Challah – bread of Jewish men’s affliction
There are many reasons why it isn’t easy to be a Jewish male. Expectation of performance begins at eight days, and hardly eases up until we shuffle off the mortal coil, well ahead of our time, exhausted from the effort and stress of it all.
The expectations are seemingly without end. We need to make our parents proud, we need to provide for our families, to be good husbands and better fathers, and we need to have run at least one marathon in a far-flung city by the time we are 45.
We need to be able to sing in front of the community at our Barmitzvahs, just when we are at our most awkward and when our voices are the most unreliable. We need to be able to intone anything at any given time.
And then, on the one night of the week when we can relax, we are required to cut the challah with the precision of a surgeon, the speed of Usain Bolt, and we need to do so while everyone watches in hungry expectation.
Following the kiddush prayer and the ritualistic washing of hands, there is a period of silence. With no speaking until the eating of the challah, it’s one of the most underrated aspects of being a Jewish male. It’s a moment that represents almost every aspect of “Jewish maleness”, and it happens week after week after week. Why?
Because no matter what, it will be done wrong. The slices will be too thick. Or thin. Or the wrong challah would have been selected. Too much, too little salt will have been added. And the challah serving plate will have been passed in the wrong direction. Eyes will be rolled, lips pursed, and heads will be slowly shaken. From side. To side. To side.
A Jewish male it would seem, cannot please a Jewish woman.
I have asked around. A friend’s wife told me that she can’t stand the way he cuts the challah, and prefers to do it herself. “He just can’t get it right. It’s got so bad that I hardly even let him carve the meat.”
She even went as far as to buy an electric carving knife, which she used before he got home from work on a Friday so that he didn’t need to. It might be worth mentioning that when he’s not “butchering” the challah, he’s a well-respected surgeon. At least he made his parents proud.
And there are those who are too precise for their own good. My father-in-law is one such case. Each piece of challah is measured to perfection. Sliced the way through, and then checked in case any remnants of attachment to the piece before remains, before moving on to slice number two. And so on.
Generally, we like to start Shabbat on Wednesday when visiting, as it takes about that long before we get to eat. All while we sit in silence.
The slicing of challah is the most underrated aspect of being a Jewish male. It carries with it all the expectation along with all the disappointment of generations of men who have failed before them.
It’s a moment that’s shared in all households across the Jewish world week after week. It bonds Jewish women to the past, and will link them to their great granddaughters, who will one day share knowing looks with their sisters as they watch their husband “butcher” the challah, just as their father did.
Making us count on Election Day
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) this week focused on final preparations for the multifaith election observer team that will be taking part in the local government elections this coming Monday, 1 November 2021. The Board initiated this project as part of its education and awareness campaign for the 2009 national and provincial elections, and has run it every election since then. Its purpose is to bring together volunteers from a range of different backgrounds to assist the Independent Electoral Commission by monitoring proceedings at polling stations to ensure that everything is fair and above board as well as offering hands-on logistical assistance where required. Aside from its purely practical benefits, the project is a rousing example of participatory democracy, and the fact that Jewish leadership is heading it up is certainly to the credit of the community as a whole.
From the Board’s point of view, the observer-team initiative further helps us to realise a core aspect of our mission, namely to “work for the betterment of human relations between Jews and all other peoples of South Africa, based on mutual respect, understanding, and goodwill”. It enables people to join their fellow citizens in being an active, contributing part of the democratic process, and over the years, participants have found it to be an inspiring bridge-building experience. The participation of the observer team on polling day also marks the culmination of the Board’s #MakeUsCount pre-election awareness and education campaign, one of the flagship initiatives through which we seek to lead our community in identifying with, contributing to, and participating in our robust democratic culture.
I warmly commend our professional staff, in particular Charisse Zeifert and Alana Baranov, for putting together another very successful #MakeUsCount campaign in spite of the short notice and added pressure of simultaneously having to organise the Board’s national conference. Regarding the elections themselves, I urge you all to turn out on the day and make your cross, regardless of which party you might support.
New era for Jewish Affairs journal
Over the decades, the SAJBD’s core mission of representing the community and protecting its civil rights has been expanded to include preserving and promoting South African Jewish heritage. One of the most important vehicles for this is our archives, which comprise of a comprehensive record of the Jewish presence in southern Africa and are regularly used by academics, genealogists, and journalists. Another is Jewish Affairs, the community’s leading Jewish historical, cultural, and current affairs journal, which has been produced under the auspices of the SAJBD since 1941.
Last week, Jewish Affairs embarked on an exciting new era in its 80-year history with the launch of its new stand-alone website: www.jewishaffairs.co.za. I encourage readers to browse through this site, which provides free access to all material published since 2009, and consider signing on (likewise without charge) to the mailing list to receive regular updates on the latest posts.
- Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.
