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Monday, 9 September 2013

Subject: Confessions of a Jewish mother 

Dear God,
Please forgive me because I have sinned! I have spent a year not being a very nice person and more importantly a good Jew. This Yom Kippur I am not only seeking forgiveness for breaking at least some of the commandments but I am also guilty of not being there for anyone quite enough.
You see God, I had a conversation with a mother today who has just changed her career. She was stressing about the ways it was affecting her children. "I'm not always there when they get home from school she complained... They are arguing with me about about what they have for dinner and when I ask them what they did at school today they shrug and say nothing. If I was at home I would be ale to put dinner on the table each night and meet them at the school gates. I worry that things are passing me by and I am not on it as I once was" my response was, I hope reassuring; "you are setting your daughter a wonderful example" I responded. "You weren't happy in your career so you changed it. You're showing them that they can do anything if they work hard and you're showing them that life for mothers doesn't start and end with their children. But do I really believe what I was saying or was I telling myself that to make myself feel better? After all God, I am a working mother. I went back to work when my youngest was only five months old. I went away to Prague for the weekend when my kids had chicken pox. I frequently miss my sons gymnastics lessons. So here is my confession; I don't really believe what I told this mother... I think she is letting her children down, just like I am. Thank goodness, it is Yom Kippur and I can ask for forgiveness from you god; for failing my children, for not being made in your image and for letting you down 
Yours faithfully 
A guilt ridden Jewish mother 

Subject: confessions 

 Dear Guilt ridden Jewish mother, 

When I created men I did so in my image. I saw what I had created and it was good! However, so many people stop reading there and they strive to be created in God's image but to be honest that is where they sometimes fail. Carry on reading the book of Genesis and it's so much better than anything currently on TV. There's drama, bloodshed, sibling rivalry, broken promises, natural disasters, deceit and even hints of incest. When I created man I did so in my image but even I make mistakes and am not perfect! 
When you have children you are bound my Jewish law to circumcise your sons and to pass on Jewish values. You are even obligated to teach them how to swim (at least that what the Talmud says which was written by some of my learned followers). Nowhere in Jewish law does it command you to see your child do a headstand at gymnastics or to meet them at the school gate everyday without fail or even make a delicious home cooked meal each night. You are commanded to pass on the traditions that you hold dear, to set a good dugma (example) and to love and protect them. You can do that by teaching them independence and a degree of self- reliance. Yom Kippur is a time of reflection and seeking forgiveness but it isn't a time of setting unrealistic goals. You are a working mother. Accept it and move on. Use Yom Kippur as an opportunity to think about how you can make the time you have as a family even more precious, think about what you can do with them to make every minute count. Stop checking your emails when your'e not at work. Focus on them when you are with them and ensure they learn how to swim; give them the tools to live safely and securely and love them.
If this fails, I'll speak to you next Kol Nidrei 

