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Tuesday, 27 September 2016

How to live the yomim noraim with kids (& not just live through them)

Mothering Through The Days Of Awe: How To Live Them, Not Just Live Through Them

(Skip to the bottom for a dropbox link to audio & video versions)


Section A - Reframing

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - together, the Yomim Noraim, or Days of Awe - are notoriously difficult days on which to be a mother. They are long, they are lofty, on one of them we are fasting - and we have these little people to care for at the same time, who don’t really care that much about our state of mind. It’s hard enough to just live through them, let alone really living them.

In my experience, what makes the most difference to our experience of the Yomim Noraim is the attitude that we bring to them. So, some practical suggestions follow, but I’d like to begin by reframing of the days.


Reframe #1: These are not sad days.
Rosh Hashanah is a day of majesty, not of sadness.
Let’s take them one at a time. Rosh Hashanah is not a sad day. It’s not even, actually, really a day of teshuvah (repentance). It is a day of majesty, of awe, of awareness of the Divine. But it is not sad. You don’t have to be sad on Rosh Hashanah, and you don’t get any brownie points for making your children be sad.

Rosh Hashanah is all about recognizing - and crowning - G-d as our King. In chassidus, Rosh Hashanah is called Coronation Day. It’s the day on which we acknowledge and accept G-d as our King, which means committing to keeping His laws. If you look through the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, there is no mention of repentance. We do not say vidui (confession for our sins), or the ‘al chet’ prayer, or selichos on this day. Instead, our prayers stress G-d’s majesty, kingship, omnipotence and greatness.

How can we, lowly human beings, crown G-d as King? Simply by obeying Him.

A human king truly earns his crown not through ritual or birth, but by his people’s acceptance of his rule and obedience to his commands. Similarly, only we can make G-d a king, by demonstrating our obedience to His decrees, regardless of which job He has given us.
Many years ago, I met a lady somewhere or other. We got chatting, and she told me that her father had served in the British army during WW2.
“Oh,” I said, “That’s so fascinating. Wow. You must be so proud of him. Where did he fight?”
“He didn’t fight,” she said.
I was a bit puzzled. “What did he do?” I asked
“He served in the mechanical airforce engineers. He worked very very hard during the war, preparing the planes as fast as possible for the next sortie.”

My first thoughts were ‘Shame’. I was a bit disappointed for her, actually - I’d been quite excited that her father helped fight the Nazis and save my nation, so this was a bit of a let-down. Fortunately, I didn’t say anything, and my second thoughts were a lot more sensible. Without the mechanical airforce engineers, there would have been no fighter planes, no bombers, no victory in the Battle of Britain. So who did a ‘better’ job fighting the Nazis? The glorious fighter pilots? Or the unsung engineers who pulled those planes back together again so that they could go up again a few hours later? And what would have happened if all those engineers had refused to serve as engineers and demanded the glory of being fighter pilots?

G-d, our King, has placed us in the position of caring for these small children. We might rather have a more glorious or exciting role, but are we the ones to question the King, especially on His Coronation Day? Our acceptance of our difficult, overlooked, under-appreciated task of mothering through the Days of Awe is an extremely important step in crowning G-d as the greatest King in the universe. Even if we’d rather be fighter pilots.


Reframe #2: Advance the welfare of the nation
We’re taught that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d gives out assignments to everyone in His realm, and He allocates resources according to loyalty and the needs of those assignments. It’s a day of harsh judgment based purely on what will advance the welfare of His kingdom. There’s no room for rebels or sympathy for malingerers (that comes on Yom Kippur). There is no space for weakness or pleas for sympathy (that also comes on Yom Kippur). We want to spend this day demonstrating that we are loyal workers and not traitors, that we deserve the resources we want - health, mental stability, inner peace, financial security - because we will use them well. We could stand in the synagogue all morning and plead with G-d to believe us - or we could just show Him by doing the job He’s given us.


Reframe #3: Yom Kippur is a festival
We tend to bundle Yom Kippur together with Tisha b’av because both of them are serious fasts, but the natures of the days could not be more different. Yom Kippur is a chag. A festival. Not a sad day. It is a serious day, yes, but it’s a yomtov. It’s important to remember this when looking after children on Yom Kippur. Our children should enjoy Yom Kippur.

I know, that sounds like heresy. But it’s still true. They should have treats like they do on Simchat Torah. They should wear their Shabbat clothes and play special games and have extra-extra-special Mummy time, because it is Yom Kippur. And you should do all of this giving to them from a place of strength, knowing that you are demonstrating G-d’s love to them, that you are giving them a good feeling about Yom Kippur and not raising them to dread and fear a boring, angry day.


