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

London 2012: one minute to remember 11 Munich athletes – too much to ask?

Seriously, in between all the running, jumping, swimming and sprinting, the Olympic organisers can’t spare one measly minute to remember 11 men murdered for daring to compete for their country?

You mean to tell me that there’s no room for a brief interlude during Danny Boyle’s opening extravaganza – not even when the rain is coming down from his fluffy fake clouds? Or during one of the minor events, the ones the organisers are practically giving away tickets to?

It is 40 years this summer since Ankie Spitzer’s husband, Andre, then a promising fencer, was murdered along with 10 other Israeli athletes who had come to Munich with dreams of medals, not massacre. In Olympic history, the terrible events of September 1972 remain a dark day in a back catalogue of glorious achievement.

Earlier this year Spitzer launched an appeal for the IOC to support a minute’s silence at the games in memory of the 11 who died, as happened in Vancouver as a tribute to another athlete who died in tragic circumstances.

Some 87,000 have backed her petition, as have myriad politicians and public figures, among them the German government, the US Senate and shadow Olympics minister Tessa Jowell.

Yet the IOC says no. Jeremy Hunt, the culture, media and sport minister, has refused to give his two pennies’ worth. Meanwhile Lord Coe, chair of the London Organising Committee, displayed extraordinary tactlessness in his response to Spitzer, inviting her to a memorial event she herself is organising. He has now agreed to hold a “personal” memorial during the opening ceremony, but it’s a concession that has taken far too long to make.

The Olympics are fundamentally about bringing people together, not dividing them along political lines, which is why Syrian show jumper Ahmad Hamsho can compete, despite his proclaimed loyalty to a government that is steadily butchering its people.

It’s why the Olympics were held in China, a country not known for its all-round dedication to human rights. It’s why the Saudis get to field a team, despite their reluctance to give women their turn. It’s why Iran’s hopefuls – a number of whom have in the past outright refused to compete against Israelis – get the benefit of the doubt and can still go for gold.

Now it would be naive to presume an international competition, even one that is supposedly above the rivalries of state governments, could be held in a vacuum. Athletes will arrive later this month at Heathrow, bringing with (assuming Britain’s airports can cope) more than just the baggage of their sports equipment.

Still, the Olympic charter is clear on prejudice, namely, that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”.

But what is the IOC’s stubbornness if not discrimination? What if the athletes killed in 1972 had been American, or French, say? Would we still be having this debate?

It seems clear that the IOC is worried about rocking the boat, angering Arab nations by honouring men who were killed by Palestinian terrorists. It’s afraid to take Israel’s side; it does not see it as a gamble worth the cost.

There doesn’t have to be pomp, there doesn’t have to be ceremony. Just 60 seconds of quiet. Usain Bolt could run the 100 metres 10 times over, but the rest of us wouldn’t get much done. It’s such a tiny symbol, negligible in the many, many moments that will make up the Olympics.

Yet it could be an opportunity for the Olympics to live up to its lofty ideals, to promote tolerance and educate a new generation about one of the bleakest points in the competition’s history. And, ultimately, it could come and go, making a difference to those who care, but offering a tea break for those who don’t.

The Olympic charter claims that the games “are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries”. So let’s follow that lead, and remember 11 men, not as Israelis, but as athletes.

This comment piece was first published by the Guardian. Read it here

How a New York visit made me more aware of home (The JC)

In vain, we searched for the pickle shop. Wandering around New York’s historic Lower East Side, it seemed improbable, impossible even, that we wouldn’t encounter a Yiddish-speaking man selling barrels of flavoursome and juicy cucumbers and telling us we had chutzpah when we tried to negotiate a good deal.

We did eventually find some (delicious, too), although only in a trendy coffee shop on a run-down but fashionable street, where the clientele ate them ironically with one hand on their Apple computers or their chai lattes.

