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How to discipline your child - Parenting techniques from the Torah

- By Lauren Shapiro

I read a lot of parenting books. I’ve amassed a mini library of them. And no matter how many I read, just when I feel I’ve got that discipline thing waxed, things change. Either popular culture changes (the Naughty Corner has become the Thinking Step; smacking was out but may be about to make a comeback), or the kids change. As they grow, different methods work better on them. You can’t have a reasonable, respectful discussion with a toddler about why playing with the garden tap on full blast is bad for the environment in light of the current climatic situation. (I’ve tried. My husband thought it was hilarious.) Older kids don’t take too well to being treated “like babies”, which is what my boys now call it when I try to give them the same Time Outs as their younger sister. 

Parenting techniques have certainly evolved over time. We may no longer stone rebellious children at the city gates (as recommended in Deuteronomy 21:18-21), but there is still much wisdom to be found in the Torah on this subject. Personally, what I find most inspiring is not how mortal parents treated their children in ye good ole biblical days, but how Hashem our Father treated us as we grew and matured as His children.

Take the story of Adam and Eve for starters. When human beings were new to this earth and perhaps emotionally immature, Hashem set us firm boundaries: “Here is your garden. Play nicely. And don’t touch that tree.” When we didn’t listen, He gave us what child psychologists today call a “direct consequence”. I like to think of it as the ultimate smack – right out of Eden. 

Adam’s offspring were treated in a similarly juvenile fashion. “What did you do?” asked God of Cain, when He knew perfectly well what he had done to his brother. (I confess to having used this line – and that tone – on my kids when I walk in to find one of them covered in finger paint and the others giggling in a corner.) Kids need to admit to and understand their mistakes in order to take responsibility for and control of their lives. Today shrinks call this “taking ownership”. 

A little further down the generational line, Noah’s contemporaries were shown in no uncertain terms that Hashem would not tolerate bad behaviour. Those heavenly torrents that resulted are a wonderful metaphor for my flood of emotions when I’m angry at my children’s poor conduct. 

But discipline – as every parenting book on the shelf reminds me – must be “age-appropriate”. After this spiritual infancy, the Jewish people began to come of age. We were growing up and moving on, as is literally depicted in the parsha of Lech Lecha, when our forefather Abraham left all he knew to start a new spiritual life in a new land. But with growing up comes the pre-pubescent back-chatting (yeah, that’s a fun time. Those of you who haven’t hit that phase yet, brace yourselves). This can sometimes be avoided through open negotiation between parent and child. Examine, if you will, the incident of Sodom and Gomorrah. Hashem entered into frank negotiations with Abraham over this issue. Of course He then went and destroyed the cities anyway, but I’m sure psychologists would be satisfied that at least Abraham had felt “heard”.

As we hurtled towards tribal adolescence (what else would you call the whole Golden Calf episode if not teenage rebelliousness?), Hashem began to introduce discussion as a parenting technique instead of force. Moses, for example, spent days in conversation with the Lord and although God always had the final say, His engagement with us gives a strong message of confidence and encouragement. 

Hashem changes His parenting techniques as His children grow and mature. After the chumash (the five books of the Torah), God continued to feature in the lives of the prophets and kings, sometimes even advising and guiding them directly as they led His nation in finding their spiritual feet5. Now He intervenes less often in our daily lives. He gives us choices and consequences. He’s letting us get on with the business of living, encouraging us to develop into independent, thinking, responsible souls. There’s them there lessons, people. 

Psychologists assure us that it is developmentally normal for children to “push boundaries”, to explore relationships with authority, to test values and to experiment with the limits of ethics and principles. But they also agree that children need boundaries. Even grownup children. We need them to feel safe, and to have something against which to rail. 

As human parents, we need to give our children clear boundaries and rules, and as they grow we need to let them make their own choices, and live with those choices. As the evolution of our people shows us, this freedom is only appreciated when it comes from a place of strength. Just as Hashem is our rock and our fortress in Whom we take refuge (Psalm 18:3), we need to be a rock for our children, always there to shelter them and give them strength when they need it. But in order to do that, we have to be strong as rocks. And sometimes immovable as boulders, especially when it comes to issues of obedience. 

My kids often resent my attempts to discipline them, claiming, “it’s not fair! [stamp foot here]”. True, life is habitually unfair. But it’s often these seemingly imbalanced situations that lead to opportunities for spiritual growth. Growth may be painful, but growth is what makes life meaningful. Would we really want to remain in an infantile state our whole lives? I wouldn’t. 

This Simchat Torah, I’m committing to becoming a better child of God, so that I might be a better parent to my kids. And I’m going to start by reading the best parenting book of all: the Torah. Until next time.