Reframe #4: You are the high priest
A hefty portion of the musaf prayers on Yom Kippur are spent describing the detail of the job of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and other priests in the Mikdash (Temple). We read about how they spent the day cooking the offerings, cleaning the floor and the utensils, opening and closing doors, cleaning the ash off the altar, lighting the lights, etc. It all bears a striking similarity to what we mothers spend our days doing! While others are in synagogue reading about what the Kohen Gadol was doing, we are actually living it. Try to envisage yourself as the High Priest cleaning up the ash or preparing the offerings every time you have to clean up more spilled food or serve yet another snack.


Reframe #5: You are an angel
I really mean this literally. The Jewish understanding of a malach (angel) is a being with no will of its own. A Jewish angel is a messenger of G-d who only does the will of G-d. On Yom Kippur especially, we emulate angels. We don’t eat or drink, we (in some areas only the men, in others both men and women) wear white, we recite the second line of Shema ‘Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuso L’Olam Va’ed’ out loud instead of whispering it, which our sages teach is the way of the malachim. And we are malachim when we make G-d’s Will be our will. When we look after the children He tasked us with, with happiness and joy, and don’t try to make our will into G-d’s Will by demanding to be in the synagogue praying instead.

Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that whenever you feed a baby, or give food to a child who wouldn’t be able to get that food themselves, you should say to yourself this verse:
Pose’ach es yodecha u’masbia l’chol chai ratzon
You open up Your hand & sustain each creature with life’
G-d gives each creature their food in order to sustain them. In the case of babies and small children, the way in which G-d provides for their needs is through us, their mothers. We are literally on a mission from G-d, malachim, sent to give sustenance to His vulnerable creations. On Yom Kippur, serving G-d, you really are an angel.


Reframe #6: Remember that each act is a holy act
Everything that you do to look after your children is an act of service towards G-d. Each time you do anything for them - feed them, change a diaper, play a game with them, etc - you are obeying G-d’s obligation that you care for His creations. It’s as holy as you make it be.

Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the ‘Tzaddik of Jerusalem’, taught his daughters that every time they do anything for their small children - changing a diaper, feeding them, etc - they should recite this declaration of intent. It is similar to that which many men recite before doing certain mitzvot like shaking the lulav, or putting on tefillin:
“Hineni muchan umezuman lakyem mitzvas gidul banim”
“Behold I am ready and prepared to fulfill the holy commandment of raising children”
In this way, you’ll remind yourself that what you are doing is not just messy, smelly, and mundane. It’s holy service.


Reframe #7: G-d can still see you!
Most important of all! Don’t be fooled into believing that you are only standing before G-d when you are in the synagogue holding a machzor in your hand. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not end when you put the prayer-book down, and G-d can still see and hear you when you’re looking after your children. You can still have a spiritual, meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in your own playroom. It’s all in your state of mind.


Section B: Practical Prayer:
1. Do try to pray something every day even when it is not the Yomim Noraim. This will keep you in the ‘habit’ of prayer and keep that pathway open for you for the future when you are once again able pray regularly.

It’s traditional to recite Psalm 27 - L’David Hashem - twice a day during the month of Elul. It reminds us that Rosh Hashanah is coming and gets us into the mindset in preparation. I’m not suggesting that you manage to say the whole thing - you’re not even getting through the regular prayers! - but a lot of popular songs have been made out of different verses from the prayer. Try to sing one of them aloud each day, or put on a recording of it, no matter how much other prayer you’re managing. It will help you feel a sense of the Days of Awe approaching.

2. Do make arrangements that work for you so that you can say some of the prayers of the day. Get together with a friend and take it in turns to watch each other’s kids, if that works for you. Get up early to pray in the morning before your children wake up and/or before your husband leaves for shul. Remember that even if you don’t get to daven in the morning, you can say the musaf prayer all afternoon until sunset, and/or recite mincha in the afternoon too. Have your husband watch the kids in the afternoon so that you can get in some prayer time, even if it’s just half an hour to say amidah.

3. Maximize ma’ariv. You can say ma’ariv - the evening prayer - all night. If you know you’ll only be able to pray, meditate or focus when your children are in bed, then try to hold off on going to sleep yourself and take this time to be your focused prayer time. Send your children to bed early if you can. Especially on Yom Kippur, make the most of this time. Pray with as much focus and concentration as you can, because this is your best chance. You aren’t yet weak and tired out from fasting, and you can wait until your husband comes home and leave him to trouble shoot with your children while you pray.

4. Harness informal prayer. We’re always taught about formal prayer, and it’s a very important thing, but when we’re in the mothering trenches, formal prayer tends to go out the window and what we need to grab hold of is informal prayer. Informal prayer is when you direct your needs and lacks and hopes towards G-d, in your own words. It’s making that counting-to-ten-trying-not-to-lose-your-temper into a prayer for patience. It’s asking G-d for strength to get up off the couch and change yet another dirty diaper. It’s saying ‘I’m doing this for You, G-d’ when you sit down to read the same book for the umpteenth time. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (but on every other day too), shoot up short, informal requests for whatever you might need at every opportunity. Turn your desperation into a spiritual experience.

