Royal Baby, Royal Motherhood? (The Forward)

He’s not yet two days old, only weighs 3.8 kg and doesn’t even have a name. Yet Baby Cambridge, third in line to the throne and pronounced beautiful by his doctor, is currently occupying the world’s attention. Kate, it seems, has done her job.

Throughout British royal history, the existence of the heir and the spare has been of the utmost importance. Queen Victoria may have presided over the industrial revolution, but she was also celebrated for being a mother of nine. Henry VIII divorced and beheaded two wives and divided the church all because he wanted a wife to give birth to a son. As the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I’s failure to marry and procreate plunged the political classes into crisis mode.

But whereas once the lack of an obvious heir put the country’s future stability at risk, that’s hardly the case today. The Queen is head of state, but her duties are ceremonial; uncertainty about the next monarch would not send the markets into a spasm. Theoretically, had William chosen to stay celibate, it wouldn’t have mattered (except to legions of wannabe-princesses): The royal line would have gone in another direction, but the U.K. would have been just fine. But that’s only in theory. We all know that had Kate not done what every pundit and gossip magazine had demanded since the first slice of wedding cake was snaffled — had a child, stat — she would have been seized on as a failure, not quite guilty of treason, but not far short.

Regardless of her being an educated, not noticeably imbecilic graduate in a time of female leaders and businesswomen, and despite the overriding view that women can achieve the same as men (possibly provided that they “lean in”), all along it has been about Kate becoming a mother.

To the public, her entire purpose up until now has been to produce the heir (and then the spare). Going forwards, her only concern is to raise him in a fitting manner. If he is an inquisitive child, she will be praised; if he follows in his uncle Harry’s footsteps and is one day photographed in Nazi uniform or in the buff, you can be sure it’ll be her fault.

It’d be ridiculous to criticize Kate for conforming to expectation — she may have been required to have a baby, but I can’t imagine she sees it as a negative. Nevertheless, the nature of the coverage — the focus almost singularly on Kate rather than William in the past nine months; the media surrounding the hospital for days; the number of live Royal Baby blogs — signifies the continued centrality of motherhood in public life.

And it’s true of Jewish life, too, a matrilineal religion where motherhood is often held up as the holy grail of Jewish womanhood. In the strictly Orthodox community, it’s pretty much the only expectation, but even in less devout Jewish circles where we emphasize academic and professional success, we rarely do so at the expense of motherhood.

For all that, it takes two to tango. As newlywed Jewish women will testify, they, not their new husbands, bear the brunt of questioning about when they will start a family. If not wanting children is seen as unusual for a woman in the wider world, in the community it is generally viewed as an aberration. How many jokes have the Jewish mother as a punchline? Can you think of any that riff on the Jewish father?

And yes, communal life is arranged around the domestic, which historically was the preserve of the Jewish woman. But it goes deeper: Biblically, women may have been strong role models, but they were often depicted through the prism of motherhood, not least Sarah, who allowed Abraham to take another partner because she herself has failed to reproduce. The megillah Ruth ends with us learning she has given birth to the line of the future King David. As for Hannah, mother to Samuel, I remember learning about her in Hebrew classes, my teachers clearly implying that childlessness was the worst fate that could befall a Jewish woman.

Obviously, much like hereditary royalty, Judaism will survive only by its members producing the next generation of “the firm” — and women are kind of crucial to that. The madness surrounding Kate’s pregnancy is — maybe for ardent royalists — survivalist; in Judaism we obsess about motherhood because we care about the fate of our people.

Still, is this elevation of motherhood — because it is motherhood specifically, not parenthood — a necessary part of that? Is it healthy, in 2013, when women can achieve in any area, to place quite so much emphasis on whether they will fulfill their duty to give birth? And, at least in the Jewish community, will we ever view producing the next generation as quite the joint responsibility it is?

Even as we strive to declare Judaism’s modern, forward-looking credentials, when it comes to maternity we are really no different than the overexcited crowds around Buckingham Palace, waiting for our women to do her duty. Perhaps we haven’t changed since biblical times as much as we’d like to think.

