On the screen is a striking woman, all big eyes and huge smile. Dangling from her ears are prominent Magen David earrings. Feeling Good by Nina Simone plays in the background and the hashtag “Jewish and proud” pops up on the screen.
In another clip, she is standing beneath the words “You are Jewish enough!” and every time she points a finger phrases such as “If you’re Jewish, Jewish culture is yours!” appear in mid-air.
This is the Instagram page for Your Jewish Life, currently taking the world of Jewish millennials by storm (20,000 followers in its first year). The person with the earrings is its creator, Karen Cinnamon.
Today we are meeting in her stylish loft apartment in Kentish Town, exactly where you would expect someone with a background in branding and graphic design to reside. In person, Cinnamon is just as glass-half-full as she is on screen, extolling my driving skills — “You are a good driver!” — having just watched me spend ten minutes parking. “I always tell my kids that they must say they are good at something and then they will be!”
The 46-year-old mother of two is keen to talk about the latest incarnation of her career. In 2013, she launched the award-winning website Smashing The Glass, reinventing the conventions of Jewish wedding celebrations long before Covid forced everyone else to. In 2018, she started Brides Club, where for £20 a month, brides-to-be receive exclusive resources, discounts and monthly online advice sessions. Such was its success, she says, that members were telling her that they “didn’t want to get married because they didn’t want to leave the club,” and urged her to create something for married women. “I set up Brides Club to help people plan their wedding, but realised that it was much more than that. It’s about identity, belonging, community and finding sisterhood.” So the online community Smashing Life was born in 2019.
Like Smashing The Glass, Smashing Life started “really small”, and grew rapidly. By September 2020, she opened it up to all Jewish women, not just newlyweds. It now has 420 members. “When Covid hit, I realised that people needed online communities more than ever. There was a rise in antisemitism and people felt isolated and alone.”
On its website, Smashing Life is described as “the global, non-judgmental, warm and inclusive community club where ALL Jewish and Jew(ish) women are welcome.” Its homepage fizzes with positivity, featuring a patchwork of photos of smiling women, Shabbat candles, cappuccino and rugelach, intermingled with maxims, such as: “Love what you do” and “Today is the day.” There is a calendar of events (mainly online) available to members for £15 a month, including a Chanukah party, a monthly social and talks, such as “How to deal with people who don’t understand your Jewish life” and “Jewish values — what they are and how to embrace them in 2022”.
“I realised that what I was doing with Smashing The Glass was making people think: ‘What’s your identity? What’s important to you? Put that on your wedding.’ Now I’m saying: ‘What parts of Judaism light you up?’ If you like baking challah, but you don’t like going to shul or keeping kosher, bake challah! I really want to boost people to live their best Jewish life.”
She follows her own philosophy. “We might not have a three-course dinner on Friday night, but we go round the table and talk about a highlight of our week and something we’re grateful for. It’s a way to stop and reflect.” At Chanukah, a large plant in the sitting room turns into a “Chanukah bush,” complete with home-made dreidels and “Chanukah gnomes”.
To survive in today’s “blog-eat-blog” world of social media, you also need an Instagram and podcast presence. True to form, she launched the Your Jewish Life Instagram page a year ago and in the summer, started hosting a lively podcast, Your Jewish Life Your Way. Confused? Cinnamon puts it simply: “Smashing Life is a paid members’ community, but the brand around it is Your Jewish Life, Your Way.”
Tuning into Your Jewish Life Your Way is a bit like listening to a motivational speaker from the other side of the Atlantic (incidentally, 70 per cent of her audience are American).
Cinnamon urges listeners to “Shed the shoulds” and have “less Jewish guilt, more Jewish joy!” She feels she’s moved on from the wedding brand. “I feel I’ve got this bigger message for all Jewish women.”
Despite coming across as fiercely confident, at one point half joking: “You’ve got to be your own pushy stage-mother”, this wasn’t always the case, and her “mission” to create inclusive “no-judgment zones” is a deeply personal one. Her childhood, although a very happy one, was shaped by her Israeli, Sephardi “very open-minded” mother, who hardly ever went to synagogue and her British Ashkenazi father, “who said: ‘If I don’t go to synagogue, how am I going to feel Jewish?’” Straddling these conflicting attitudes meant that she found it hard to fit in Jewishly. “I desperately wanted Jewish friends, but I didn’t gel with them.”
A turning point came when she got a job waitressing at an Israeli-run café in Golders Green during university holidays. “There were a lot of Israelis working there and they became my best friends. I realised that I could be Jewish without talking about being Jewish or being like: ‘We’re the Jewish set’, which wasn’t my style.”
A few years then spent in Israel working as a graphic designer bolstered this new-found confidence. “Because it’s a Jewish state, you don’t have to do anything to be Jewish. You just have to be you and live your life.”
She also credits her husband, a Jewish lawyer from South London, for “giving me the confidence to just bloom and just be me.” Not that her mother would have minded if she had married a non-Jewish partner. “She said to me: ‘True love is so rare. If you find it, grab it.’”
All of her platforms provide space and support for people in interfaith — she calls them “Jew-ish” relationships — and through Smashing The Glass, Cinnamon connects mixed-faith couples in the UK to a rabbi who will marry them under a chupah. “Interfaith marriages are happening and we’ve got to get rid of the shame and taboo of them. Let’s encourage Jewish identity within that relationship and I’m sure they’ll go on to have a beautiful Jewish generation to come.” From her experience, some of the Smashing Life members who have married non-Jewish partners are among those “with the strongest Jewish identities.”
She hasn’t sought or found conflict for these views, perhaps because she seeks out collaboration. “I haven’t gone to where maybe I’m not welcome because I’ve got work to do. I want to surround myself and grow my network stronger with people who believe in my message.”
The only time she has found herself at the receiving end of attacks was during the Gaza conflict in May. “I was using the hashtag ‘Israel’ and I got a lot of Palestinians and Arabs sending rude, hateful messages to the Instagram page.” Did this make her tone down her posts? “The absolute opposite! You’ve got to stand up to it. Michelle Obama said: ‘When they go low, we go high.
“What I’ve realised is that I’m one of those people who just wants everybody to be happy. So often identity is something we have to hide or something we should be, and I’m stripping all that away. What I’m saying is: ‘There’s no right way to be Jewish. Do what brings you joy.’”
Indeed, her next project is The Jewish Joy Journal — “a gratitude and goals journal with Jewish values, a keepsake” — which she hopes will increase the reach of her mission.
Pulling out of the car park after the interview, buoyed by Cinnamon’s can-do attitude, I nevertheless manage to get wedged between another car and the gate. She guides me from her vantage point two floors up: “You’re fine, you’re fine… You’re out!” I can almost imagine her punching the air in satisfaction as I drive down the road. Mission accomplished. Another happy customer.
Karen Cinnamon's website is available at http://yourjewishlife.co/