The Complaints Department is Closed for Lunch

By Lauren Shapiro

Last week I was complaining to a friend about the service at a customer care counter (care? Pah. False advertising, I tell you!). I described how long it took, how incompetent the clerk was, and how preposterous the store’s systems were. I ended my rant not because I’d finished nitpicking, but because all the talking had parched my throat and I needed a sip of coffee. “What did you do about it?” asked my friend. 

Huh. Yes, I suppose I could have done something about it at the time. Instead, I stormed out of the shop, muttering expletives, and spent the rest of the day reliving my trauma with anyone who cared to listen. 

I couldn’t help myself, you see. It’s genetic. Jews like to complain. Oy
, do we like to complain! No one makes herring like
used to. Food is outrageously expensive these days. Alternatively, the portion-sizes are too small. Either way, it’s a crime. 

The rabbi is too old or too young, too right wing or too left wing, too tall or too short. He’s too jovial, or too serious. His sermons are too boring, or too provocative. Either he’s disinterested in his congregants, or he tries too hard (What, is he trying to convert me?). 

At our children’s schools – and it makes little difference what school you’ve chosen – the complaints continue. There’s either not enough Yiddishkeit, or too much Yiddishkeit. The teachers don’t pay enough attention to little Johnny, or they’re picking on him. There’s not enough discipline; there’s too much pressure.

Even when Hashem provides for all our possible needs (think manna from heaven to feed us; pillars of fire to protect and guide us), Jews have complained. There are those people who – even when they themselves claim nothing to complain about – grumble on behalf of others: “Of course I don’t personally have a problem with the fact that they didn’t serve herring at the brocha, but I’m just saying that Some People thought it was in poor taste…” Let Those People use their God-given voice boxes, then.  

Throwing our hands in the air and ending every sentence with a head-shaking “oy” doesn’t legitimize a complaint. Neither does beating the table or pew with our fist, or looking meaningfully into someone’s eyes. (The latter very occasionally works with my husband; or he humours me.)

If we have a gripe, we should deal with it the right way. Let’s do a little social experiment, shall we? Which of these hypothetical situations sounds most appropriate to you?:

a) You have a feribel, so you kvetch and krechtz loudly behind the accused’s back to everyone you meet in the street (crossing the street – several times if necessary – to include those on the other side). You use as many adjectives as possible, especially those ending in -ful: disgraceful, shameful, awful, dreadful. If you’re technologically savvy, you can also broadcast your cavils on Facebook. 

b) You have a feribel, so you go to see the person involved. You tell him/her how you feel, and ask if there’s anything either of you can do to improve the situation.

If you chose option a), you are a certified yenta. If you chose option b), go straight to heaven (do not pass “go”; do not collect R200, but put it in a trust fund for your children). Most of us, I surmise, fall somewhere in between these immoderate scenarios. 

Just because one grouses loudly doesn’t make one right. Or pleasant, for that matter. Conversely, if we give people sympathetic ears for their carps and moans, they will no doubt continue to put their energy into these practices. Some even seem to take them up as a hobby, much like bingo or Kalooki but without the props. Climbing on the kvetch-vagon is about the only exercise some people seem to get.

Am I prepared to be a bull’s eye for this target practice? Not with the kind of bull they’re doling out. Since my light-bulb moment last week, I’ve started following my friend’s example and speaking up in the face of whinge bags (because let’s face it, that’s what I was being). I say things like, “It sounds like you’re very upset about this. Have you spoken to [the person involved]?” Almost without fail, the answer is not affirmative. 

People don’t talk to people face to face much these days, but even less so when there’s faultfinding involved. Letters (and emails, faxes, telegrams and Whatsapps) are the worst. As a last resort, certainly they may be appropriate, but people seem to feel the need to formally complain in writing about the darnedest things. When the Children of Israel were in the wilderness, did they send Moses a snooty parchment, or post a criticism of him on Rockbook? Most times, they had to approach the man and have their say. 

Today, too, that remains the single most effective way of airing protests. I ain’t no saint yet (I realized how far I still have to go when I caught myself complaining to my husband about how hard it is to quite complaining!). I’ve at least committed to spend less time complaining about people, and more time talking to them. Much of the time, that about which we whinge may not actually have even occurred, or at least not in the way we think it did, or under the circumstances we think it did. As Jeremy Clarkson’s fond of saying, there’s only one way to find out. Talk to the person involved! There’s no guarantee that you’ll reach a satisfactory outcome, but there is a guarantee that you won’t if you don’t even try. 

Perhaps when Moshiach arrives and the world reaches a state of sublime perfection, we’ll stop complaining. But then we might complain that there’s nothing to complain about anymore. Until next time.


Lessons from the Book of Ruthless

I like to hang onto things. Because you never know when you might find a coffee grinder without a lid, and then you’ll be so pleased you kept the lid from your old, broken one, right? And with global warming and climate change, the weather’s become so unpredictable that hanging onto every item of clothing in your cupboard is really only prudent, isn’t it? I tend to save every book I’ve ever bought, just in case I ever want to read it again. Family heirlooms like ailing armchairs and those little brass ornamental pots that were all the rage a few generations ago are just too sentimental to let go. And don’t even get me started on the photo albums and scrapbooks!

