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Orthodox women make case for life beyond Netflix

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Lifestyle

As the spotlight shines on the introduction of the “Jewish Kardashians” in My Unorthodox Life, ordinary Jewish woman have begun to air their own stories under the title of #MyOrthodoxLife.

Their personal portraits are in response to the Netflix series, and other shows like Unorthodox and the documentary One of Us that depict people who reject Orthodox communities, and paint them as stifling and oppressive environments.

The SA Jewish Report invited six women in the South African Jewish community to add to the gallery of reflections that stretch beyond the streaming service.

As a starting point, many of them cautioned against trying to confine the complexities of Jewish identity into neat categories: “What does the word ‘religious’ mean? Keeping Shabbos and kosher and wearing a skirt? There are 613 other mitzvot. Why have we chosen those three as the barometer for religiosity?” asks Chaya Ross.

For her, the concept of “religious” is a social imposition. “I don’t think Hashem makes such distinctions. In Hashem’s eyes, I believe we’re all Jewish, the Torah belongs to all of us equally, and His only expectation of us is for us to do our best and to try be better than we were yesterday,” she says.

She suggests that Jewish identity isn’t set, but an ongoing process. “In Judaism, growth is gradual, consistent, small steps to an eventual goal. Making these distinctions in Judaism can stop organic growth and close us off to what could be great spiritual and connecting experiences.”

Breindy Klawansky, suggests that labels across the Jewish community can easily be misunderstood. “Your religious identity is your spiritual relationship and ties to Hashem and the Torah. No one can know how spiritual someone else is. If it’s hard to understand your own relationship with Hashem, then imagine how hard it is to understand someone else’s.”

Adrienne Kay says that even within the concept of orthodoxy lies a “spectrum” of experiences. “It definitely depends upon where you and your community are holding. I can talk only from the South African perspective, and the level at which I’m holding. There are definitely more liberal and more stringent Orthodox communities.”

These women celebrate the importance of communality, especially in South Africa. “South Africans Jews are extremely lucky,” says Lesley Sacks. “We are unique in that even if you’re not remotely frum, a lot of South African Jews consider themselves Orthodox and very traditional.”

Rebbetzin Estee Stern, says that in her home, inclusivity was always embraced as “my parents instilled within us respect for each person, no matter their background or level of Jewish observance.”

“The South African Jewish community is united,” says Ross. “We have one Beth Din; we daven in the same shuls; and our lives are connected beyond the type of kippah our husbands and sons wear. Instead, we are connected in the way that we answer each other’s questions on Joburg Jewish Mommies; in the way that we chat in the line at Moishies on a Friday; and in the way that our tehillim WhatsApp groups represent every type of kippah or non-kippah wearing Jew.”

In addition, many express a deep sense of fulfilment in Jewish femininity. “Judaism is very pro-feminism,” says Sacks. “Anyone that knows even a little bit of Judaism, knows that it’s not true that women are second-class citizens.” Having become more religious since young adulthood, Sacks says it doesn’t mean that she “didn’t have meaning in [her] life before”, but [becoming more religious] has brought joy to it. “It’s now intrinsically part of who and what I am.”

“I’ve never once felt subjugated as an Orthodox Jewish woman. In fact, I feel empowered and proud,” says Kay. She gives examples of the extensive career opportunities enjoyed by Orthodox women.

“Rachel [Ruchie] Freier is a criminal court judge in New York from a religious Hasidic community. Beatie Deutsch, a frum Israeli woman, is considered to be amongst the top marathon runners in the world. She’s a 31-year-old mother of six, and runs in modest clothing.”

