Author Archives: Modesty Blasé

Live from the Lilith Blog

September 2, 2014 by

A Modest Year in Israel: When Young Women go to “Seminary”

https://www.flickr.com/masaisrael/

https://www.flickr.com/masaisrael

Eighteen year-old girls in New York, London and Paris are packing their suitcases. Slightly worried that their suitcases are overweight, they are even more worried that they will return overweight from their year abroad in Israel, in a religious seminary, or midrasha, in Hebrew. Across Israel (well, actually mainly across the affluent areas of Jerusalem) the doors of the academic Jewish year 5775 will open in the first week of September, 2014. A well-groomed cohort of young women will immerse themselves in an intense year of advanced Jewish studies complemented by extensive touring and volunteer work. I’d argue that ‘sem’ as these places are affectionately referred to, is a microcosm of contemporary Orthodox life and are a powerful tool for the socialization of young women. 

The competition to attract girls is fierce and for a seminary to succeed, it needs to have a strong brand, an effective marketing campaign and a strategic business plan. Parents who are paying an average of $20,000 USD for 10 months (this covers fees, accommodation and some food) need to be convinced that the seminary is going to cater to their daughter educational, social and emotional needs. Further, in Orthodox circles where gender relations are more circumscribed, some parents are often concerned that the choice of sem will influence the type of boy their daughters will be introduced to for potential marriage. Therefore, in loco parentis for the year, each seminary must establish its credibility to attract its clientele and online fora can be helpful. 

Recent allegations regarding improper behavior towards young women by Rabbi Aaron Ramati and Rabbi Elimelech Meisels highlights some of the difficulties parents face when choosing a seminary. Other than knowing students who went to a particular seminary, the first place to look is at their website. These sites consistently show groups of attractive, slim and smiling young women in certain poses – there’s the group hug on a tree top or during water sports, the girl poised with a pen over her notebook, girls helping in a range of charities and teachers with beatific grins. However, for a more pointed analysis, one must look to the curriculum.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

September 7, 2012 by

A Modest Update

Cross-posted with Modesty Blase.

Due to modest demands on other aspects of my life, I  have not been blogging as regularly as I had hoped. With Mr Blase’s encouragement, that’s about to change and you’ll be reading more of me. Here’s a few choice tidbits of things going on recently….

Iranian medallist refuses to shake hand of Duchess of Cambridge 

When paralympian Mehrdad Karam Zadeh moved forward to receive his silver medal, the demure Duchess of Cambridge gently placed it around his neck and took a couple of steps backwards. He bowed reverentially and put his hands to his heart in a show of appreciation. There was no handshaking and no air kissing. It was totally respectful and actually quite refreshing. There was a bit of a media fuss, but it quickly dissipated after newspaper reports suggested that Kate had been briefed on Iranian cultural codes that forbids physical contact between men and women who are not related to each other. A bit like us really - Israeli politicians and public intellectuals are familiar with these codes of conduct  - when the talented Or Asuel won the Bible Quiz in 2010, PM Netanyahu understood that shaking her hand would be inappropriate and he deftly handed her the winner’s trophy instead. There’s something refreshing about those who understand that the frisson of a momentary touch is something to be savored, and not handed out like candies at a children’s party.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

December 22, 2010 by

Guardians of the Modest Hemline

‘Say Amen, Mummy.’ My youngest daughter is full of enthusiasm for her brachos (blessings). As every modest mother knows, training our children to say blessings before and after food is one of the pleasures of parenting. So it came as a surprise to find women acting like children at a ‘brachos party.’ Advertised as an opportunity ‘to make some brachot, eat some food, and say amen – let’s do our hishtadlut (effort) to help our fellow Jews in their time of need. All this, plus a Devar Torah at the end – all in under an hour. Make it one of the best hours you’ve spent, and turn up!’ Well – I just couldn’t resist.   (more…)

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Live from the Lilith Blog

August 6, 2009 by

Summertime, and the camping is easy–for some

There’s no need to take your tefillin to the atheist summer camp. Just launched in the UK, Camp Quest UK, modelled on its American counterpart, offers a “residential summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view.” Zionist ideology will be replaced by lessons in rational scepticism and moral philosophy. The quest for Jewish identity will be substituted replaced by the search for secular meaning. One thing is for sure: the atheist camp will be cheaper than any Jewish camp and the girls will come with less luggage.

