Oy Vey The Bar Mitzvah

Just a short post to explain my silence recently… the Muse has not visited. Or maybe he/she did, but couldn’t get in through the door of my mind – which is currently full of The Bar Mitzvah.

For those of you who don’t know (and I can’t imagine why I haven’t told you yet, even if I’ve never met you before), Eldest Son turned 13 recently and his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age rite of passage celebration, is almost upon us.

Each Shabbat, in Synagogue, a specific part of the Torah scroll is read out by an adult member of the community. The Torah scroll contains the text of the five books of Moses in the form of a scroll handwritten in Hebrew. Without pointing – and pointing is basically, Hebrew vowels. Since it’s specified in advance, and the same bit happens each year on the same Hebrew date (which obviously is not the same as the Julian date), once the date of the Bar Mitzvah is set, we know which portion of the scroll the Bar Mitzvah boy (or Bat Mitzvah girl) will need to read.

For nearly a year therefore, Eldest he has been preparing for the Shabbat service where he will read his portion of the Torah Scroll. He’s been learning that particular piece of the text in Hebrew with vowels, off by heart, so he can read it from the scroll by using the text without vowels as a prompt. It is difficult, but he’s doing really well. And luckily, even the Jewish members of the congregation on the day (and they will be outnumbered by the non-Jewish members, given the varied backgrounds of our friends and family), probably won’t notice if he gets it wrong. The Wardens might, and they’ll correct his pronunciation, but it’s a rare portion that gets read without a correction, even by the Wardens, who are seasoned at this.

In the meantime, for the parents (and in our case, Grandma), this is like organising a wedding without the Bride. Family members and friends are coming from,  not quite the four corners of the globe, but close to it. Catering has been organised and outsourced to the Synagogue Catering Society, location luckily is the hall under the Shul, so no complicated decisions to be made there, clothes have been bought, and travel arrangements have been, well, arranged.

Obviously all of the stress has set off my colitis, which is not helping, but finally today, I felt that the pieces were falling into place. I’m now starting to feel as if I might just enjoy it…

And just in case any of my Paleo followers wondered, no, the food on the day will in no way shape or form be Paleo. Not even remotely. Health and wellbeing are all very well, but 4000 years of history and culture, and the combined weight of family expectations are just too much to argue with. Especially when you have an aunt who has MasterChef levels of food creations skills and is bringing a car-boot full of cakes.  It won’t be a boozy affair, but I am expecting a serious sugar hangover for several weeks afterwards…

Advertisements

I don’t know how to be Jewish

History is Always Complicated

I was born into a UK Liberal Jewish family. At the time, my Shul was a member of ULPS (United Liberal and Progressive Synagogues), an organisation now known as Liberal Judaism. I think I had a baby blessing – I can’t actually remember:-) I remember going to Shul in North London now and then when I was very young, usually for Passover. The Communal Seder meal has a smell and taste that’s been the same in all the Shuls that I’ve attended:-) Boiled eggs, salt water, salmon of some kind, often cold, and of course matzos.

When I was four, we moved to South Wales, and started attending the ‘local’ Reform Shul in Cardiff – only 15 miles away. I had my Bat Mizvah at Cardiff, and then did it all over again in London in the Liberal Shul because that’s where most of our Jewish family lived.

I went to Cheder, or Jewish Religion school, every week from the age of about three until thirteen. Ten years. And I learned a lot – working backwards, I learned my Parshah (specific reading from the Torah scrolls, handwritten in Hebrew and without vowels). Mine was the bit of Genesis just after Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac and ended up sacrificing a ram instead. It gave instructions on what to do with the dead ram in order to sacrifice it properly – so basically, a recipe for a burnt offering.

I learned about life in the Shtetl (the Jewish towns or villages and sometimes ghettos in Central and Eastern Europe). I learned about the creation of the State of Israel. I learned about the stories in the Torah. I learned Hebrew, and some of the more common prayers in the services. I learned about the Kosher laws, and also learned why in my household, we didn’t keep Kosher.

But at no point did I learn about the daily requirements of Judaism, especially those which are not performed in the community. Nor about how the prayerbook works or how the services work. I didn’t learn the why behind each of the prayers, or about the commentators on the Torah.