Klawansky is an award-winning musician and singer in her own right. Though she performs only to women, incorporating tehillim verses in her cutting-edge style, her expressiveness has such powerful resonance, it has even crossed cultural lines. Alongside her husband, the duo has received a Global Music Award and a South African Music Award nomination. Most recently, two of her poems have been selected for publication in an international anthology. Rather than feeling restricted, Klawansky asserts quite simply, “My music is in me…”

The women also say that we need to expand the way in which we measure success and fulfilment. Stern points out that the home is the beating heart of a healthy society. “It’s at home that the bedrock of our Judaism is set. The foundation of a home is the woman. She sets the tone, the environment, and the culture for the family. Judaism places much value and emphasis on women. I strongly believe that if you inspire a woman, you inspire a family. And if you inspire a family, you inspire communities!”

Ross notes how “when the Torah was given, Hashem said to Moshe that he must first go and talk to the women and instruct them about the ways of Torah, and then only after that instruct the men. The reason for this, amongst other things, is that women play a central role in giving over the Torah to their children, and imbuing their homes with it.”

Far from feeling cut off from modern society, they describe how Judaism helps them find balance in what otherwise can feel like a frenetic pace. “The thing I wish everyone understood is the power of Shabbos,” says Blumenthal. “I run my own business, and it often causes boundaries to be blurred, but when Friday afternoon arrives and I can turn off my phone and close my laptop, there’s no greater feeling. Without having that distinct boundary between the work week and my down time, I wouldn’t survive, and it’s because of the gift of Shabbos that I’m able to push forward, keep going, and do the best work for my clients.”

Kay concurs in the pleasures of life beyond Netflix in more ways than one. “In my personal Orthodox life, I have found a balance between modernity and the ancient traditions of Judaism. I love the fact that on Shabbos, I switch off from the modern world, including cell phones and TV, and find a unique peace with myself and a deep connection to G-d.”

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Lifestyle

Shirley Valentine gets the show on the road

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Shirley Valentine is coming to Montecasino Theatre from 26 January. The SA Jewish Report speaks to director Gina Shmukler about the show, long delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us a little about your theatrical experience and the past two years?

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the theatre industry. I’m exceptionally fortunate that I direct corporate theatre, which has sustained me over the past two years. We have made theatre in the virtual space – basically TV for corporates.

What made you choose to direct Shirley Valentine now?

I was approached by VR Theatrical to direct. We were in rehearsals for Shirley Valentine when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. In February last year, we staged it for the first time at The Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg. At that point, theatres were allowed an audience of only 50 people. We played to 50 people in a 456-seater theatre. I remember crying when the first audience entered. Theatre has its own power of connection.

The set, props, and wardrobe were packed for Montecasino as we imagined we would be opening shortly afterwards. Another year passed … and here we are.

What is it about this play that appeals to you in general and as a woman?

Its humanity is what appeals to me. Shirley is alone in a marriage that has lost its love and connection. She’s honest about her aloneness as she talks to her “wall” and later her “rock”. Playwright Willy Russell captures the complexity of relationships, infusing the story with heart, humour, and love. Isolation has become real through the pandemic. We have all experienced the loss of community and connection, and what that means. Shirley’s journey takes her to the point where she falls in love with the idea of living. She discovers what it is to be alive.

Her journey is one about finding and learning to love the most important person in her life. Please explain this, and why it’s an important lesson for all of us?

Shirley has been holding onto a dream, “to sit at the edge of the sea and drink wine in a country where the grapes are grown”. It’s this dream which she believes will nourish her and lead her to happiness. And yet as she sits there, nothing changes. She realises we take ourselves with us, so while she lives that dream, her inner world doesn’t shift. She confronts what she calls her “wasted life”. It’s from this point that she begins to grow and fall in love with herself again.

For some, Shirley Valentine is a sad soul who is lost and so desperate, she talks to walls. For others, she’s a heroine. What is she to you, and why?

She’s a woman who fell in love with her husband, got married and had two kids, and had dreams that life and domesticity interfered with. And she got lost along the way. For me, she’s a woman of great courage and humour, who at the age of 42, redefines what matters to her and then lives by it.

What were you looking for in the actress to play Shirley? What does Natasha Sutherland bring to the role?

