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Living the dream: Irayne the pig farmer

A circus performer, pig farmer and professional celebrant - not quite your standard 'Jewish' jobs

    Irayne Paikin
    Irayne Paikin

    How many of your Jewish friends are lawyers, doctors, dentists or accountants? Let’s face it, we tend to think of these as “Jewish” professions. These are the occupations which bring parental pride, not to mention status and security.

    But what if your career plans veer far from the path followed by most of your Jewish peers?

    Shelli Epstein is one of these people. When we speak, she has just come back down to earth from hand loop training. She has also been practising her hoop dives and the Russian swing — fearlessly leaping from one trapeze to the other — with ease and elegance.

    The 23-year-old gymnast and performer is a member of the North America touring troupe of Cirque de Soleil. Not what you might expect of a Jewish girl from Hendon. Epstein was lucky enough to know from a young age exactly what she wanted to do. Chatting to her careers advisor at JFS, she announced that she wanted to be a stunt person or a circus performer. “That’s refreshing!” was the response, while her mother put her head in her hands in dismay.

    She adores her work, but admits she has had to compromise. “Socially things were difficult as I was never around. I struggled. Missed all the parties. People didn’t ‘get’ me. I didn’t really have a big group of Jewish friends. My close friends were my gym friends and still are, we support each other.”

    Shelli Epstein performs
    Shelli Epstein performs
    Her job takes her away from home for many months a year. “My parents are very chilled,” she says. “This year, I probably won’t be coming home at all as I plan to travel during my annual leave. Being away from home is difficult at times, but I am lucky that my parents support me in what I do, and I think they are proud of me, despite the fact that I haven’t chosen a ‘normal’ career.”

    Touring the US, it’s hard to keep up any connection to Jewish life. “I come from a traditional background, but it’s practically impossible to maintain my Jewish life when I am away. There is one other Jewish girl in my troupe, and my mum finds Jewish friends in every city that I visit. But I am paid for doing the thing I love, that means I have to make sacrifices.”

    Irayne Paikin has a show-stopper of a job for a Jewish woman. She’s a pig farmer.

    Paikin, 51, lives in the Cotswold countryside, where she is raising her family and running her thriving meat business at Todenham Manor Farm. She combines her love of the outdoors with her passion for authentic, homegrown food.

    None of this was planned. She grew up in leafy Hampstead Garden Suburb and studied at Clifton College and Henrietta Barnett School. “After school I did a hotel management course and found myself with a job in PR. I loved it but I decided to set up my own catering business which I ran for 12 years. However, throughout my life there was always something pulling me towards the countryside, and as my husband and I both love the Cotswolds, we decided to buy a place.

    “We started with four pigs, different breeds. It was just a hobby, everyone would come to see them. Then we got some cows. Before I knew it, I had wellies, pigs and 26 cows and was supplying Waitrose with meat.

    “Now we have our own butchery on site, employing four butchers, a manager and a helper. Every burger is hand pressed and every meatball is weighed individually in special conditions.”

    How does she reconcile her Jewish background with her choice to make a career in pig farming? “I separate my Jewish life from the farming.

    “If friends come to stay, I will buy kosher meat and I will respect them. I have taught my children to do the same. I tell the children not to speak about the pigs as I don’t want to offend anyone. My kids are brought up with a sense of their Jewish identity — we have Friday nights and keep the festivals. My daughter will have her batmitzvah next year and a teacher comes from Oxford to work with her. All my Jewish friends, religious or not, think that what I am doing is fabulous. I suppose it’s living out a dream.”

    Jonny Kustow
    Jonny Kustow
    Like his friends, Jonny Kustow, 54, wanted to be a banker, or to make some money in property. With a solid education from University College School and Sunderland University, he had no trouble landing a job in the stock market. But it left him feeling cold and uninspired. Similarly, a dabble in the property sector failed to satisfy.

    Jobless and needing some cash, Jonny decided to sell some of his rare second hand 50s and 60s LPs. This led to a flourishing classical music business that occupied him for 20 years. As the market tapered off, Jonny sought ways to earn money whilst doing what he loved most. “I called the Royal Opera House,” he smiles, recollecting the moment. “They needed someone to present the flowers at the end of performances. I loved it. I saw every opera several times over. People with a classical background thought my unconventional career path was marvellous, including my parents.”

    Today he also works as as a wedding and funeral celebrant. “I love this profession. It’s meaningful, sustainable and it provides a valuable service. It also combines my skill set with a natural empathy and compassion for others. All services are non- denominational but sometimes if I know a family is Jewish I mention that I am too and I can offer Kaddish or other prayers and that’s a bonus.”

    Emma May, Head of Employment at the Jewish employment advisory service Work Avenues, says the world of work is changing rapidly. “These days it is not unusual to change career several times. Hobbies and interests can become jobs, and there are all sorts of new opportunities because of modern technology. The 9-5 job is a rarity. There are no rules any more. It’s all driven by the individual.”

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