5. Self-care is also a mitzvah. You also serve G-d by resting. This is particularly true on Yom Kippur when your resources are so depleted by fasting. If you need to sleep or to rest, then do so. If you feel that you can only pray sitting down (especially that long long Rosh Hashanah amidah), then do so. You do not need to turn yourself into a limp rag just so that you can daven. Only you can ever make this decision about how much you need to rest and whether you could use the time to pray and still be a properly functioning mother for the rest of the day, but don’t downplay the importance of self-care.

6. Don’t force children to go to the synagogue: I hope this is obvious, but do not take children to shul if they are not ready and willing to be there. You will disturb other women who have already ‘done their time’ staying home with small children, and could well put your child off the whole idea of going to shul later on. Tiding a small child over with a book and a (quiet) toy is fine as long as you are prepared to take them out immediately that they begin to make any kind of disturbance.

This applies to hearing the Shofar too. You do not need to hear the shofar in shul, nor is there a time limit on when to hear it. You can hear the shofar up until sunset on each day of Rosh Hashanah, at home or at someone else’s home. Find someone in your community who can blow the Shofar for you later on, while your husband is available to look after your children. And remember that you only are obligated to hear the first 30 blasts of the shofar. All the rest are Rabbinic level requirements from which you, as a busy mother, are exempt.

7. Make the most of your praying time. If you have a short window of time in which to pray, you know you can’t get through everything.
Start with what is most important – the amidah. If that’s all you’ll have time for, then so be it.
If you’ll have enough time, begin with the blessings before Shema and go straight through until after the Amidah. If you’ll have even more time, add in parts of pesukei d’zimrah – the psalms of praise that begin Shacharit.



Section C: How To Make The Day Meaningful In The Mothering Trenches

1. Focus your day towards G-d, no matter what you are doing. Think about the essence of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers at intervals during the day. Live this one day with the awareness that you are standing before G-d; that these children are His children; that your every action crowns Him as King more than anything that anyone else can do. Remind yourself that as a child of G-d you too are capable of greatness and deserve to have a relationship with Him.

2. Prioritize: It’s more important to not get angry than to pray. So do whatever you can to avoid putting yourself into situations where you might get angry. That includes trying to rush to finish praying because a toddler is pulling at your skirt, or shouting at your children to get out the house, quick, so that you can get to the synagogue in time to hear the shofar. Prioritize. What is more important, your calmness, patience, and sense of happiness, or praying? Which one will serve G-d more fully?

3. Sing. Sing songs from the liturgy of the Yomim Noraim to your children or yourself. Find recordings of them beforehand so that you can refresh your memory. Tunes are extremely evocative; just humming the tunes of prayers from your childhood can put you into an entirely different place.

4. Pray aloud. Even very small children can enjoy hearing you sing your prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I found that mine were always more willing to be quiet and wait for me if I was praying aloud. I think it reassured them that I’m still there, and convinced them that I actually was doing something and wasn’t just ‘reading’.

5. Find ways to connect your activities that day to the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
·         If your children already do some prayers in gan or playgroup, then take the time to say them together with them. Sing them nicely, and include all the vaguely Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur related songs that you know from CDs or your own schooldays.
·         Small children who know the shema get very excited about shouting out ‘baruch shem kavod’ on Yom Kippur, so make a big thing of it.
·         Tell your children stories about the Yomim Noraim. Try to borrow relevant storybooks from the library or friends, or look up stories online beforehand so that you can read them or re-tell them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
·         Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world! One of my friends makes a special ‘happy birthday world’ party for her kids on Rosh Hashanah. They make decorations and birthday signs before the yomtov, and sing Rosh Hashanah songs and eat birthday food at a birthday party breakfast/brunch during that long Rosh Hashanah morning.

6. Plan ahead.
·         Make or buy yummy treats for them, so that they connect these days to happiness and satisfaction.
·         Remember that shul usually finishes very late on Rosh Hashanah, and even bigger children can get very irritable waiting that long to eat. Plan to give your kids a good, special kiddush once you’re all ready, and/or an early special lunch by themselves (appoint a child to be the ‘shabbos daddy’ and ‘shabbos mummy’ for extra excitement!) so that they don’t drag you down with hunger-induced grumpiness.
·         Similarly, remember to plan a real festive meal for their lunch on Yom Kippur. For them it’s a real festival.
·         Put a few toys or games away now, so that you can take them out ‘new’ on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Or swap with a friend, or buy some new small toys from the dollar store, and bring them out for that really difficult Yom Kippur afternoon stretch.
·         Remember that you can pray at the park as well!
·         Plan to begin the seudah hamafsekes - the final meal before Yom Kippur - well in advance, so that you’ll have enough time to eat and drink enough before the fast begins.


