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Language Au Pair

Q. How many Beis Yakov girls does it take to change a light bulb?

A. 100. One and 99 to say Tehillim.

Women scuttle to each other’s homes during the week to huddle and recite Tehillim (Psalms) in an attempt to ward off illness or death or entreat God’s kindness for a good shidduch or income. 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 and even worse.) As if women don’t have enough to do, now they are responsible for the spiritual well being of a whole community and are instructed to say Tehillim as the remedy needed to avert further disaster. 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? Perhaps that is the real reason why communities start to go awry.

***

Overheard at the butcher the other day.

“I really want to organise a mother and baby morning that has a bit more substance to it. Some learning or something more interesting than just baby talk.’

‘That sounds great. I’d love to come. Did you have any ideas in mind?’

‘I was thinking about swapping recipes. I need a really good honey cake recipe.”

I have never made a honey cake. I don’t bake my own challah. My children don’t eat home-made cookies. And I have never served strawberries hand dipped in chocolate. And I am proud. The race to prove one’s domesticity is endemic in Golders Green and Hendon. Highly educated housewives who have abandoned their career aspirations are channelling those energies into producing festive treats that come to define their role within the family. I argue that we must support local businesses such as kosher bakeries if we want a sustainable community. I am also not convinced that it is cheaper to make one’s own honeycake. Aside from the costs of eggs, honey, flour, electricity and water to clean up, there is the cost of a woman’s time – a figure that many women don’t value and never bother to calculate. In the run-up to Rosh Hashanah, we are exhorted to use our time to prepare spiritually for a new year of challenges. How did a woman’s spiritual preparation get hijacked and transformed into baking the tastiest honey cake in town?

***

Ellul is a month of transition: young girls from the community leave their families and depart for ‘sem’ – be it Gateshead in northern England, Jerusalem or New York, while a new stream of Eastern European au pair fodder enter these families and can be found at the gates of every Jewish primary school as the new term begins. The experiences of these two groups of young women – roughly the same age – could not be any more different. Esti, Sara and Michal are leaving home with a credit card and a suitcase full of new clothes with sleeves just that bit longer than what they could get away with in London. Petra, Jana and Olga will arrive on a bus at Victoria station in London with a small amount of cash and a rucksack filled with workaday jeans and plastic slippers.

Esti and her classmates know that they will be indulged for a year in what parents regard a ‘reward’ for their daughter’s hard work during high school. Esti plans on meeting her friends in Emek Refaim, Jerusalem’s trendy café strip, where they will demand latte and cake in condescending tones. Their parents will text several times a day and phone regularly and there will be constant monitoring of their activities by a cabal of mothers who fly out for the weekend to visit their daughters. If they could install an international baby monitor in their daughters’ dorm room, they would be listening to it all day long from the comfort of their Hendon triple lounge.

In stark contrast, Petra and the new friends she has just met on the bus have no idea what is waiting for them as they cross the threshold of the religious Jewish family they have agreed to work for. Her parents can’t afford to visit, she will spend Christmas alone in her bedroom and it’s likely that she will work second or third jobs to supplement her au pair income. For many young girls the au pair experience is a wonderful time, but occasionally it is a disaster and the au pair finds herself in a dangerous position.

Every Jewish mother who sends their daughter to sem feels fairly confident that a relative, friend or yenta on the block will look after their daughter if she is in trouble. Every mother in Eastern Europe is also worried, but she is not so confident that there is a safe and supportive environment waiting for her in London.

It’s easy to dismiss the au pairs that we have come to rely on. I have often heard women refer to their au pair as a ‘peasant’ or they make a joke about her family’s role during the Holocaust – ‘I’ll bet her grandfather was raping my grandmother.’ These “jokes” are borne of deep suspicion and internalized trauma that deeply damage the relationship between the au pair and her family. Sometimes I think that hiring these au pairs is an unconscious form of revenge: by regarding the au pairs negatively, they are defending their own family’s honor.

Here’s an Ellul thought: instead of imagining that the au pair’s family were collaborators, perhaps they were actually righteous Gentiles.

Fortunately, there’s still enough time to ask for forgiveness before Yom Kippur.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted to the The Jerusalem Post blog.