conceded to pressure to allow the children to bring their phone to camp. The problem is that generally, the children will ring their parents, or email them from their Blackberry (the hand-me-down phone of choice when their parents upgrade their own phone) at the slightest complaint or indignation.

Children no longer have to rely on their inner resources and resilience – they can always phone home for comfort and succour. Jewish camp providers have to pander to parental demands and expectations to ensure cash flow, while children learn that their needs and their happiness is all that matters. Narcissistic children calling their parents from summer camp does not augur well for the future of the Jewish community – a community that desperately needs visionary leadership, selfless membership and a deep commitment to ensuring that Jewish values permeates all communal activity. As long as summer camp remains accessible only to the privileged, the community has no idea what talented and dedicated young people are waiting to be discovered.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Hendonistan - where the women are to blame....

In Hendonistan, there's a new message that's been circulated via email and posted on relevant notice boards inside one particular shul [synagogue] (although by the time you read this, I understand the notice will have been taken down). In a paean to Mea Shearim typography, the black and red banner in this popular Orthodox London shul requests that girls and women maintain proper halachic [according to Jewish law] standards of dress in shul. They are to refrain from 'low necklines, see-through and short-sleeve tops and short skirts.' And finally, there is the classic plea 'Please help us to preserve the Kedushat Beit Haknesset.' [sanctity of the synagogue]. Yes, all that holiness resting on the errant elbow of Hendon housewife.
In Hendonistan, formerly known as Hendon, large numbers of Muslim women wearing their jilbab and hijab share the streets with young Orthodox women in their swirling denim skirts that sweep the ground. 'At least,' think all the women in sheitels and long sleeves, 'we don't have to cover up ourselves like THEM. We're so NORMAL.' Yes, it's perfectly normal, as some rabbis have cited, to blame the tragedies of the world on the immodest dress of women. The case of the three yeshiva students in a Japanese jail for allegedly smuggling some drugs is a recent example that highlights this worldview.
In the May 1st edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times, there is an advertisement written in the name of Mrs. Goldstein, the mother of one of the boys in jail. Distressed by her son's situation, she explained that Harav Hatzadik Rabbi Yakov Meir Schechter was asked what could be done for the young men. "The tzaddik's answer was precise. A hisorrerus [awakening] - in tznius [modesty] will surely be a big z'chus for the yeshua [salvation]." The advertisement continues with emotional blackmail; "The commitment of righteous women to improve in any area of Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined. Your contribution in the form of a personal undertaking can be the deciding factor in their fate. Who can remain idle at this time?" There is also a small outlined box for you to fill in "I, so and so, daughter of so and so, hereby, bli neder (without making a promise) undertake ... upgrade my tznius performance by ..." Three blank lines are left for you to fill in before sending the note to Mrs Goldstein in Monsey, New York. Conveniently, a few suggestions are offered in addition to the usual hem length advice:
Refrain from brisk walking as a form of exercise
Refrain from eating/drinking in public areas, especially where men are present
Shoes/heels/fitted with a rubber sole
Learning hilchos tznius (the laws of tzniut) daily.
What is a woman meant to make of this? Holding women's actions accountable for the fate of these young men serves to abrogate the personal responsibility of those who committed the crime. How is a man meant to respond? Is he really meant to believe that his mother/wife/daughter/sister is the harbinger of all bad tidings pending her fashion sense? Has thousands of years of Jewish history and our complex relationship with the Divine been reduced to a schmutter [piece of cloth]?
In Hendonistan, there is no shortage of rabbis and teachers willing to instruct women how to dress appropriately. Treating the women like children who need to be reprimanded is foolish - their only sin is perhaps too much disposable income with which to buy the latest fashions. While some women simply scoff at this modesty policing, many teenage girls are having a visceral reaction to the way that some lessons in school are hijacked to remind them of the importance of modesty. Critical and condescending teachers are not going to save the Jewish people.
However, if you are concerned about your wardrobe, there are some solutions for a modesty makeover. Try Sleevies - a sleeve extension with an elastic band at the upper arm that you pop underneath the original short sleeve. You can transform your whole wardrobe with this simple device that creates a ¾ sleeve on every top. For suspect necklines, wear a TeeNeck which is a "shirt supplement designed to wear with a lower cut top." Or if you're nifty with a needle, a new book by Rifka Glazer is all you'll need. Seams and Souls: A Dressing, Altering and Sewing Guide for the Modest Woman published by Feldheim (who else?) claims to be a 'a comprehensive guide to sewing and shopping for clothing that conforms to the proper standard of tznius. It will help you decide which clothing to buy and which to avoid or discard because they cannot be altered to meet halachic standards, plus it offers many creative solutions for tznius problems." There is a wide range of creative tips and techniques for tznius solutions for sewers at all levels and over 250 modest, easy-to-follow diagrams for altering the most problematic parts of garments.
In Hendonistan, I am afraid that sewing up the seam will lead to sewing up the soul.

Sunday 19 April 2009

Jobs for the Girls?