Now that the fasting of Tisha B’Av is over, the folly of summer camp begins. Talking about ‘getting the kids ready for camp’ is a favourite Shabbat lunch topic, while ‘shopping for camp’ is a specific activity that Hendon mothers (and yes, I generalise) undertake with a specific passion usually reserved for, well, things I am too modest to mention. New T-shirts, shoes, suitcases, underwear, bedding, hair accessories and skirts are standard. How the world has changed – when I begged my parents to let me go to camp, I had to choose my words carefully – camp only meant Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.

“Going to camp” exposes the wealth divide in much of the frum community. Bnei Akiva, the movement aligned with the national-religious Mizrachi movement, costs £640 (about $1,100) for a two week residential camp, and while there are bursaries, these are usually reserved for those on welfare benefits or single parents. While your average family on middling-incomes may be lucky enough to have the £640 in the bank, understandably it may not be their first priority to send one, if not more, children to camp. For children who are not at Jewish schools, camp is the best way to develop Jewish social networks, learn more about Jewish texts and experience a Jewish lifestyle in a non-threatening environment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish communal leaders are inspired by their formative experiences of Jewish summer camp, and this is reflected in the fact that only the wealthy men and women can afford to be our lay leaders.

However, some consider camp a pernicious influence. Early this year, the German government banned the far-right youth organisation “Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend”, or German Youth Faithful to the Homeland, for trying to indoctrinate children and teenagers at their summer camps which include military-style drills and courses on “racial purity.” In Israel, concern about the extreme religious teachings in summer camps organised by Fatah and Hamas has been a long-standing issue. In Uzbekistan, the government has accused the Baptist Union of brainwashing children with religious ideas at their summer camp. Some may wonder if it is so different at Jewish summer camps that celebrate Jewish nationalism, reinforce Jewish insularity and solidarity and see the world solely through the Jewish lens. For example, Camp Gan Israel advertises itself as “Where Jewish kids are Happier, and Happy Kids are Jewisher!”

Jewisher than what?

While it’s simple when religious camps are sex-segregated, it gets a little more complicated where boys and girls are together. Naturally it is expected that they will be kosher and Sabbath-observant, however, the dress code and the relationship code is a little more ambiguous. At Bnei Akiva, there is much less talk of its revered Torah v’Avodah ideology, and more obsession with ‘shomer negia,’ (literally ‘guarding the touch’) which forbids any physical contact between the young male and female campers and their leaders. While it is comforting to parents to know that it’s unlikely their daughter will be deflowered at Bnei Akiva camp, this skewed focus on the physical relationships has ironically, created more sexual tension between its senior members. It’s no surprise that many a marriage in modern Orthodox circles was first imagined at a Bnei Akiva camp. Singles cruises geared for all the religious unmarried men and women in their 30s is all about re-creating the romantic possibilities of a Bnei Akiva summer camp.

What about the homesick child at summer camp? In my day, you’d cry yourself to sleep and put on a brave face during the day and soon afterwards, it would all be fine. The mobile phone has changed the summer camp experience forever. For a while, they were banned from summer camp, but this year, most youth movements have conceded to pressure to allow the children to bring their phone to camp. The problem is that generally, the children will ring their parents, or email them from their Blackberry (the hand-me-down phone of choice when their parents upgrade their own phone) at the slightest complaint or indignation. Children no longer have to rely on their inner resources and resilience – they can always phone home for comfort and succour.

Jewish camp providers have to pander to parental demands and expectations to ensure cash flow, while children learn that their needs and their happiness is all that matters. Narcissistic children calling their parents from summer camp does not augur well for the future of the Jewish community – a community that desperately needs visionary leadership, selfless membership and a deep commitment to ensuring that Jewish values permeates all communal activity. As long as summer camp remains accessible only to the privileged, the community has no idea what talented and dedicated young people are waiting to be discovered.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted on the Jerusalem Post blog.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

July 9, 2009 by

Blaming the world's tragedies on women's immodest dress

In Hendonistan, there’s a new message that’s been circulated via email and posted on relevant notice boards inside one particular shul (although by the time you read this, I understand the notice will have been taken down). In a paean to Mea Shearim typography, the black and red banner in this popular Orthodox London shul requests that girls and women maintain proper halakhic [according to Jewish law] standards of dress in shul. They are to refrain from ‘low necklines, see-through and short-sleeve tops and short skirts.’ And finally, there is the classic plea ‘Please help us to preserve the Kedushat Beit Haknesset.’ [sanctity of the synagogue]. Yes, all that holiness resting on the errant elbow of a Hendon housewife.

