Monday 20 December 2010

The Power of Amen - Child-Women and Brachas Parties

‘Say Amen, Mummy.’ My youngest daughter is full of enthusiasm for her brachos (blessings). As every modest mother knows, training our children to say blessings before and after food is one of the pleasures of parenting. So it came as a surprise to find women acting like children at a ‘brachos party.’ Advertised as an opportunity ‘to make some brachot, eat some food, and say amen - let's do our hishtadlut (effort) to help our fellow Jews in their time of need. All this, plus a Devar Torah at the end - all in under an hour. Make it one of the best hours you've spent, and turn up!' Well – I just couldn’t resist.

This party was held in the women’s section of a Sephardi shul in Hendon, a bustling hub of London’s Orthodox life. The basic premise of these parties is that the word ‘Amen’ has some sort of kabbalistic power to bring about good things for people in trouble. Sheets of paper with various headings were on a table: zivuggim (a partner), parnassah ( livelihood) yeshua (general help) and cholim (sick people). As the women entered the room, many of them added names to these sheets – names that would be prayed for later in the evening. The list for a suitable partner was the longest – wherever I go, I can’t get away from lists of wonderful single women in their late 30s looking for a husband. Plates of cake, biscuits, fruit, vegetables, crisps and sweets were distributed on all the tables – all in preparation for the collective flurry of Amens to be recited.

A few women, with snoods askew and chapped hands, brought large buckets of dough to the party as they wanted to use this as an opportunity to publicly say the blessing of ‘hafrashat challah’ – putting aside a small amount of dough before baking bread. Then one by one, each person took a piece of cake, said the appropriate bracha and a chorus of Amen answered. We went round the room again for all the other foods, with a running commentary on the importance of our holy endeavour and a reminder to think about those who need our prayers for good health, a good job or a marriage partner.

Eventually, the rabbi of the synagogue came to visit the women and he brought along a friend. We stood in deference and only sat down after they both did. The guest speaker made a pitch for his yeshiva: for only £5 a month, he could guarantee that one of his students would study on my behalf and bring only good things for me and my family. This bargain offer was only available if I signed up on the evening and filled in my bank details to secure payment. I declined. While the attendance of the rabbi seemed to add an air of gravitas to the evening, I wondered if it was the price the women had to pay to have the shul to themselves for most of the evening. These women had transformed the synagogue space, usually reserved for formal prayer, into a space for domestic concerns and eating. In the 18th and 19th centuries women wrote ‘techinot’ – prayers for women reflecting domestic concerns – are these brachos parties a 21st century invention to claim sacred space in the synagogue as their voice cannot be heard during formal services? Are the child-women subverting the status quo right under the noses of their revered rabbis?

The rabbi’s words were troubling. He praised the women and said that by saying a bracha they were averting some terrible preordained catastrophe. Who knew women had such power? But the finale was more disconcerting: the rabbi reminded the women that even more important than saying brachot was wearing modest clothes. He chastised the women who wear beautiful sheitels (wigs) and railed against tight, short skirts. It is quite extraordinary – women have been part of the twists and turns of Jewish history for thousands of years, but in today’s world they are merely the guardians of the modest hemline.

Monday 30 August 2010

Menu Planning: an Orthodox Woman's Foreplay

I was thinking cupcakes for dessert on first night Rosh Hashana. Topped with chemically enhanced parev whipped cream, I could decorate them with fondant apples or a marzipan shofar. Yes, my dessert will be the talk of Hendon. Philanthropists and educators will praise me for making Judaism relevant in the 21st century - combining contemporary culinary trends with a nod towards tradition. Yes, I really do deserve the moniker 'frum domestic goddess of north-West London.' Here's something you have to know: menu planning is the new foreplay for the Orthodox Jewish woman.

The spiritual challenges of the High Holiday period is the easy bit; the frisson of planning, creating and serving extraordinary meals gives me goosebumps. There's a lot of angst and mutterings about the need to impress in-laws and friends during the marathon of yom-tov meals.Often it feels like we're back in the playground. The core of the frum north-west London community went to the same primary and high schools, and I have sat through so many meals where these apparently grown-up adults replay all their hurt and frustration experienced in the playground 25 years ago. The school's asphalt is still hot, and while men will compete with words: political debate, Talmudic discourse, business machinations, women will compete with food: crash diets, body image and inspirational yom-tov desserts. I feel sorry for the interlopers - the Swiss, Belgians and Americans who married into the frum establishment - they are totally adrift in this sea of adolescent reminiscing.