Pickles aside, finding traces of Jewish life and history in New York was not much of a challenge. A century from its peak, the Lower East Side is as empty of Jews as it once was full. In that respect, it’s like London’s East End, a thriving hub reduced to a whisper. But what used to be there is still clear, from shops bearing the names of their Jewish founders to delis that are, if now no longer kosher, still steeped in an unequivocally Jewish cuisine, and streets and buildings adorned with the names of Jewish impresarios.

The history is not dissimilar to our own. Many Jews from far flung lands ended up in New York, but many, too, my ancestors among them, ended up in Liverpool, Cardiff – and the East End.

As in New York, they built lives, set up shuls, schools and newspapers, became visionaries, wrote books and built industries.

Physically, there is more to see in New York than in our old Jewish hubs; many of the buildings that British Jews once inhabited have gone, destroyed during the Blitz or torn down, with perhaps a solitary blue plaque to denote their presence. But, beyond this, what struck me during my stay was the locals’ pride in the past – particularly pride in this very Jewish story of survival and success against the odds.

Down the road from the café was the Tenement museum, offering heritage tours of the area and a video history of the “huddled masses” – Italian, Chinese and of course Jewish – who arrived there in the late 19th century. A look inside the tenement itself we had a glimpse into the lives of the Jews who came to Ellis Island from shtetls, impoverished and not speaking the language, only to leave the factories and the slums for a better life just a generation or so later.

This comment piece was first published in the JC. Read the rest of it here

Gossip Girl recap: The Fasting and the Furious

So, the thing about writing an entire episode centred on a specific day in the Jewish calendar is, get the basic facts right.

Surely Josh Schwartz – the inventor of Chrismukkah – should know that Yom Kippur is a 25 hour fast, not a 24 hour one. Hello writers, ever heard of Wikipedia.

That said, Yom Kippur is all about forgiveness, and while they bastardised key aspects of Jewish life, it was a pretty decent episode.

In the circus that has become Dan “I’m an awesome celebrity writer” Humphrey’s life lately, it seems his book is the one every producer in Hollywood wants. Serena’s formidable boss – who, clearly, is a bit crap if she’s staking her career prospects on a now-notoriously slutty college dropout – is particularly desperate.

So despite still being mad that Dan wrote “Sabrina” exactly as her real life alter-ego is – dumb, ditzy, not overly concerned with clothes and rather self-centred – Serena goes on a breakfast bid to convince Dan to give her the rights to the book. It sort of works, until Dan realises just how much of a big shot he is, but in the end, after a dastardly media leak, Serena wins the day.

So, basically, she’s put her career on the line so that her trainwreck teenage years can come to a big screen near you, showing she’s every bit as bright as Dan wrote her to be.

Perhaps the high point of the episode was when her boss noted: “If something doesn’t fall right into your lap, you don’t have a clue what to do about it.” Never a truer word spoken about Serena. Although I’d add “someone” as well.

For Chuck, Yom Kippur turns out to be the day he finds Judaism, via an Asian-Jewish convert therapist who he meets walking his best friend dog. Discovering her religious identity – “probably a smart move in your line of work” he says, propagating the arguably–true stereotype that New York Jews are more neurotic than their non-Jewish citymates – he decides to pay a trip to Shul.

Well, sort of. Actually, he donates $100 dollars to Chabad then, when sexy-secretary therapists psycholanalyses him for the sad-case he is, has a moment of awakening about his life.

Chuck Bass at Chabad. Wow. Mostly they just ply people with sushi and alcohol (and, obvs, Jewish learning); this would be a sure-fire way to up their attendance.

In Nate and Ivy’s world of high-class muckraking, Liz Hurley is on the prowl. After some typically bizarre scenes involving him considering what JFK would do, Nate stays true to his moral compass, though Ivy hands over the secret incriminating files from the VdW safe.

What’s this we see? Liz Hurley in some kind of pre-season five Gossip Girl related scandal?