But recently I’ve had to admit my habit has become a problem. I can’t even take twelve steps towards sorting it out because I barely have room to walk amidst the piles of possessions. I needed an intervention, and it came from a surprising source – our scriptures. 

At Pesach-time we remembered how we left Egypt with not much more than the clothes on our backs. Seven weeks later we read how Ruth left everything behind to follow Naomi into what for Moabite royalty can only be considered unchartered territory. The message of the season seems to be: let go of the baggage! 

I don’t know what Ruth packed when she decided to leave Moav (the megillah is imprecise about the aspect of fashion). I don’t even know what was en vogue at the time. She probably didn’t pack any jewellery, what with the poverty and all, and the assumed lack of quality counterfeits Made in China. Perhaps she tossed a few kaftans in an overnighter with some leather sandals (I’m pretty sure she didn’t deliberate over whether to take stilettoes or wedges). 

What I do know is that I’ve often found, upon returning from a trip, that what I could fit in a single suitcase was all I’d needed. And that sandals are usually more practical than stilettoes or wedges anyway. 

Sometimes what we need is not material stuff, but the ability to let stuff go. Unchaining ourselves from stuff we’ve acquired in the past brings a liberation that leaves us free to pursue things – both physical and spiritual – that we need now. 

As we grow, our bodies change. Our lifestyles change. Our mindsets change. Perhaps it’s your butt that can’t fit into that lumo leather cat suit anymore, or perhaps it’s your mind that just can’t get into it. (Either way, please let it go!)

I’ve developed a theory that I’m sure I could get backed up by quantum scientists if I knew any: sometimes we need to let go of things to make room in our lives for other things. We learn this from the Book of Ruth, which ironically teaches us great lessons about being ruthless. Ruth purged her identity and her homeland, but also famine, war and desolation. In letting go of these things, she made room for bigger and better things, like dignity, love and becoming the start of the messianic lineage through her great-grandson (King David, to his friends).

We can all take a leaf from her megillah. We should keep only what we love – and that goes for clothes, relationships, books, emotions, even your children’s artwork (sorry, kids. If I kept every painting and toilet roll construction I’d have to use your university funds to rent storage space). You can’t appreciate the things you really like if they’re buried under mounds of distraction. That’s why I can never find anything to wear in a closet full of clothes, and I don’t get to read things I really want, despite a nightstand piled with dusty “should” reads. It might also have something to do with why I sometimes struggle to attain contentment amid the plethora of old emotions like fear and disappointment that I choose to hang on to because they are so familiar they’re almost comforting. 

Hanging onto old stuff while striving for new things would be like Ruth keeping one foot in Moav and one foot in Eretz Yisrael: very uncomfortable (it might have given her killer thighs, though I doubt many would have appreciated it under her kaftan. Either way, Boaz didn’t seem to mind). 

The next question is what do we do with all this stuff we no longer need? The answer: give it away! Physical items will be appreciated by someone who needs them, and even emotional baggage is shed by sharing it (though the sympathetic listener need not actually take it on). 

So, if there’s one lesson we Shavu-ought to learn this season, it’s how to model Ruth in being ruthless. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to clear my closet and my conscience of anything that no longer fits. Until next time.




This Pesach we’ll be teaching our children about their past, but we must also remember to prepare them for their future. According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a, for those of you that are going to check), a father is obligated to teach his son the Torah, a trade, and how to swim. It’s a curious set of instructions coming from the days before domestic swimming pools and the status of the first swim team. Nevertheless, for a paranoid Jewish mother living at the coast in a country where many people have swimming pools in their back gardens, the latter was high on my to do list as a safety precaution anyway. 

Let’s assume for the sake of this politically correct and ever-so-slightly feminist column that our Sages were simply using the universal masculine to refer to all our children. But in the case of this particular anecdote, I actually will discuss teaching my son to swim. 

My five-year-old is a little cautious by nature. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He has not yet somersaulted backwards down the stairs or catapulted off his bike at a million miles per hour as his fearless older brother has. But it’s frustrating because he is not usually keen to try new things, like (you saw this one coming, didn’t you?) swimming. 

I’ve been schlepping Shai to professional lessons for several months. His teacher has taught him the basic skills like kicking and arm strokes, blowing bubbles and fetching colourful toys from the bottom step. But when it comes to actually patching all these tricks together in an approximation of movement, he rather resembles a drunken elephant ransacking the punch bowl. The problem is he’s scared, and he’s fighting the water instead of working with it. 

