The battle between Rebecca and halachic stringency

1 Oct

The battle between Rebecca and halachic stringency:

Final result: Halachic stringency 10 – Rebecca 0 (Halachic – pertaining to Jewish laws governing all religious festivals and rituals.)

Nothing like the solemnity of Yom Kippur,  the most awe-inspiring of festivals in the Jewish calendar, when we fast from dusk until sunset the following day and spend the day in prayer, to bring out the halachic OCD lying latent deep within, it seems.

Although still living a Modern Orthodox life, liberal (with a small ‘l’) me likes to feel that I have left the ever-expanding list of stringencies required to live a strictly halachic life far behind in my murky past. I hope that I succeed in existing in a reasonably moderate “grey zone”, following a Jewish lifestyle, keeping to standard halacha and ignoring the multitude of more obsessive details.

Apparently not.

After 25 hours of fasting, no food, no water, feeling parched, exhausted and dehydrated, I would have expected someone  – me in this case – to gulp down some victuals the very second the clock struck 7.30pm, heralding in the grand end of the Day of Atonement.

But no. In lieu of this obvious and reasonable dénouement to the fast, I got my knickers in a right old halachic twist about whether I could make havdala (a blessing recited over wine and a lit flame to conclude the Sabbath or a festival) on a newly lit candle, rather than the customary pre-lit candle which should have been burning throughout the fast – which I had forgotten to prepare.

Haunted by memories of a dear, very religiously observant parent howling with disapproval when we were little and did not wait for them to return from the house of prayer to make the havdala blessing in order to commence our scoffings, I, as a grown woman, became wracked with indecision as to how to make a truly kosher havdala. And as such, refused to break the fast until I had solved this conundrum.

Before I knew it, I had dragged a close relative (known as “SK”) present into a fevered debate about the intricacies of this halachic quandary. 7.30pm came and went but no one was doing any scoffing of any kind.

If we were allowed to use a newly lit candle, could we then make the appropriate blessing over the flame (“boreh meoreh ha’esh” for those in the know), or should this particular blessing be omitted? Would the fact that Yom Kippur had fallen on a Shabbat this year mean that the halachic requirements of the ritual were altogether different? Did we need to make the blessing over the traditional spices or not?

I had a moment of inspiration as to how to resolve our issue, grabbing at the very textual embodiment of humourless Orthodoxy – the inimitable ARTSCROLL machzor (prayer book for the festival). If there was to be a resolution to my dilemma, surely it would be found somewhere deep within that compendium of intricate laws listed in painfully small-print at the back of the Artscroll Yom Kippur machzor.

I pored over Laws #148 – 154 of said manuscript along with SK.


Law  #150 sent us on a rollercoaster of hopes raised then dashed then raised again.

The minutes ticked by and still no one was eating or drinking.

Finally, it seemed that Law #152 was going to provide our happy answer. Yes, one COULD kindle a new flame for havdala….:

“If on Motzei Shabbos such a flame is not available, it is preferable to kindle a new flame…”

BUT…of course with halachic OCD, the answer is never as simple as that. Read on to the end of that sentence:

…and then to use that one TO MAKE A SECOND FLAME. The Havdalah should then be recited over the SECOND FLAME.” (my emphasis)

Not in my wildest dreams would I ever have come up with that most wild of halachic resolutions. Of course it wasn’t going to be as simple as just light a new flame and on yer bike.

Yes you MAY use a newly kindled flame BUT THEN use it to light A SECOND FLAME! There’s your obvious halachic solution!

(Don’t even start to ask WHY – I’m warning you.)

I happily and obediently lit flame number 1 followed swiftly by flame number 2.

And the Havdala blessing to finally put an end to that 25 hour PLUS 15 EXTRA MINUTES fast was finally recited.

A mighty breath of relief was expired, and eating and drinking and merriment were finally given the kosher seal of approval to go ahead.

In conclusion, it seems that sadly, I am a lousy failure at being a failed Jew.



A tale of two shuls

16 Sep

Today I went shul-hopping on the streets of north-west London.