Monday, 15 April 2013

Cancer, loss and the world of social media

Ten years ago this year my mum was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I remember the date and the conversation like it was yesterday. I remember the day she told us it had spread, the day she told us it was terminal and the day she passed away so clearly it cold have happened this morning. The pain, the shock, the horror and the utter sadness and desolation dulls over time but is still there. My mum died weeks before my first child was born and therefore his birthdays mark both happiness and sadness that my mum isn't visibly there to see what a mensch we have somehow managed to create. I often talk about my mum to people, although not really her cancer or her final hours. I decided along time ago that I didn't want my memories of my mum as a bald cancer patient, unable to see, bloated from steroids and needing help with everything and so although I think of them I rarely share them with others.
When my mum was diagnosed, I told my closest friends. They told others on a need to know basis. They let me cry, they let me be stoic. They let me panic that she wasn't going to make it to my wedding. (I got married weeks after she finished her first round of chemotherapy) Other then wait for news, sit by a hospital bed, read the newspaper to her I couldn't do much else.
After her diagnosis, one thing my siblings and I did was complete the London moonwalk. Between us we raised over £3,000 and it was great to see mum at the end , in her woolly hat cheering us on. It was a great sense of achievement and for the first and only time in her cancer battle I felt as if I was doing something productive with her diagnosis and with that felt slightly less powerless.
Over the past ten years, unfortunately cancer hasn't gone away. My aunt and my cousin have successfully fought breast cancer in the last decade and there are many more others who have lost loved ones to what my dad calls the 'bastard disease'
These days, everywhere I turn I see that someone is watching someone they love fight cancer. Is cancer more common or is it just the world we live in is so much smaller that everyone shares their lives with everyone else. Over the past month I have been following as well as the wonderful that have dealt with cancer and how to react and get through it and it has bought me into this whole new world of putting your personal feelings out there for all to see. Do I feel comfortable with that? If my mum was diagnosed in 2013 rather than 2003 would I have done it? I'm don't know the answer but I know that writing is cathartic and hopefully these blogs have given at least the writers the ability to breathe out loud (watching someone you love fight cancer seemed to me like I was permanently holding my breath).
I have also been amazed by the success of the #spitformum campaign that has attempted to find a bone marrow for leukaemia suffer, Sharon Berger. The courage of the family spearheading this campaign and the way they have put the selves out there is nothing short of remarkable. Jewish bone marrow donor registrations have risen by approximately 400% as a result of their campaign which has been conducted mostly by social media.
Ten years ago, when my mum was diagnosed, Twitter was a newborn and Facebook was still a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye. At times I was so frustrated with the way life carried on as normal for other people I wanted to scream from the rooftops 'my mum's dying, you must do something' but was simply unable to do it. In 2013, we have social media to do it for us... It is the prefect way to air frustrations and share problems. However, this means that there is an inevitable clash of our real life, rather than our anecdotal life. Are we happy about that? 
For me, I'm glad that social media can be that vent. Some of my friends were amazingly supportive during this tough period of my life when I had no vehicle to use to shout out and share. I'm delighted that those who have shared have felt courageous enough to do so and hope that they are able to use it to get the strength that they needed get through these dark times. 
As for me, who didn't get the happy ending in this case, I have learnt one thing; find your happy endings elsewhere and be delighted for those who get theirs.

The following people have led me to writing this: the Slaters, the Pressers, The Blakes, Danny Fresco, Rachel Fidler, Debs Blausten, the Bergers, Ben Braude, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and her SupermanSam.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Four guests

When I was young the Jewish year at my house was punctuated with three events; staying up late to break the fast on Yom Kippur, going to an Israel Independence Day party and of course the annual Seder Night. My memories of Seder night are particularly good, My great aunt and uncle used to come up from Brighton, others came across London from Hackney and my sister and I were allowed to stay up late whereas my younger brother went to bed after dinner. My sister and I took it in turns to read different parts of the Seder and our favourite part was deciding which one of our family was going to be the wise, wicked, simple or son who couldn’t speak.
As I have grown up my Seder experience is has massively changed but is still my favourite part of the Jewish year. These days, the Seder is at my house and the people sitting round the table are not just the people from my past but also my present and my future. As I think about the people who are coming, make the phone calls and send the emails, get the extra chairs down from the loft and borrow fold up ones from the mother-in-law I think about the guests I am going to pick to be the four children (the grown-up version has become an egalitarian one!)
The wise guest is the guest who says “What can we do?” This guest sees themselves as part of the bigger picture; what they can do to make the Seder a positive and meaningful experience for everyone else? The wise guest is not necessarily the most knowledgeable or religious but is the most open to the idea of the Seder and its meaning. The wise child is inherently altruistic and believes that everything they do is for the greater good.
The wicked guest is the guest who is there solely to please others; this guest does not participate in a positive way and will talk over others reading and not join in. By not joining in or embracing the Seder experience the wicked guest excludes themselves from the Seder tradition.
The simple guest is the person sitting round the table who is dumbfounded by the whole experience. They attend the Seder because they are invited but don’t really see the point of it all. Moreover, they expect to be told the meaning of the Seder rather than uncover it for themselves.
 And as for the guest who doesn’t know how to ask? This guest watches the events of the evening unfold, neither wanting to be involved or uninvolved...they simply cannot understand what is going on and whether that is because of the tradition or family politics is anyone’s guess.
One of the great things about Seder night is the fact that it is one of the few things that many Jews still do. It might well be different from the seeders of their childhoods, it might not restart after dinner, it might involve too much wine and not much bitter herbs,  but it is a Seder night  and is one of the millions that takes place in Jewish households across the world. The mixture of people that sit around my table are my family, friends, in-laws, religious, the non-religious, non-Jews, the people who take Seder seriously and the people who are there just to please others. They will also be wise, wicked, simple or without a clue. But, whatever they are they will be my guests.
In 2013, in our community, there is far more religious and cultural diversity amongst us that ever before. This diversity becomes even more apparent when we read the story of the four children and choose which one of our guests represents each child. This community is full of the wise, the wicked the simple and the Jews who cannot even ask. Each one contributes to our changing community in different ways, some contributions are obvious. There are members of the community who fundraise, the members who sit on synagogue councils and boards, the members of school PSA’s, the members who stand outside our Jewish buildings doing security. Others are less obvious, the members who sit in the pews at synagogue, the members who continue to support local Jewish businesses and donate to local Jewish charities. Each one of us has a different persona... the question is... are you happy with what yours is?

