A woman's work: Parenthood — angst, anguish and scotch eggs
In a new regular column, the author of young adult fiction reflects on the challenges of life as a mother and writer living in North London
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Being a Jewish parent throws up various dilemmas. It’s by no means as easy as just whether to go meat or milk on the barmitzvah canapes.
There’s education for a start. Non-Jewish or Jewish? State or private? And all the little questions that follow. If they’re at a non-Jewish school, do you take all the yom tovim off, even if that means missing music three times in a row? If they’re at a Jewish school, how do you make sure your kids don’t think the whole world revolves around Golders Green?
My parents sent me to the local girls’ grammar, a place where Jewish was as exotic as it got. They had to decide whether to keep me out of assembly or expose me to a few hymns (I stayed out, a good decision, I loved being able to browse in the library). They decided to pull me out of religious education the year it was taught by a former missionary (another good decision, and in fact my extended periods in the library may well have inspired my future career as a journalist and novelist).
They had to decide what to do when home economics lessons began to involve meat. Bad decision here, the most humiliating Jewish-related experience of my life came when we made scotch eggs. My mother consulted her butcher, and bought unskinned viennas to stand in for sausage meat. It was like trying to manipulate dried-out Play Dough. Everyone else’s eggs were small and neat and perfect. Mine were bulbous monsters, fluorescent pink clashing with the alien orange breadcrumbs and cracking open to reveal a boiled egg, stained pale pink, quivering like a zombie eyeball. Thereafter I falsely declared myself a vegetarian and perfected my signature dish, macaroni cheese.
In my 16 years as a Jewish parent I’ve faced difficult questions too. How to install a distinct Anglo-Jewish identity when my kids were growing up in Amsterdam and attending a multi-national international school? Should I worry when my daughter told me she preferred the Korean girls to the Israelis, as the two dominant playground power bases? (Answer, no — the Koreans were far better behaved.) What to do when my son scandalised the parents of his kindergarten class by telling a weeping boy (American, fundamentalist Christian) that not only did Santa not exist, but he (my son) didn’t believe in Jesus either. (Apologies all round, hiding secret pride in son’s outspoken honesty).
I’ve suffered angst and anguish over making a batmitzvah just months after we moved back to London — solved by going back to the shul where I grew up and copying the service created for me when I was the first girl to be batmitzvahed there, back in 1976.
I’ve worried over post-batmitzvah Jewish education, the length of skirts worn to shul, how often the kids should go to shul and which shul to go to. I’ve worried over the one in a non-Jewish school — how Jewish will she be? — and the one in a Jewish school — will he be in a ghetto? Then there’s Israel Tour. Can it really be worth the expense? And is it necessary to buy a complete new wardrobe beforehand?
And all these concerns have been discussed and debated with friends who are going through similar concerns of their own.
The one thing we didn’t really spend much time on was whether to circumcise our baby sons.
Maybe it’s because we knew and trusted the mohelim in our community. Maybe it’s because we knew that the overwhelming majority of Jewish boys are completely untraumatised by the experience, falling asleep minutes afterwards, showing no pain as it heals, unaffected in adult life and keen to carry out this ancient tradition on their sons. Maybe it’s because we recognised that being Jewish is about being part of something bigger than ourselves, and that involves having some decisions made for us.
So, those who’ve condemned us in recent weeks as mutilators and child abusers, and in particular Catherine Bennett of the Observer, perhaps you should actually talk to Jewish parents and children. Because I’d be willing to bet that my experience of making a scotch egg out of glow-in-the-dark but kosher sausage meat was more upsetting than our sons’ experience of being welcomed into the Jewish community.
Keren David’s latest book, ‘Another Life’, is published by Frances Lincoln on September 6