When I was auditioning for Shirley, I knew that technically, I needed someone who had real “theatre chops” as a one-person play requires great stamina and guts (to say the least). I hadn’t yet decided my vision for the play, but when Natasha auditioned, she brought something so real, so compelling, so contemporary, that I knew she was probably my Shirley. Theatre runs in Natasha’s veins, and it’s been a gift to work on a well-written play with an extraordinary actress and person.

Why bring a fantasy of a Greek island holiday to our theatres when we have been starved of travel for almost two years?

Doesn’t theatre give us the chance to dream, to be taken to unexpected places emotionally and imaginatively?

Last July, we filmed a virtual event in the Market Theatre and as I sat there, I was struck by what theatre offers me. A chance to get out of my head, to travel through music or the spoken word to unexpected places within myself, and a window to dream.

What do you believe our theatre audiences are looking for now?

Heart. Connection. Community. To laugh and share collectively.

So many theatre personae have been starved of work as a result of the pandemic. How do you believe this should be remedied?

Looking to government and our minister of arts and culture isn’t an option right now.

I have thought so many times who I would dedicate the run of Shirley to and to be honest, there has been so much death in our industry. Artists have suffered with limited work, no medical aid, they have no food, and have lost their homes. It’s very sore!

Nothing replaces the visceral power of the human story shared in a living, breathing environment such as the theatre. My wish would be more investment in the arts from corporates.

Shirley often says, “It’s funny that…” For me, it’s funny that businesses are eager to invest so much in their corporate social investment work when theatre has such a role to play in our society. When we can, let’s all exhale and rebuild our South African theatre industry, but for now, you can start by booking tickets to see Shirley Valentine, which runs from 26 January to 12 February in Joburg at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino.

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Israel

Tenacious Miss SA returns to hero’s welcome

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In spite of being crowned Second Princess in the Miss Universe pageant held in Eilat, Israel, last month, Miss South Africa admits to having felt nervous about returning home to South Africa afterwards.

Lalela Mswane flew to Dubai and then Israel without the support – or knowledge – of the South African government, which had been pressurising her not to go for weeks beforehand.

“I didn’t know what was awaiting me [in South Africa]. I was anxious but optimistic at the same time. I had a warrior-princess attitude. I had been to hell and back. I felt like, ‘Bring it on!’,” she says.

But the 24-year-old need not have worried. A hero’s welcome awaited her as ordinary South Africans showered her with pride.

During a press conference at OR Tambo International Airport, she expressed disappointment and anger at the government’s decision, and the mass criticism she had received in the lead-up to the contest.

“I felt abandoned,” she said. “I’ll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don’t have to be for me, but you don’t have to be against me. You don’t have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice.”

The starlet recognised the situation for what it was. It reminded her of the years of bullying she’d endured while growing up.

“I’m tenacity personified,” she quips. “I believe in standing for something. Even if you have to stand alone, or stand with very few people, be strong in your convictions.”

Born in Richards Bay and raised in Pretoria, the beauty queen discovered her love for ballet in the Jacaranda City, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Law at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for humanitarianism and creating positive change is what ultimately steered her towards competing in Miss South Africa.

“The dream [of being Miss South Africa] was planted in my heart when I was about seven,” she says. “I saw my predecessors do so many amazing things and the impact they could have.”

As a devout Christian, the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem was a dream come true.

“It was emotional. We went to the Western Wall and heard a prayer. I literally felt a sense of renewal and rebirth, and said to G-d, ‘Let your will be done.’ I was at peace from that moment on. For me, spiritually, that trip was everything and more.”

Mswane describes Israelis as “extremely friendly, very welcoming”, and even picked up a little Hebrew. “Todah”, she says perfectly. “The first thing I asked when I arrived was how to say thank you because I say thank you a lot!”