Monday, 11 February 2013

Jews, eating and body confidence

This week I heard heartbreaking words from my youngest (who's 4!) "why am I bigger than Oliver? " he asked. Oliver is his 6 year old brother. As brothers go, they are very different, both in looks and personality. Oliver is thin, to the point of being able to count his ribs. He brings new meaning to the term 'waif'. Although he is incredibly small for his age (he still wears age 2-3 trousers) his thinness makes him look relatively lanky. He had thick hair, long eyelashes which he batters frequently and is a good looking, effortlessly stylish kid. People have often suggested that I should take him to a modelling agency and with the thought of a bar-mitzvah, Israel tour and university fees to think about sometimes I think they might be right. Something stops me however. Sammy on the other hand is blessed with my height; short; and my figure stocky. Sammy has hair that grows in several different directions and is permanently Unruly. Sammy is not stylish but looks like a little boy should; messy!
So Why am I concerned? It's not a crime for brothers to be different or to look different. Oliver has always been small. As a premature baby his weight was always an issue. He was weighed every week, had prescribed milk and food and was on a relatively strict eating regime. When Sammy came along, he weighed seven pounds, had a healthy appetite and ate like a Gina Ford baby. Sammy loves food, he wants to try different foods and enjoys mealtimes. For Oliver, mealtimes are an interruption to whatever else is going on. Food is what he eats because mum and dad say he has to, not because he wants too. So why am I concerned?
Issues with food are a plague within our society. When we are upset,we are given food to make us feel better. We are from the generation that were told we had to empty our plates because there were starving children in Africa (I never quite got that... Were we going to send them our leftovers?) At a synagogue meeting last night the food available was cake and weight watchers Swiss rolls, but no fruit. Food dominates our lives and our relationship with it is becoming more and more unhealthy.
Sammy at the age of four has realised that he is fatter than Oliver and that is probably our fault. He knows he weighs more ( it was a thoughtful member of the family who thought that might make Oliver eat better) and knows that this isn't the right order.
So what to do? Whilst the use of underweight models by fashion chains continue to be criticised by food addiction charities, whilst there is a backlash against stick thin celebrities in favour of their curvier counterparts perhaps the real changes need to begin at home before our kids are even aware of this culture. Rather than making food an issue, we need to build it into our lives. Let's not use it as reward or as a punishment but as something vital to life. And let's embrace the fact that some of our children no matter what, will be skinny or chubby. Let's not criticise them for it but enable them to be comfortable in their own skin.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Tsunami, trekking and text messages

Eight years ago I was lucky enough to be enjoying a holiday of a lifetime in South East Asia. My husband and I had planned the holiday meticulously and it had been over a year in the making. A visit to Hong Kong, Singapore and Borneo were on the cards. Whilst we were there however, the trip of our dreams was a trip that we would remember forever for reasons other than the sights. Eight years ago today something terrible happened that changed areas of South East Asia and the lives of over a million people forever. The day of the Tsunami, we had travelled inland to the heart of the Bornean jungle. We were spending a night in a longhouse followed by a jungle trek (more of a nature walk if I'm truly honest). The weather was appalling and as we kayaked down a river, our guide commented on how the water level was much higher than when he had been there the previous week and there hadn't been so much rain to warrant it. We didn't take much notice of it really and concentrated on not capsizing. Not having any phones or anything other than essentials was bliss and on our return to the coast we mourned our return to civilisation. 
When we arrived at our hotel the mood was sombre and it seemed like there was no one around. We went straight to our room to shower and in the course of reintegrating we turned on our phones. There were 62 text messages waiting for me! Slightly astounded I started to read them
"Please call re earthquake" Dad
"Please call re earthquake and tidal wave" Dad
"Haven't heard from you... Are you ok? Please call or text Dad
"Hi mate, been watching news and hoping your'e both ok" Chris
" News here terrible. Do me a favour and call home" Angela
"Deb- Please call, travel agent and foreign office not telling us anything" Ben
" I'm telling your dad not to worry, but it would help if you could call us' Lauren
And they went on. It wasn't until we turned on CNN that we realised what all the messages were from. Whilst we were trekking in the jungle a massive earthquake and consequent tidal wave had hit South East Asia and had spread as far as Sri Lanka and the Maldives. When we first heard about it ten thousand were estimated to have been killed. Within days, these figures had risen to an astonishing one hundred and twenty five thousand deaths and then to a quarter of a million. These people were not just from Asia but were from the UK, USA, Scandinavia  Australia, Canada and all over the world. People who were backpackers, tourists staying in luxury hotels, waiters, beach hawkers, sailors killed by the biggest natural disaster in history. We stayed in Asia for ten days after the Tsunami. We donated to the Malaysian Relief fund and like everyone else in our resort remained slightly dumbstruck at the results that unfolded.
As each Boxing Day passes, I remember the tsunami that claimed the lives of so many, I remember the panic and relief of my dad when I spoke to him and remember those who never received that phone call. Eight years on, My dad still calls me every day at 8.15pm. Sometimes we speak for under a minute, sometimes we speak for five minutes. The general gist of the conversation (we generally don't have that much news) is are you OK? Are the boys Ok? Good, speak to you tomorrow. Sometimes it drives me crazy because I really don't have anything to tell him! But today of all days I'll be glad to get that call, knowing that for so many, today is the anniversary of the day that the phone call never came.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Seasons greetings and all that Jazz