My practice when I was young consisted of going to Shul once or twice a week until I was 13 and had my Bat Mitzvah, going to the services for the High Holy days, not eating bread at Passover, and lighting the candles at Chanukah. We always lit the candles and said the blessings on Friday night, but never celebrated Havdallah.

I fell away from Judaism, as many young people fall away from religion, and then when I was nearing 30, on the spur of the moment I dragged the Husband to Israel for a touring holiday. Around the same time, I found the local Shul, which was another Reform Shul in Kent, and became a member there. I attended Friday night services, occasionally Saturday morning services, Festival services, and social events. I was a member of the committee for some years. But still the gaps in my education remained, and I wasn’t really very aware that they existed.

And My Family Is Even More Complicated!

My parents were both Jewish. My father was brought up Christian – his maternal Grandmother was Jewish from Frankfurt, but converted to Christianity to marry. However, when my father and mother got married, he decided to convert to Judaism. His sister, my aunt, married my mother’s brother, my uncle, and she also converted to Judaism. I have two Jewish cousins, and a positive rainbow of other persuasions in my family – Methodism by marriage, Welsh Baptist, Salvation Army, Dawkins-loving Atheists.

Even though The Husband is a (Methodist-born) Pagan, we had established early on that any children we had would be brought up Jewish until they were old enough to decide their own spiritual or religious paths. I’m very lucky that The Husband is fascinated by all religion and completely accepting of my Judaism and that of the children. I’m even luckier that every community we’ve been involved with has welcomed him as part of the community without judgement and without any pressure on him to convert – even though he can’t technically become a member of a Synagogue.

So when the children arrived, they all had baby blessings. They all attended Cheder, and actually still do. Eldest is coming up to Bar Mitzvah age and now attends most Shabbat morning services with me, and usually has a small part in the service. The younger two come to festivals, social gatherings and Family services. We have Shabbat Evening meal at Grandma’s (my own Jewish Mother), and light the candles, drink the wine, eat the er, challah substitute which is often croissants or brioche.

To all intents and purposes we look like a typical Reform Jewish family – well, if there is such a thing! Of course we teach our children that no one way is the only right way, that Judaism is their culture, heritage and history as well as their religion, and we also teach them about what Daddy believes. Luckily for us, the curriculum on Comparative Religion is pretty excellent – they know a lot more about some other religions than we do.

If Not Now, When?

And recently I’ve been feeling that this is not enough.

I’ve been reading some Jewish blogs and various articles, mostly Reform although that does have a slightly different meaning in the US. I’ve read about students converting, and about people learning to be Rabbis. They talk about Mitzvot, and observance and how these things seem to give structure and meaning to their lives.

There are a great many services in the Siddur – but I get confused reading through them. Some are for communities, some for families, some for solo observance. I can’t tell which one I’m supposed to do when. I don’t have a list of the appropriate blessings for the various events in our lives. I only knew there was a blessing to put on the Tallit when I saw someone else saying it before he put his on. I know that one, the Shabbat blessings and Shechekiyanu, and that’s all.

I have looked up the Reform Jewish website but there’s nothing really on there about such things. Most Reform Jews I know are observant to the same degree as me, or maybe they don’t talk about what they do. In my circle it seems somehow uncool, untrendy, to be observant.

No-one ever taught me any of the rules. Somewhere, between Fiddler on the Roof (my great-grandparents did indeed come over to the UK from Russia, from towns and villages very similar to that depicted in the film, with lives and practices very similar too), and 2014, something was lost. Something that it seems, everyone else either knows and assumes I know too, or doesn’t care about.

Maybe It Really Is Hip To Be Square

From what I have read, from sources varying from Chabad.org to the Coffee Shop Rabbi and a good many places in between, I have realised I would like to know more. I’m very careful about dogma – I’m not one for doing something just because someone said I should, or because someone else says HaShem  might want me to. (HaShem means The Name and is a respectful way to write G-d, since it’s not polite to use His name unless we’re actually praying  – I guess I know some things then!) I cannot believe that HaShem cares right now if I wear wool with linen or eat bacon for breakfast. If HaShem is anything like my impressions of er, Them, They will care that my clothes are not made by slave labour, and that the origin of the bacon is a happy, outdoor reared pig.