Dropbox link to a recording of this in shiur format (skip the first 10 min or so, they were just people introducing themselves, etc):

Dropbox link to a video of this shiur (the last 10 min are missing, and it was nighttime, everyone was tired): 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

What is the post-high school year in Israel for, for girls?

In response to this Facebook post by Sarah Bronson, decrying that girls in sems are directed to fundraise for a charity that helps funds weddings. 

Sarah's complaint was that by encouraging the girls to fundraise dafka for a charity which funds weddings, organizations like the OU and Yeshiva University are subtly pushing the message that what matters for girls is marriage. 

It's a good point. Of course it could have come about in an innocent way (maybe the wife of a high OU exec runs the charity, for example?). My issue goes a bit further - not they are fundraising for this charity while the boys fundraise for another, but why are they fundraising and the boys are not?

When I was in sem (midreshet lindembaum), I once went with a friend for a Shabbat meal at the home of some relative of hers. This relative asked us a lot about what chessed programs we were involved in that year, & then expressed his disappointment that lindenbaum neglects to train girls in doing chessed enough. I no longer remember his exact words, but he was very clear that the priority for girls is to do chessed. The priority fir boys is to learn. 

We were all rather offended. Of course chessed is a priority, but it should be a priority for both sexes. And this year was our year to immerse ourselves in Torah learning before we become swept away with the myriad distractions and responsibilities of life. Why should we be spending it scrubbing floors or caring for children - or fundraising for anything? 

Boys in yeshivah programs are expected to focus on learning. The emphasis is on making the most of this one, two, or however many years in the cocoon of yeshivah to absorb as much Torah as you can before moving on. No one seems to worry that boys might, as a result, choose not to marry. Or that they might never do chessed. So why are girls given the message that they have dedicate learning time to choir competitions and fundraising and chessed projects, rather than to actually learning Torah?

(NB. Look, I'm not saying chessed isn't important. It is. But how do you weight your message in what for girls is almost always the one year of high-intensity torah learning? Do we want to give them message that Torah learning is what they are here for and what they should concentrate on, or that Torah learning is just one of the many things they could be involved in during their gap year before college?)

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Book Review: Echoes Of Eden

Echoes Of Eden: Devarim: Echoes Of Sinai is the final installment in Rabbi Ari Kahn's Echoes of Eden parsha series. (You'll never guess what it's about!)

The truth is that my writing a review of Rabbi Kahn's book is like Trump writing a review of Lincoln. He most emphatically does not need my endorsement. However, I realise that not everyone has heard of Rabbi Ari Kahn, and so they might not know how much they will gain from reading his books. AND also I'm incredibly honoured to have been asked, so I'm writing this anyway.

The short review: Echoes of Eden is a series of nuanced English-language (and French too) books that convey deep and complex insights into the Parsha in a way which is accessible, and yet challenging, to everyone. You can't be too inexperienced or too learned to gain from them.

The long review: My biggest issue with English language books on Torah is that they usually simplify or in some way flatten out complex topics. In my opinion, you can't really learn English Torah books; you can only read them. There's a multi-faceted aspect to Torah which seems to slip through the cracks between the languages. But now there are five nuanced, deep English language books on Torah: Rabbi Kahn's 'Echoes Of Eden' set.

If you're just wondering why you should shell out for more parsha books, let me skip the biography and tell you why: Because you're worth it. They are a level above regular Parsha books. Rabbi Kahn brings together a range of cultural references (look for the essays titled after great rock songs) and across the board Torah opinions, drawing on teachings from chassidish and litvish traditions. He's remarkable in the breadth of Torah that he'll combine: the modern, the classic, and the forgotten Torah giants all together.

If you are an English-only learner with a weak background of Torah learning, you can read these books and understand the point of the parsha. More than that: Rabbi Kahn shares a methodology of how to learn Torah, which will help you get a bit further along understanding the next week's parsha too, before you even look at his next essay.

On the other hand, if you've got a strong Torah background and usually learn the original Hebrew texts, I promise you, you will still learn from these books. You'll delve into the extra Hebrew sources that Rabbi Kahn has appended in the footnotes throughout the book. Many of them will be new to you. (Another plus: no having to flip to the back of the book to look for the source of an idea, and then having to go look it up. Call me lazy, but I really appreciate being able to learn the original Torah source for a concept cited in the text without having to get up and find the relevant book. Especially when it isn't on my bookshelves.) You'll enjoy discovering aspects of Torah that you never noticed before, no matter how many times you learned it. And it's uncanny the way he does that. Everything that he writes is obvious, once you've read it.

If I have one criticism of the books, it's that there are more jokes in his spoken shiurim than in his written works. Which just means that you'll have to buy the books, AND find out when he's next speaking in your area.