This is such an interesting and fabulous time of year. The end of what has been an amazing year to live in London, a year where I have finally got rid of nappies from our household, a year when I said goodbye to my trusty golf and got a car where I didn't need to consider the size of the boot, a year where there were more joyful events than sad events, a year where I became closer to forty than thirty and a year where there were no major earth shattering dramas, no hospitals, no heart attacks, no redundancies and no cancer.
But here we are having just celebrated Chanukah and having to deal with the complexities of being a Jewish parent in a secular and Christian world. For me, it's the only time of year where I seriously consider the merits of making Aliyah. 
I grew up in a very anti Christmas household. On Christmas Day, we didn't get dressed, ate cheese on toast for lunch, watch top of the pops and the Christmas BBC afternoon film ( which tended not to be a repeat in those days) When I got married I was introduced to an entirely different Christmas tradition, one that was to close to the bone for me. The family went out for dinner Christmas Eve where they donned party hats, ripped crackers and ate turkey. They hadn't seen each other since Rosh Hashannah so there was a lot to catch up on! It was generally a great night but too Christmassy for me. 
Over the past six years, the tradition has been to go to my dads. My cousins generally come and the kids get presents as my brother is down from the South West and hasn't seen them over Chanukah and my cousins and I and the kids generally swap presents too. We don't call them Christmas presents or Chanukah presents so what are they? We don't have a tree, or decorations or crackers. We don't eat turkey. So are we doing something wrong? To some maybe we are to some we're not. At the end of the day it's a bank holiday so is there a better time to get together and do what Jews do best? ( eat copious amounts)
My views on the festive season are mixed and confused, I like the Pogues, Band Aid and am annoyed by Mariah Carey. I like going to see the Christmas lights on Regent street and think the lights on some of our neighbourhood houses look great. However, I draw the line at decorating my own. It might have been the festival of lights for Jews but my version of that is having our four Chanukiyot lit and placed in the window rather than illuminating the neighbourhood, increasing my electricity bills and my carbon footprint.
As my kids have continued to prosper at school and we have got to know more families we have realised that everyone has their own tradition. Many Jewish families in our area have Christmas trees. Many families get Chanukah and Christmas presents. Many embrace the holiday season in American 'happy holidays style' . That's not for my family. We are British and Jewish and proud of who we are but Christmas is not our festival! We lit the Chanukah candles to recall the story of fighting for religious freedom and as I watch some of my Jewish friends and neighbours celebrate Chanukah and Christmas I am glad that they have the religious freedom to do so. The Maccabees might have considered them Hellenists but I think they are trying to do the best they can in the complexity that is the modern world and there is nothing wrong with that.
I intend to enjoy the holiday season... I want to reflect on the year that's gone and look forward to what is to come. I want to spend time with the three most important people in my life and just enjoy each other. I don't want or need tinsel, crackers or pine needles on the floor of my lounge, I only need more of what 2012 has bought me, good health, happiness and a large slice of religious freedom!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

"Chanukah is, the Festival of Lights. Instead of one day of presents we have eight crazy nights" Adam Sandler, the Chanukah Song

Picture this... your kid come home from school and ask you when you are decorating the Christmas tree... or are asking whether Christmas and Chanukah are really that different. They have been writing their list of required gifts for several weeks. You are exhausted! How do you make sure that Chanukah is a week to remember and not eclipsed by the other 'C' festival a week or so later. Here is my guide to making Chanukah meaningful
1. Tell the tale
Do your kids know the story of Chanukah? Invest in a few books for your home. The story is an exciting one for kids, filled with epic battles and despair and hope and a happy ending. Great books to order are Maccabee by Tilda Balsley or All about Hanukkah by Judyth Groner (both available from Amazon). For older children you can use Hanukkah around the world (by Tami Lehman-Wilzig) to highlight different Chanukah traditions celebrated by different Jewish communities.