Then one afternoon we visited my folks, and Saba got into the pool with the kids to play throwing and catching and splashing games (the latter is the reason I do not join in these aquatic capers. I wish I could say I was sipping my mimosa from a respectable distance, but in truth I was hovering around the perimeter of the pool, far enough to stay relatively dry but close enough to intervene if necessary).

Saba decided to put Shai’s ability to the test. Standing about one metre from the step where his grandson stood playing, he called out, “Shai, swim to me. Just to here.”

Shai is a sharp kid, and I’m sure he predicted as well as you just have, that Saba would inch backward at precisely the pace that Shai moved forward, forcing Shai to swim further than the proposed distance. But Shai also trusts his Saba inherently, so with only a passing shadow of skepticism on his handsome little face, he took the leap. Once he started, of course, he didn’t really have much choice but to keep going, as each time he wanted to give up, Saba’s rescuing arms glided just out of reach. They made it almost across the width of the pool before I stepped forward like an angry lioness and Saba scooped a spluttering Shai out of the water. 

“Look at that!” Saba laughed, turning Shai around so he could see the distant step. “Look how far you swam!” Shai’s countenance was a pick-and-mix of suspicion and delight, distrust and pride. “Come on, let’s do it again,” Saba continued.

“No,” said Shai flatly.  

“You can do it!”

“I don’t want to.”

“Please? For me?”

“Okay… but only if you promise you won’t move.”

“No. I will move, but I will always stay close enough to catch you.” Shai eyed Saba guardedly. Saba grinned at him: “Now, and when you’re older.”

Laaaaaaah! [Cue parting clouds and angels singing]. 

Suddenly the Talmudic instruction made sense. For isn’t that what parents (and grandparents, when blessing allows) do? They promise to catch us, even when we know they won’t: when we move to far-away cities or countries; when we get ourselves into stupidly ill-advised situations they couldn’t possibly bail us out of; when they’ve moved on to the next world. It’s not about literally pulling us out of the water (or hot water, as the case may be). It’s about their love giving us the confidence to do it ourselves. 

It makes sense to literally teach our children to swim, as it can be a matter of life and death. But metaphorically, we’re teaching them to keep their heads above water in life; to keep afloat when things seem difficult. 

My parents taught me to swim (well, a hired coach and my dad did; my mom’s also more of a mimosa-at-the-poolside kind of gal). Yet I’m not just talking about in the pool. Paid professionals can certainly teach our children breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and freestyle, but it’s the love that comes from our own families that translates swimming lessons into the life lessons that the Talmud intended them to be. 

Fast-forward a few weeks: Shai shimmies through the water and raises his head on the other side of the pool, a huge grin on his face. He may never be the next Chad le Clos, but his confidence has grown and he feels he can conquer the world (or at least the deep-end of the swimming pool). I now know that whatever life chucks at him, he won’t sink, but swim. For a parent, there’s no better feeling. 

To return to our Talmudic obligation: through shul and school and family and home, we are teaching our little man Torah to give him a spiritual foundation in life. In time, we will help him learn a trade so he’ll be able to support himself and (please G-d by you but no pressure) his family. But at least now we can tick one thing off the list: teaching him to swim. 

Until next time.


Inspiring stuff

- By Lauren Shapiro 

As I enter my baker’s dozenth year of penning this column (can you believe?), people often ask me how I manage to find something new to write about every month. Some even go so far as to use a rather loaded term: “Where do you get your inspiration?” they ask.

Before I go into the fascinating etymology of the word (more on that later), let me just offer a warning to the reader: while waxing lyrical may be frowned upon in certain literary circles, in this context it’s not only inevitable, it’s frankly obligatory. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll share a straw poll of what tickles my inspirational buds.

At the risk of sounding a bit of a Pollyanna, just walking down the street can be a muse: the ants that scurry in tight formation along the ground, with brains smaller than pinheads but intelligence larger than some people I know; the sun that moves in operatic transfer across the heavens; the miraculous science behind the trees that live and give life; the engineering feats of the high-rise towers that scrape the skyline.

Stepping back inside for a snack, the wonders continue: how often do we stop to appreciate the marvel of the natural and manmade miracles involved in growing wheat, then figuring out how to harvest it, dry it, mill it, bake it into bread, and pair it with the blended interior of a hard-shelled groundnut and stewed fruit (for all this goes into a humble peanut butter and jam sandwich). It’s enough to take your breath away (more on that later too).

It’s not just stuff that’s inspiring, either (although I could forgive you the assumption, based on the title of this column). People are also a huge source of inspiration. My parents impart wisdom almost involuntarily, which enriches my life more than they’ll ever realise. My children show me ways of seeing the world that are nothing short of awesome (in the original deific sense of the

word, not the hackneyed Facebook synonym for “nice”). My friends inspire me with their sense of fun; my colleagues teach me variously how to behave, how not to behave, and how to get the job done. I have gurus in the forms of yoga instructors, rabbis, editors and psychologists. My life is filled with mentors and role models, from Madiba and Rabin to Shooby-doob Shloimy and Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third from How To Train Your Dragon. (I realize this is starting to sound like an Oscars acceptance speech, but since it’s appearing decreasingly likely that I’ll have occasion to use that address, I may as well rehash it here.)

