Family & Education

Making a splash, Jewish-style

Susan Reuben's off for a swim


In my childhood home, we had a “swimming drawer”. It contained a jumbled pile of costumes, trunks, armbands and goggles belonging to all six members of the family.

It was therefore not too surprising when I turned up for my school swimming lesson one day, having accidentally grabbed my brother’s trunks instead of my own costume.

“You’ll just have to swim in those then,” said the teacher, demonstrating a degree of empathy common to many swimming instructors of the era. . I’m convinced that swimming teachers in the 1970s had, “How to be completely sadistic,” built into their training. It was probably essential: given how grim municipal baths were you’d probably never be able to persuade your pupils to step into the freezing water if you were even a tiny bit nice.

I was only eight on the day I was made to wear my brother’s swimming trunks, so there wasn’t any issue with propriety — the problem was that my brother was 19 and three times my size. I spent the whole lesson holding on to the trunks with one hand to prevent them falling down. Several decades on, I’m just starting to get over the trauma.

I have another hang-up about swimming, though, which is that I’m scared to put my face in the water. Given that being able to breathe is quite fundamental in the “keeping yourself alive” process, my instinct tells me that putting yourself in a situation where you can’t do so is a mistake.

I’m quite aware — on a logical level — that submerging yourself for a few seconds at a time is completely safe so long as you remember to hold your breath. Unfortunately, once I get in the water, my logic remains by the side of the pool.

The Talmud cites teaching your sons to swim as a fundamental requirement of parenthood: “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.” (Kiddushin, 29a)

(Inevitably, the daughters don’t get a mention — presumably they were more disposable.)

It seems at first glance a curious addition to what, from a Jewish perspective, is a much more predictable set of obligations. After further thought, though, given that we live on a planet whose surface is more than two-thirds water, (not that the Talmudic sages would have known that statistic), perhaps it makes sense that teaching your children how to survive in it was seen as essential.

I did eventually learn to swim — albeit without putting my face in the water — and so did my three brothers, so my parents can rest easy that they have fulfilled their Talmudic obligations.

As an adult, I swim a stately breast stroke, my head sticking up well above the water level. I did, briefly, manage to overcome my fear when we went to the Great Barrier Reef on honeymoon. I was quite determined to go snorkelling and not miss out on the opportunity to see one of the most extraordinary sights on the planet.

Deciding that being properly equipped would help get me in the right mindset, I visited a specialist diving shop in London. “I need a mask please,” I said to the ridiculously young, athletic looking guy who was serving me, a carbon copy of whom you can meet in every sports shop in the country.

He took me over to a wall featuring masks of every shape and size and launched into an impassioned description of the properties of each. He explained that there were masks for scuba diving and masks for free diving; he said I could choose from one lens or two or three or four; he made bewildering allusions to high volume versus low volume, to skirts and purge valves…

“So what do you need it for?” he asked at last.

“I just want to be able to put my face in the water,” I replied.

“Oh,” he said, deflated. “You can do that with any of them.”

So off I went to Australia with my new fancy mask (and also my new husband) and I did go snorkelling. I was really proud of myself. As soon as I returned home, though, I went straight back to swimming with my head stuck right out of the water.

When I mentioned this technique to a friend, she nodded sagely and said, “Ah — Jewish swimming.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Swimming with your head out the water — it means you don’t mess up your hair and make-up,” she explained.

Well — whether my real motivation is irrational fear, or whether it’s just that curly hair is a right pain to wash and condition — my style is definitely preventing me from being a hopeful for the next Olympics. I had better focus, instead, on doing as the Talmud instructs and arranging swimming lessons for my own kids. I shall warn them first, though, to make sure they’ve packed their own swimwear.



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