But I want to know more. I think it’s entirely appropriate to say Sheckekiyanu when I wake up, purely because I am grateful to wake up at all, and for the new day. Although I will probably never learn a consistent way to spell it in English:-) And if I wake up feeling awful, which I sometimes do, it might just help me to remember that not all days are bad, and I still have many blessings in my life.

I’m not saying for a single second that I could go from zero to Tevye and Golde overnight – nor would I want to. I am not an Orthodox Jew, and have no desire to be one. But I do want to know what it is, as a Reform Jew, I might be expected to do – so I can make my own choices what and how to observe, rather than falling into a pattern through ignorance.

I believe one of the main strengths of Judaism is that each Jew has their own relationship with HaShem. Yes there are Rabbis, wise, learned, available to give guidance, but I know I have my own relationship with G-d. That relationship does not have to go through anyone else. I yell, and He listens. One day, He might even answer:-) So I say to You, G-d, what do I do now? Where should I go, read, look, discuss, learn? What do I do?

And let’s see what answer pops out of the blue into my inbox:-)

Lard and the Lack of Logic

Please note – the blog post below reflects my own personal opinions, beliefs and experiences. It is not intended to offend, or to disrespect anyone else’s beliefs, opinions or practices.

***

I am a Reform Jew. I was born into a Liberal Jewish family. In the UK, these are fairly similar, to the extent that they share a Rabbinical college, and whichever you are is usually determined by which type of Synagogue is closest. In London, it was a Liberal Shul, in South Wales where we live now, it’s a Reform Shul. Because I had a split family, London and South Wales, I actually had my Bat Mitzvah celebrated twice – once in a Liberal Shul and once in a Reform Shul.

This is only really relevant because we don’t keep Kosher. My family have never kept Kosher, and now, living in South Wales, married to a Pagan, I don’t feel any need to keep Kosher. I believe that the Kosher laws were very sensible in their day, ensuring that animals were treated with respect, and that foods that could easily spoil in hot weather were taboo. In this day and age, I feel it’s more important to eat free range or organic food.

I still have residual guilt about my non-Kosher status, plus a load of cultural influences cascading through the family from my grandparents and their grandparents – so that even though I’m quite happy to eat sausages and bacon, I don’t like roast pork or pork chops, and I would never have so much as considered using lard for cooking.

However, eating a truly Paleo diet is rather expensive, and slightly beyond our budget at the moment, so we’re having to make a few compromises. A lot of the recipes we’re following use coconut oil, which is ferociously expensive. Great for Paleo cakes and sweet (ish) treats, but not necessary for savoury dishes. So far we’ve used olive oil as a substitute where possible, but that doesn’t react well to high heat, so last week I bought some lard. Just a plain ordinary block of lard in a packet.

We’ve had quite a few fry ups, and I’m astonished to say they tasted great. We also had fried mushrooms – my current craving is for fried mushrooms, so I expect I’ll find a reason why I shouldn’t eat them fairly soon – and they were also lovely. I am rather surprised at the lack of, well, porky, bacony flavour. And even more surprised that I don’t have retributory feelings of nausea or a lightening bolt style poorly tummy.

And yet – I still don’t feel comfortable. There is no logic to this whatsoever. I will not stop eating bacon or pork sausages, ham, or salami. So in future, when we’re feeling flush I’ll go with coconut oil or possibly goose fat, and olive oil when times are tight. I’ll try to get some suet and experiment with that. But, as it turns out, lard is just one step too far.

The Paleo Adventure

Over the years, for health and weight reasons I’ve tried almost every diet there is, except the Cabbage Soup Diet, and for some reason that escapes me, Slimming World, although I know people who’ve had great results with Slimming World.

My holy grail of the eating plan is the one where I can eat healthy food so I feel virtuous, never feel hungry or deprived, and still lose weight until I’m at the same weight I was at 16 and then maintain it, again without feeling hungry or deprived. A plan that fits with my chaotic, disorganised lifestyle and will do so for the rest of my life without me getting bored and binging on the bad stuff. So far, strangely, that magical diet, and let’s face it, it would have to be Harry Potter/Gandalf levels of magic, has eluded me.

