All you need is love…

Sitting outside last night, singing “All you need is love” in the company of Muslims, Jews, Christians and others, was a slightly surreal experience. The Big Iftar in Southwark, held in conjunction with The Great Get Together, was drawing to a close, and as people admired the illuminated Shard, and revelled in the evening breeze after a long hot day, it was an idyllic moment.

How much more jarring then, this morning, to wake up to the shocking news of yet another terrorist ramming attack! People, enjoying a coffee during the night time hours of Ramadan, deliberately targeted by a person who hated them, unseen, for their religion.

Worse still, he seems to have driven into a group of people who were helping someone who felt unwell, aiming at those gathered round him on the street.

It’s very hard to reconcile the two scenes – how can it be that our city can hold such extremes of love and hatred?

Yet, each time there is an attack, more and more people turn out to help, more and more people, irrespective of religion or ethnicity, condemn it and pledge to stand firm and united against hatred and division.

Hundreds of thousands of people took part in a Great Get Together event over the weekend.  The tragic loss of Jo Cox has had a huge positive impact on the country.

The haters and terrorists are few in number – whilst the pain they cause to their victims and their families must not be underestimated, on a countrywide scale, it is hugely outweighed by the love, shared values and determination of the British people.

Love might not be quite all you need, but with enough of it, we can change the world.

Shabbos – a taste of the world to come?

Ask any Jewish person, Shabbos-observant or not, what a Friday night looks like. They will tell you – Mummy lights candles, Daddy might go to shul, there’s a white tablecloth on the table, challah, wine, chicken soup. The family gathers around the table – often several generations, maybe also with friends – the details don’t matter: the general outline is the same.

But what about people for whom Shabbos is not that picture-perfect storybook image? Single parent families are an obvious example – maybe it’s Daddy lighting the candles, or Mummy making Kiddush. Maybe there are no children. Or what about if Daddy and/or Mummy only rush home from work just in time to jump in the shower and struggle to make a delicious meal and a special atmosphere?

Even stay at home mothers are often stressed and frustrated by the time they light candles – too much food to prepare in too short a time, un-co-operative children, unappreciative husband…the possibilities are endless.

So how is this a taste of the world to come? And how can we make sure that, regardless of personal or family circumstances, everyone can share in this experience?
Every family’s Shabbos is different and every Shabbos within a family is different. A summer Shabbos is different from a winter one – the times of the beginning and end of Shabbos have a tremendous impact on the structure and mood of the day. A Shabbos after a busy week or a Shabbos on holiday don’t feel the same. The guests, the menu, the choice of conversation around the Shabbos table all have an impact on the Shabbos. When someone asks on Sunday, “So how was your Shabbos?” I’d be surprised if anyone ever says “It was horrible!” but the answer can range from a non-descript “Good, thanks” to “Wonderful, amazing, we had a really good time!” I’ve even heard friends who had spent a Shabbos with relatives in hospital say, “Actually, it was a really nice Shabbos.”

What is it that makes the difference, sets the atmosphere and enables us to appreciate Shabbos as a foretaste of the world to come?

For many people, it’s the opportunity to spend time with family and friends. Without the distraction of phones and computers, conversation flows. Whether it’s a catch-up on everyone’s week, current affairs, a look at the weekly parshah or a combination of all three, just sitting and actually engaging in face to face conversation, which many of us fail to do during the week, is very special. Shabbos is the time to make sure that no-one is sitting at home by themselves, feeling forgotten. Invite the single parents, older people, childless couples – not because they are a ‘chesed project’ but because they are interesting, real people, who will enhance your Shabbos table just as much as you enhance their week.

Delicious food always helps! The quantity of halachah which is devoted to the preparation of food on Shabbos and how to keep it warm, together with the frequent references to food and drink in the zemiros show that this is not just a modern concern. Shabbos is structured around the three special meals, each of which have their own character, traditional dishes and zemiros. The scene at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye, having worked hard all week to barely make a living, sits like a king at his Shabbos table, is no exaggeration. The concept expressed by Ahad Haam that “More than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews,” is not just a clever aphorism. Shabbos has always provided an oasis of warmth and light, both physical and spiritual, for Jewish families, whatever their circumstances.