Shul A: A partnership minyan, where women were singing aloud and melodiously, leading those parts of the service permitted to them according to certain interpretations of halacha (Jewish law). Depending on who you ask, this prayer gathering is Orthodox, heretical, Reform, inspiring or, worst of all – full of those – don’t say the ‘f-word’ – feminists who want to be like men. 

A woman carried the sefer torah around the women’s section, then passed it over to a man to carry around the men’s section. The sky didn’t fall down, I didn’t spot anyone slipping down a slippery slope, and the service continued in much the same way as a regular Shabbat morning service elsewhere.

The same but also different. Different because some of the women were active participants in the service, and were that much more inspired as a result. No hysteria, no one turning into men. Clearly women who were serious about wanting to play an active role in Judaism. As someone who generally finds shul boring, I enjoy being part of the buzz of this minyan.

Shul B: A synagogue where I spent a lot of time in my childhood, a staunchly Orthodox congregation, where the women sit in the “Ladies’ Gallery” up above observing the men doing all the fun stuff (if anything related to shul can be considered fun) in the sanctuary down below. From my recollection, if women joined in any of the singing, it was never louder than a barely audible whisper. No feminists here.

I didn’t actually attend the service, I came at the end to the ‘social hall’, invited by an old friend who was holding a family celebration there. I did feel a slight out-of-body experience at setting foot in this place after many years away, peregrinations into other types of Judaism and many twists and turns in my life journey. However, what struck me immediately was that I still felt at home in this setting.

I may not look like the glossy sheitel-wearing, fancy shabbat-outfit wearing super frum women who bustled around me on the women’s side of the kiddush (nor have I any desire to do so) – but I still know this world, and I was happy that I made the decision to come and say ‘mazal tov’ to an old friend.

It seems that however far you move away from your home setting  – whether physically or emotionally or religiously – when you come back, you can still feel an uncanny sense of familiarity.

The moral of the story:

Today I slipped seamlessly between two Jewish communities with completely different practices and opposing philosophies and guess what, nothing happened. The sky did not fall down. In my own chameleon-like little way, I just ignored the “they” vs “us”, this community speaks the truth vs that community is heretical, we are right vs you are wrong, general dynamic of Jewish communal life these days.

How many people actually do this kind of yo-yoing between different communal settings? Where are all the other chameleons who dip in and out of different worlds, who are able to blend a variety of different Jewish identities and still feel at one with themselves? Why do people seem so stuck on defining themselves using one rigid label and will not venture even slightly to the left or to the right?

How about just picking yourself up and walking through the doors of a community that you’ve never set foot in beforehand, that may represent ‘different values’, and see what happens. Rather than the sky falling down, chances are you’ll probably just be yawning before too long, willing the service to come to an end so you can get your teeth into a good fried fish ball.

Disputing rabbis, flying meat platters, and an egregiously late bride – in honour of my ninth wedding anniversary….

12 Jul

Nine years ago, on Midsummer’s Day in June 2008, I got married to a lanky Anglo-Frenchman in a pretty garden just outside Paris.  After this extended recovery period, I’m finally ready emotionally to recount the surreal confusion of our wedding day.

Bear with me, this is a therapeutic exercise…feel free to skip wedding preps section and scroll straight down to Wedding Day itself.

I was clearly never meant to be my own wedding planner. Barely able to roll out of bed in the morning, the idea of organising a sophisticated multi-faceted event for some 150 guests was, and remains, frankly terrifying. But due to an accident of geography – me working in Paris, Le Groom based in London, wedding venue fixed in Yerres, a small town just out of Paris where Les In-Laws lived – it was down to La Incompetent Bride (me) to get things sorted.