No trip abroad would be complete without sampling the country’s cuisine, and this journey was no exception. “Oh, the food! I think I gained weight. No, I know I gained weight,” she laughs. “I’m not a bread girl, but I couldn’t get enough of the bread there. It was so fresh! You could just get the sense that it was made with love.”

She’s even become a fan of Israel’s most famous dish – hummus.

“I’ve been converted. I had it the other day at a restaurant [in South Africa] but it didn’t hit the spot.”

Now that she’s back on home soil, Mswane is serious about placing the entire ordeal behind her and focusing on how she can help South Africa overcome unemployment.

“I don’t regret my decision one bit. I’m so happy I went. Israel was everything and more and I’ve often said that I would have gone regardless of the location. My stance was never political; it was me going to pursue a dream that I have always had.”

The battle has now turned to the courtroom where last month, nongovernmental organisation Citizens for Integrity (CFI) brought a case over the government’s withdrawal of its support to the high court as a matter of public interest. Although it failed to get the urgent hearing it anticipated, “no merits of the application were discussed. The only aspect discussed was urgency. The case continues,” says CFI founder Mark Hyman.

The application by Africa4Palestine (formerly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions group) to be amicus curae (a friend of the court) wasn’t even heard by the judge, who asked it to leave.

The department of sport, arts and culture falsely claims on its website that the case was struck from the roll. Minister Nathi Mthethwa argues online that, “Our position is rooted in the responsibility to encourage a culture of moral stewardship amongst all who carry the South African name.” He has yet to respond to an open letter by CFI saying it isn’t too late for him and the government to apologise to Mswane.

Says Hyman, “We remain steadfast in the belief that only when the government is held accountable for its unacceptable conduct toward its own citizens, and the courts make such orders, can we say that we are making South Africa a better democratic society. This is what we seek to do by fighting for the rights of South Africans in this case.

“CFI remains convinced that the government has avoided its obligations and has failed to respect the rights of its citizens, and needs to be taken to task because of it. We believe that the government had no constitutional right to interfere in legitimate private business affairs in the first place or to bully such a party into submitting to the government position and to publicly sanction her for refusing to comply with its demand. We also believe that the government has unconstitutionally impaired Miss South Africa’s dignity by detailing to the public, in emotive terms, the nature of private discussions simply in order to justify a decision which it imposed on her.”

Mswane, though, has already put it behind her.

“I definitely cannot say I’m the same person. Before, I was searching for validation and support from everybody. Post everything, I feel like if something resonates with me deeply, I don’t need validation. Resonating with me should be enough.”

It’s often said that a person’s name has the ability to shape them. Mswane’s parents must have known this when they named her “Lalela” which means “listen” in isiZulu.

The greatest lesson she’s taken from the experience is to listen to her heart.

“If you know that you have found peace in a decision, do it, because you need to stand for something in life. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s fine, but you need to back yourself all the damn time.”

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‘Kosher’ prawns and mussels spark packaging alert

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For some Jews, kosher prawns and mussels would be a dream come true. So, when it emerged in December 2021 that two local treif seafood products had a United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) Beth Din kosher hechsher on their packaging, many laughed it off as a humorous error.

Others took it more seriously, saying that if prawns can be labelled kosher, there may be mistakes where the distinction isn’t so clear cut.

The prawns were a Woolworths product, while the mussels were from Shoprite.

“The erroneous use of the Beth Din logo on products is nothing new,” says a member of the local Kosher Consumers Organisation (KCO), speaking on condition of anonymity. “It happens from time to time and occurs throughout the world. It’s acceptable, and mistakes do happen, but only up to a point. We’re concerned about the frequency with which this is happening in South Africa. Almost every alert which goes out is about products which contain the logo when they shouldn’t, or products which contain the incorrect designation of parev or dairy. As consumers, it’s impossible to keep track. It also makes one question the reliability of the logo when it does appear on a product.