If you're a long-time Rabbi Kahn fan, you won't need me to tell you to buy his books and to learn them. All I can tell you is that yes, they are just as good as all rest of the Torah he's taught you so far. And if you're new to Rabbi Kahn's teaching, all I can say is enjoy. And you can buy the book here

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Why do people stand by?

Why do people stand by?

I don't know.

This morning I read yet another article about yet another abuse case that was just uncovered at a Jewish school. This time it was six teachers at a cheder (boys' school) who are accused of having rather horrifically abused boys aged 3-10 years old over the course of 11 years, with incidents including beating the boys, sexually abusing them, and other even-more-nasty-than-usual abuses.

It's not the first time, and I doubt it's the last time. This time it sounds particularly cruel and particularly horrific, maybe because the victims this time are so young, maybe because the abuse itself is so superlatively sadistic, so it might bring more of a reaction. But it seems like every month at least a new case comes to light of sexual or physical (or both) abuse carried out by rabbis or teachers in the Orthodox world against students in primary school, high school, yeshiva or sem.

I don't want to sound like I'm letting the perpetrators off. I'm not. But let me say here - my imagination can stretch to imagine that there are people in this world who are cruel. Who get a thrill from exercising their power over someone who is helpless. Who have an uncontrollable sexual desire that they fail to rein in, even when they know they will be caught. People who may have been abused themselves, who may have suffered from a neglected or abusive childhood which has made them into abusive and cruel individuals. It doesn't make it Ok. It doesn't give them a blank slate to inflict abuse and suffering onto another adult or child. But I can imagine that those people exist.

Here's what I can't imagine: Loving, caring parents who send their child in to school day after day to be beaten, sexually abused, hit, verbally abused, or all of the above. Parents who tell their children off for drawing pictures of rabbis with big naked penises and never wonder why they are drawing such pictures. Parents who tell the teacher to 'Never, ever, ever again touch my son!', but don't really care if he'll ever touch another woman's son.

Here's what defies my imagination: A principal who denies that any abuse has ever occurred in his school. A principal who never questions the existence of a lounge with beds in. A principal who for 11 years (or more, or fewer) chooses not to investigate the rumours he hears or complaints that reach him about abusive teachers in his school.

Here's what I can never ever forgive: A teacher who hears the screams and sees the crying children and hears whispers of abuse in the corners of playgrounds for 11 years, 11 freaking pain-filled torturous cruel years, and turns a blind eye. A teacher who hears another teacher screaming in the next door classroom and never talks to the boys about what is going on. A teacher who sees the same 7-year-old standing outside the classroom door again and again with a tear streaked face, and never questions that he deserves it, because he is just a trouble maker and bad kid.

The six defendants in this case have made a claim which is very familiar to me:

"The six defendants denied the offenses attributed to them, with each providing explanations and interpretations of the incidents, claiming they did not intend to harm the minors. Some admitted to some of the less serious incidents, while presenting them as mere jokes. "

Do you know why it's so familiar? I've heard it all before. Heard all the excuses, all the explanations and interpretations and dan-lkaf-zechut-isms before. Because one of our children went to a school where one of the teachers was accused of hitting the boys.

Note: I say accused because it has not been proven. I have not seen it and my son has not seen it. But other boys have and have told their parents. Other parents have seen the bruises and other boys have seen the blows and heard the screams, and some of them told me. So take my information with a pinch of salt - it's not first hand. You can deny it if you want.

Do you know how many boys have been taken out of that class because the teacher hit?

One. Our son.

Here's what I have heard from other parents and the principal himself:
* The boys need to toughen up. This is Israel, they can't be so sensitive
* Stop being so American. In Israel the teachers shout a bit and the boys get scared and then they say that they've been hit, but they weren't.
* You asked leading questions and got the answers you wanted
* How can you be sure?
* The teacher apologised to the child and did teshuva.
* This is his parnassah, you have to be very careful
* The teacher only gently touched the boy's cheek, the boy just imagined that he was hit
* The teacher never meant it, it was just a joke
* If it was my son, I would take him out, but I can't be sure that those other boys are telling the truth
* He's not hitting as much as he used to
* He's just a stricter teacher
* Oh, it's only hitting? I was worried you meant the other kind of abuse.
* But no school is going to be any better, this is how it is in Israel
* Every chareidi school is the same. You can't change the system, but things are improving

As far as I know, what we experienced was definitely, thankfully, only a shadow of the cruelty and abuse that has been reported in the new Belzer case, but the excuses are the same. Like Obama and Syria, people will redraw and redraw again their red line so as to avoid having to take uncomfortable action. It was clear that some of the people I spoke to felt that if it was sexual abuse, they would have done something, but not for only physical abuse. Well, it's only hitting, after all. Or that if it was their own son, they would have done something. Or if the teacher hadn't apologised. Where do you draw your red line?

Someone told me that years ago, before I made aliyah, there was an abusive ganenet in one of the biggest ganim in the area. Very abusive. Everyone knew about her behaviour towards the children who were helpless in her care.

