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.