Malema not such a tweet about Jewish survival
I fully intended to be outraged at an Economic Freedom Fighters tweet that quoted Julius Malema. He was speaking at an election event that was live tweeted by his party. “No one will force anyone to vaccinate. I’m vaccinated because I believe in science, and [the] trials for COVID-19 were run on white people, and that was unusual. Even Jews are vaccinated, and those people don’t play with their lives.”
Perhaps it’s rude to refer to anyone as “those people”, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. And as one of those very people, I do find it hard to find fault with his statement. Because Jews don’t, as a rule, play with our lives.
It’s not to say that Jews can’t be warriors, soldiers, and members of the Community Security Organisation who bravely leopard crawl across the soccer fields of Jewish school campuses. It’s not to say that we can’t compete in well-co-ordinated trail runs through the mountains outside Plettenberg Bay when the moment demands it of us. Or, throw caution to the wind and run without a full reflector vest moments before sunrise.
It doesn’t mean that some of us have been known to walk to shul without our orthotics and even to miss repeated sessions with our biokineticist as if we hadn’t a tight hamstring in the world. Or (G-d forbid) neglect to take our Crestor (to lower bad cholesterol), knowing full well that given our genetics, it could result in it bordering on or dangerously slightly above the recommended level. (G-d forbid).
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that we value life, and that we don’t play around with it. Whereas Malema might not have considered the extent of his comments, and probably didn’t stop to wonder why it’s the case, Jews might well be more sensitive to survival than others who haven’t been persecuted for centuries. The reality is that Jews have spent generations trying to prevent people from annihilating us simply because they could.
The consequence of our history shouldn’t be understated. In a conversation that I had some years ago with music legend Johnny Clegg, he recounted a story from his childhood in Zimbabwe. He told me there were six children in his class, which didn’t go unnoticed by a teacher at Hebrew school. She told them in no uncertain terms that each of them represented and bore the responsibility of a million Jews that had perished in the Holocaust. Each would have to metaphorically carry them on their shoulders. This was too much for Clegg, who decided then and there not to have a Barmitzvah.
The other consequence is the anxiety that Jews live with. Partly interbreeding and partly survivor genetics, we are tuned to nuance, to a shift in tone, and to medical issues. We see our survival not just in terms of our own ability to live another day, but in terms of the understanding that we hold the key to Jews surviving as Jews in a world that might not always want us. But always needs us.
The tweet might have been clumsy. It might not have been politically correct. It might not have what we expect or want from a politician. But it was pretty darn accurate.
Don’t vote, don’t complain
The conversation would go something along these lines. “Mrs Feldman,” they would say, on seeing my late grandmother, “You are looking too wonderful!” A pregnant pause would follow as she contemplated the horror of what had been said. “Really?” she would finally answer, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, “You should only know how terrible I feel.”
And then, just to prove her point. Or to make them suffer, she would tell them. Complaint by complaint. Ailment by ailment, punctuated with a detailed description of her matching medication. At a family function, my grandmother would find desserts “too sweet” and the band too loud. She was never happy with where she had been seated, and there was always someone who didn’t greet her appropriately.
She wouldn’t have it any other way. Because complaining made her happy.
Whereas our generation might not complain about the same things, we’re hardly different. Social media is a complainer’s dream, where at a whim and at any time, we have the ability to slate, moan, and denigrate anything or anyone we choose. The “Hello Peters”, Google Reviews, and Facebook groups all provide fertile environments for anyone having a bad experience or simply a bad day. Because like it or not, complaining makes us happy.
It does, however, have its limits. And there are conditions attached to our ability and right to complain. We might, for instance, not be happy with the state of our roads, or the water pipes or electricity, but we forfeit the right to complain about them if we choose not to vote in the forthcoming municipal elections. No one will stop us, and maybe no one will even know, but electing not to participate in the choosing of representatives for our neighbourhoods and cities renders our complaining voices silent on a moral level.
The refrain of, “There’s no one to vote for” isn’t only inaccurate, it’s also lazy. The options might not be perfect, but each presents an opportunity for change and improvement.
The decision not to vote is a vote for the status quo. Which means that it’s affirmation that things are just as they should be. It means that the roads are pristine, that our water sparkles and is reliable, and that our lights switch on with the predictability and consistency of high school Charidy callers. It means that everything is just as it should be. Because, why else would anyone choose not to choose?
In conversations with the leaders of the Democratic Alliance, Action SA, and the African Christian Democratic Party, each told me the same thing: this election is all about service delivery. It’s about selecting the party and person who has the highest chance of getting the job done.
It might be true that there’s no perfect party and no perfect candidate, but then it might be worth choosing the one that’s the least imperfect of them all. Failure to do that will result the loss of the right to complain about all the things we love to complain about.
Which would make our grandmothers very unhappy.
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