It’s a long while since I last wrote. I’ve been freelancing and taking a break with my daughter over the Summer holidays… Now somewhat refreshed and with a smidgen of inspiration, I thought I’d share my experience of exploring and learning new cultures and how this has influenced my views. Hopefully, these insights will be of interest!
As many but not all of you will know, my daughter’s father is from a Jewish Orthodox family who still actively practise their religion. Many are now living in Israel and a number of his brothers spend their time as ‘learners‘. As with other aspects of the Jewish Orthodoxy and their culture, the concept of being a ‘learner‘ was entirely alien to me when we first met. A Jewish Orthodox ‘learner‘ is usually a man who spends his life studying the Torah (essentially the Old Testament), related scriptures and texts. The idea is to preserve the faith and strictures of the Jewish culture, which is central to commemorating the losses suffered in the Holocaust and ensuring the Jewish faith lives on.
The Jewish Orthodox society notoriously annexes itself away from the rest of us, primarily to keep their traditions alive and to protect their community values. Inevitably this means that the level of integration between ‘normal’ British culture and the Jewish community is fairly low. This kind of divide often manifests between differing religious communities, and can lead to fundamental misunderstandings within any multi-racial country. As we see over and over again, segregation (even self-imposed) results in misunderstandings, division and derision, religious discrimination, ridicule and perhaps even hatred.
My relationship with a Jewish Orthodox man was extremely unlikely to come about simply because of the cultural divide, and yet it did! I’m basically a middle-class, white British woman, raised predominantly Church of England though widely travelled. However, a series of events coincided with us being on the same walking holiday in Switzerland and getting together towards the end of the holiday. At that time, I had no idea what being Jewish Orthodox meant or anything about the religious and cultural practices I was unknowingly walking into. My ex looked like a regular British man, and had broken away from much of the religious practice. Soon I would find out how difficult our relationship would turn out to be but at this point was blissfully ignorant… As it happened, I became pregnant very quickly and things moved forward at a pace making our lives even more difficult.
But I’m going too fast… First we travelled between London and Manchester, enjoying our early dates. During this time, I saw pictures of his Orthodox family and was stunned at their appearance. The men wear black hats, have curly hair by their ears and white strings hanging from their belts, and usually have beards. The women cover their hair with wigs or close fitting headwear, and mostly wear black to their wrists and ankles. Both genders do look strange to an outsider, and it took me a while to understand this choice of clothing and the reasons why it’s worn.
My first instinct on seeing the photographs was to find out more (I too like to learn). Fortunately I was recommended two books by the author Chaim Potok, The Chosen and The Promise. These novels were especially helpful as there were no other media channels which shared anything on this very fundamentalist religion. Fortunately in recent years, more and more media is being produced about Jewish people and it has been enormously helpful in teaching my daughter who her Jewish family is and why they remain separate from us.
Given the polarisation between my life and his, it’s not surprising that moving to Manchester to have our baby would be disastrous for both of us. The only way our relationship could have worked, ensuring his family would accept me, was for me to convert. I investigated this option and was shocked to find I would have to live with a Orthodox family for three years, separate from my family for this to happen. For me a full conversion was too much to ask, and I did not want us to raise our daughter under compulsory and strict religious traditions. It works for some, but given my family background, career, global view and interest in all subjects, I could not accommodate such controls into my life. As a result, we were not accepted locally and our relationship fell apart in a year due to the pressure and declining mental health on both our parts. I left his home and created a new life with my daughter in Oxfordshire leveraging my usual obstinacy, determination and grit. Luckily we’re still here and our daughter is now 13 years old, plus after a decade of misunderstanding Nadia is seeing her father again and life is good.
