Kosher Style, Treif Style, Jewish Style

December 19, 2012

Last weekend I was once again obliged to attend the bar-mitzvah of some child I had never met. Happily it was the great nephew of my dear friend Moshe, so at least I had someone to whom I could complain about the catering.

Complaining is no fun if the person on the receiving end is trained to be polite and leave you feeling even more furious that when you started out, like they are in call-centres. Satisfaction is only arrived at when the other person loses his cool. Moshe takes every criticism personally, even when the criticism is aimed at someone else, in this case, his niece. That Moshe is so easy to infuriate is the main reason I like him.

On the spectrum of religiosity, Moshe’s niece is, well, not religious. I therefore requested a special meal because this was not a kosher catered function, it was a kosher-style catered function.

For readers who are not aware of the concept of “kosher-style”, it follows the same restrictions in terms of what foods may be eaten, but does not go so far as to adhere to the rituals in terms of slaughter and separation.

For the not-so-religious Jew kosher-style catering comes in at a fraction of the price of the supervised version, and guests can enjoy meat that looks and taste just like the real halachic thing.

The other advantage of kosher-style food is that it includes proper heimishe chicken soup with butter laden matzah balls using a recipe made famous by the gentile-style Nigella Lawson. Nigella believes that made this way in Kensington, the matzah balls taste much more sophisticated than the ones usually found in north-west London.

As someone who keeps proper kosher, kosher-style holds little appeal. I can see why it suits some, but it means that at a Jewish function I’m labelled the religious nut as the glare of 200 pairs of eyes burn into my flesh while I unwrap the several yards of cling film from my plate of real kosher food that has been carefully created to match the kosher-style menu other guests are enjoying. My authentic kosher meal is a fake of a fake kosher meal.

Which is why I much prefer treif-style to kosher-style. Treif-style is genuine kosher food that looks and tastes just like the forbidden foods you have always craved.

Of course treif-style is nothing new. Dairy-free dairy foods concocted to be consumed at the same sitting as meat have courted controversy for many years. I have often heard people argue that following meat with non-dairy ice cream, for example, flies in the face of the spirit of the law which serves to remind us of our responsibilities towards animal welfare. My response to this is straightforward: “you have clearly never tasted dairy-free ice cream. If you had you would know that eating it can only serve to remind us that we should never ingest dangerous and vile tasting chemicals”.

My favourite treif-style food is foie gras. Jews make the best foie gras in the world. You can be sure that if anyone knows how to feed a goose to death, it’s us Jews. Every time I went to my grandmother’s house as a child I was subjected to gavage.

When it comes to foie gras the whole question of animal welfare is quietly put to one side. To be kosher the bird must be killed humanely, but no mention is made of the suffering the creature endures during its lifetime, so it’s definitely good for a sprauncy simcha especially when served in typical Jewish portions, just so guests can experience what life was like for the bird when it lived.

If foie gras doesn’t do it for you, There’s a wide range of kosher sea-food including faux crab-meat, prawns, shrimps and the somewhat less popular mock turtle.

Back at the barmitzvah, the meal came to a conclusion and I was all ready to get going with the specially printed benschers that had been provided, but no bensching took place. It turned out that the books were no more than souvenirs of a Jewish-style simcha.


Jewish I-Spy

August 22, 2012

In a vain attempt to maintain his normally even temper, my father would begin a long drive in our Rover 75, or indeed any tedious activity likely to last more than two hours, by presenting each of his children with an I-Spy book. Readers who grew up in 1960s Britain will recall I-Spy books. For the rest of you, the I-Spy series was a range of paperback spotters’ guides, each on a particular subject — trees, cars, insects, and the like — that educated while encouraging the reader to identify examples of the subject matter, awarding points for a successful spot.