In Hendonistan, formerly known as Hendon, large numbers of Muslim women wearing their jilbab and hijab share the streets with young Orthodox women in their swirling denim skirts that sweep the ground. ‘At least,’ think all the women in sheitels and long sleeves, ‘we don’t have to cover up ourselves like THEM. We’re so NORMAL.’ Yes, it’s perfectly normal, as some rabbis have cited, to blame the tragedies of the world on the immodest dress of women.

The case of the three yeshiva students in a Japanese jail for allegedly smuggling some drugs is a recent example that highlights this worldview. In the May 1st edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times, there is an advertisement written in the name of Mrs. Goldstein, the mother of one of the boys in jail. Distressed by her son’s situation, she explained that Harav Hatzadik Rabbi Yakov Meir Schechter was asked what could be done for the young men. “The tzaddik’s answer was precise. A hisorrerus [awakening] – in tznius [modesty] will surely be a big z’chus for the yeshua [salvation].”

The advertisement continues with emotional blackmail; “The commitment of righteous women to improve in any area of Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined. Your contribution in the form of a personal undertaking can be the deciding factor in their fate. Who can remain idle at this time?”

There is also a small outlined box for you to fill in “I, so and so, daughter of so and so, hereby, bli neder (without making a promise) undertake … upgrade my tznius performance by …” Three blank lines are left for you to fill in before sending the note to Mrs Goldstein in Monsey, New York. Conveniently, a few suggestions are offered in addition to the usual hem length advice:

* Refrain from brisk walking as a form of exercise
* Refrain from eating/drinking in public areas, especially where men are present
* Shoes/heels/fitted with a rubber sole
* Learning hilchos tznius (the laws of tzniut) daily.

What is a woman meant to make of this? Holding women’s actions accountable for the fate of these young men serves to abrogate the personal responsibility of those who committed the crime. How is a man meant to respond? Is he really meant to believe that his mother/wife/daughter/sister is the harbinger of all bad tidings pending her fashion sense? Has thousands of years of Jewish history and our complex relationship with the Divine been reduced to a schmutter [piece of cloth]?

In Hendonistan, there is no shortage of rabbis and teachers willing to instruct women how to dress appropriately. Treating the women like children who need to be reprimanded is foolish – their only sin is perhaps too much disposable income with which to buy the latest fashions. While some women simply scoff at this modesty policing, many teenage girls are having a visceral reaction to the way that some lessons in school are hijacked to remind them of the importance of modesty. Critical and condescending teachers are not going to save the Jewish people.

However, if you are concerned about your wardrobe, there are some solutions for a modesty makeover. Try Sleevies – a sleeve extension with an elastic band at the upper arm that you pop underneath the original short sleeve. You can transform your whole wardrobe with this simple device that creates a ¾ sleeve on every top. For suspect necklines, wear a TeeNeck which is a “shirt supplement designed to wear with a lower cut top.” Or if you’re nifty with a needle, a new book by Rifka Glazer is all you’ll need. Seams and Souls: A Dressing, Altering and Sewing Guide for the Modest Woman published by Feldheim (who else?) claims to be a ‘a comprehensive guide to sewing and shopping for clothing that conforms to the proper standard of tznius. It will help you decide which clothing to buy and which to avoid or discard because they cannot be altered to meet halachic standards, plus it offers many creative solutions for tznius problems.” There is a wide range of creative tips and techniques for tznius solutions for sewers at all levels and over 250 modest, easy-to-follow diagrams for altering the most problematic parts of garments.

In Hendonistan, I am afraid that sewing up the seam will lead to sewing up the soul.

–Modesty Blasé

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Live from the Lilith Blog

April 21, 2009 by

Recession in a failing religious system

In my real life, I am about to lose my job. Furious networking and frantic emailing have left me little time to write anything other than job applications and embellishments on my resumé (all job offers welcome). However, I have had a lot of time to think about what the recession means for Orthodox women, and how paid employment differentiates the role of women across various segments of the Orthodox community.

In the charedi [ultra-Orthodox] community, especially in those sections where the men are in full-time learning at a yeshiva, women are childbearing and bringing home the proverbial bacon. They generally have relatively low-paid jobs such as teachers, secretaries, beauty therapists or shop assistants that provide the basic infrastructure for a community to function. Rarely are they in business (unless it’s sheitels [wigs] or housecoats) and even the recent Israeli initiatives to provide computer training and jobs found that many women were willing to take lower pay in exchange for working in an all-female work environment with flexible hours.