Pre-wedding chaos:

As wedding date looms, becomes abundantly clear that I’m simply going to run out of time. To-do lists are getting longer, but time is ticking on relentlessly. Just a small snapshot of some of myriad issues that are getting me knickers in a twist in run-up to big day:

-Total absence of wedding dress until eleventh hour when panicky flat-mate drags me across Paris to boutique and says firmly: You’re not leaving until you’ve bought a dress;

-Difficult boss who gets positively scary every time I have to take time off before wedding;

-Marquee people complaining about there being “more mud than expected” on site; wacking hefty supplementary fee not budgeted for;

-Various mishaps where family members’ accommodation falls through, and last-minute changes required;

-Mad dash to buy Le Groom’s wedding band in scorching central Paris much too late on Friday afternoon before wedding;

-Mobile phone ringing off-the-hook with people asking complicated logistical questions which I don’t have head to answer;

-Brother’s car towed away somewhere in Paris.

-Sister and family of seven break down somewhere on way to Dover on morning of wedding. Panicked journey back to London and then crazy last-minute dash on Eurostar to get there on time for wedding. (In spirit of great kindness, this piece of panic-inducing information hidden from La Half-Crazed Bride until much later on when they’ve arrived safely.)

Backdrop:  Intense balmy heat of Paris on a Midsummer’s weekend, with sound of music wafting up from every street corner (Midsummer’s Night being traditionally Fête de la Musique, a music festival across France, where bands set up anywhere and everywhere).

It should all have been very romantic and blissful. Except…

Sunday 22nd June 2008 – The Big Day – “Le Jour J” (as the locals call it).

Unceremoniously awoken by a summer bride’s worst weather nightmare – hefty clap of thunder at 4 am. Thereafter unable to go back to sleep due to rising panic. Rest of day thus over-tired blur, making La Bride operate in fog of slow-motion sleepiness.

Turns out to be a beautifully hot day. Too hot? Well better than rain…

Coach organised to ferry guests staying in Paris to Yerres where wedding venue is in grounds of what we romantically call “Le Château” (but is really a crumbling old pile in process of being converted into a boys’ school). Knowing friends’ unpunctual ways – but not factoring in La Bride’s own abominable time-keeping – have instilled fear and trembling into them about need to be at meeting place on time.

Finally ensconced in hotel near venue for hair and make-up, start falling apart at seams, feeling painfully over-tired and slow-moving. Time of wedding ceremony comes and goes and just cannot get moving. Have over-dramatic tantrum at foundation plastered on usually-make-up-free face, and instruct kind friend who is doing make-up to start all over again.

Some time later, Grandmother says gently but very firmly: Rebecca, I really do think it’s time to get going.

First sight on arrival some two hours late at Le Château: hordes of very hot-looking people who have evidently lost will to live some time much earlier in afternoon. La Bride cleverly instructed caterer not to serve refreshments before Chuppah (traditional Jewish wedding ceremony under so-called canopy), on assumption that everything will run on time and not accounting for heatwaves.

Also vaguely spot handsome, lanky but somewhat spaced-out man in dashing suit pruning flowers on chuppah canopy. Surely that’s not Le Groom himself putting finishing touches to chuppah?

Need to get guests something to drink, they’re all wilting.

Someone murmurs something about officiating rabbi’s (“Le Rabbin”) flight from Nice being delayed. At least that gets me off hook for being so late, but should we worry that he’s not here?

Le Rabbin finally turns up, Fathers walk Le Groom to La Bride for Bedeken, pre-ceremony ceremony, bearing intimidatingly huge candles with hot wax flying everywhere. Looks like they inexplicably got confused with those outdoor flares bought for garden for when night falls, instead of size-appropriate candles bought for occasion.

Finally walk/stagger down garden to chuppah with beautiful klezmer band playing enchanting music. But hang on a minute, why is Le Rabbin simultaneously singing beautiful but entirely different Sephardi tune?

Walk around Le Groom seven times, but lose count instantly, may be five, may be ten, may be fifteen times, no-one knows.

Confusion reigns under Chuppah, case of too many rabbis with too many opinions in too enclosed a space.  Dad, Ashkenazi rabbi from London, Dad-in-law, strong-minded American Lubavitcher rabbi, not forgetting Le Rabbin actually officiating, Rav Zemour, charming but no-nonsense Moroccan Sephardi rabbi.