During the period of separation and reflection, I realised that his family would have seen me as the worst kind of interloper. I have never spoken to his parents but did meet two brothers, both of whom were very nice but obviously in a difficult position caught between two worlds. There are a few things I would like to share with you that I discovered along the way. I have deep compassion for all of us who ended up in the distinctly uncomfortable situation we all found ourselves in. These stories may surprise or even amuse you, but are my overriding lessons from that period. Bear in mind that much of the Jewish culture revolves around great food hence the emphasis here:
Kosher meat: On arrival in Manchester, I decided to perpetuate as many of the traditions that I could for my partner, one of which was to buy meat from a Kosher butcher. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover in time that kosher meat is salted for preservation and tradition and I cooked it without first washing it in cold water… The first chicken I roasted was revolting and needless to say remained uneaten! Quelle horreur.
Bagels: My favourite tradition among all the brilliant food in Jewish culture is the bagels, purchased on a Sunday morning after Shabbos. They’re fresh, yummy and are served with egg mayonnaise, smoked salmon, pickled herring and cream cheese. So delicious and a great way to start a Sunday 😊.
The Jewish Princess cookbook: As a general rule, Jewish people and their culture revolves around food and celebration. I bought a somewhat ironic cookbook on meeting my ex which has all the traditional Jewish recipes, and also pokes just a little fun at the high maintenance beauty regime of many secular and Orthodox women. Given it’s Yom Kippur (correction not Jewish New Year but the Day of Atonement sincere apologies), the Honey Cake baked at this time is awesome. Last year, I baked one for Nadia’s father as a gesture of reconciliation as it represents the sweet things in life. The amount of golden syrup involved is vast!
Synagogues: When I lived in Manchester we attended two synagogues, the Jewish Reform one in the centre of Manchester and a second in North Manchester which was more traditionally Orthodox. Both were very welcoming to me and discussing our situation with the Rabbi at the Reform synagogue was very helpful, particularly in explaining the lifestyle of Jewish Orthodox people. At this synagogue they run a Friday evening service in a small, beautifully panelled room to welcome in the Sabbath. It was peaceful, reflective and friendly so highly recommended. The other synagogue we attended was more traditional; the men pray downstairs and the women sit on the balcony above. The women talk about their week and family events, essentially sharing friendship rather than worshipping. The synagogues are so different, yet were a treasured time as I was unexpectedly welcomed there. It was odd to me that the sexes were separated, yet I also saw how it bonded each group and provided a atmosphere appreciated by all within which to worship. I guess I had a unique perspective as an outsider, enabling me to comment on and celebrate a form of religious gathering I had never experienced before.
Shabbas: In the Jewish Orthodox religion, Shabbat (or the Sabbath) starts at sunset on Friday night and finishes at sunset on Saturday. The Orthodox Jews do not use electrivity or drive cars during this time. The family light candles, say a prayer and eat together on the Friday night and this is a valued ritual for all Jews but particularly for Orthodox families. It’s sign off time from the week of work and school and the starting point for their rest day. It’s a very family centred ritual and it was an honour to share this with a local Rabbi, including his family and mine. I thanked him at the time, but he may not have realised how helpful it was. It increased my understanding of the Jewish traditions at a time I felt mostly alienated from my surroundings and the people in them.
Overall I realise that I could be bitter about my experience with my daughter’s extended family, but I’m not. I wanted to find out about their life and religion and they likely saw me as a threat. In fact, I was just trying to make the best of my family life.
Generally, I seek first to understand whenever faced with a new culture. I have lived in countries across the world: Switzerland, Ghana, Australia, Singapore, and attempted to learn their cultural traditions and at least some of the language. I try to make friends and live in the local ways, whatever the religion or race. I have also travelled extensively in the USA, Eastern Europe (just after the Berlin wall fell and since), East Asia and of course Western Europe. I have also worked and lived in different cultures across time zones and around the globe.
It’s tough to align people and communities but entirely possible! I hope we can become more open to learning; like the Jewish people wanting to preserve their culture, let’s find out before we judge others. It can only be a good thing, right.
Love Ruth x