Do you know how many parents moved their children, their helpless toddlers, out of that gan? Do you know how many parents complained to the misrad hachinuch about that teacher?

One.

Red lines can move.

The abusers in this awful, developing Belzer case deserve to be vilified. They deserve to walk a walk of shame every day of their lives. They deserve more punishment than we can possibly give them, because if he who saves one person's life saves a world, and if he who kills one person destroys a world, then he who destroys one person but leaves him alive to destroy others has destroyed a self-repeating number of universes.

But this is my real point. What about us?

We blithely ripple off these lovely phrases that we learn in school about 'kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh' - every Jew is interconnected one with the other. We talk about our close-knit communities, how much we help each other, how advanced is Judaism's ethical code.

We become so good at being dan l'kaf zechut (judging people favourably) that we take it to extremes.

We become so scared of speaking lashon hara that we won't dare to tell someone not to send to this school because one or more teachers there hit, push, slap, or sexually abuse the children - because that would be lashon hara.

Abuse doesn't happen in a vacuum. The number of times that children are abused and no one knows about it until they grow up and bring a court case is miniscule. Most children try to tell someone - their parent, another teacher, an adult friend, another child - but no one listens.

No one listens.

People tell the child that they were mistaken, that they misunderstood, that this is a holy and good man (or woman), that they must have deserved it, that it didn't actually happen or isn't as bad as they think. Or they just never actually do anything about it.

I know so many people who have never forgiven Europe as a whole for standing by and allowing Jews to be slaughtered without ever raising their voices in protest. And yet how many of those people will stand by as children are quietly slaughtered but left alive, by people who do not carry guns or bombs or fierce dogs?

Do you know what happens if you tell people a list of three things to remember? They'll forget one of them.
הגיד לך האדם מה טוב ומה ה' דורש ממך כי אם לעשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם ה''. 
Man, you've been told what is good and what G-d wants from you. Just do justice, love kindness, and walk modestly with G-d


Which one do you think we forgot?

Next time, listen.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Great Chareidi Education Myth

In Ramat Beit Shemesh, where I live, there's this myth. I call it the myth of the chareidi education. There are a lot of israeli chareidim and anglo chareidim living here, but there;s also a lot of Confused.

As has been pointed out to many a new oleh (and also many a diaspora Jew who dares to comment on the complex system of ideological and theological 'boxes' that fill the Israeli religio-social world), Israeli chareidi is not the same as anglo chareidi. There are hundreds of American families who consider themselves chareidi, but who support the existence of the state of Israel, chat on facebook, and aren't surprised at husbands working in finance, law, web design, etc. They are very happy with their blend of hashkafa (worldview), but they also want to live in Israel. When they want to make aliyah, they're warned that they can't straddle the boxes, because then their children will be confused about where they belong and they'll become OTD (Off The Derech). And you can't be anything other than chareidi, because then your children with also go OTD.

This is where the Great Chareidi Myth comes in. It goes something like this:
If you really want to be sure that your kids will stay frum, you have to go chareidi. You could send to a dati leumi or a chardal school, but then your kids will not come out really learning Torah, serving Hashem, or living a committed life. Because look, dati leumi is really a lite option.
You should send to an anglo chareidi school, not an Israeli chareidi one, because they are better for anglo parents. Don't worry, it's not like israeli chareidi. The boys do learn chol (secular) subjects.

Sometimes it goes:
Why not just try the chareidi school? You can always 'trade down' (into a dati leumi/chardal school) but you can't 'trade up'. You don't have to stick with it, but you should really try it.

Most egregious of all, to my ears, is:
Look, you're a baal teshuvah couple. You don't really have the skills  to support your children in their learning, so you really need to send them to a chareidi school, for their sakes.

This upsets me for many reasons. Let us count the ways:
1. There is no insurance that will keep your child 'on the derech'. A chareidi school is not going to prevent a child from changing or questioning his/her level of religious observance.

2. It is beyond insulting to the committed, dedicated, G-d-fearing and Torah-learning non-chareidi families to refer to them as Judaism Lite or living a non-committed life.

3. In all chareidi schools, including anglo chareidi ones which claim to teach secular subjects, the boys get a minimum of secular education. Sometimes that is not enough for them to get enough bogruyot qualifications to go on to university-level study in their chosen subject, so that they end up having to take their bogruyot exams again as 20-somethings. One anglo-chareidi school tells parents that the boys learn enough to go on to a regular dati leumi yeshiva high school if they want to, but their secular  work is not graded or often even looked at closely, and their 7th & 8th grade rebbis teach the boys about the worthlessness of secular learning through a variety of stories and shmoozes.

4. Dati leumi should never be referred to as 'trading down', as though there is a hierarchy of value among different 'types' of Jews.

