My two weeks in writing

This week marks a century since suffragette Emily Davison was killed during an act of protest at the Epsom Derby. Her legacy is being discussed at length across the media, so I decided to take a different approach and look at how the campaign to win votes for women played out in the Jewish community of the time.

As I’d anticipated, I found great material – stories of protests in the synagogue, philosophical gestures and plenty of pompous letters rallying against the cause. Overall, it was pleasing to discover that this vital movement did not pass the community by.

Sticking with the history theme, I spent a day at the National Archives, digging thoroughly newly released Foreign office files from the 1930s and 1940s. In one, I found details of how officials intercepted the personal papers of David Ben-Gurion, then circulated the contents as they attempted to resolve the situation in Mandate Palestine. In another, I found a fascinating insight into post-war establishment attitudes to fascist leader Mosley as he attempted to conquer America.

I interviewed the father of Hollywood star Rachel Weisz, not about his famous daughter, but about his own filmmaking efforts; he is a producer of a documentary about the first woman ordained as a rabbi. I also spoke to some British teenagers working with Greece’s Jewish community and covered plans to disrupt the Uefa conference over the decision to have Israel host next month’s youth tournament.

In books, I reviewed Hadley Freeman’s new feminist manifesto Be Awesome, deeming it enjoyable and astute, if not necessarily radical. And I reviewed the British Library’s fascinating new exhibition on propaganda and poster art.

Mini cheesecakes

To mark the Jewish festival on Shavuot, on which dairy products are traditionally consumed, I decided to attempt a cheesecake recipe. I’ve tried making cheesecake before, with mixed results, but this time I went for a BBC food recipe for mini raspberry cheesecakes, which you can find here.

The recipe turned out to be a good ‘un. I used a single raspberry at the base of each cake, them added a small dollop of cream cheese icing on the top, for presentation (and taste) purposes. Word of advice: the recipe said it made eight, but the mixture went far further when using normal-sized cupcake cases.

Next up, I’d like to try these with chocolate or strawberry, or perhaps a caramel filling.

20130519-214608.jpg

Home made frozen yoghurt

So I recently acquired an ice cream maker – ice cream, if course, being my favourite food. But conscious of its calorific nature, I decided to experiment with making frozen yoghurt – and, as it happened, it turned out delicious.

I used a recipe by David Lebovitz, from his book The Perfect Scoop, which can be found here. I used greek yoghurt (life is definitely too short to bother straining yoghurt) substituted agave nectar for some of the sugar but, having made it since, it works just as we’ll either way. I’ve also since experimented with making a chocolate version, adding some good quality cocoa to the mix before churning, which turned out great as well.

Delicious, and we can at least pretend that it’s heathy!

20130518-114621.jpg

My week in writing

As short week, but once in which I interviewed a childhood heroine – Judith Kerr – author of The Tiger who came to Tea and the wonderful Pink Rabbit trilogy. At nearly 90 she was .and is a remarkable women; witty, charismatic and genuinely a pleasure to speak to. Most interesting were here views, as a former refugee, on immigration and its positives.

Elsewhere, I reported on Melanie Phillips’ plan to run her own publishing company, covered the tale of Polish-born spy during the Second World War, who was remembered at a ceremony tis week, and wrote about what will be on offer in the third series of the channel 4 comedy Friday Night Dinner.

I interviewed a very humble writer called Josef Novakovich, who is in the running for the international Man Booker prize, and discussed why he believes Stephen Hawking’s academic boycott is counterproductive. And I reported on a talk by National Theatre director Sir Nicholas Hytner, in which he discussed his views on the prejudice in Othello and The Merchant of Venice.

And in comment I featured a review of a new book on Hollywood and Hitler, and commissioned a piece by Jonni Berger who, with his sister, launched a campaign to find his mother a stem-cell donor – a successful campaign, I should add.

My week in writing

20130510-165822.jpg

First up: an exclusive story about the plans for the first ever museum exhibition dedicated to singer Amy Winehouse, which is to open in Camden two years after her death. Curated by her brother, it looks set to be a real celebration of her life and work, and it was a pleasure to write about the plans.

Keeping with the music theme, I spoke to someone who was there when Bob Dylan’s career began – the owner of the folk music centre at which the young Dylan listened to records and learn about the genre. I also interviewed a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor about his brave attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

In arts news, I spoke to director Natalie Abrahami, who has just landed herself a fantastic new role at the Young Vic theatre. And in comment I commissioned a piece by the journalist Abigail Radnor, who asked – and attempted to answer – a difficult and deeply personal question.

Over in the Guardian, I wrote for Comment is Free following Stephen Hawking’s announcement that he was boycotting Israel, arguing that the last thing this conflict needs is headline-grabbing interventions from famous names.

When politics doesn’t need poster children (Guardian)

Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest mind of our era, has backed a boycott in protest over the policy of the present Israeli government towards the Palestinians. Hawking’s decision not to attend a conference hosted by Shimon Peres has been greeted with delight by supporters of the boycott campaign. What better way to bolster their argument than a lauded intellectual refusing to stand by in the face of injustice?

The efforts of those who want Israel to be shunned – whether in culture, sport, academia or politics – garner plenty of interest, but never so much as when a celebrity gets on board.

When Hebrew-speaking thespians were invited to the Globe theatre, a chorus including Emma Thompson publicly professed indignation. The debate about Israel hosting next month’s European under-21 football championship went far beyond the blogs following the intervention of Frédéric Kanouté.

