My View from Behind the Curtain

There’s a lot been written lately about feminism and Judaism, or at least-about women’s roles in our faith. While I wouldn’t say personally that I feel invisible behind the mechitza, I do struggle with women who are blocked from getting the most out of their orthodoxy, especially where it feels like it comes down to custom or tradition rather than Jewish law.

Losing a parent is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I don’t grapple with it daily, but it has the power to move me to tears with literally no notice whatsoever, at any given moment. It’s scarred me and shaped me in ways I probably couldn’t describe, and some ways I can.

Judaism has guidelines for losing a parent. And to me, it’s one of the most beautiful areas of Jewish law. From the second a parent dies, their family has rules to follow. Don’t leave the body alone, call the chevra kadisha, say the shema prayer.. the list of laws and customs goes on, from those first impossible minutes until years later, when we light a memorial candle on the anniversary of their death. And the intensity of those rules lessens as time goes on.

The first week, your every waking minute is filled with people visiting you sit shiva, while for the month, the restrictions of new clothes and luxury are enough to keep you aware of your loss but also able to forget for small periods of time, get on with work and friendships and daily life. The entire year, you exclude yourself from social gatherings where you might not feel comfortable, but your life begins to move on, often without daily reminders of your status as an avel. To me, it felt like God was walking me through the process of grieving, not letting me sweep my feelings under the carpet, but also helping me put myself back together without drowning under the weight of it.

But there were moments. Moments where I still feel like my grief would have more bearing, more status somehow, if I were a man.

Standing by the graveside at my fathers funeral, they asked the men to step forward to take part in an incredible mark of respect, to help fill the grave with earth. My family, my friends, people who knew us all my life came close to take a spade and begin the labour. When I asked to join in, eager to honour my father this last time, I was asked to wait while a groundskeeper ran to fetch something. When he came back, he brought with him a small trowel and some ready turned earth in a bucket. They offered me a token, a ceremonial act, like the action of lifting a shovel was going to be too much for me. Like they couldn’t see that the act of not lifting it would be far heavier to carry. Needless to say, I took the spade. But I don’t know that other women would know to insist.

During the week of shiva, men need a minyan, ten men to join them in prayer, three times a day. It means that your home is filled with people, pretty much all of your waking hours. We take breaks, for meals or for rest times, but the company is necessary. It surrounds you with stories of your loved ones, with people who care about you. It’s healing. As the only person sitting shiva, I didn’t need a minyan, so we didn’t always have one. The mornings, I slept in until visitors arrived to see me, and in the evenings, I had to leave the room while the men prayed, standing in the kitchen or the hallway, wondering why I felt shut out, if the reason they were there was me. I chose to say the Kaddish prayer that week, and they chose men to say it with me, to make it more “appropriate”, some of whom I had never met before, turning around at the sound of a woman’s voice standing out from the crowd

I didn’t have to say Kaddish at all that year, and so I didn’t. I asked someone I love, someone who loves me to say it for me, and they did. They went to shul every day, three times a day, and did the action of a grieving child for me. They said my words, my prayer, because even if I had chosen to go, orthodox Jewish law dictates it would be better if a man was doing it too. Some would say that a man needs to be doing it too. That even if I take the nineteen years we had together and pour all of those feelings into every word I say, they don’t really count.

Each year now, on the anniversary of his death, the yartzeit, I head to shul and I say the Kaddish prayer, quietly, respectfully behind the mechitza. If the other men notice a man who has yartzeit, they might offer him a special mitzvah, leading the service or holding the Torah.

Me? Me, they don’t notice at all, and they wouldn’t have anything to offer me even if they did.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the logic and the reasoning behind the laws for women and men. The way it would be impossible to get to shul three times a day with small children in tow, the way we believe that a woman’s spirituality lends itself to needing less outward signs of our faith, the rules of modesty and how they manifest in clothes and song and power struggles. Some of these things I agree with, others less so. But I believe in the package of orthodoxy, and I feel like I matter and have a role to play. But when it comes to grief, I suddenly get a glimpse into how other women might feel, not just in mourning but in prayer, in community, in education. Like their voice is being silenced, like they have nowhere to stand, like they don’t count.

All I know, is that my father meant to the world to me, and I to him. But in a million small ways, Judaism tells me that I’m not quite enough to honour him all on my own. I need a mans help to do that to its full potential. A brother, a husband, an uncle, hey- any relative will do. So long as they’re male.

It’s one small area of Jewish law, and you don’t even consider it until it’s thrust upon you. I hardly think about it any more, just once a year, when I stand behind that curtain. Not invisible, but not quite visible enough either.

Bah Humbug

It’s that time of year again, and while I love Chanukah as much as the next Jew, it’s impossible to get away from the Xmas spirit. Winter sales, goodwill to all, and chestnuts available at every corner shop, what’s not to love?

Well, a few things actually. And maybe you’re all too close to see it, but with all the respect in the world, let me give you a run-down of the things I would change if my household kept Christmas.