5. It is not easy to switch your children from one school to another just because you tried one out and didn't like it. It's not like trying out a car on approval. When children are suddenly moved from one 'box' to another, whether that is chareidi to dati leumi or vice versa, it bewilders them and sets them onto the wrong foot.

6. I find it insulting to tell baal teshuvah couples that their background is a handicap which they have to overcome by making themselves appear 'more frum'. I also haven;t the faintest idea how the children of a baal teshuvah couple will be helped by going to a chareidi school as opposed to a non-chareidi one. It might have something to do with shidduchim

Most of all, #7: people get stuck in the wrong 'box' and can't move.

I've talked with a few families who have had something like a mid-Aliyah crisis. They came full of idealism and ready to 'trade up' their level of religious observance by sending their children to a chareidi school, so that their child won;t go OTD. And a few years down the line, they realise that they didn;t up their level of observance, they just upped their wearing of stockings. Or that sending their child to a chareidi school does not actually innoculate them against questioning their faith. Or that, quite simply, the chareidi school box is not the box that they really belong in.

But now they're stuck. Sometimes practically, because the dati leumi schools are not always so happy to take families who looked down their noses at them for not being 'frum' enough. Sometimes they are mentally stuck, because they are bombarded with warnings that they won't be able to get their child into a good (read: chareidi) high school unless they go to a chareidi elementary school, and if their child doesn't go to a 'good' high school, they won't get a 'good' shidduch, so there's no choice.

Sometimes, a family only wants to move their sons, or their daughters, or only one specific child, but the chareidi schools won't allow them to keep a child in the chareidi school if his/her siblings go to a non-chareidi school. So they have to choose which child will be made unhappy. Sometimes they are so entrenched in a chareidi circle that they just can't cope with moving their children to a non-chareidi school, even though that would be best for the child. Sometimes they really believe that they need to keep their kids in a chareidi school in order to keep them 'on the derech', but they can see that their child is not getting what he/she needs in a chareidi school.

Very often, they asked their rabbi before they chose a school, and their rabbi (like one I know of) told them all of those myths listed above. Sometimes they come back to their rabbi in the midst of their mid-aliyah crisis and ask what to do now, and the rabbi recommends a private tutor. Or that the father spend more time with the child. Or to be more Israeli and stop worrying so much. Both of the former can be good solutions for a child who is struggling in school, but in this case they don;t actually address the problem. The latter, of course, is nonsense.

Or they don't come back to ask the rabbi again, because they were taught to trust in daas torah, and daas torah told them to send their kids to this school, so they'll follow daas torah's advice and not make a difficult situation worse by turning away from the path they were taught to follow. Especially not if they are baalei teshuvah and lack the courage of their convictions.



The Great Chareidi Myth is just that - a myth. Joining a chareidi community won't keep your child 'frum'. Sending your child to a chareidi school where he sees the teacher hitting his classmates, and never doing anything about it, isn't going to immunise him from going 'off the derech'. Keeping your daughter in a beis yaakov where she fights every day against a tznius regimen that she can't follow isn't going to teach her the beauty of Torah.

One family I know swallowed the Great Chareidi Myth, and their child X is still paying for it. When they made aliyah, they were told that they 'have' to send their daughter to a chareidi beis yaakov otherwise she'll go 'off the derech'. They swallowed that myth (after all, it came from daas torah), and didn't know what to do when she dropped out of school 3 months later, unable to bear the harsh atmosphere. They couldn't cope with the failure of the 'sure bet', and X couldn't cope with being misjudged and mistreated by everyone around her. Eventually she was taken into care, where she was abused. Today she is living a Modern Orthodox life, but as far as her family is concerned, she is OTD.

Not every child ends up like X, but many do end up battered and resentful towards Judaism for having squashed them into a mold that they didn't fit and ignored them when they cried out in pain.

I've just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. In it, he describes the powerful split-second decisions that every one of us makes without consciously thinking. One aspect that he outlines is that of race; that even people who are consciously anti-racism can have powerful, unconscious racist biases that cause them to make snap judgments for or against people depending on the color of their skin.

It seems to me that in Ramat Beit Shemesh, at least, there is a powerful unconscious religious bias. People hear 'chareidi' and automatically think 'frum' or 'committed', and they hear 'dati leumi' and think loose. One person told me that starting by sending to a chareidi school means starting 'up'. While they can always move 'down' to a dati leumi school later on, it's a lot harder to move up to a chareidi school. She was not much less horrified than I was to realise that she had just called non-chareidi lower than chareidi. She thought that she thought of them as two separate but equally 'good' streams of Jewish observance, but her unconscious choice of words showed that actually, in her mind 'chareidi' meant 'better'. And she's not the only one.

It's possible - even probable - that the rabbis and community leaders who encourage people to send their children to chareidi schools truly believe in the myth they are peddling. They truly believe that this is the best for every child. Because it's not their conscious mind making this decision, even when they think it is. It's their unconscious religious bias.

