The hidden, holy lives of Orthodox Jewish women
Much has been written and explored about the lives of Haredi Jewish women, from Netflix shows to academic theses. But what about women who aren’t Haredi yet still Orthodox? What do we know about their Jewish lives, and how they balance their spiritual and secular obligations?
These are some of the questions that form the basis of a new, ground breaking book titled Challenge and Conformity – The Religious Lives of Orthodox Jewish Women by Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from her home in London, Taylor-Guthartz explains that the book is based on her doctorate, which she received from University College London. She has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Middlesex, and at Vassar College, New York, and has taught at the London School of Jewish Studies. She has presented at many international conferences including Limmud South Africa, and says the South African Jewish community’s warmth and unity had a profound impact on her when she visited the country.
“You can’t do a PhD unless you’re in love with the subject,” Taylor-Guthartz says. Originally, she wanted to explore the customs of Orthodox Jewish women in the British Jewish community. “They were things I had never heard of after returning to England from many years in Israel.”
As she tells it in the introduction to the book, “In 2002, an informal talk on ‘Jewish superstitions’ alerted me to a variety of individual, generally family or home-based practices that were very much part of women’s religious lives even though they were often described by both women and men as ‘superstitions’. Most of these were unfamiliar to me, though many were recognised and also practised, by members of the all-female audience.
“They included practices related to marriage, childbirth, and death, as well as protective rituals in everyday life,” she writes. “When I came to conduct formal interviews for this study, many more activities were mentioned. The women I interviewed told me about the Rosh Hodesh movement and women’s tefilah groups, and their part in these groups. They explained about berakhah parties and partnership minyanim, which have sprung up in the past two decades and are still not widely known, raising the question of how change and innovation takes place in a conservative community and what factors determine the acceptance or rejection of a new practice.
“I participated in all these activities and more as I explored how they form part of women’s religious identity and constitute an area in which Jewish women can exercise agency, acting independently and making their own choices.”
Taylor-Guthartz realised that she had to explore these rituals in the wider context of women’s lives. She did, indeed, fall in love with the subject, and eventually turned her thesis into the book.
The book comes at an exciting time in the Jewish world, when there has been “accelerated change. There’s been an explosion of women’s Torah learning,” she says. “There are even women training for Orthodox rabbinic ordination, something that was unthinkable a few years ago.” Taylor-Guthartz is, in fact, one of the women who did just that, at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.
“I wanted to learn more,” she says. While she has no desire to become a community rabbi, she hopes that the qualification will enrich her life, learning, and teaching. “I want to help others with questions of Jewish law, and give more people access. Halachic texts are very difficult to access.”
Turning to her book, she says it explores the “double invisibility” of Orthodox Jewish women. “To the outside world, they are often completely invisible. And in the Jewish world, men don’t know what women are doing. They’re totally unaware.”
While her book focuses on the British Jewish community, there are many themes that are relevant worldwide. Discussing the return to religiosity that has swept the South African Jewish community over the past 25 years, she says it’s “a global phenomenon seen in America, Israel, and the United Kingdom. There has been a huge amount written about it.” But she notes “people don’t stay in one place with their religion all their lives”. Her interviews for the book encompass many women and their families drifting closer to or further from Judaism at different ages and stages.
Looking to the future, Taylor-Guthartz says that shuls moving online as a result of COVID-19 led to people exploring other synagogues or denominations. “It’s created a huge question about going back [to shul]. It might be a game changer, allowing people to be more flexible.”
This has been particularly beneficial for women, who have been able to hold online services and events that may have been frowned upon in person. She believes that such openness is key to Jewish communities surviving and thriving, and that forums like Limmud are a “lifeline”.
For her, the most inspiring part of writing her book was finding out “how resilient women are, and how they cope, get round obstacles, and manage. For example, they have tefilah groups that have survived in spite of opposition from the London Beth Din. They have created their own space for their voice to be heard. I have enormous respect for how Orthodox women have created their own religious life.”
Who should read this book? “Everyone!” she says. But in particular, she hopes that rabbis and men read it. She emphasises that she doesn’t make “policy recommendations”, but simply documents what’s happening on the ground. “I hope it will help rabbis realise how female congregants feel. I hope the fact that it’s about women doesn’t make men feel it’s not for them.” She says that of those Orthodox women who have read it, many say it corresponds with their experience.
As she writes in her conclusion, most Orthodox Jewish women in the diaspora “inhabit a set of overlapping worlds. In their conformity and allegiance to the Jewish community, in their creativity in Jewish ritual and its interpretation, and in challenging or working around male-dominated structures to make spaces where their voices can be heard, these women demonstrate remarkable agency and adaptability.”
The book can be bought from the Liverpool University Press website.
Shirley Valentine gets the show on the road
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.
Tenacious Miss SA returns to hero’s welcome
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.”
‘Kosher’ prawns and mussels spark packaging alert
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 email@example.com 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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