However, I’m always a sucker for a new idea and a success story, so for many reasons, I’ve decided to start following a Paleo-based diet, as described beautifully by the people at Mark’s Daily Apple and PaleoPlan.com. I’ve subscribed to the menu service from PaleoPlan, which provides a complete menu plan (three meals a day plus a snack), plus complete shopping list, every week, for a very reasonable price. Frankly, it was the realisation that it will cost me substantially less than my Netflix subscription that persuaded me to give it a go. That and the lack of having to make the decisions that lead me to freeze in panic whenever I have to do a food shop.

I’m now a week and half in, and so far I’ve lost half a stone, eaten a huge amount of very lovely food, rediscovered my love of cooking and baking, and my colitis symptoms have not gone, but noticeably eased off. So far, so good. I say this now because I am impressed, I am grateful to the people at PaleoPlan for the hard work they put in, and I will stick to it (I’m just eating a Paleo friendly, low sugar vanilla loaf and it’s gorgeous). But it hasn’t been an easy path so far…

Ingredients:

  • Lots and lots of organic vegetables, some of them rather obscure, some of them straight from dinner parties of the late eighties/early nineties (haven’t seen sun-dried tomatoes yet though)
  • Lots of organic fruit, mostly berries
  • Lots of organic meat, some of which is impossible to get at Asda. Or Sainsburys. Or without taking out a second mortgage
  • A coconut plantation. Seriously, most of the recipes involve coconut oil, coconut flour, coconut milk, coconut cream or dessicated coconut
  • Some willpower, although given the large variety of delicious cakes I can now make that are entirely Paleo, and the fact that Green and Black’s 85% chocolate appears to be fairly Paleo from the wrapper, not as much willpower as you’d imagine.
  • The ability to use every bowl and utensil in the kitchen while cooking (people say that about men, but I’m far worse than The Husband)

Method

  1. (Tuesday) Receive shopping list. Attempt to buy ingredients online at Asda. Manage to get about 2/3 of the ingredients.
  2. Find an online supplier of coconut and all associated products (healthysupplies.co.uk, very fast delivery, quite good value for money, certainly compared to Waitrose).
  3. (Sunday) Realise I still haven’t got some of the ingredients and I’m supposed to start the plan today. Rush around Sainsburys in a panic. Can’t find chicken wings, can’t find canned pumpkin, can’t find fresh pumpkin. Decide to substitute bramley apples instead (for the pumpkin, not the chicken wings).
  4. During the course of the week, realise I have somehow got confused, and bought 24 pork chops. Also realise that no matter how beautifully cooked they are, I don’t like pork chops. Luckily, The Husband and all three children do like pork chops.
  5. Realise that all of the recipes are in cups. I have no idea what a cup converts to in UK measurements. Assume a cup is 4 oz of dry goods or 4 tablespoons liquid. Do all cooking on this basis – get some rather odd results, but nothing inedible. A week and a half later, find a measuring jug with cups down the side. Suddenly understand odd results, cooking and baking now much more successful.
  6. Attempt to stick exactly to meal plan lasts 1 day, after which meal plan is determined by what is going out of date next. Just like life before Paleo, but with healthier and more delicious ingredients.

Next week, I’m planning to try some of the cake recipes using lard or beef dripping instead of coconut oil, which is ferociously expensive. I’m not planning to tell the rest of the family though, at least not until after they’ve tasted it…

Decision Fatigue

It’s exactly what it says on the tin. And it really does exist! Apparently there’s a raft of scientific evidence that there’s only a fixed amount of energy everyone has to deal with decision making. This energy is also the kind of energy you use up when you have to exert self-control.

The Husband has told me about this. He’s reading a book called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, and I’m planning to read it once he’s finished it, but he’s giving me little extracts and summaries as he goes. (Luckily for him, he has learned not to do this with fiction books and films:-)

As far as I can tell, there are various practical outcomes of this theory. For instance, Barack Obama only has two suits – or at least, two styles of suits, so that he only ever has to choose the light one or the dark one. He also never chooses what to eat, and every memo that crosses his desk is a multiple choice memo – yes, no, or let’s discuss. The rationale behind this is that he has to make the most important decisions in the world a lot of the time, so he can’t afford to let the trivial decisions take up any of his decision making energy.