2. Energy Conservation
The relighting of the menorah by the victorious Maccabees provided the symbol of God’s existence in the Temple. We have an obligation to bring God into our everyday lives by caring for the world that God gave to us. One way to do this is by conserving energy at home. Make a list of eight different ways you can conserve energy at home. Give your kids a colouring sheet of a Chanukiah and each time they conserve energy they can colour in a candle. The goal is for every candle to be completely filled by the end of Chanukah. 

"Christmas brings enormous electric bills.  Candles are used for Hanukkah.  Not only are we spared enormous electric bills, but we get to feel good about not contributing to the energy crisis.  ~KOACH Humor, "Holiday Distinctions Finally Explained"
3. Make dinner
To remember the miracle of the oil, it’s traditional during Chanukah to eat fried foods. Many Jews fulfil this ritual by making latkes. Recipes are commonplace but the general idea is this: grate some potatoes and an onion. Beat an egg and add to the potato-onion mix. Add salt and pepper to taste, then form into patties. Even the smallest of children can participate by shaping the batter into patties and by adding the seasoning's.

4. Attend communal candle lighting
Many Jewish communities build large outdoor Chanukiah’s to fulfil the ritual that we should light our candles where they can be seen by everybody. Instead of lighting candles in your home, gather with members of the community to light candles together. Contact your nearest synagogue to find out about their communal lighting

5. Think of others
Reinforce the notion that Chanukah is not primarily about receiving gifts by setting aside one night during the holiday not to open any. Shop with your kids for toys they would enjoy, and have them deliver their purchases to a children’s charity. Camp SImcha run a wonderful project in the weeks leading up to Chanukah where you buy  an extra toy that is redistributed to a sick child and their family. (

6. ‘Dreidal, dreidal, dreidal, I made it out of clay’

A dreidal is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side. Outside of Israel, the letters stand for the phrase, “A great miracle happened there In Israel, the last word—which means “there”—is replaced with the Hebrew for “here,” Legend has it that the dreidal game was popular when Antiochus ruled. Jewish people, struggling to keep their faith alive, would gather together to study the Torah, which had been outlawed by Antiochus. They would keep the dreidal nearby so that if soldiers appeared, they could hide their books and pretend to play a game. “Dreidal” is derived from the German word “drehen,” or “turn.” The dreidal game is played by giving each player a number of tokens; you can use coins (chocolate or real!), raisins or counters. Before spinning the dreidal, each player puts a fixed number of their portion into the “kupah” or kitty. Each player in turn spins the dreidal. When the dreidal falls, the player acts according to the rules for each letter:

Nun—Do nothing, play proceeds to the next player.
Gimel—Take the whole kitty
Hey- Take half of the kitty
ShinPut some in; players agree on an amount before the game

Play dreidal as a family and try making up some of your own rules. For example, choose a fact about yourself or a family memory to share for each letter, such as something you like to do, a person you like and why, an animal you like and why, a place you like and why. Or, make up more active rules, such as running once around the table, hopping on one foot, spinning or rubbing your stomach while patting your head. You can raise the stakes as well:  Shin might mean you have to do the washing up, while gimel can mean you get to choose the destination for the next family day out.

7. Embrace diversity.
There is no greater time than while celebrating Chanukah in the midst of the Christmas season to reflect on ‘being a stranger in a strange land’ (Exodus 2.22) about being a ‘stranger in a strange land.’ But there are positive lessons to being part of a minority community. Invite non-Jewish friends or neighbours round for candle lighting one evening and share festive season experiences.

8. Appreciate the season
Try to avoid the stresses of the season: don’t expend too much worry about securing the must-have gifts or dividing equal rations of time amongst all the branches of the family tree. Instead, take a cue from your kids, who surely have been enthused by the joy and general merriment in the air. 

Chanukah, or any Jewish festival for that matter becomes a meaningful experience when you create positive memories and associations with it. Use the next week to create your own traditions and then enjoy a meaningful Chanukah. CHAG SAMEACH