1. The menu.

I think it’s fair to say that the whole of Xmas day centres around the big festive meal. For thousands of years people have been gathering around the dinner table and breaking bread together to celebrate this pinnacle in the Christian calendar. But who came up with the ideas for the grub? On what other day in the year would anyone choose Turkey, the arguable worst meat of choice to be the centrepiece of the meal? Beef, Lamb, Duck, even Chicken is preferable to Turkey any other day of the year. Let’s call a spade a spade here, Turkey is dry and hasn’t got much flavour, hence why you’re spending 2 to 3 hours preparing stuffing and sauces to accompany it. To top it off, although no one’s arguing with roast potatoes, does anyone eat Brussel Sprouts at any other meal the entire year? Let alone the weird tradition of Cranberry sauce, a foodstuff that just doesn’t exist whatsoever outside of December 25th.
Lastly, every meal should be complimented by the grand finale of dessert. And dessert will never ever mean fruit cake. I don’t care what you call it, or how much alcohol you add to it (although it probably helps), a Xmas Pudding is not dessert. Give me chocolate cake, give me ice cream, even something citrus-y would round off the meal well. But why are we pretending that Xmas pud is in any way appetising? In my house, it would be Haagen Daaz and sticky toffee pudding, maybe with a pavlova on the side. Extra points for the fact that none of those options takes months of my life to prepare. If I wanted to spend 2-3 months feeding something in small increments daily, I would buy a hamster.

2. The decor.

Love the Christmas lights, in fact I think we should add that to Judaism, a festival where we decorate the outside of our homes with ostentatious flashing lights and various plastic accompaniments. I can just see my home now, with a rendition of the 10 plagues of Egypt on my front lawn, and a replica of Mount Sinai on the roof. Fab.
This brings me to Christmas trees. Excellent idea I would even up the ante. Let’s bring all of the outside in, creating an indoor Xmas garden, complete with flowers and grass (astro-turf if need be) and why not woodland creatures, so cold at this time of year and in need of some Xmas spirit just as much as you.
Yes, I’m joking. But it is kind of weird that you bring a tree into your living rooms. Doesn’t it make a crazy mess of needles and twigs? Doesn’t it brings in bugs and the like? Do you have to buy a special spray for that? So many questions.

3. The list of demands.

This one is actually pretty serious, as I’ve read that the average household will spend £868 on Christmas this year. Nearly a thousand pounds on one day of the year, that just can’t be affordable for 95% of the UK. And meanwhile your kids are sitting at home writing a letter for Santa? A magical being that flies in, drops off their hearts desire and leaves again without so much as a thanks for him or his hard working elves [AKA unpaid midget workforce]. (Seriously, does anyone’s kids write thank you notes to Santa?) Doesn’t the whole thing seem a bit entitled? From the outside looking in at least, it seems like the last way I want my children to consider the presents we work hard to provide for them. Maybe it’s a little Scrooge of me, but I like to think that I would use the opportunity to talk to my kids about wants and needs, earning and spending, and ask them to think of one or two things they really want, which Santa won’t be bringing, but their hard-working parents will be.

4. The Xmas season

This is a tough one, because we all enjoy some of the elongated Xmas perks, such as Starbucks red cups which appear Nov 1st, or Xmas songs on the radio from what feels like mid-summer. But when I try to get an email response at work on December 3rd, and get told that the company are “winding down for Christmas”, it can really make me feel peeved. Similarly, spending the whole of December attending various Xmas lunches and functions with the people I anyway see and speak to every single week can be a little grating. Cmon boss, just give us the afternoon off if you’re trying to make us feel festive. It would probably cost you less.

Any other holiday traditions that you would scrap?

santa

 

 

And a very happy Jew year to you, too.

It’s that time of year again, and my newsfeed is littered with pictures of apples doing honey bucket challenges, and smiling families wishing everyone a happy and sweet new year.

For Jewish people around the world, this year has been pretty much the opposite of happy and sweet, and the situation in Israel has been foremost in all of our minds. The homes of the three boys who were taken and murdered earlier in the year will have empty places at their tables this Rosh Hashana, and many Israelis are still living in fear. But despite this, I have received calls and texts, messages, emails and even the odd card through the door, wishing me and all the Jewish people all the best for the year ahead. And it makes me proud.

Earlier this year, a teen evoked a small media frenzy, and a slightly larger social media backlash to a photo she took of herself at Auschwitz while on a class trip. The world erupted with anger at the ‘Auschwitz selfie’ taken at the scene of so much horror and tragedy, and that she had the nerve to stand smiling with a face full of make up at the site of murder and genocide.

And I knew at once why she did it. (Or rather, I knew at once why I would have done it. As it turns out, it was some kind of memorial to her late father, and she had none of the intentions that I jumped to conclusions over, but it got me thinking.) So here is why I would be proud to take an Auschwitz selfie.

I was 19 when I visited Poland, in the year of mourning for my dear father, and a few months on from my year living in Israel. I had probably never felt quite so close to God, and if I’d realised how fragile and transient that stage is, I would have appreciated it a lot more. I remember being told that concentration camps were a place of death, and it was right to be sad and to cry. But cemeteries, they were a place of life, a place to rejoice. If these people had graves, with names on, with markers or even headstones, that meant that someone buried them. Someone lived on after them to remember them, to place the memorial, to visit and to upkeep it. We were there now, reading these peoples names, wondering and imagining about their lives, and then most importantly, going home to continue our own, because of them and others of their generation and their bravery.

A selfie at Auschwitz? A smiling face amongst all that terror and death? I see it as a flag, a symbol of our endurance. After all, there are no smiling selfies of Nazis. Just last week, a Nazi of almost 100 years old was prosecuted for being an accessory to nearly 300,000 murders. But we Jews? We are still here, we exist, we live on. We smile.

And as I look over my newsfeed, at hopeful and excited faces and witty cartoons, happily taking the place of the videos of Hamas insisting Israel are driven into the sea, calling for the death of each and every one of the Jewish people, I can see life everywhere I look. It is our ability to look to the future, to believe in the strength of our faith and our homeland, and to smile in the face of terror that keeps us united. More than that, it is what keeps us alive.

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Wishing a happy, healthy and successful new year to each and every one of you!