With all this inspiration around, how could I not find what to write about each month? If readers could only see my “Bubkes Ideas” file – rupturing with notes scrawled in anything from a whiteboard marker to laundry marker on everything from the backs of business cards to torn bits of popcorn box from the movies. And how do I go about turning each of these phenomena into 900 words of eloquently arranged, fit- for-brief, concise and punctual copy? (Love ya, Ed!) That’s the easy part. I simply look for the divine footprint in whatever crosses my path. It’s always there.

Life is meaningful because it’s a combination of divine blessing and human ingenuity (which, technically, is a divine blessing, but I’m working on the image of a partnership here, so bear with me). Hashem creates the raw materials, and then gives us the opportunity to turn them into something truly majestic: a computer microchip, a Chagall painting, a cure for smallpox, Häagen-Dazs’ chocolate fudge praline ice cream. I might even be so modest to suggest that God provides the words and we (lowly writers) are granted heavenly permission to turn them into something beautiful, something that may make the world a better place. Maybe even – dare I say it? – something that may inspire others.

So when inspiration strikes, I get the ideas down as quickly as I can, in whatever way circumstances allow. I’ve been known to scribble with eyeliner on paper napkins in the bathroom of a bar. Or with half-dried- up kokis on the backs of colouring-in sheets at kiddies parties. I’ve gone into banks just to use the pens attached to the little chains at the counters, making notes on the backs of unfilled deposit slips. I jot things in the margins of newspapers and on the rims of cereal boxes. My family knows never to throw away old shopping receipts or unlikely looking scraps of paper, lest there be vital notes scrawled on the back.

And, occasionally, when I feel like I’ve run out of new ideas, I realize that I never had any anyway. I’ve just been working with what Hashem put here in the first place. At the Talmud puts it, “there’s nothing new under the sun”.

There are infinite ways to see the world, to read the Torah, to tell our stories. My job is really – as a friend once articulately put it – just rearranging the alphabet.

I promised you a note on the etymology of “inspire”, and I will not let you down. According to the amazing compound of knowledge that is the dictionary, the word comes from the Latin “in” (which, conveniently, is also the English for “in”) and “spirare” (which in our tongue means “to breathe”). The word travelled through Old French “inspirer” and Middle English “enspire” to reach its current vocation as the modern English variant “inspire”. The relation to breath is inarguable. Hashem breathed into Adam to give him life, and He breathes life into us every day. Without inspiration, we might as well be dead. Literally.

As long as we’re inspired, we’re alive. And as long as we’re alive, may we be inspired. Until next time. 


Road Trip

By Lauren Shapiro

“Turn left,” instructed a flat, American voice. “Mom, turn left!” chirped a high-pitched seven-year-old South African voice. “Mommy, turn left!” shrieked an excited two-year-old South African voice. I looked left. There were three side streets off the road on which I was driving. In the time it had taken for everyone in the car to issue their instructions, I had passed another two. “Turn left,” repeated the American voice. “Left! Left, Mom!” yelled Backseat Driver Number One. “Left! Left!” shrieked Backseat Driver Number Two. “Which left??” I howled, pulling over on the side of the road to haul out the good old-fashioned map book. 

We’d driven down to Cape Town for a family holiday. Well, I use that term loosely, as any trip with children is not really a holiday for their parents. Nevertheless, we found ourselves in the Mother City, visiting family and friends and generally having a jolly time – when we weren’t as lost as a nun on honeymoon. 

I passed Standard 7 Geography, so even I should be able to figure out which way is up when the sun is shining. But when the roads keep twisting and the sun keeps shifting and the road signs keep changing (I swear!), it can become a little difficult to figure out where you are. It’s easy in Durban, where the sea always means east; Capetonians swear by their beloved Mountain, but they seem to forget that one can find oneself anywhere around said mountain – to the tune of 360 degrees – which can mess with the compass somewhat. 

So we employed the services of an electronic geographic application known as GPS (short for Global Positioning System). This, too, had its challenges. Even once we had upgraded to a version that included indulgences like street names, it was virtually –laughably – impossible to follow the automated American voice when it directed me to “turn right into Booh-ten-cracked” (Buitengracht).

In some instances, it could not help me at all, like when we were looking for a playground near the Green Point Stadium (you’d think that would be hard to miss, wouldn’t you?). After nearly half an hour of driving around in circles searching for side-street access that was gratuitously well-camouflaged, my five-year-old rolled his eyes and asked why I didn’t “juth-t uthe the Gee-Pee-Eth”.