Another outcome of this is that if you spend a lot of energy exerting self-control, so for instance, not shouting at the children (well, not unless it’s necessary!), not telling your colleagues at work that they are complete numpties, not swearing at the traffic warden, your ability to exert self-control in other areas will be severely affected – that is, you will not be able to stop yourself from eating that piece of chocolate cake, or drinking another glass of wine.

Now I’m not in charge of a large country. Or a small country. Or my family, or my home apparently. But because we have children, The Husband and I are making many many decisions, all of the time. Decisions which could affect not just our futures, but our children’s futures. What schools they go to. How exactly to explain the subtleties of our moral code and spiritual stance to a six year old. How to discipline the children without damaging their self-esteem. Whether we really are bad parents for feeding them chicken nuggets and fish fingers on alternate nights all week instead of home-made lentil stew with home grown salad – that kind of thing. I’m sure being President of the USA is harder, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

So all of this makes perfect sense to me. That’s why every parent in the world reaches for their vice of choice after a long hard day parenting – in my case, chocolate, often wine, in The Husband’s case, 2.8% stubbies. That’s why diets rarely work, especially if you’re constantly confronted with temptation. If you use up all your energy denying yourself the goodies in the cupboard, you’ll run out of energy before the goodies run out. (By they way, does anyone else have an official Goodies Cupboard in their house??) So if you feel you need to lose a bit of weight, make the children suffer as well by removing all the diet-breaking temptations from your house. A few months without Mars Bars and fizzy orange won’t do them any harm! Although it might do your ears some harm…

It also explains why parents are always tired. Especially parents of ‘spirited’ children. Especially parents with more than one ‘spirited’ child. Especially parents with three spirited children.

After thinking about these theories for some time, I have decided on a few coping tactics. Firstly, I will be insisting that in future, I will only ever have to answer questions with ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘ask your Dad’. I will never again choose what to have for dinner. That’s The Husband’s job, and he does it extremely well. From now on I will have a ‘work’ look (black suit, coloured shirt) and a ‘casual’ look (jeans, tshirt), and enough clothes to last me a week at work and a weekend – and that’s it. I will use up my perfumes sequentially so I never have to choose which perfume to wear. I have one necklace, one pair of earrings and my wedding ring, so I’ll never have to choose what jewellery to wear. Already I can feel my life becoming more relaxing…

So remember, if you are a parent, and you’re always exhausted/unable to stick to a healthy diet and exercise plan/reaching for the wine the second the children are in bed, give yourself a break. It’s actually because you’re doing the right thing by your children all day long.

Last Day of the Holidays

Today is the last day of the Easter holidays. You can tell that in our house because all five of us are slobbing out on the sofas, in front of the TV, watching something that looks as if it’s Total Wipeout for children – and none of us can be bothered to switch over to something more highbrow. I’m not watching it, honest. Except I just caught a glimpse of a woman dressed as WonderWoman. Shame she’s clearly way too young to remember the original series.

During this holiday, The Husband has taken the children shopping more times than his sanity should be able to cope with, accompanied us on a Matzo ramble, taken one of our children to a gym competition (he came fourth out of four but did incredibly well considering it was his first competition), taken them all swimming, to to the cinema, to a local stately home type thingy with grottos and interesting footpaths (and a cafe, the most important element of all) and to a local park, where all the equipment was wet and it started to rain. He’s supervised the consumption of vast amounts of chocolate, mediated arguments and sometimes physical fights about whose turn it is on the computer/wii/tv/iPhone/laptop, not all just within the family, saved the cats from being ‘cuddled’ rather too enthusiastically (you’d think they could save themselves but they are incredibly soppy cats), and somehow managed to keep all five of us adequately fed and in reasonably clean clothes.

And I went to work. I got paid for sitting in a calm and peaceful office, talking to adults, and messing around with data, which is up there with eating chocolate in the list of my favourite things to do. I couldn’t do his job. We know this because I was a housewife for quite some time, and not only was I just not very good, but I really didn’t enjoy it. And he couldn’t do my job. We know this because he worked in an office for 15 years, hating it more and more every day, until the inevitable happened and he got ‘let go’ for being unable to hide his contempt for stupid rules (who wears ties these days?? Really??) and even stupider bosses.

I’m so incredibly grateful to The Husband for working as hard as he does for my family. And the last day of the holidays is usually the day when I’m most grateful of all.