People are sometimes surprised at the emphasis on the physical side of Shabbos – delicious food, elegantly laid table, special clothes, family time. But by taking these physical gifts and using them to honour Shabbos – a treat, a special item of clothing, the best china – we are showing our appreciation of what we have been blessed with, and elevating them to the spiritual dimension. As the Abie Rotenberg song says, “Gonna spend the day together with the Holy One”. Whether we go to shul, engage in Torah learning, sing a zemer or enjoy creation in the form of a walk in the park, by doing it on Shabbos, we are “spending the day with the Holy One.” And that, I think is the key to what makes Shabbos special, and why it doesn’t matter whether a family looks conventional or not, if they eat chicken soup or lentil soup for Friday night or even if they use a white tablecloth! If your Shabbos activities are within both the bounds of halachah and the spirit of Shabbos, then by spending the day with God, “Man and his Creator” – that’s a real taste of the world to come.

Good Shabbos!

With the whole of NW London smelling of challah from last night’s Great Challah Make, we’re on the home run  into Shabbat UK.

In the midst of the frantic preparations, let’s take some time to remember what Shabbos is all about: not just a time to switch off your phone or eat challah, but a precious opportunity to connect with God.

This song says it better than I ever could: Kah Echsof, by Rabbi Aharon of Karlin.

Here is JewishMom’s post on it: Shuli Golivinsky z”l, the Father who Loved Kah Echsof

And here are my earlier thoughts about it: TGIF

Have a wonderful Shabbos, Shabbat Shalom!

Chicken soup, cholent and sashimi

In advance of Shabbat UK, lots of videos have been circulating with people saying what Shabbos means to them.  Not surprisingly, for many people, food plays a significant part in their Shabbos experience.

Chicken soup, chicken, kugel, cholent – these are the traditional evocative, Ashkenazi Shabbos dishes.  So ingrained in the communal psyche are they that people who don’t keep Shabbos rhapsodize about them and some people who do keep Shabbos insist that if you don’t serve these foods, your children will not remain within the fold.

However, whilst I personally shudder at the thought of a milky Shabbos lunch, I see no need to stick to an entirely traditional menu.  We often start our Friday night meal with sashimi rather than gefilte fish (which has a lot of advantages, not least that my husband prepares it) and I’ve found delicious and healthy salads which enhance our Shabbos table on a wide range of cookery blogs.

These websites are  the sources of some of our favourite, not so traditional, Shabbos foods:

Levana Cooks

Oh She Glows

Love and Lemons

101 Cookbooks

and for those looking for gluten free treats:

Gluten-free Goddess

Bon Appetit! Betayavon!

Musical Monday

Some time ago, I spent Shabbos in Jerusalem with our eldest daughter. We ate lunch with an old friend from university, who invited a couple of other old university friends along too. The adults chatted and the kids played, then towards the end of the meal, someone said, “Let’s sing a bit.”  We took out zemiros books containing the traditional songs sung on Shabbos across the Jewish world.  A bit tentatively at first, as we hadn’t all sung together for decades, then  gradually gaining in confidence, we sang and harmonized and enjoyed this special way of spending time together.

Singing together, whether with family or friends, whether it’s songs with  words or without, is a central part of many people’s Shabbos.  Many shuls begin the Friday night kabbolas Shabbos service by singing Yedid Nefesh as an opportunity for people both to  unwind from their week and  to meld into a group before beginning the prayers.

At the Shabbos meals, we sing together round the table, and in shul, we sing together as a community.  The style may vary from family to family, shul to shul and week to week, but the essence is the same – it’s something we wouldn’t normally do during the week; it taps into a special place in our soul and it’s a fun and unifying activity.

This week, our shul is hosting a special guest. We’ll be having a lot of singing, ranging from a Carlebach Friday night service, through an after dinner Oneg Shabbos, singing during the day and concluding with a musical havdallah. If you’re in the area, please come along…and if not, then…please do try this at home!

Let’s Talk…

In the lead-up to ShabbatUK, Shabbos is very much on everyone’s minds, even on Sunday morning.  I was fascinated to see an article in the Tesco magazine which said that so many of people’s interactions now happen by text, email, etc that we are losing the ability to keep a face to face conversation going!