“Because it won’t help me if I don’t have an address,” I snapped. “But, Mommy, you DO have a dress!” chirped the two-year-old. Thank goodness we had not undertaken this travel folly entirely alone.

We’d driven down with three other families (12 children under ten – where are our gold medals for surviving?!).

Travelling in convoy has its pros (not murdering your children at the end of a looooong day simply because there are witnesses) and cons (one child deciding, as you’re about to pull out of the Ultra City, that she needs a wee delays you by five minutes; six or more doing so in quick succession delays you by at least half an hour).

You might, like my mother, ask why on earth we would choose to spend three days in a small metal box with three energetic children with weak bladders when there are perfectly good airplanes available. Economic imperatives aside, we wanted our kids to see the beautiful country we live in: the rolling hills of northern KwaZulu-Natal (“When can we roll on them?” asked the five-year-old gleefully); the farms of the Free State; the great expanse of the Karoo; the majestic mountains of the Cape. But more than just seeing our country, we came to have a better view of ourselves, individually and as a family. We realized that we are resourceful, adaptable, and more patient than we gave ourselves credit for.

The road is a ready metaphor for life, with its twists and turns, its detours and scenery, and its signs that we often seem to miss. That’s where GPS comes in – or it should. Other writers have compared GPS to Hashem’s guiding hand in life, redubbing it a “Godly Positioning System”, which is very cute but, I feel, ignores the complexities of life on the road. God doesn’t always lead us where we want to go, no matter how carefully we listen. He leads us where we NEED to go, which is sometimes very different.

This can be challenging (the more convoluted the route, I find, the more direct the language). But GPS or no GPS, we found our way around the country, and around each other. We learnt to work together and become more accommodating, whether that meant holding barf bags for each other (no time to stop, we have a schedule to keep, people!) or agreeing on which audio book to play (even if it was The Cat in the Hat AGAIN).

The other families in the group reported similar experiences of cooperation and reconciliation. And between families, we forged friendships deeper than Kimberley’s Big Hole (which, I can now testify, is very, very deep). Travel is a unifying experience. I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t why Hashem made the Children of Israel schlepp through the desert for 40 years. If I look at how much we’ve grown in just two weeks, imagine what a few decades could do!

At the end of the day, Hashem knows what He is doing. He sends us all on the journeys we need. Some involve national highways. Others necessitate trips down Memory Lane. Still others require navigating the deepest, darkest alleyways of our own souls. The only kind of trip that doesn’t, ultimately, make you a better person, is a guilt trip.

Standing still all our lives – literally or metaphorically – can be very boring, so pack your bag and follow the road. Until next time.


In Praise of Shlock My Channukah Playlist

By Lauren Shapiro

What’s your favourite Channukah song? “Maoz tzur”? “Haneirot halalu”? “Channukah, oh Channukah”? Mine’s “I have a little dreidel”, but not your common or kindergarten version. I’m smitten with the rendering by Joshua “The Prince of Kosher Gospel” Nelson. What, you ain’t never heard of Jewish gospel? Child, you ain’t lived! 

Not to knock Klezmer (well, not in public anyway), but you see, I’m a gospel girl at heart. Really, I am. When it comes to music, I want upbeat. I want soul. I want “Halleluyah” and “Amen, brother!” (or sister!). I want my feet tapping and my spirit soaring. I want my breath bursting from my lungs with joy and praise. 

Some might think the idea of Jewish gospel is a bit schlocky. Shlock music is melodramatic. It’s hammy (about the only kosher ham you’ll ever find). It’s ersatz. Leo Rosten’s The jOYs of Yiddish – that tome on the coffee tables of children of Yiddish-speakers across the nation – defines shlock as “shoddy; cheaply made; defective or fake.” He posits that the word’s etymological roots in the German schlag (blow), implies that the music (or merchandise, etc.) has been “knocked around”. 

Shlock is corny. It’s trite. It’s gimmicky. And I love it. Besides, what’s wrong with cutesy? Everyone loves puppies and babies, right? Right? 

To borrow a delightful phrase I read on a music crit site, shlock music is “schmaltz-stirring”. It’s sentimental. Shlock values emotion over artistry. And for me, that’s great. I’d far rather enjoy my music than appreciate it (if the two must be mutually exclusive). Critics claim shlock lacks sophistication, originality and taste. But I’m not a critic. I’m an unapologetic fan. 

Since experiencing the Encounter programme in Standard Nine (I’m showing my age – what’s that now, Grade 11?), I’ve been a disciple of Shlock Rock, the Jewish band that took teenagers by storm in 1985 and never let go. They’ve rocked up 36 albums to date (take that, Katie Perry) and worked their way into our hearts and neshamas with their parodies of popular secular songs. I admit with only a fraction of sheepishness that it was only recently that I learnt that the original lyrics aren’t “If you’ll be my study guide, I can be your mitzvah gal (dah-dah-dah-dah; dah-dah-dah-dah!)”. And is it so awful that I prefer “Every bite you take” over The Police’s 1983 hit? Shlock Rock takes awesome tunes and combines them with spiritual meaning. What’s not to love?

