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.

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