According to the researchers on the issue of unconscious race biases, it's not possible for us to change them by conscious willpower. We can't 'will' ourselves to have a more positive association with black skin than with white skin. There is only one way to change our preconceived, unthinking reactions: to spend more time with real people from our negative bias group. As long as rabbis and teachers and leaders continue to take steps to keep chareidi and non-chareidi apart, the negative bias which fuels that separation can only grow. The Great Chareidi Education Myth is powered by lack of knowledge about the 'other', which in turn is powered by the divisions generated by the Great Chareidi Education Myth.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Everything I Needed To Know, I Learned From Children's Literature

Obviously, this is a bit of an exaggeration. But I truly have learned a huge amount of useful, sometimes practical, sometimes just fascinating pieces of life wisdom from children's literature. Here is a completely non-exhaustive list:


  • If there's a fire coming towards you, you can save yourself by making a firebreak. So you literally can fight fire with fire Little House On The Prairie
  • How to make a toasted cheese sandwich using an iron and some silver foil (As many people can attest, i used this piece of information extensively during my university days) Divorce Express
  • So, so many 'lead pencil games' and progressive games and other ways to keep a bunch of children (or adults) entertained with pencils and paper (this has been useful in more settings than you would think) Chalet School books and What Katy did At School
  • That you could shrink your jeans by sitting in a hot bath in them (Ok, i never actually tried this out) Sweet Valley High
  • How to make patterns (visual signs) when you follow a new path, so that you can find your way back again (and so that other people can find you if you've been kidnapped and marched away). The Famous Five 
  • How to tack a boat against the wind (Also never actually used that one, but I'm sure it will come in useful one day) Swallows & Amazons
  • When you hike, you should bend your knees a little with every step so that your shins won't ache Chalet School books
  • Granny knots are for grannies; the only proper knot to tie in everday situations is a reef knot. Or a clove hitch when you really need something to stay Swallows & Amazons
  • Likewise, never cut a piece of string. You never know when you might need it Swallows & Amazons
  • How to start a fire using someone's glasses Lord of the Flies
  • Rabbits have a rich myth-based culture (Alright, I'm joking) Watership Down
  • How to wake yourself up at the time you want to wake up, by hitting your head on the pillow the right number of times according to which hour you want to wake up at (I can't remember which book this was in, but i used it a lot when i was a kid)
  • Always, always, always bring spare batteries Almost every single Famous Five book. you'd think they would learn
  • What phospherecence is I also forgot which book that is in, but i remember the descriptions of a cave shining with phospheresence v well
  • Hot milk will help you fall asleep Every single school story
  • Pine trees attract mosquitoes The Chalet School

I'm sure there are more things, which will come to mind bit by bit over time. Tell me your pieces of life wisdom that you learned from children's literature, too!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Not A Yahrzeit (So What, Then?)

Today could have been my sister’s (secular) yahrzeit. (In Jewish dates it would be 16th of Iyar, but I still remember secular dates better.)

On Tuesday May 5th, one year ago, she was rushed into emergency surgery for an absess infected with necrotising fasciitis, also known as the flesh-eating bug.

Many people have died from it.

She spent two weeks unconscious in a deep coma, on life support. Two weeks in which each day could also have been her yahrzeit. Two weeks of me reviewing in my mind what arrangements I would make if i had to drop everything and fly to London for her levaya.

Those two weeks are a year behind us now. It’s clear that she’ll live. It’s clear that she’ll find some way to cope with the huge contrast between Before and After.  Although it’s hard, it’s very hard.
And i’m sitting here, noticing the date, feeling like something should be done to mark it. A year is a long time, after all. It’s a significant amount of time. A yahrzeit. A birthday. But there’s no way of marking it.

We are thankful that we aren’t marking her yahrzeit now, that this has not been a year marked by the familiar milestones of mourning, kaddish, shloshim, hakamat hamatzeiva. But we can’t pretend that this is her birthday – anniversary of her rebirth from death to life – either.

She’s still so weak. She can no longer stand by herself for longer than a few minutes (she probably never will). She’s still learning how to transfer herself from bed to wheelchair. As hard as her life was before and as paper-thin was her claim to dignity and pride, she still had some privacy and some independence. She had her apartment, her cat, her volunteer job that she was about to start. Perhaps one day those things will come back again, but none of us dare to talk about when.

So a seudat hodayah is out of the question. Laughable, actually, to think of giving thanks today for her life being drawn even more narrowly, for her needing to still, one year later, be confined to a nursing home, her wound not healed, her meagre independence stolen,  her leg a shadow of its former self. Celebration is not a response that we can muster. But mourning would be inappropriate.


So what do you do? All of my religious instincts cry for ritual, for that is what we turn to to mark the months and the years from significant events. But this time, ritual is drawing me a blank. So i sit here, i remember, and i write.