They even parody shlock. Their educational ballad “Tuition” digs in the ribs of Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tradition”, and “Hello Mohel, Hello Kvater” takes the mickey out of Alan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” that campers have been singing at machaneh for generations. 

Their Channukah anthem “My menorah” (a lampoon of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba”) takes lyrics from prayers, folksongs and liturgy and spins them like a rock n roll legend. Swoon!

Also on my Channukah playlist is “Hanukkah lovin’” (forgive her American spelling, no one’s perfect) by Michelle Citrin, whom I met and adored at Limmud right here in Durban a few years ago. She successfully manages to combine sultry with schmaltzy (which in itself is something) in an irresistible, jazzy, proudly tongue-in-cheek number that makes me want to whip out a menorah and light some colourful candles, then snuggle up in appreciation of domestic romance. 

A close Number Two on my Channukah Hits chart would be Michelle’s “Pass the candle”, a family favourite which evokes our historical victory with the additional benefit of reminding us the order in which to light the candles – all to a toe-tapping tune that makes me want to boogie with my besties. 

Next on my turntable is the international a cappella sensation The Maccabeats with “Candlelight”. It’s a catchy tune, national pride-booster, and history lesson in one. And there’s something very liberating about belting out “I flip my latkes in the air sometimes!” with all your heart and soul, like nobody’s watching. (Okay, my kids are usually watching, but they already think I’m meshuga.)

I realize that I’ve swerved a little away from my starting point of gospel, into rock, pop and a spot of jazz. But that’s the beautiful thing about music. Whatever tickles your musical taste buds, any genre is “kosher”, if it gets your heart pumping and your spirit praising. I only lament that the Spice Girls never released a Channukah single. 

Music is a vehicle for expressing thoughts, feelings, and oftentimes faith. I don’t feel this should be restricted to traditional genres like gospel or chazzanut. Anyone, in any style, should feel free to voice their belief in the style that feels right for them, with or without a hairbrush “microphone” in hand. 

There’s certainly a time and place for everything, and I’m not sure I would want this in shul. When and where, then, would I get the heart-warming traditional melodies? Well, maybe there’s room for a bit of both.

For now, shlock is still top of my charts. I don’t think you can get more shlock than “I have a little dreidel” sung gospel-style. And I don’t think you can get much more happy! It makes me want to stand up, sing, sway and, well, praise the Lord. MY Lord. Until next time.

Start your own Channukah playlist: 


Customs Duty

by Lauren Shapiro

Mitzvah: n. heb. A commandment delivered from Hashem at Sinai. 

Minhag: n. heb. Something someone somewhere once did that we all somehow seem to do now.

Ever wondered why we dip challah in salt? So many families over so many generations have done it, and may not know why. Well, the short answer is (to quote a certain violinist on a visor): “TRADITION!”

G-d never actually asked us to put salt on our challah. In fact, He never actually asked us to make challah. He commanded that when we make bread we separate a portion of it (called challah, from which the sweet plaited loaves which evolved take their name). As for the salt? It was used with sacrifices on the altar in the beit hamikdash, but since that altar no longer exists and we now view the dining table as an altar, the tradition of using salt here arose. Interesting, huh? 

But the aim of this column is not just to improve your odds in Jewish Trivial Pursuit. It’s to help make your life easier. You see, it’s important to understand the difference between a minhag and a mitzvah, especially if you feel you can’t “do it all”. 

For example, hearing the megillah on Purim is a mitzvah; the graggers, costumes and hamentaschen are all fun customary extras. On Pesach, it’s a mitzvah to recount the story of the exodus from Egypt, and to eat a festive meal. Most of the rest – redolent with meaning though it may be – is purely symbolic. Rosh Hashana is full of customary symbols from lentils to fish heads to carrots to apples and honey – none prescribed by the Torah. 

Some minhagim are culture-specific, like Ashkenazim steering clear of kitniyot during Pesach while orthodox Sephardim happily tuck into the rice and lentils (me, jealous? Nah!). Others are place-specific – South Africa must be one of the only places in the world where people gather, exhausted and weak after 25 hours of fasting, for a veritable banquet after Yom Kippur. 

There are some beautiful customs out there, like lighting extra Shabbat candles to represent the light your children bring into your life, kissing mezuzot to show our love for Hashem’s words as we pass them, giving tzedakah in the merit of departed loved ones, or eating the heads of kosher Caramello Bears first so that they feel no pain (what, is that just me?).