These marvellous little volumes were conceived specifically to minimise the number of times a child asked questions such as “Are we there yet?” and “I’m bored. Can I have an ice-cream?” by making them so consumed with the detective work that whole summers would fly by as he (and let’s be clear, no girl was ever OCD enough to fall for such manipulation) sought to note a striped antelope bouncing along the Essex coastline near Walton-on-the-Naze.

Not being of a competitive disposition my enquiries as to arrival time would begin some five minutes after being handed the guide. Nevertheless, I remember the books with affection, and that recollection has formed the basis of an idea for passing the time in synagogue — I-Spy Shulgoers. While sitting in shul, award yourself points if you manage to spot any of the following:

Screaming babies (20 points): I’m sorry if you belong to one of those synagogues that discourages parents from bringing infants. Not because I think it’s a good thing to allow the noisy little blighters into shul, but because it will make those 20 points difficult to bag. Indeed, if yours is one of those synagogues that would rather children were left at home than learning to feel at home in shul, write to me care of this newspaper with its name and I’ll join immediately.

Now, to collect the full 20 points it’s important that the mother allows the screaming to persist for at least five minutes before they accept that their silent pleadings are in vain, grab the little cherub and saunter out of the prayer hall cracking an embarrassed smile. Those that remove the child immediately are only worth five points.

The next category is “friends of the barmitzvah boy” and again specific circumstances dictate differences in points awarded. If the barmitzvah attends a Jewish school then expect terrible decorum from his friends and collect 15 points. If the child attends a state school then you can be sure that his friends will be quiet and well-behaved — 20 points.

Award yourself extra points if you see any of the guests playing games on their mobile phone. This is no less likely among Jewish kids than gentile ones so both occurrences are worth five points.

There’s an old saying: “Former synagogue presidents don’t resign, they just sit in the back row and kibitz”. Award yourself 50 points if you find yourself sitting next to the previous incumbent and are forced to endure hours of prattling on about how he transformed the place and how it has declined in the three weeks since he stepped down.

Thirty points are up for grabs if you are unable to daven because your neighbour doesn’t let up about how bad business is while insisting how smart a businessman he is, and 40 are available if he doesn’t stop going on about Theo Walcott’s goal in the game against Sweden.

Finally, we approach the upper end of our generational journey. Less an I-Spy than an I-Hear, award yourself 15 points for a whistling hearing aid and a further 20 if an elderly congregant asks: “What’s ’e saying?” in an uncomfortably loud voice during the sermon.

When you’ve completed the list you can start on the second in my series. This one is for those outings to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. It’s called I-Schmy.


I’m out of Tune with Modern Ways

June 1, 2012

There are limited opportunities for lovers of choral music to attend recitals on a Saturday morning.  The Wigmore Hall is famous for its lunchtime concerts but for those whose tastes are, to put it as delicately as possible, a little less sophisticated, I can heartily recommend your nearest Reform or Liberal synagogue where a group of mixed voices (and I mean that in terms of quality rather than equality) add all-important terpsichorean accents to the proceedings. 

And by “accents” what I mean is: sit back, enjoy the show and keep schtum.  This is not an opportunity to step aside from the mundane, corporeal week and into the spiritual realm.  You are not invited to find solace and peace, or search for a sense of perspective and place in the universe.  You are not there to consider how you have behaved in the week just gone or what you can do for others in the week to come.   You’re at a serious concert performance and you are there to appreciate how hard the choir has worked on singing vaguely in tune and time with each other. 

I attended a bar mitzvah at a Liberal synagogue this Shabbat past.  Regular readers will be fully aware that visits to shuls other than my own are not made in order to deepen my understanding of Anglo-Jewry, they are made in order to placate Mrs J, for whom any opportunity to see behind the doors of someone else’s ark is not to be missed.  Personally I’d be much happier going to my own place of worship and sending the kid a £10 book token.