In my real life, I am about to lose my job. Furious networking and frantic emailing have left me little time to write anything other than job applications and embellishments on my resumé (all job offers welcome). However, I have had a lot of time to think about what the recession means for Orthodox women, and how paid employment differentiates the role of women across various segments of the Orthodox community.
In the charedi community, especially in those sections where the men are in full-time learning, women are childbearing and bringing home the proverbial bacon. They generally have relatively low-paid jobs such as teachers, secretaries, beauty therapists or shop assistants that provide the basic infrastructure for a community to function. Rarely are they in business (unless it's sheitels [wigs] or housecoats) and even the recent Israeli initiatives to provide computer training and jobs found that many women were willing to take lower pay for working in an all-female work environment with flexible hours.
Men in full time learning, teaching in yeshivot or managing religious communal organizations have already started to feel the impact of the increasing numbers of American and European businessmen who can no longer afford to support these institutions across the Jewish world. Even in a good economic climate, most of these men have very few skills that would enable them to get a decent paying job outside the community. By minimizing the value of a secular education, their rabbis have failed to enable these men to provide adequately for their families and have perpetuated their dependency on the tzedakah [charity] of their neighbours (or in England, on the munificence of the welfare state).
The better-educated and savvy women in the charedi community are going to manage this recession by taking second jobs or piecemeal work, while the single working women in the charedi community with no husband or children to support are going to be the most financially secure. Is it too optimistic to think that this economic crisis will force rabbis and educators to re-evaluate the sort of life skills and training they are giving their young boys?
In the modern Orthodox community, there isn't a minyan where a man hasn't lost his job - bankers, lawyers, computer specialists and accountants have had their role as family provider snatched from under their tallis [prayer shawl], leaving many of them feeling emasculated and depressed. For women, the implications of the recession are still evolving - while a few women complained that their husbands had cancelled this year's Pesach holiday to a five-star resort at the Dead Sea, most are being much more careful about what goes in the their shopping trolley. Mothers are distraught as they start cutting back on extra-curricular activities for their children - ju-jitsu, folk guitar and tap dancing are under threat, and in a community that heavily guards the phone number of a good Polish cleaner, a few have taken to cleaning their own bathrooms and ironing their own husband's shirts.
Many of these women are highly-educated professionals who can afford to be full time homemakers while others are underemployed in mildly interesting jobs for a couple of days a week with their earnings reserved for little treats. After relying on their husbands for years, are these women willing to work full-time to support their families? More significantly, after so many years out of the work force, do they have the requisite skills and confidence to find the increasingly scarce jobs that are out there? When things get tough, what sort of role-modelling will these couples provide for their children? Will young girls finally realise that they need to train for careers with serious financial rewards so that they can support themselves in the future?
There is of course the other group of single, divorced or married women who are already working full time, often as the sole breadwinners in their family or as part of couple where two middling incomes are needed to create one almost decent Jewish salary that will enable them to live in the Jewish area, eat overpriced kosher food and send their kids to summer camp. For these women, it's business as usual, juggling work and home, with the sceptre of redundancy hanging over their heads, even though fortunately, many are in teaching, nursing, local council and other public sector jobs where there is greater job security.
Rabbis in every community are tackling the economic crisis according to their community's need - it might be facilitating introductions to potential employers, setting up a discrete emergency fund, calling for simpler simchas or providing some spiritual sustenance during these challenging times. There is much talk of lowering expectations, especially amongst children, and recognising this crisis as a corrective for previous greed and excess (which is extremely annoying as those struggling the most are not those who created nor benefited from this excess or greed).
In what might appear to be unrelated, there is also increasing concern about the number of young people who are going 'off the derech,' and rejecting the Orthodoxy of their parents. Some are motivated by the poverty of their own families and want to escape the inevitable consequences of a poor education and limited contact with the secular world. It strikes me that the fallout from the religious system is less about the big theological questions and more about overcoming deprivation. As long as desire, and not doubt, continues to fuel religious disquiet, the recession will only exacerbate the feelings of hopelessness and cynicism in a failing religious system. And if anyone tries to tell me that the recession is due to the immodest dress of women... well, I may just have to throw my sheitel to the wind.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Trapped by Yichus