After protracted rabbinical wranglings, ceremony gets underway. Come pivotal moment when La Bride and Le Groom partake of holy wine. Oh dear, holy wine nowhere to be found. (It transpires later that a pack of desperate dehydrated guests pillaged wine some time back during heat-frenzied hunt for some, any kind of liquid.) Somewhere somehow another bottle is produced. We’re back in the room.

Out of corner of eye, see weird commotion in back of crowd of guests where post-Chuppah reception set up on rickety tables. Something strange flies in air, some friends seem to be falling over, but…no time to get sidetracked, I’m getting married, pay attention to Le Rabbin. (Later on discover it was actually a huge platter of cold meats mysteriously flying up in air and descending to earth in slow-motion rainbow arc. Friends falling over due to extreme laughter attack. No-one can explain phenomenon.)

Traditional glass smashed – we’re married! Klezmer band play celebratory ditty, Le Rabbin sings along a different tune. Head off to “Le Château” with Le New Hubby to have moment of peace before evening festivities set in. Settle down in grubby classroom and take deep breath.

Desperate for toilet, realise – somewhat too late – there are no normal toilets to be found. Le Château being crumbling pile that it is, somehow have forgotten to check there are presentable facilities for 150 guests to use. Manage to locate single dusty but miraculously fully functioning toilet down disused corridor. Thereafter all guests directed to said location. Cue long queues.

All guests safely sat, fed and watered in marquee, can finally breathe sigh of relief. Dancing and jollity ensue.

Comical aside: Look-alike friend wearing black dress sits at La Bride’s place at table and chats to Le Groom while La Bride wanders off to mingle. Dad comes up to friend and pats her on shoulder asking why she’s changed out of wedding dress. Confused Dad does big double take when realises it’s not actually his daughter.

Later on, as darkness sets in, dancing madly to klezmer band’s beats on women’s side of mechitzah (separation barrier on dance floor put up between two sexes for ‘modesty reasons’ which Orthodox-Rabbi-Dads x2 have demanded – and as said dads footing bill for wedding, La Bride obliges) when mad rustling and menacing howling heard in bushes adjoining marquee.

What could it be? Wild boar come to join in dancing? Mysterious Yeti turns out to be Outraged Neighbour Kept Awake By Loud Music He Has Not Been Warned About, who, notwithstanding his evident embarrassment at appearing in mismatched ensemble of billowing mackintosh over stripey pyjamas in front of 30 or so finely dressed women frozen mid-dance staring him down, launches into loud tutting angry disapproving rant in French about loud music. Many apologies given and Yeti skulks back home back through bushes.

Wedding eventually draws to happy close.

La Bride and Le Groom still happily (99.9% of the time) married nine years later.

A big thank you to everyone who came and made it such a magical day and apologies again to all those who had to wait so long and to all those who suffered extreme thirst in the process.

Final note: Seems only fitting that this was meant to be posted on 22nd June 2017 to coincide with anniversary but is actually only being posted on 12th July, nearly three weeks late.

Survival guide for clueless mums of school-aged children

27 May

We are three quarters of the way through our family’s first “official” school year, and I am still getting my clueless head around the demands of the daily school run-playground-classroom-playground-school run grind.

In a spirit of  generosity, I will share some of my hard-earned wisdom for those embarking on this treacherous journey come September this year. In no particular order:

  1. Limited parking spaces near school turns parents into frenzied dog-eat-dog monsters. No solidarity, no polite giving way to other drivers, just pure go-for-the-kill ferocity. If you wish to survive, arrive half an hour early to bag a good spot, or expect to park at least half a kilometre away.
  2. Some other mums are simply never going to be friendly, some may even inexplicably blank you. I have been puzzling for some time over the lack of friendliness / plain coldness of some other mums and I can’t quite work out why nor what the point of it is. (In one nursery setting, where there were really not enough children and their respective parents to justify claims of ‘not knowing’ who other parents were, one mother regularly blanked me. In spite of  this, muggins-me still insisted on smiling and saying hi nearly every day as we passed each other going in and out of the nursery. She did eventually thaw but this period only lasted a few days, and then she was back to blanking me again. Go figure.)
  3. On the other hand, you may encounter other mums who over-share semi-intimate details of their lives within one minute of meeting you. This also leads to some awkward moments but is definitely preferable to the blanking scenario encountered in #2.
  4. Your child’s nursery / school teacher will at some point make you feel as if you should go stand in the naughty corner. If you are perennially disorganised like me, chances are your child’s teachers will give you that look or make a few pointed comments at some point or another during the school year due to you having committed one or another of the following parental crimes:  you’ve once again brought your child in late making them miss important class activities SUCH AS THE ANNUAL CLASS PHOTO / you’ve forgotten their swimming kit / you’ve forgotten to dress them in the right colour  or what not for a special activity etc etc (yes all real-life misdemeanours committed by this atrocious mum).
  5. Following on from #4, you realise that you don’t really change your wicked ways once you become a parent of school-aged children. Sadly, your failings as a human being persist even once you are a parent and ought to know better. I don’t quite know what I was expecting of myself, but after this many months of this school year have elapsed, I’m afraid I have come to the conclusion that a leopard doesn’t change its spots. I was late and did my homework at the last minute / after the deadline when I went to school myself, and now I’m often bringing my own children late to school.
  6. Forget spontaneity, playdates have to be set up weeks in advance. Feeling as if it might be a good idea to get my children to interact with their school and nursery peers, I’ve been valiantly attempting to arrange playdates. Ignoring my inner murmurings of ‘why is it always you initiating these dates?’ (and yes, it transpires that there are more than one or two similarities between playdates and the romantic variety), I have been rebuffed on many an occasion by super-busy fellow London parents. To avoid feeling too desperate, I have established a policy of no more attempts at ‘chatting up’ a parent after two rebuffals. (Luckily, I’ve discovered a few other last-minute, more spontaneous parents out there with whom we’ve had quite successful playdates. Phew.)
  7. There you were happily listening to Radio 4 every morning, but then you commit the fatal error of buying your child/ren a CD to listen to in the car on the way to/home from school. Children love mindless repetition, I have discovered. They WILL want to listen to said CD ad infinitum / ad nauseum  / ad unbearablum. You will be obliged to accidentally-on-purpose lose / scratch said CD at some point to avoid the need to commit an act of mindless violence.
  8. It’s okay if neither you nor your child really enjoys their own birthday party.  Just like when I was a shy child and found my own birthday parties an ordeal, it’s acceptable to be secretly wishing your own child’s birthday party to be over – especially when they seem overwhelmed by all the attention themselves.
  9. You may feel secretly proud of your child when they tell you they were a ‘cheeky monkey’ with their friend at school that day and got into trouble with their teachers. You will of course have to tell off said child and instruct them to behave better henceforth, but inside, you may be secretly beaming with pride at their feisty character.

These are just a few randomly scribbled discoveries I have made. More to come, but in the meantime, bed beckons. Good night!

POSTSCRIPT: I should end off by saying there was a happy ending to the missing the class photo debacle. Given we are in the digital era, the photographer was able to take pictures of my son and one other child who was also late and Photoshop them into the class photo. Phew again.

Postscript 2: To clarify, I’ve got away with the lack of punctuality this year as we are still in the pre-school nursery year. Come September it’s reception, and I’m going to have to seriously pull up my socks and learn how to be on time. Or bad mum is going to be really in trouble.