Apparently I should be flattered.  Mrs J tells me that she enjoys talking to me when we sit together in a Liberal or Reform synagogue.  She has completely failed to pick up on the fact that an orthodox service separates men from women for one very good reason.  That reason is not, as commonly perceived, to stop men from being distracted by women.  On the contrary, it is to enable men to be distracted by women, without being distracted by their own women.  Wives should understand that Shabbat is the day of rest for our ears as well as the rest of our overworked bodies.

Another aspect of the progressive service that I struggle with is the amount of English used.  Again, there’s a very good reason for the orthodox sticking to Hebrew.   It’s because nobody really wants to know what they’re actually saying.  It’s all a bit too religious and mentions God more than most people are comfortable with.  Couple all that embarrassing English with the rather melancholic droning and we end up with what might happen if an airport announcer was drafted in to present Songs of Praise.  This isn’t so surprising because I’m bound to say that I find Liberal and Reform synagogues to be indistinguishable from churches except that they have radiators. 

Something else I find somewhat disconcerting is the way men are excluded from participation in any religious aspect of the service.  I understand this is because progressive synagogues have fully embraced egalitarianism.  I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do draw the line at forcing the men to give over their tallises and yarmulkes (or ritual prayer shawls and skullcaps as the more assimilated prefer to call them) to the ladies.  Sorry, women.

Whenever I write about progressive synagogues my inbox overflows with a letter from someone complaining about my lack of tolerance towards Liberal and Reform Jews.  So, just to show that I’m not completely against them I want to end on a positive note about their services: they’re thankfully very short.  If only they’d start at nine o’clock instead of eleven I’d have time to nip down to the Wigmore Hall to enjoy a lunchtime recital.

 


Who Will be the Chief Behind the Chief?

May 31, 2012

It’s not usual for a columnist of my stature to debase himself by commenting on actual “news” but today I feel I must throw my two shekels worth at the vexed question of the appointment of the next Chief Rebbetzin.  Besides, it’s hardly news any more.

While employment lawyers are wringing their palms in excitement at the possibility of an unfair treatment claim I think it’s time to get one thing clear:  while the advertised job was for a Chief Rabbi, this is no different to any other appointment of a Jew.  You may ask for the man, but what you get is the woman.  Ask any recruitment consultant and they will tell you that it is unwise to offer a Jewish man a job if you are eager for a quick response.  If you need an instant answer you must bypass the candidate and go straight to the decision-maker.  Married Jewish men simply don’t have authority.  Only this week I took my suit into the dry-cleaners and I’m still waiting to for Mrs J to let me know whether I can tell him his offer has been accepted.

Do you think that the incumbent has ever made any decision alone since he tied the knot?  Of course not.  He’s an honourable and loyal man.  First he finds out what the Dayanim want and then he asks Lady S to ratify their decision.

Given the importance of the woman’s role, then, you’d think that the sensible approach would be to interview them together.   However, this defeats another objective, which is to find the couple that is most knowledgeable, and by that I don’t mean Jewishly knowledgeable, I mean knowledgeable about each other.  Only in this way can Jewish role models the equivalent of Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh be identified, for that is exactly what this appointment is all about.

Did you ever see the 1970’s quiz show “Mr and Mrs”?  This is essentially the format for the appointment of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.  If you remember, one partner was whisked away into a soundproofed room while the other was asked a series of questions about their temporarily encased spouse.  The spouse was then released and asked the same questions, the couple with the greatest consistency in their answers being the winners of the show. 

A source inside the United Synagogue has passed me the interview questions, a selection of which follow:

Does the Rabbi prefer kneidlach or those little square croutons in his soup?”

What colour is the Rebbetzen’s favourite snood”

Does your husband prefer the old, the centenary or the green edition of the Siddur?” 

How long before Kiddush does the Rebbetzin like to arrive at shul on Shabbat?  Is it five minutes, ten minutes or twenty minutes?” 

In a bid to demonstrate the openness and transparency of the United Synagogue the entire interview process will be televised and Derek Batey-Din has been coaxed out of retirement to head the selection panel.  However, you’ll need to set your recorders because like almost all programmes with Jewish interest it will be screened on a Friday evening.

