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.

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.

The shuls I wish I didn’t have to go to.

January 4, 2010

I don’t like visiting other shuls.  Once a person is used to a place, they can daven better.  I understand how things work at my synagogue.  That familiarity means I don’t spend my time looking blankly around, being distracted by unfamiliar movements, the pattern of the light, smells, sounds.  At my shul I know when things will happen and the tunes that they’ll happen to.  I  have my own spot that I like to sit in and it’s near to familiar faces.

Most of all, in my shul people are respectful.  You can hear the layening.  Mobile phones go off only occasionally.  There’s hardly any chatter.  These are the little details that mean so much when, as last shabbat, I was forced to attend another shul to witness some useless pre-pubescent kid recite maf and haf with about as much feeling as a patch of  lichen.  Yes, I was at a Barmitzvah.

It’s the mensch in me that drags me along to these things.  I figure that an invite to the simcha requires me to attend the service, just so I can lie about how marvelously the boy performed.  Of course the boy, the parents, the rabbi and the guests all know that that he was rubbish and the only reason he did it was for the loot.  Still, like all good Jews, we conveniently pretend otherwise, just as the Rabbi, in his sermon, pretends that the family are fine, upstanding members of the community, and great role models for their son.  I wonder if that role modeling includes the classy way in which his father had an affair and dumped the family a couple of years back?  Ah, but I can’t really blame the rabbi for that. After all, he’d never met the family until the rehearsal about three days previously and they probably didn’t get as far as those minor points.

Yet if that nonsense is not infuriating enough, this was without doubt the noisiest service I have ever attended. I should have taken to heart the warning about decorum in the shul  when I saw the posters that decorated every wall and pillar alternately reminding woman how to dress modestly for shul and  everyone to turn of their mobile phones, the idea that they shouldn’t be carrying a phone on Shabbat in the first place long since abandoned.

But I digress.  The noise was so overwhelming that I honestly couldn’t hear a thing from the bimah and I was only three rows back.  Nobody was following the layening, preferring instead to generate several hundred decibels of noise by chatting to their neighbour, and, in a few cases, someone several seats away.

It was only when the tuneless barmitzvah himself ascended that everyone quietened down.  After 10 seconds I was wishing they’d all start up their chatter again, so painful was his voice.  At least at my shul I have plenty of people around me to talk to under such circumstances.