Perhaps it will be that she’s actually a fembot. It would explain her appalling acting.

Over at the Waldorf’s, Cyrus is back holding Yom Kippur (with kugel and, of course, champagne – the perfect remedy for more than a day of dehydration) and Blair’s baby secret is out.

After a big to-do with the royal witches, prince McDull chooses Blair over mummy. But with his discovery of Blair’s Secret Baby Daddy Envelope, it looks as if he’ll soon be regretting that decision.

Bring on the episode where the Prince is run out of town for daring to mess with the natural order of Gossip Girl.

September 11: waking up a generation to terrorism (The JC)

It was Tuesday afternoon and school was out. It had been an odd day. We’d had some kind of ‘skills workshop’, with the positive outcome that I had no homework. My sister drove us home, music blaring.

As we pulled up, my mum was on the doorstep, a concerned expression on her face. “They’ve hit the Twin Towers,” she said.

I should have been more shocked. I was, later, when I’d watched the looping footage of the buildings collapsing, or people jumping from burning floors without a hope of survival. I woke up even more to what had happened the following month when I visited New York for the first time and saw smoking metal being transported away from Ground Zero and missing person posters staring hopelessly across the city.

But I was 14, more interested in who was at number one in the charts than the number one news story. I didn’t have any context for what had just happened.

There were people who hated us – it turned out quite a few

I knew about terrorism but mostly in the context of Israel, where the Second Intifada had been waging for a year. But Israel was the exception, the only place I went or knew people where such things were real.

New York – America – was an exciting place I wanted to visit, not somewhere despised by the non-Western world. War happened in other places. News only occurred in isolated events and really terrible things were consigned to history.

For my generation – the millenials, the kids born in the 1980s – 9/11 was a turning point. Before, our worlds were largely about hope; we’d only experienced peace. Wide-scale tragedy was famine or earthquakes. Things happened because of natural disaster or poverty, not the deliberate actions of man.

This comment piece was first published in The Jewish Chronicle. Read the rest of it here.

How education – and fun – can continue throughout the summer (The Times)

When the school bell rings on the final day of the academic year, you can almost taste the anticipation; six odd weeks of freedom, of mornings in bed, afternoons spent in the delirium of having nothing pressing to get on with and evenings without the burden of homework.

But as has been a subject of debate on the pages of The Times and elsewhere, not everyone benefits from the break. Too many pupils slip in the absence of a structured timetable and a teacher to guide them.

Short of cutting the summer holiday – already among the shortest in Europe – as Janice Turner suggested, the summer slide is inevitable. Or is it?
Education doesn’t have to be in the classroom. It doesn’t have to involve a whiteboard, or “Miss” at the front of the room explaining a topic and handing out worksheets. Education doesn’t have to be formal.

This post first appeared on The Times School Gate blog. Read the rest here.

Circumcision: the phoney debate

Since I am one of four female siblings, introducing me to Judaism through a ceremony carried out at the age of eight days was not something my parents had to consider.

Seeing circumcision as something for Jewish parents to consider is a relatively recent notion. In the past, the Brit milah was as natural a step for the average Jewish family as lighting Shabbat candles or saying Kaddish for a loved one; an integral part of our heritage, the original covenant between man and God.

But we live in sceptical times. This chimes with Jews. Challenging accepted wisdom is one of Judaism’s greatest characteristics. Jews do like to debate. There are rules in debating, of course: times when you can intervene, limitations on heckling from the crowd etc. In a good debate, arguments are won on sound reasoning and hard evidence.

Come November, the people of San Francisco will have the chance to decide whether they want circumcision to be banned for males under 18, punishable with a fine or even a prison sentence.

In a country where religious freedom is not merely encouraged, but constitutionally inscribed, the idea of blocking parents from observing religious practice is bizarre. Individual states aren’t even able to ban the burning of the American flag.

This comment piece originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. Read the rest of it here.