Competition: the rest is commentary. There are still winners and losers in the playground, but now the definitions have changed. There was a time when the 'clever girls' were the winners: free spirits who went to university, got themselves a career and interesting jobs while the girls who went to seminary and got married shortly afterwards were lauded publicly but quickly became invisible as they stayed home to breed and raise their young children. Unlike the American scene, it was a rare English rose who could combine domesticity with domination in the work force. Twenty-five years and a serious case of schadenfreude later, the smugly Smeg married woman is considered the real winner. Her single, once-coveted intellectual friend in her late 30s is most definitely the loser, and if she hasn't left for Baka or the Upper West Side, the single woman (and of course, the single man) is the self-conscious odd-number guest at her old school friend's yom-tov table.

These multi-leaved tables, groaning with exotic salads, tender meats and lush desserts, are the convenient story of north-west London. But inconveniently these tables also represent the intense competition over food production and male virility: can he afford to let you buy the expensive meat? Unwittingly, these tables undermine the romantic notion we have of our own community. These sumptuous tables don't tell the story of the families who are reliant on the kindness of the 'chicken ladies' (a small group of selfless and modest women who have quietly collected money, and cut a deal with the butchers to supply chickens at cost-price to a growing number of families in Golders Green and Hendon who are finding it increasingly difficult to afford food for Shabbat and Festivals). These tables don't tell the story of the increasing number of orthodox women who have been publicly humiliated by their husbands' indiscretions. Many are now divorced, others are heading that way - their families fractured and their yom-tov table ruined. People do not always choose the circumstances they find themselves in, and our ability to empathize with their situation and offer friendship is a wonderful Rosh Hashanah gift.

Yes, I will stick with cupcakes for dessert. It's a corny metaphor, but if we can take one large cake mixture and then make individual cupcakes, each with its own flavour and decoration, all equally delicious - then surely we can take one large mixture of Jewish people and create individuals, each with his or her own flavour and decoration, all equally delicious.

Sunday 1 August 2010

And so, another Jewish man marries out. Clearly, a Jewish husband is the lastest must-have accessory. Ivanka got hers last year, Chelesa did yesterday and there's a slew of pretty It-girls with Jewish boyfriends hoping that he'll turn into that nerdy-yet sexy, dependable Jewish husband. It would be churlish not to wish Chelsea and Marc mazal tov on their wedding, but quite frankly, all the self-congratulations about this union signalling the ultimate acceptance of 'The Jew' leaves me cold.

I'm worried about all the single Jewish women. There's a glut of single Jewish women who would prefer to marry a Jewish man, but they've all been taken by the waspy girl-next-door. And when that waspy girl wants to convert, well then every celebrity rabbi is elbowing her way forward to become the spiritual mentor of the moment.

All this makes me even more despondent about the situation facing single Jewish women, particularly those in the Orthodox community. But here's where I am going to make myself really unpopular - the number of women converts far exceeds male converts and these women converts are encroaching on the local home grown talent, taking away potential husbands for the women in their 30s and 40s who have been searching for a suitable mate for so long. It's very disheartening for these women to watch what happens when a woman converts and within a few months is married to a local fellow. I say this tentatively and with respect, for we are obliged to welcome the converts and the tremendous sacrifices they make, particularly given the demands of London's notoriously rigorous Beth Din are very impressive. And of course, we're all familiar with the convert who eventually dumps her Jewish boyfriend because he is not frum enough for her - it's usually enough to make him run into the arms of the nearest shiksa.

The only solution I can come up with is a proactive campaign to convert more non-Jewish men. It's hardly a new idea but someone has to take the lead in enticing all those interesting non-Jewish men in our workplaces to explore the benefits of converting. And maybe it doesn't even have to be a halachic conversion: recently I saw the term 'sociological converstion' whereby people are absorbing the social mores and values of a Jewish lifestyle without confining themselves to a rabbinical conversion.

Of course, it's not ideal, but it could prove an option for men and a solution for women as the halachic status of ensuing children will not be compromised. And in a reversal of many other cultures where boys are prized over births, Jews will always be relieved if a daughter is born – it’s an halachic assurance of Jewish grandchildren no matter what reckless decisions her mother makes.