Men in full time learning, teaching in yeshivot or managing religious communal organizations have already started to feel the impact of the increasing numbers of American and European businessmen who can no longer afford to support these institutions across the Jewish world. Even in a good economic climate, most of these men have very few skills that would enable them to get a decent paying job outside the community. By minimizing the value of a secular education, their rabbis have failed to enable these men to provide adequately for their families and have perpetuated their dependency on the tzedakah [charity] of their neighbours (or in England, on the munificence of the welfare state).

The better-educated and savvy women in the charedi community are going to manage this recession by taking second jobs or piecemeal work, while the single working women in the charedi community with no husband or children to support are going to be the most financially secure. Is it too optimistic to think that this economic crisis will force rabbis and educators to re-evaluate the sort of life skills and training they are giving their young boys?

In the modern Orthodox community, there isn’t a minyan where a man hasn’t lost his job – bankers, lawyers, computer specialists and accountants have had their role as family provider snatched from under their tallis, leaving many of them feeling emasculated and depressed. For women, the implications of the recession are still evolving – while a few women complained that their husbands had cancelled this year’s Pesach holiday to a five-star resort at the Dead Sea, most are being much more careful about what goes in the their shopping cart. Mothers are distraught as they start cutting back on extra-curricular activities for their children – jiu-jitsu, folk guitar and tap dancing are under threat, and in a community that heavily guards the phone number of a good Polish cleaner, a few have taken to cleaning their own bathrooms and ironing their own husband’s shirts.

Many of these women are highly-educated professionals who can afford to be full time homemakers, while others are underemployed in mildly interesting jobs for a couple of days a week with their earnings reserved for little treats. After relying on their husbands for years, are these women willing to work full-time to support their families? More significantly, after so many years out of the work force, do they have the requisite skills and confidence to find the increasingly scarce jobs that are out there? When things get tough, what sort of role-modelling will these couples provide for their children? Will young girls finally realize that they need to train for careers with serious financial rewards so that they can support themselves in the future?

There is of course the other group of single, divorced or married women who are already working full time, often as the sole breadwinners in their family or as part of couple where two middling incomes are needed to create one almost decent Jewish salary that will enable them to live in the Jewish area, eat overpriced kosher food and send their kids to summer camp. For these women, it’s business as usual, juggling work and home, with the sceptre of redundancy hanging over their heads, even though fortunately, many are in teaching, nursing, local council and other public sector jobs where there is greater job security.

Rabbis in every community are tackling the economic crisis according to their community’s need – it might be facilitating introductions to potential employers, setting up a discrete emergency fund, calling for simpler simchas or providing some spiritual sustenance during these challenging times. There is much talk of lowering expectations, especially amongst children, and recognizing this crisis as a corrective for previous greed and excess (which is extremely annoying as those struggling the most are not those who created nor benefited from this excess or greed).

In what might appear to be unrelated, there is also increasing concern about the number of young people who are going “off the derech,” and rejecting the Orthodoxy of their parents. Some are motivated by the poverty of their own families and want to escape the inevitable consequences of a poor education and limited contact with the secular world. It strikes me that the fallout from the religious system is less about the big theological questions and more about overcoming deprivation. As long as desire, and not doubt, continue to fuel religious disquiet, the recession will only exacerbate the feelings of hopelessness and cynicism in a failing religious system. And if anyone tries to tell me that the recession is due to the immodest dress of women… well, I may just have to throw my sheitel to the wind.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted at The Jerusalem Post blog.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

February 2, 2009 by

The Tehillim Tipping Point

In the latest attempt to resolve the ‘shidduch crisis,’ women across the religious globe have been scuttling to each other’s homes to huddle and recite Tehillim (Psalms), entreating God’s kindness for a good shidduch [match] for all the single people in their community. In London, one matchmaking organization, Made in Heaven, offers regular classes for women on Shmiras Ha Loshon [not speaking slander] as a means of mystically helping single people.