American psychologist Sherry Turkle suggests playing board games as a means of ‘providing rules and structures for conversation, which can ease families back into real talking.’

This is really sad – on two levels. It’s sad that people don’t know how to talk to each other and it’s even more sad that someone has to suggest “easing them back” into real talking.

We are blessed with a large, noisy and opinionated family, who don’t seem to have any problem talking! Although we regularly communicate by text, WhatsApp and email, quite often, that becomes a free-for-all as well.

Shabbos, without the distraction of electronic communications, provides a welcome space to enjoy conversation with family and friends.  The Shabbos table is a fantastic opportunity to catch up on what each member of the family has been doing during the week, to discuss the sedra or current affairs, and, as often happens, to link the two.

Professor Turkle’s suggestion about board games is also Shabbos-friendly – on long winter Friday nights, or summer Shabbos afternoons, many families enjoy playing board games as a cross-generational activity.

So, take advantage of ShabbatUK to put away your phone and talk to your family, and if you run out of things to say – there’s always Ludo!

Conversation with my six year old or “why your children shouldn’t watch videos”

Chatting with my six year old son after school, he announced, “We don’t have a normal family!”

He’s probably right – I can think of lots of reasons why we’re not ‘normal,’ but I wondered what he had picked up.

“Why aren’t we normal?” I asked. “We’ve got a Mummy and a Daddy and some children – that seems to be pretty normal.”

“No,” he said. “A normal family has a Mummy and a Daddy and two children – a boy and a girl.”

“Oh – like Topsy and Tim?”  No, apparently they are not quite normal because they are twins.

“So where have you seen a ‘normal’ family?”

It turns out he’s seen it on videos…

“Do any of your friends have ‘normal’ families?”

Yes, Yossi apparently has a normal family.  But Yossi doesn’t only have one boy and one girl – he has a few of each.

Ah – what makes him normal is that he has closer to one of each than we do!

So now we know: he doesn’t know anyone who has a normal family, but Yossi is more normal than we are – which probably isn’t difficult!

Belz jingles on

A few final points:

I don’t think the driving ban is a good thing.

I also don’t think that the Belzer Rebbe is very interested in my opinion, nor that of the JC, nor the many other people who have written about it, or now, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. If anything, the uproar will make the Belz community more entrenched in their worldview.

Given that, and given that this formal ban affects only a very few women, (probably fewer than 15) because most of the Belzer women didn’t drive anyway, I still don’t see what was the point in running this as a front page story – was it really the most important or interesting thing that happened in the Jewish world last week?

As well as all the misinformed articles and anti-religious comments, there have also been some very interesting articles, such as this one in Times of Israel.

The topic of self-oppression is discussed here and described as ‘the most insidious form of tyranny and the hardest to root out.’  I wonder about cultural imperialism though – if the women don’t feel oppressed and are happy, what is the difference between imposing outside values on them and them trying to impose their values on others?

I’m very surprised how shocked so many people in the Jewish community were by this story.  Did they really think that Chassidim were just United Synagogue members in quaint clothes?

The question of sexism in the Orthodox world is a huge and complex one.  There certainly isn’t overt ‘crude’ sexism in the #EverydaySexism manner.  Is ‘different but equal’ apologetics or sexism under a different name?  I’m not sure. I’m a well-educated Orthodox woman, who mixes in a number of different circles in the community.  I’ve only experienced overt sexism once in a professional context and it was not in the far right part of the spectrum.

There are amazing, creative and inspiring people in all parts of the Jewish world. Anglo-Jewry is a microcosm of world Jewry and contains a significant number of such people – both women and men and in all parts of the religious spectrum.  Instead of sniping at each other, maybe we should learn to celebrate our differences and our achievements and run more programmes which promote understanding and intra-faith activities? Gesher in Israel is an excellent example of this.

Responsible Journalism?

On Thursday morning, The JC ran a story about Belz in Stamford Hill ‘banning’ women from driving.  To be fair to the JC, they wrote the story in measured tones and praised the Belz education system, commenting that their schools in Stamford Hill are rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. Later in the day, they also included a statement issued by Neshei Belz, in response to the story, quoting the Belz ladies as saying that they felt, “extremely privileged and valued to be part of a community where the highest standards of refinement, morality and dignity are respected. We believe that driving a vehicle is a high pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.”