That’s just the first stage of the interview process.  When they get down to the final two candidates a special edition of Family Fortunes will be the format employed. The purpose of this will be to establish the Rabbi most in touch with the hoi polloi.  Typical questions might be:

Name a road with free parking on a Saturday morning in the vicinity of St John’s Wood Synagogue ”, “Name something a child would like to do on a Sunday morning even less than attend cheder”, and “Name a popular topic of pews conversation on yom kippur.” 

You may think this selection method devalues such a serious appointment but really, can it be any worse than a bunch of old men sitting in a room for days on end trying to get a wood fire started?  There’s nothing entertaining in the Catholic approach and the advertising opportunities pale in comparison. 

Personally I can’t wait to find out who is named as the first Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Sponsored by Ozem.

 


The Best Friends’ Speech

March 27, 2012

While the eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire has been branded an anti-semite, the man’s writing clearly points to a political and religious tolerance that is beyond reproach, and a set of values that surely all Jews should share.  Nonetheless I feel obliged to take issue with him, or at least with his admirer and advocate, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who epitomised Voltaire with the quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  I take issue because it’s clear that neither of them ever attended a batmitvah party.  If they had surely an unequivocal qualification would have been included in this defence of free speech, for there isn’t a person on the planet who can seriously justify the best friends’ speech given at a girl’s batmitzvah.

The Lynne Truss’s amongst you may at this point be bristling at my use of the apostrophe in “friends’ ”.  This is no grammatical error. As anyone who has witnessed one of these abominations of public speaking will attest, there are always at least three, and usually in excess of five best friends to torture the guests.  If you ask the batmitzvah girl about this peculiar plurality she will explain that her best friends are ranked from “best best friend” down to “worst best friend”, a position that rests the width of a cigarette paper from all her other friends.  What she doesn’t understand is the futility of this whole exercise because within three months her best friends will be her worst enemies and her new best friends will be whichever girls have invited her to make a speeches at their batvitzvahs.

The format and content of the best friends’ speech is so standardised that one only need attend three batmitzvah parties to acquire sufficient competence to deliver it oneself.  I therefore fully expect readers to know all this, but for those who have just arrived from the age of enlightenment here’s what happens.

The best friends stand in a row each holding a copy of the text, passing a microphone up and down the line as the words are revealed, one by one, girl by girl. At some point there’s bound to be an error in this choreography but it doesn’t matter because the whole thing is such an incomprehensible shambles anyway.

This one word relay is unsustainable and it stretches to sentences as the speech evolves into a cutesy version of Monty Python’s four Yorkshire-men sketch – “we’ve been best friends since our first day at senior school two weeks ago”, “we’ve been best friends since we met at tap dancing when we were five years old”, “we’ve been best friends since NCT classes” and then finally one girl trumps all with, “our mums were childhood best friends so we’ve been best friends longer than we’ve been alive!”

No best friends’ speech is complete without the obligatory “you were amaaaazing this morning in shul and you look really amaaaaazing tonight”.  It doesn’t matter that the words were composed several days previously or that the speaker in question was not in shul that morning owing to a fitting appointment for the dress she’ll be wearing at her own Batmitzvah.

Another essential component is a poem, again collectively written.  Truthfully it is less a poem than a series of clichés, some of which vaguely rhyme with each other.  Remembering that most of these girls attend expensive private schools it’s staggering how poor their imagination and command of English proves to be.  If I were a parent I’d be straight to the head-teacher demanding a full refund of the fees.

Finally, the ten-minutes of respite from the evening’s enjoyment is rounded off with the presentation of some useless piece of artwork that will have been painstakingly cobbled together using in-jokes and photographs.  The girls will be supremely proud of their joint effort, representing as it does the amaaaazing time they spent together constructing it and proof of their unimpeachable admiration for the batmitzvah girl.  The recipient will be not the slightest bit interested in it because it didn’t come from Hollister.  It will therefore arrive home from the party crumpled and torn where it will languish in the corner of the girl’s bedroom before eventually finding its sad and neglected way into the bin once those best friends have morphed into the worst enemies they were always destined to become.