Women are the corrections of a community: when disasters strike, the rabbis often blame the women for gossiping or immodest dress (gossiping while dressed immodestly is a double whammy). As if women don’t have enough to do, now they are responsible for the marital and spiritual well-being of a whole community and have been instructed to say Tehillim to avert further disasters. What was the Tehillim tipping point? How did these verses come to substitute serious learning and empowerment for women? Isn’t it strange that while women’s voices are accorded tremendous power to change the divinely ordained course of events, they have virtually no voice in the decision-making process of a religious community?

However, when it comes to shidduchim, a person needs more than Tehillim – they need yichus [status] – about the only thing that e-Bay doesn’t sell. Yichus is the delicate tissue paper and silk bows used to wrap up a very ordinary gift. Once the fancy packaging is stripped away, all you’ve got is the very ordinary, and often very disappointing, gift. A distinguished lineage and respectable breeding can make a difference to one’s social standing, and so yichus is touted by the matchmakers when the boy or girl in question doesn’t have very much to offer themselves. For example, the son of well-known Rosh Yeshiva has excellent yichus while the daughter of a Latvian convert to Judaism would have very little yichus.

Where serious yichus is at stake, marriages are often about forging dynasties, establishing power bases and consolidating the number of loyal followers. While many parents regard good yichus of their prospective son or daughter-in-law as a drawcard, it hides the very real failings of some people. Paralysed by their yichus, a young person living in the shadow of their ancestors’ achievements may never amount to much. While they may get the proverbial ‘foot through the front door,’ their accomplishments are often mimized precisely because of the head start granted by their yichus.

Occasionally, a lack of yichus can be compensated by other factors. For example, potential brides are also gauged by their beauty and despite all exhortations that a girl’s kindness, modest demeanour and homemaking skills are highly valued, the fact is that unless she is pretty and skinny, her chances of finding a ‘good boy’ are severely curtailed. Unless, of course, she has a rich father – in which case, she can eat as much as she wants.

Traditionally, young men were measured according to their learning prowess. I have always found it strange that the young women only willing to go out with boys who excel ‘in learning’ are actually unable to understand what these potential husbands are actually learning because the women are barred from Talmud study. They can of course continue to say Tehillim, but how sad that they must rely on other men for an evaluation of their potential spouse’s intellectual capacities.

The contemporary Ba’al Teshuvah [return to (religious) Judaism] movement has impacted on the traditional notions of yichus, given that many young Jews who become observant have actively chosen a life path that is radically different from their parents. The family reputation and lineage of a ba’al teshuvah, although there may have a smattering of rabbis from the shetetls of Eastern Europe, has been ravaged by assimilation and mothers who probably did not attend the mikvah. These blemishes continue to punish the struggling ba’alei teshuvah and often hinder their ability to marry into some of the most prestigious religious families.

However, one constant remains – the young pretty woman who becomes religious, and has a wealthy father, will always have less trouble finding a husband than her poorer, plumper sister.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted to the Jerusalem Post blog.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

January 12, 2009 by

God Save the Queen and Hatikvah

It was God Save the Queen that made me giggle. It was Hatikvah that made me glow. But actually, in those few moments between the two national anthems, sung by thousands of Jews at the conclusion of the rally for peace in London’s Trafalgar Square, I realized the magic and the madness of Anglo-Jewry. Older British Jews just love being British and they proudly identify with its pomp and circumstance. Singing the anthem was, of course, the right thing to do, expressing our civic duty to show gratitude and appreciation for the fact that Jews have, on the whole, prospered throughout the United Kingdom.

More telling however, was the fact that most of the teenagers standing around me, did not actually know the words to God Save the Queen. Younger Jewish people have a more ambivalent relationship with their British identity – in such a multi-cultural, multi-opportunity land, being British is just one of the many ‘Windows’ that are open while surfing the net for something else.

When the crowd moved onto Hatikvah, the same teenagers articulated each word loudly and clearly. I smiled to myself – unashamed to declare their Jewish identity, unafraid to sing Hatikvah in London’s most public space, these young people are the future of the community. Perhaps they will be able to transfer the unity demonstrated at Trafalgar Square to the breakfast tables of communal organizations, facilitating much more dialogue and understanding between different parts of the community.

So, while the rally ended with a tribute to the dual loyalties felt by British Jews, it started with an announcement that any lost children
should be taken to a special meeting place. Such a Jewish rally – all that was missing was another announcement that food was to be available throughout the speeches.

Come to think of it – all that was missing throughout the speeches was a woman. The cast of characters was predictable – leaders of communal bodies, government representatives, religious leaders of other faiths – and not one woman. Is there not one woman in Anglo-Jewry able to represent the community at such an event? It is a shocking indictment of the community and does not bode well for young women who are currently involved in the community as they are more likely to forgo any future communal activities if they cannot see any role models.