Conversely, when Rihanna or Justin Bieber perform in Tel Aviv, they suddenly attract the unlikeliest of fans. Indeed, those against the boycott jumped for joy when it briefly – and incorrectly – seemed that Hawking had cancelled for health, rather than political, reasons.

It’s natural, if you support a cause strongly, to crow when a prominent individual who is listened to far more than the average openly backs your cause. For some – Roger Waters comes to mind – preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian situation goes further than a signature, but for many, I’d hazard, wading in one way or the other comes not after years of study of the Middle East.

The famous have as much right as anyone to talk politics and if a prominent individual wishes to back a boycott, or rage against it, he is free to do so. The problem is the activists who seize on them as poster children.

It’s disingenuous, investing one signature with the weight of an entire political approach, and implying that because of a person’s notoriety, their pronouncements are gospel instead of what they are – the views of someone no more or less informed.

Many causes need glitter to get a hearing. The Rohingya Muslims, for example: their plight rarely makes the front page. George Clooney brought Darfur to the world’s attention. You can say plenty about Gaza, but you cannot claim it is ignored by the mainstream media.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extraordinarily complex. It requires activists with a vested interest to focus on the facts, to aim for more than point-scoring, and consider the real questions – how to end the cycle of violence, for one, and how to educate people on both sides as to why two states is the answer – not which celebrity agrees with them.

What the Middle East desperately needs is dialogue, which is why I believe a boycott cannot offer a constructive approach. The discussion could well benefit from meaningful interventions from intellectuals like Hawking, but these must go beyond headline-grabbing.

This article originally appeared on the Guardian website. Read the original here

Heard the one about the Orthodox Jewish woman suing Lancôme? (Independent Voices)

Advertising, as any consumer with their head screwed on is aware, isn’t really about telling the whole truth. That’s not to say that consistently eating Special K won’t give you the body of the fresh-faced model in red – simply that it’s just as likely you’ll end up with a stomach ache and a craving for chocolate. Buying that shampoo probably won’t leave your hair as salon glossy as Cheryl’s, unless you’re blessed with a personal hairdresser. And no matter how adorable the mascot, car insurance is surely not best chosen on that basis.

So the natural response, as we read with mirth of the woman who is suing Lancôme over the failure of her 24-hour-cream to last for that period, is to shake our heads. “How ridiculous,” we think. “Surely that’s not a real story.” Unfortunately, it is. Rorie Weisberg, who comes across as a veritable “disgusted of…” is apparently taking legal action so absurd that it is reminiscent of a case contested by Ally McBeal.

But, I’d hazard, the reason it’s been so gleefully shared around the web? She’s not just any disgruntled customer. She’s from the Orthodox Jewish community, a world brimming with seemingly bizarre rules and restrictions, like not being able to put on make-up on the Sabbath. A sexist, antiquated, closeted world where, as Weisberg’s case clarifies, women slather on make-up on a Friday night and require it to remain until sundown. A world where women see nothing strange about doing this.

The public seems to have something of a fascination with the strictly Orthodox community, just as it does with any other supposed outliers – Gypsies, say, or Mormons, or the Amish, or indeed people with 16 kids, or the unbelievably obese. I’ve lost count of the number of documentaries casting an eye on the Jews of Stamford Hill, or the regularity with which stories about sex guides for the ultra-religious appear. A photograph of an ultra-Orthodox man wrapped in plastic on a plane was shared around the globe, and discussed with amusement on Have I Got News For You.

To an extent, there’s a natural intellectual curiosity about a closed society; media coverage, and indeed television and books, offers a rare window. If we cannot experience something ourselves, the next best is to be told about it. Yet there’s a fine line between curiosity and thinly-veiled contempt, between offering the opportunity for people to learn about something and giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card to laugh about it.

At the risk of disagreeing with the herd, I found watching the musical The Book of Mormon rather uncomfortable, given that we were essentially being asked to snigger at the ignorant, whether the Mormon missionaries or the generic African villagers. Oh, but it was actually poking fun at American exceptionalism, I’m told. Well, yes, but what about the fact that it involved smug, superior writers all but giggling like children at a culture distinct from their own?

The Mormons, of course, have reacted rather well to the show, and launched a recruitment drive off the back of it. Good for them. And of course we should be able to laugh at religion, to point out its absurdities, and still tolerate it as part of a healthy melting-pot society. I might be Jewish, but I’ve no more connection than the next person to the baffling decisions made in the name of faith by those on the extreme fringes of the community. I can see the comedy value in a passenger who has essentially cling-filmed himself because he is so devout; I can appreciate how ludicrous it is that the woman wouldn’t just reapply the next morning. And it’s not as if these stories are fabricated to cast strictly Orthodox Jews in a bad light – on the contrary – perhaps frustratingly for the rest of the Jewish community – they are all too real.

And I know exactly why newspapers, documentary makers and bloggers seize on these cases – they are funny and ridiculous, and they guarantee plenty of web traffic and twitter discussion. But it’s hard to be totally relaxed with the way laughing about extreme religious behaviour has become so mainstream, so trendy.

For by and large, there is no attempt at understanding, at examination. These anecdotes are not reported on because they tell us anything about those communities, only because they are humorous. They reveal absurd caricatures taking observance to the furthest extreme, and tar an entire community with the brush of the strangest member. As a supposedly tolerant, inclusive society, I’m not sure we should be so comfortable with that.

This piece orginally appeared on the Independent website. See the orginal here