It would be nice to imagine a future without best friends’ speeches but like Voltaire’s Candide, I’m not optimistic.


Simcha on a shoestring

February 3, 2012

It’s a well worn cliché but that doesn’t detract from its veracity: the recession is affecting everyone, and that includes certain people I know who would never have imagined in a million years that they would need to delay the purchase of a new Merc by a month.  I tell you, some people are really suffering.

 

My friend Moshe was only able to go two Shabboses before people started to speculate as to why he was in shul but his Merc wasn’t in its usual parking space around the corner.  He was able to shrug it off for a while by pretending the car was being serviced, “Those Nazi’s” he complained, “they say they’re the greatest engineers in the world so why can’t they get my sun roof to close properly?  It’s deliberate!”  After a while however, people stopped believing him, and he was forced to admit the embarrassing truth; the economic conditions had forced him to apply for a Freedom Card.  The upside of this for Moshe is that he is now able to get off the bus outside shul rather than two stops away.

 

What makes it worse for Jews is that living in a tight-knit community there’s enormous pressure on us to put on a good show regardless of our financial circumstances.  I find myself in exactly this difficult place at the moment.

 

Thanks to the Almight my daughter, the apple of my eye (crab), is to be wed in the spring and Mrs J is insisting on a simcha that puts every other simcha in the history of spoilt Jewish girls and nebbishe Jewish boys to shame.  My wife has little interest in the financial pressure we, along with the rest of the world, are under.  Her knowledge of current affairs does not extend beyond Radlett.  (Still, there are enough affairs going on there to keep her ears flapping for a good long time so it’s probably just as well).

 

So I’ve had to do some thinking and I’d like to share a few ideas that are guaranteed to ensure a spectacular simcha on a shoestring.

 

1      Select your shul carefully.  Some are much cheaper to join than others and many will do a deal if you ask.  My research tells me that you can find some desperate ones out in the sticks, and while they might not have proper rabbis the advantage is that fewer guests will travel to them and that will further allow you to keep your costs down.

 

2      Go for quality rather than quantity.  A smaller do will save you a fortune and you can announce it as very exclusive to those who might have expected an invitation.  Be ruthless even if that means not inviting close family.  The only criteria upon which you should decide who’s to be on your guest list is wealth.  The advantages to this are manifold.  You’ll be able to hire a tiny venue, many of the invitees will probably not come because they’ll be at some fancy charity do, and they’ll send a good gift anyway.  Your simcha will have a better ROI than General Electric.

 

3      Of course it would be entirely inappropriate to ask people to stump up for their drinks.  Gentiles may like a pay bar but frankly, for me, that’s a non-starter.  There’s no money to be made from selling alcohol to Jews.  However at my precious girl’s wedding one of the table decorations will be a dish with a label simply saying “Thank you”.

 

4      While it is forbidden to get married during the Omer there is no prohibition against having the party then, so here’s a nifty tip:  make sure you have other plans for Lag B’omer and arrange for the wedding party to take place on some other date during the 49 days.  The restrictions on entertainment will mean you save a packet by not hiring a band or discotheque.  Instead, borrow a selection of board games from your friends.

 

5      Finally, you know all those benschers you’ve been collecting from Barmitzvahs and weddings over the years?  Well cross out the names and dates and write in the details for your own do.

 

So there you have it.  Eat your heart out Money Mensch.

 

 

 


Intolerance Begins at Home

January 4, 2012

I’m not proud of the divisions in our community.  It’s clear to me that we are happier arguing with each other than working together, and given the increased noise from those who would criticise Jews from without, this seems to me a terrible shame.