Napoleon and his cronies declared, via George Orwell, that ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ I have my own version: All Jews are equal, but some Jews have more yichus than others.
Yichus is the delicate tissue paper and silk bows used to wrap up a very ordinary gift. Once the fancy packaging is stripped away, all you’ve got is the very ordinary, and often very disappointing, gift. A distinguished lineage and respectable breeding can make a difference to one’s social standing, and so Yichus is touted by the matchmakers when the boy or girl in question doesn’t have very much to offer themselves. For example, the son of well known Rosh Yeshiva has excellent yichus while the daughter of a Latvian convert to Judaism would have very little yichus. Where serious yichus is at stake, marriages are often about forging dynasties, establishing power bases and consolidating the number of loyal followers.
While many parents regard good yichus of their prospective son or daughter-in-law as a drawcard, it hides the very real failings of some people. Paralysed by their yichus, a young person living in the shadow of their ancestors’ achievements may never amount to much. While they may get the proverbial ‘foot through the front door,’ their accomplishments are often mimized precisely because of the head start granted by their yichus. However, yichus is only one of the components of a successful resume in the matchmaking world. Potential brides are gauged by their beauty and despite all exhortations that a girl’s kindness, modest demeanour and homemaking skills are highly valued, the fact is that unless she is pretty and skinny, her chances of finding a ‘good boy’ are severely curtailed. Unless, of course, she has a rich father – in which case, she can eat as much as she wants.
Traditionally, young men were measured according to their learning prowess. I have always found it strange that the young women only willing to go out with boys ‘in learning’ known to excel in their ‘learning’ even though they are unable to understand what these potential husbands are actually learning because the women were not allowed to study Talmud. How sad that they must rely on other men for an evaluation of their potential spouse’s intellectual capacities.
The contemporary Ba’al Teshuvah movement has impacted on the traditional notions of yichus, given that many young Jews who become observant have actively chosen a life path that is radically different from their parents. The family reputation and lineage of a ba’al teshuvah, although there may have a smattering of rabbis from the shetetls of Eastern Europe, has been ravaged by assimilation and mothers who probably did not attend the mikvah. These blemishes continue to punish the struggling ba’alei teshuvah and often hinder their ability to marry into some of the most prestigious religious families. However, one constant remains – the young pretty woman who becomes religious, and has a wealthy father, will always have less trouble finding a husband than her poorer, plumper sister.

Monday 12 January 2009

God Might Save the Queen, but what about Anglo-Jewish women?

It was God Save the Queen that made me giggle. It was Hatikvah that made me glow. But actually, in those few moments between the two national anthems, sung by thousands of Jews at the conclusion of the rally for peace in London's Trafalgar Square, I realized the magic and the madness of Anglo-Jewry. Older British Jews just love being British and they proudly identify with it's pomp and circumstance. Singing the anthem was of course, the right thing to do, expressing our civic duty to show gratitude and appreciation for the fact that Jews have, on the whole, prospered throughout the United Kingdom.
More telling however, was the fact that most of the teenagers standing around me, did not actually know the words to God Save the Queen. Younger Jewish people have a more ambivalent relationship with their British identity - in such a multi-cultural, multi-opportunity land, being British is just one of the many 'Windows' that are open while surfing the net for something else.
When the crowd moved onto Hatikvah, the same teenagers articulated each word loudly and clearly. I smiled to myself - unashamed to declare their Jewish identity, unafraid to sing Hatikvah in London's most public space, these young people are the future of the community. Perhaps they will be able to transfer the unity demonstrated at Trafalgar Square to the breakfast tables of communal organizations, facilitating much more dialogue and understanding between different parts of the community.
So, while the rally ended with a tribute to the dual loyalties felt by British Jews, it started with an announcement that any lost children should be taken to a special meeting place. Such a Jewish rally - all that was missing was another announcement that food was to be available throughout the speeches.
Come to think of it - all that was missing throughout the speeches was a woman. The cast of characters was predictable - leaders of communal bodies, government representatives, religious leaders of other faiths - and not one woman. Is there not one woman in Anglo-Jewry able to represent the community at such an event? It is a shocking indictment of the community and does not bode well for young women who are currently involved in the community as they are more likely to forego any future communal activities if they cannot see any role models.
This was not a religious event, so not even halacha could be hijacked to excuse the absence of women. So the question remains - is there not one woman in Anglo-Jewry considered worthy enough by her male peers to be asked to speak on behalf of the community? Perhaps some women had been asked, but modestly declined, so excuse me if have been unfair. However, next time, if you hear they are looking for a woman speaker, send them my details - I would be not be too modest to accept.

Friday 9 January 2009

Dear Diary....

Gateshead Jewish Boarding School, not far from the famous Gateshead Yeshiva in the dreary north-east of England, are trying to sell me their 2009 diary. Actually, they are offering two options: the Time Management Desk Diary and the Jewish Woman’s Desk Diary.

While the Time Management Diary is a typical appointment book, the Jewish Women's Diary is in a league of its own, offering me wise sayings from the Sages, household tips, a calendar to help me work out barmitzvah dates and times for davenning - however, daf yomi (the daily page of Talmud it is customary to study) is missing because that would only feature in a man's diary.

I’d be interested to know if there were any consultations with women in the community about what they would find useful in a diary. Perhaps some words of inspiration from some very influential and significant women? What about a list of ‘gemachim’ in the area so that women would know where to borrow essential items? As many of these women with large families work outside the home in order to support their husbands who are learning full time, perhaps some practical tips for juggling the work-home balance would be useful.

Of course, the real question is whether we need a women's diary, and noch, a Jewish women's diary at all.
Would you buy a diary that instructs you to start clearning for Pesach just after Chanukah? I don't think so.