This may well be true, but one does wonder why men’s values might not be compromised by those factors? [A reliable source in Stamford Hill has now told me that ‘senior chassidic rabbanim and dayanim [there] do not drive for those very reasons’]

Disclosure – I drive, as do many of the Golders Green rebbetzins, including the wives of the LBD dayanim and rabbanim further to the ‘right’. I consider it an essential life skill and our oldest daughter recently passed her driving test.

However, I would like to ignore the merits, if any, of the ban and focus on one specific point.  Due to the JC’s coverage, which is the front page story in the print edition, by Thursday evening the story had appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, Metro, the Daily Mail and on ITV news.  Not all of these papers had such measured coverage as the JC and unsurprisingly, the comments sections featured the usual ‘intelligent and thoughtful’ responses which appear following any story about religion.

Belz, despite being described in the Guardian as ‘a marginal Hasidic sect’ originating in Ukraine, are a large and well organised chassidus. They run amazing chessed programmes and their medical backup service, Ezra Lemarpeh, is well known and admired throughout the Jewish world. If the Belzer Rebbe feels that it is not appropriate, for whatever reason, for Belz women to drive, it is really an in-house matter.

Jews across the world are beleaguered by anti-Semitism and the spillover of anti-Israel sentiment.  There is widespread assimilation and high levels of religious and communal lethargy.  Why then does the JC feel that it will benefit the community in any way to publicise a story affecting a few hundred people in Stamford Hill, with whom most of its readers will never have any contact?

Yes, OK, as a crank story, it’s a good one. It’s another opportunity to bash perceived religious extremism and roll out the Jewish feminists to decry the ‘patriarchal’ Orthodox community.  But on a communal level – why draw extra unfavourable attention to ourselves?

The JC is loudly protesting the potential neo-Nazi demonstration in Golders Green; it often wonders whether the community has a future or what incentive there is for young Jews to remain within it.

Yet here we have a pleasant, hard-working, law-abiding community, whose schools have been praised by Ofsted as having a ‘very effective British values policy’, being mocked, not just within the Jewish community, but in the wider community  too.   In fact, the headline in the JC’s editorial discussing this story is ‘Ridiculous driving’ and the observation is that ridicule is the stated aim.

There are those who say that the level of communal coercion within Chassidic communities is such that it is only by exposing stories such as this that those people who wish to remain part of the community, but do not want to be restricted in this way, have any chance of living a ‘normal’ life.

However, much as I would like to believe that the JC had a higher motive in mind, I suspect that, sadly, this was not the case, and the only thing on their mind was increasing their readership, whatever the cost to the community.

An authentic Jewish response

Last night I attended a beautiful wedding. Everything was carefully thought through and lovely – flowers, music, food. But the highlight, for me and my husband, was the dancing.

It would have been an emotional occasion anyway – one of the young couple is still in the year of mourning for a parent and family and friends would have made an extra effort to help create a special day for them.

But yesterday of all days, when as this young couple stood under the chuppah with joy and tears, huge crowds were gathering for the funerals of three young men who will never stand under a chuppah, the guests really felt the need to make an extra effort.

I’m sure that many of the guests had cried for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali since the terrible news broke on Monday, but last night, as circles of dancing women of all ages formed and broke and reformed, encompassing the bride and her family, old and new, there were no tears, only smiles. The happiness wasn’t forced or fake – it was genuine rejoicing in the creation of a new Jewish home and, please God, Jewish family.

Many years ago, I heard Lady Jakobovits, a”h, speak about a day when she was in a provincial community and moved from a funeral to a wedding. She described how it was possible to compartmentalise the emotions, and be genuinely sad at the funeral and genuinely happy at the wedding and the time, I didn’t really understand how one could do that. But yesterday, I saw that it was possible and experienced the cathartic effect of the music and dancing as a way of moving on and rebuilding broken worlds.

And just as the smiles were genuine, so too was the way in which everyone joined in as the singer sang, “Hashem malach, Hashem melech, Hashem yimloch le’olam va’ed.”

Rebuilding, re-affirming our belief in God, sharing other people’s pain and happiness – these are authentic Jewish responses to tragedy…