What I find particularly unfortunate is the separation in every way between those who try to adapt their Judaism to the modern world and the ultra-orthodox communities who are attempting to hold on as much as possible to the values, lifestyle and culture of the “old country”.  We may as well be from different galaxies so poor is the level of mutual understanding.

Sadly the differences between us are superficial and sustained by suspicion and unfamiliarity rather than anything of substance.  As the following account shows, the potential for deeper understanding between both sides is not only possible, it is crucially important for the survival of future generations of British Jews.

Last Sunday with three friends packed into my car I drove to Stamford Hill and parked up outside a house that looked as if it may be home to a Jewish family; a three-foot high mezuzah was attached to the doorpost.  We drew lots and, inevitably, I lost.  I tentatively made my way up to the house and rang the doorbell.  It buzzed tonelessly for a second or two before fading into dull indifference.  Presently four boisterous children all under the age of six came bounding to the door.   On opening it they were suddenly silenced as they regarded my shaven face and unusual garb (I was wearing a pair of chinos, an open necked checked shirt and a sports jacket).

“Is your daddy home?” I asked in my sweetest voice.  They ran off shouting something in Yiddish.  Eventually a man with a straggly grey beard, a tired white open neck shirt under a plain back suit and tsit-tsit to his knees came to the door.  Rather than staring at me as if I had dropped by from the planet Zog as his children had done, he took to me with the suspicion of a man who had been mugged twice that morning.  Not a bad assessment given what was about to take place.

“Can I help you?” he politely asked.

“I’m collecting for University College School,” I explained.  “The fees are going up and there are many children from north-west London whose parents are struggling to make ends meet in these difficult economic times.  Please help.”

“Vos is University College School?  It’s a university? A college? A school?  …It’s certainly not a yeshiva I know of.”

“It’s a private school where they teach the boys to be captains of industry and leaders of society.  Half the pupils are Jewish.  Only times are hard and if we are not helped by other Jews our boys will have to go to the local comprehensive school where they’ll suffer anti-semitic abuse and end up working in local government or something equally dreadful.  Please,” I said, holding out my cupped hand while staring at his unpolished shoes, “Tsedakah.”

“What?”

“Please help to pay for my son’s schooling.”

“Why?  It’s not a Jewish school.  They don’t spend all day davening and learning Kodesh.  Why should I make a contribution?  Hashem wants Jewish children to attend Jewish schools, not College University School.”

Rising to the challenge I responded sharply to his objection.  “The reason you should help me is because when my son grows up you’ll be knocking on his door asking for money and if you don’t help him to get a good education he won’t be able to afford to give you anything for your schools and yeshivas.  Think of it as an investment in your grandchildren’s future.”

“Fair enough.  Here’s a fiver.”

“Is that all?”

“What?”

“Is that all? Whenever you people come schnorrering in Hendon you look at whatever I give as if it’s been lining the cat litter tray for a week.  Isn’t it de rigueur to hold out for more?

De rigueur?  Vos is de rigueur?”

“Oh never mind.  See you next time,” and with that I turned on my heels.

I returned to the car giving the chaps the thumbs up.  Five minutes later Melvin did the same thing, followed by Howard, and finally Stephen.  We then moved on to the next house we could find with a big mezuzah which just happened to be next door, and so the afternoon continued.

As I sat in my armchair that evening I reflected on how my prejudice has determined my attitude to the ultra-orthodox. It’s time, I thought, to be much more accepting of these people.  They may be bigoted and intolerant, but they only ask to be allowed to live their lives in their own way.  Amongst the many things that Judaism has taught me is to love the stranger that sojourneth with me as myself, so how much more should I love a fellow Jew, even if he is stranger than most of the gentiles I know?

Now, forgive me but I must turn my attention a small local issue.  A reform rabbi is visiting our shul for a simcha this Shabbat and the family has asked for him to be given an aliyah.  What an utter outrage.  I must write to my Rabbi to object.


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