“Chocolate, cold drinks and the like is one thing, but prawns and mussels is another completely,” the consumer says. “This is unacceptable. It speaks to a breakdown in controls and systems of monitoring and approval. In an age of fake meat and fake cheese, the damage that can be done by the Beth Din logo on non-kosher seafood can be immeasurable. The response from the UOS has been tepid – one email sent to the community. One email only. What about people who have no email? Where’s the urgency?”

The KCO points out that “the treif seafood which bears the Beth Din logo is made in Cape Town. The latest extremely confusing alert which went out about wine which has the Beth Din logo on it, but also the Hebrew words ‘not kosher’ is also a product made in Cape Town. Following the passing of Rabbi Desmond Maizels a year ago, the UOS of Johannesburg has taken over the kashrus operations of Cape Town.”

The group says it remains anonymous because it’s fearful. “We wish we could be open, but one cannot tackle the establishment these days without repercussions. We understand that our anonymity may prevent us from being taken seriously, and that’s a price we need to pay. But we’re concerned for our livelihoods. The Kosher Consumer Organisation of the 70s to the 90s was a powerful force in the community. Times have changed, the community has changed. But it had a great history and was well-received by the community.”

Commenting on the treif seafood labelling saga, UOS Kosher Department Managing Director Rabbi Dovi Goldstein says the error lies with the companies concerned. “Woolworths and Shoprite are longstanding and major clients of the Kosher Department, with thousands of kosher-certified products on their shelves. Both companies have been committed to the Jewish community for years and were most apologetic and co-operative in rectifying the problem when this printing error was brought to their attention,” he says.

“In both instances, the mislabelled products were brought to our attention by members of the community. Unfortunately, errors like these occur from time to time all around the world. When we were made aware of them, we remedied it by notifying the community via email and our various social-media channels, and we contacted the companies and had the products removed from their stores or the logo covered, to which they agreed.

“Where issues of mislabelling occur, we work with manufacturers to address the issue to ensure it doesn’t happen again and notify our community immediately,” Goldstein says. “In addition, over the holiday period, Villa Cape wine was also seen on shelves bearing an unauthorised logo, together with the Hebrew lettering stating ‘not kosher’. This was an unauthorised use of our logo, and the company in question has also been contacted and the products recalled from the shelves.

“The reality is that we have tens of thousands of products with our logo on the shelf, which is positive for the kosher consumer. The community is our eyes and ears on the ground, and may very well spot a labelling error on packaging on the shelf before we do as the kosher department. We have recently established a dedicated email for community members to send this kind of information through to our team. If you come across any product that bears our logo and seems unauthorised, please email notkosher@uos.co.za with a photograph and the details of the packaging, and we will investigate.”

Woolworths spokesperson Kirsten Hewett said, “We apologise for this labelling error. Accurate, transparent, and helpful product labelling is very important for our customers. The kosher authority notified us of the packaging error on 20 December 2021.

“We immediately removed all the incorrectly labelled products from our store shelves on 20 December. As an interim measure, a sticker will cover the kosher logo on the packaging while the label is being corrected. While we do have procedures in place to prevent mistakes, we are reviewing these procedures and will implement further controls to prevent errors in future.”

One community member complained directly to Woolworths, and shared extracts of the response he received. “Our technical team was extremely concerned to hear about the matter. All factories producing products for Woolworths are audited independently by various inspection services to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.

“Following your complaint, we have conducted a full investigation with the manufacturer which involves a detailed investigation of the label printing and approval process. We have identified the error, and have corrected it immediately. We have addressed this with our supplier and reinforced the importance of following the correct labelling procedure. We take pride in adhering to the correct kosher practices when manufacturing and packing our kosher products,” the company wrote.

The Shoprite media team said, “The supermarket chain would like to apologise to its loyal customers for oversight of this labelling error. It has already agreed with the UOS of South Africa and Kosher SA to ensure that the packaging is updated and correctly labelled in its next packaging print run. A kosher alert was subsequently issued detailing the particulars.”

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