Life & Culture

Men have forgotten how to belong

Growing up, I can't say I was remotely jealous of frummers. But while I might not ache to be frum, I have come to realise I'm actually rather jealous of them.


Growing up, I can't say I was remotely jealous of frummers.Being crammed into the back of a badly driven Volvo never looked the height of comfort (or road safety).

Tzitzit peeking out from under the shirt spelled instant nebbech no matter what else was being worn.

And as for Yom Kippur breath… not just an annual fixture but for seven eye-watering fasts a year.

No. Us cool, secular kids never held any envy towards our slightly pallid, observant cousins in their ill-fitting, prematurely-adult shabby suits. Not just sartorially superior, we were streets ahead, too, mentally: our views were free-thinking, gleaned from worldly experience, not just parroting the thoughts of what elders in even shabbier suits told them to think.

No. Becoming frum held about as much attraction as swapping football teams. And about as likely.

None of this has radically changed since adolescence. I don't stand with my nose pressed up to the shtreimel shop window longingly staring at over-sized furry hats. In the quiet of my own home, I don't secretly try on knee-length white socks with functional black slip-on shoes.

But while I might not ache to be frum, I have come to realise I'm actually rather jealous of them.

The journey to frum envy hasn't happened overnight. There was no bolt from the Jew. Rather, it's been a slow dawning - one that's been brought into sharper focus while writing my new book, Who Stole My Spear? How to be a Man in the 21st Century. I have come to see just how adrift so many men - and women - are in today's advanced capitalist, secular society.

Mental health rates are rocketing; work has become this over-dominant all-pervasive force that dictates so much of our moods and lifestyle; and a wider sense of belonging - of being part of something bigger than ourselves - has crumbled as close-by extended families, unions, class and shared beliefs all retreat further into the rear-view mirror.

The modern secular society, with its sky-high expectations to succeed at home and work, is an exposed place to be. There's little to shield you against cold economic winds, or personal storms that might blow in.

The religious, however, strike me as far more buffeted. Less exposed. More in tune with how humans have lived for millennia. And, dare I say it, more content.

And this isn't based on how upbeat - or full of meaning - I naively seem to think frummers are whenever our paths occasionally cross (being emotionally-blackmailed into laying tefillin in the middle of Dallas airport by one over-exuberant guilt-wielding black hatter didn't do wonders for my mood that day).

Rather, researchers have actually found that the religious display better mental health. Dr Harold Koenig from the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Centre told me that ''religious involvement is related to better coping with stress, and less depression, suicide, anxiety, and substance abuse''.

The benefits also extend beyond the mental. Going to a religious service once a week or more also seems to add seven years to life expectancy. That's a huge dividend in longevity. And even (almost) worth the sacrifice of being seen driving around in a mobile menorah.

What on earth is it about religion that not only boosts your mental well-being but also adds years to the clock? And what can we atheists or agnostics glean from all this?

The benefits of actual faith - of believing that there's a God out there who is looking out for you, imbuing your life's actions with meaning - are intangible. Who knows how many of those seven years come down to faith itself - and whatever mental strengths and motivations it might afford. But beyond raw belief, I'd wager that a decent chunk of the mental and physical upsides come from the lifestyle that stems from being religious. From the rules and rituals.

In among the arcane and frankly bizarre rituals and rules of religion - donkey drivers should have sex with their wives once a week, dictates the Mishnah, whereas it's just monthly if you drive a camel - perhaps there are kernels of wisdom that have evolved to help us understand the human condition.

For example, forcing us to observe a festival means that we spend time with our family and community - no matter how busy we might protest we are at work. Saying a prayer before you eat is the heart of mindfulness - ensuring you take a moment from the multi-tasking to focus on the food before you. Shabbat mandates that you have to unplug from email and genuinely take a break from work.

These are short-cuts - evolved over millennia - which mean you don't have to fathom everything out yourself. That naturally provide you with that wider sense of belonging, stopping work and chasing success from being an over-dominant part of your life, while thrusting family and community to the fore. A kind-of built in layer of protection - of insulation - against those modern winds.

Which is all very well and good if you happen to believe. Feel free to revel in divine smugness during those seven extra years.

But if you don't believe - and in my research I found evidence suggesting that up to 40 per cent of a person's level of religiosity stems from their genes - then what? Well, I guess the question is, what can we at least borrow from the rules and rituals? Beyond the odd Shabbat dinner and token annual fast, what other rituals can we draw from or reinvent to fit our lives?

Perhaps the best example I've come across is the Shabbat Manifesto, from the US-based Reboot group, which tries to capture the Sabbath spirit with 10 secular rules to follow on a Saturday.

Let's not also be sniffy about bizarre bedroom diktats; perhaps that monthly no-touching is a genius way of maintaining sexual chemistry.

Given my genes and over-arching scepticism, I doubt I'll be donning the furry hat and white socks any time soon. But we envious atheists can at least try on a few of those rituals for size.

Tim Samuels is an award-winning documentary maker and broadcaster. His book 'Who Stole My Spear?' (Century, £14.99) was reviewed in last week's JC

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