Yuval Noah Harari provides brain fodder

19 May
As part of a campaign to encourage my baby brain to retain a modicum of sharpness, I am listening to an audio version of Yuval Noah Harari’s sweeping work Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
I do keep having to rewind and replay as my sloppy mind wanders and I miss key points, but that notwithstanding, I’m loving the way Harari casually debunks so many accepted truths about the world.
For someone brought up in the Orthodox Jewish community, where God created the world in seven days is an elemental truth, I’m finding it refreshing to be confronted with Harari’s absolute insistence on the fact that all religions are no more than delusional myths that homo sapiens have learnt to tell themselves about the world they inhabit.
Reading Sapiens makes me realise (shamefacedly) that as I’ve got older, I’ve become complacent – or should I say lazy – about my beliefs. When’s the last time I really analysed or even questioned my beliefs about existence?
This complacency is also bound up with becoming a mother. With little children, it’s just convenient (but perhaps also kind of necessary?) to be part of a system and a community (Modern Orthodox Jewish, in our case) that provides clear answers and purports to hold truths about the world.
Is it okay to give ambiguous or philosophical answers to my four-year-old son when he asks his adorable ‘metaphysical’ questions? Or is it not fair to confuse him at such a young age?
Isn’t it hard to be a mum when you are full of niggling doubts and an awareness that you don’t really know what the “truth” is when your child comes to you wanting clear answers?
In any event, thank you, Yuval Noah Harari, for dragging me out of my baby-brained fogginess back into the land of doubt and questioning.

J’accuse! Grazia – utter body-image hypocrisy

24 Mar


I’ve been roused out of my slightly muddled baby-brained existence by a fit of rage in reaction to the contents of the sleek pages of this week’s Grazia magazine (27 March 2017 edition).

Rarely do I ‘treat myself’ to such written fodder, but needing some light relief from the  cerebral audio-book I’m working my way through, I forked out the requisite £2.20 for the mag. Thinking to myself, well, at least this is one of the “MORE INTELLIGENT” titles on the glossy mag spectrum.

For a while it lived up to its name. Alongside the usual celeb gossip (“Scarlett: Divorce turns toxic”), there was a feature on Syrian refugees in the UK, a surprisingly uplifting interview with Khloe Kardashian about her new clothing line that genuinely caters for women of all sizes, and a “modern stepmother’s survival guide” piece to coincide with Mother’s Day.

Then there was a poignant feature on eating disorders, featuring three women who were turned away by GPs “in their hour of need” for apparently not being thin enough. The piece talked about how eating disorders, “have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses – with up to 20% of those seriously affected dying prematurely.”

Naive me was fairly impressed with this array of important social issues affecting women that Grazia was devoting its pages to.

And then I turned to the fashion pages, and this image jumped out of the page at me:


Here before my eyes was a positively skeletal, half-starved, dangerously under-weight model squinting morosely into the camera, bones jutting out of her chest above her strange bandage-like top that binds her miniscule torso. Long bony arms hanging on either side, she looks extremely unhealthy, with a BMI that must be in the single digits. Poor girl has clearly starved-detoxed-beetroot-juiced her way up the slippery pole to get her foot through the door of those cut-throat model agencies, and then starved herself further to win the ultimate prize of a photo shoot to appear on the pages of a high-profile glossy magazine.

The utter hypocrisy of claiming to care about young women suffering from eating disorders on one page and then featuring emaciated dangerously under-weight models on the next. The contradiction smacked me in the face.


Yes, Grazia, YOU, your editorial board, your staff writers, you and your glossy-paged competitors, the whole women’s magazine press, YOU are all complicit in the problem, the eating disorder epidemic you wrote so very poignantly about just a few pages earlier. Do you not realise by now that young women aspire to achieve these unattainable looks you feature on your fashion pages? That you are irresponsibly encouraging young women to deprive themselves of food in an effort to look like these supposed fashion ‘role models’?

Grazia writers, editors, do you have so little self-awareness that you failed to spot the rather enormous piece of irony of placing a feature about eating disorders and images of strikingly under-weight models side-by-side in your publication?

Grazia, please don’t pretend you don’t know by now that young women who develop body image issues do so in part because they try – and fail – to achieve the impossible body shapes that you continue to portray on your fashion pages, sometimes entering into cycles of severe food deprivation in the process?

Women of the world, unite and boycott Grazia and all women’s magazines until they commit to good and responsible practices with regard to model body size.

I, for one, will be saving all my £2.20s from now  on for loftier reading material – and in the meantime, am going back to my intellectual audio-book for solace.


The French Jews have landed – les juifs français sur Londres

2 Aug

Recently published feature I enjoyed writing about the French Jews in London in Jewish Renaissance: fr 001001






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