This was not a religious event, so not even halacha could be hijacked to excuse the absence of women. So the question remains – is there not one woman in Anglo-Jewry considered worthy enough by her male peers to be asked to speak on behalf of the community? Perhaps some women had been asked, but modestly declined, so excuse me if I have been unfair. However, next time, if you hear they are looking for a woman speaker, send them my details – I would be not be too modest to accept.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted to the Jerusalem Post blog.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

November 11, 2008 by

Promoting Promiscuity?

The perils of public transport are too much to bear for some of the delicate flowers of northwest London. Golders Green and Hendon have a seedy side and many anxious parents insist on driving their daughters to and from school to shield them from the sort of people they are likely to meet on the bus en route to one of the religious schools in the area.

I have a different approach – stick our kids on the bus and let them see how the other half lives: girls with skirts up to their pupik [belly button], with pallid skin and multiple earlobe piercings, smoking nervously and looking pathetic hanging onto the shirttails of smelly, gangly and pimply boys. This has to be the most effective antidote to any frum girl’s aspirations to be ‘normal.’

There is a climate of fear about teenage girls. Media reports suggest that girl gangs take pleasure in gratuitous violence and target defenceless victims. We don’t know what to do about the young girls drinking alcohol to excess and starving themselves to death. The crowds will part in a shopping mall to let a group of prowling girls pass by. I know as I have done it myself – they can be very intimidating, even though underneath it all, they just want a young man to love them and look after them. This is why the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe.

One of the obvious implications of multiple sexual partners is the increased chances of sexually transmitted diseases, and recent news that the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination, designed to protect against ‘the commonest causes of cervical cancer,’ will soon be available to 12 and 13 year olds has confused religious parents. The government sponsored brochure explains that the virus is very common and you catch it by being sexually active with another person who already has the virus…you need to have the vaccination before you start being sexually active. And, while most girls don’t start having sex before they’re at least 16 or quite a bit older, it is recommended that you have the vaccine at 12 or 13 years of age to protect you as early as possible.

Community responses has varied: doctor-mothers have not blinked an eyelid and are signing the parental consent form without hesitation while fathers who don’t like the innuendo implying that their religious daughters are sleeping around are wavering before signing on the dotted line. Most parents seem to have taken the ‘better safe than sorry’ route of agreeing to have their daughters vaccinated while in the same breath have expressed a wish that the Jewish schools would take more of an interest in coping with breast cancer and educating young women about proper self-checking as they get older.

In the Jewish Tribune, one of the weekly charedi newspapers, a news article on the 30th October explained the vaccination and cited support by key members of the community including a prominent rabbi and a frum doctor. However, in this week’s edition (6th November) the Office of the Rabbinate of the Union of Hebrew Orthodox Congregations issued a large advertisement saying that

“It was reported last week in certain newspapers that the Rabbinate has given its approval to the current vaccinations programme, for girls, against HPV. This report is untrue, and the Rabbinate has not advocated participating in this project.”

Have the Rabbis advocated anything? Would it be too much to ask that they advocate seeking a medical opinion? This ambiguous proclamation, without citing medical evidence or consultation, is irresponsible and places families guided by rabbinical authority in an invidious position. The implicit message is that if parents allow their daughters to have these vaccinations, they are suggesting that their young maideles could be promiscuous and we, as a community, are condoning behaviour that is contrary to a religious lifestyle.

This approach is so naive and endemic of the “hush hush” approach to relationships and a denial of the changing social mores that are trickling through to every part of the religious community. There will always be unblemished boys and girls from good families who will marry very young, however, there are sexual diseases in the religious community acquired in a number of unsavoury ways and we have a responsibility to the young girls of the community to protect them. The percentage of people affected may be much smaller than in the general community, but how can these medically unqualified leaders who intimidate their community into avoiding this vaccination carry the burden of potentially contributing to an unnecessary and devastating illness in the future?

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted to The Jerusalem Post blog.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

October 27, 2008 by

The Gym

If it is desirable to eat and sleep in a sukkah, should one also use the treadmill in a sukkah?

It’s chol hamoed, I’m at the gym and judging by the number of men and women sweating off those extra kugel calories, it’s clear that Jews are not obligated to exercise inside a sukkah.