This post was originally published by The Forward. Read the original here

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Club to Catwalk (Lawfully Chic)

As a child of the 1980s my memories of that era are of baggy sweatshirts, floral leggings and hair that had not yet discovered the power of a good blow dry. Or of Thatcher in a pussy bow blouse, or Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, all perm and shoulder pads. But as the V&A’s Club to Catwalk exhibition makes clear, it was also a decade in which fashion pushed the boundaries in an unexpectedly glamorous way.
The exhibition, which brings together 85 iconic outfits along with accessories, looks at “the creative explosion of London fashion in the 1980″. It’s a whirlwind tour of how key designers interpreted the trends of the time – including loud, garish prints, unforgiving knitwear and androgyny – and how fashion was an inherent part of the burgeoning underground club scene, with design schools deserted on Fridays as students rushed to create thrilling, subversive outfits for the weekend.Interspersed with the outfits are photographs and videos (look for a glimpse of a young Daniel Day-Lewis in one clip), a darkened “club area” showing footage from 1980s clubs, and copies of magazines like The Face that lived and

breathed the culture of the time, all set to the strains of suc

h 80s hits as Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics.

The work of several still-talked-about designers is featured, from John Galliano’s post-Central Saint Martins collection (drapery that reworked French revolutionary fashion) to the post-punk offerings of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Highlights include a selection of Katherine Hamnett’s early slogan T-shirts – a reminder of a time before wearing a campaign on your chest became ubiquitous – and the lurid colours of Chrissie Walsh’s 1980 Fringe and Flapjack collection, which looks like something the costume designer on a spoof superhero film would come up with.

Arranged by theme, such as Rave, High Camp and New Romantics, the display highlights not just specific designers but how dominant the desire to reinvent and take risks was. In the 1980s, the exhibition suggests, clothes were a canvas for expression, and club culture was a way of exhibiting yourself. And the fashion was radical, rebellious – but also exciting, from Antony price’s sensational bird wing evening dress to Betty Jackson’s unexpectedly fabulous Zoot suit, inspired by cross dressing. Designer Georgina Godley is quoted as commenting: “the words commercial or accessible were not it our vocabulary” and you can well believe her.

What’s interesting is how so many of these counter-cultural trends have survived to this day and how much of what was once rather radical has transitioned to the modern mainstream wardrobe. Body Con, for example, which arrived in the 80s as designers made use of form fitting knits and stretch jersey. Or the way designers customised their creations; Zandra Rhodes’s denim jacket from the 1986 Blitz denim collection, made of cotton, silk plastic, mirror plate and fabric paint, was reinvented a thousand times by scissor-happy fashionistas in the early noughties. You see how certain styles – from angry patterns to sharp angles – were used almost to the point of fancy dress, paving the way for the likes of Lady Gaga and Jessie J.

To an extent, the “club” element is peripheral, since the fashion itself is so glorious and eye-catching that it stands on its own. The emphasis on its relationship with wider culture seems added on for the sake of the exhibition. But perhaps it’s hard to do this justice if you weren’t there.

No doubt for those who experienced the 1980s, this will be an amusing walk down memory lane. For those who didn’t, it is a playful and alternative snapshot of an era that tends to be discussed more in terms of high unemployment, poll tax riots and the Falklands. It’s the real deal – not the saccharine copy of 80s fashion on display at themed club nights. And it’s captivating.

This post was originally published by Lawfully Chic. Read the original here.

Recent writing

It’s been a while since I updated, mainly because I have just moved on from my role at the JC and started work in public affairs. But before I left, I covered my fair share of stories, including the Queen’s Birthday Honours and new research into the contribution of refugees. I interviewed carers on the subject of community networks, and spoke to Claire Bloom about her lengthy career in acting.

With nearly a year until the UK (and other countries) marks the start of what was supposed to be the war to end all wars, I looked at how Jewish soldiers fought not only for this country but on behalf of Germany. On a lighter note, I discovered how one Disney animator made Piglet live in a Jewish home, wrote about the continued relevance of Israel tour, and singlehandedly (possibly. Nobody has said otherwise) convinced Leonard Cohen to reschedule a concert planned for Yom Kippur.

I reviewed the Jewish Museum’s exhibition about Amy Winehouse, arguing that she was “a bona fide Jewish celebrity, whose connection with her faith extended beyond a few choice Yiddish words”. I interviewed an entrepreneur who has essentially been there and done that with almost every notable person in the last few decades, wrote about a businessman turned zookeeper, and reported on the launch programme for the new JW3 centre. And I had a jaunt around Google’s central London office, learning about how it can make religious life easier.

In comment, I responded to claims that Hollywood colluded with the Germans in the years before the Holocaust, arguing that even if that was the case, “with fewer survivors to share their stories, we need the might of Hollywood to ensure the Shoah stays in the public consciousness”.

Elsewhere, I reviewed both the BP Portrait exhibtion at the National Portrait Gallery – “paintings that display in the most basic sense what a gifted individual can achieve” – and the Club to Catwalk show at the V and A for the culture blog Lawfully Chic. And for The Forward I wrote about how the emphasis on motherhood is not just a part of royal life.