The housewives’ preferred gym in Golders Green is situated in a busy shopping strip, sandwiched between a popular adult education centre and an even more popular kosher restaurant. It has a few advantages over the other more glamorous and cleaner gyms within a short driving distance: fat women are especially welcome, there is a women’s only gym room and the swimming pool has hours reserved exclusively for women.

Interestingly, the most glamorous are the young newly married religious women. They turn up in ankle-length skirts hiding their sweatpants which, if you look carefully, are peeking out just where their skirts meet their trainers. Their workout T-shirts are covered by the bulky sweatshirts worn by anorexics and they cover their hair with demure snoods, although occasionally, a brightly coloured scarf can be seen. They arrive at the gym carrying very little save for their car keys, membership card, mobile phone and a bottle of water. They enter the gym and disrobe in the womens’ changing rooms – emerging as svelte nymphettes in slinky figure-hugging leotards.

Adorned with expensive diamonds, they look sexy on the treadmill in bodies yet to be ravaged by pregnancy and childbirth. The only thing that gives them away is the shmutter on their head An occasional intellectual reads a book while on the stationary bike, but I have yet to see anyone daven while running on the treadmill. Often they come in pairs, but if not, they all seem to recognise each other and enjoy a schmooze and a whinge. The complaints are long: the mother in law, the teacher and the cleaner. The rumours are short: suspected divorces, potential engagements and in these financial times, people about to lose their jobs or their businesses. The schadenfreude is delicious.

Then there are the older women who have a completely different approach. They arrive fully dressed in their day clothes, sensible shoes and sheitel, shlepping a travel bag which I am sure has sandwiches inside. They go into one of the private cubicles of the changing area to put on their baggy tracksuit pants and extra large t shirt. They take off their sheitel and slip on a scarf or snood. Their sheitel is discreetly packed away in a private locker – although I have on rare occasions, noticed a sheitel hanging loosely from a clothes peg, inadvertently placed next to hanging hijab. As long as they don’t mix up their headgear when they leave, everyone is happy.

What strikes me is that the frum women dominate the space in the gym – and I don’t necessarily mean physically. Golders Green is actually a very multicultural area, and there are an assortment of women at the gym, however, none seem to claim ownership of the public space in the same way that the frum women do. Having colonised the running machines, they pant loudly and then speak even more loudly about their personal issues and the community with little regard for other women who may be there. These women may have very large physical spaces in their own homes, but may have very little emotional or mental space in which to manoeuvre. Ironically, the womens’ gym room is quite a claustrophobic physical space, but somehow acts to liberate these women emotionally.

Let’s not forget the single frum women who come to the gym. Despite the lack of a hair covering, you can still tell them apart. They are anxious
around the married women, and eager to perform because they never know if it could lead to an introduction to a suitable husband. After all, if you still look good while you’re schvitzing, then it’s easier to sell you as a hot date to a prospective yeshiva bocher.

The gym is also the best place to catch up on all the television that you can’t watch because you can’t have a television in your house or your children won’t get into the school of your choice. While some schools ask intrusive questions about your family life, I have yet to hear of a school that ask if you watch TV in the gym. Unfortunately, Desperate Housewives is only on after the gym closes, so there must be a secret TV in Golders Green where all these women are gathering to find out the latest on Lynette’s cancer, Katherine’s violent ex-husband and Bree’s flirtation with the pastor. I know there must be a secret TV, because all these women know exactly what is happening on Wisteria Lane.

And let’s not forget the men in the gym. While it is a mitzvah to look after our bodies, the men must be asking themselves if the mitzvah is worth the trouble when so many sins are committed along the way? There is no separate men’s gym, so they must avert their eyes from the women jogging, stretching and sweating all around them. Heads down and they can’t see what they are doing; heads up and there’s a lot of sinning. Buxom bouncing women make it hard to concentrate on the shiurim on their iPod and while the loud pulsating music may be conducive to upping your speed, it is usually very suggestive and certainly not very frum.

In the coming weeks, as winter sets in and Shabbat ends early, the gym will be the place to go to on a Saturday night. It’s a routine I’ve enjoyed for many years. But my favourite time to go the gym is just before I go to the mikvah – a vigorous workout, a 5 minute walk to the mikvah, a refreshing shower, a quick dip, a short drive home and some more exercise. The question remains: which uses up more calories?

–Modesty Blasé
Cross-posted to The Jerusalem Post blog

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