Anyone can start a tradition. My mother-in-law lovingly crocheted a beautiful white baby blanket in which all my children have been wrapped at their brit milah and naming ceremonies. I get all warm and fuzzy when I think about one day PG holding my grandchildren in the same warm white embrace at their own smachot, passing down the blanket with their birthright.

In my mother’s home, Kinder-joys (those ingenious inventions that combine chocolate with toys and keep kids busy for a good 20 minutes) have become as much a beloved part of the Shabbat ritual as the wine and challah. My children spend all week looking forward to Shabbat because of this special treat. 

All it takes to institute a minhag is setting a precedent. But before you check into the precedential suite, there are a few things to consider. 

Firstly, minhagim cannot conflict with halacha (so the custom-er is not always right!). Consequently, I’m afraid, the annual burger-bar Yom Kippur lunch idea will have to be shelved. 

Secondly, minhagim are more meaningful when there’s some, well, meaning behind them. Take, for example, why some Jews cut the wings off a chicken before roasting. Oh, come on, you must have heard this one. Is it to commemorate the destruction of the temple? Is it to distinguish the bird as kosher, since early Christians traditionally roasted their birds whole? Is it due to the teachings of our Sages that before the institution of the Shulchan Aruch fowls were considered parev (seriously!), therefore subtracting the wings makes it seem more like meat? Perhaps it’s because the Hebrew word for chicken (in the context of dinner) is “off”? Is it because the gematria of “wings” doesn’t match the gematria of “chicken”? The answer: because someone’s great-Bobba’s roasting pan was too small, so she had to cut the wings off to make the bird fit.

This little anecdote highlights the importance of learning about our customs and laws. The object is not to be like Tevye, who has no clue why things are done except that they always have been done. In fact, many minhagim can be taken with a pinch of salt (on challah or otherwise). Religion can be a hard sell in today’s cynical society, but understanding why we do what we do makes for happy custom-ers.

For example, knowing that the chuppah represents the new home a bridal couple will make for themselves imbues the wedding ceremony with deeper meaning. Understanding the kapparot ritual (and understanding why you can use coins) means that you can truly repent, instead of wondering why you’re swinging a bird around your head. 

In many respects, minhagim are as valuable as mitzvot. Customs flesh out the laws and add layers of meaning and symbolism that entrench them as firmly as the commandments themselves. Perhaps that’s where the term “customs duty” first came from.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s 46 minutes to deadline, and I have to go and do my tequila-hoola-hoop victory dance in celebration of getting my column in on time. It’s something I saw a writer do once, and I liked it. Pass the lemons – and the salt. Until next time. 


My Long Hobble to Freedom

By Lauren Shapiro

The doctor himself was perplexed. He couldn’t figure out a single medically plausible reason for how it had happened. Yet there I sat in his rooms, clutching my infected, inflamed pre-patella bursa (that squiggy thing behind the kneecap, apparently) and biting my lip to prevent myself from uttering things that wouldn’t fit the decorum of his office.

I was promptly wheeled across the road to a hospital ward for nearly a week of intravenous antibiotics that burned worse than the bursa, in the hope of avoiding surgery. Thank heavens, it worked. I was indeed a friend in knee’d, and my friends and family outdid themselves. One drove me to the doctor, another helped with the admission procedures. Others visited every day, held my hand while my other arm swelled up and nearly exploded from an IV leak, and smuggled in the world’s best sandwiches to sustain me (love you, Mom!)

Yet others brought meals to the house and helped Warren with the kids (they’re a vibrant lot, bless them). Not wanting to expose the littlies to the germs that might be floating around a hospital, I tried to maintain our relationship telephonically. The typical result was, “Hello Mommy I miss you I love you sonmuch – there Daddy I said it, can I have the Lego now?” I missed then scamps terribly, but I knew that I was where I needed to be, and of course I was grateful for access to good medical care.

Still, I felt wildly sorry for myself, tethered to a machine for days on end in a bland beige hospital room with nothing but white sheetsn and other morbid-looking faces to gaze upon. It felt like a prison (not that I’ve ever been in one, and to the friend I know is reading this, best you just keep schtum!)

I imagine there are similarities between hospitals and prisons. The food ain’t your mama’s, you’re subject to a system beyond your control, and in both spaces you’re cooped up with a lot of time on your hands to think. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

It got me thinking about all the different kinds of prisons in which we may find ourselves: relationships that have gone sour, jobs that don’t feed our spirits, body shapes we don’t like, the queue at Pick n Pay on a Friday afternoon. The good news is – like any prison – we’re capable of freeing ourselves from each of them; even of growing from the experience.

Because the point of prison is not punishment. If the objectives were purely punitive, we’d be sentenced to five years as Julius Malema’s PA, or chained to a chair and forced to watch back-to-back reruns of Loving. The purpose of prison is not so much to punish us as to give us a chance to change. To emerge as better, stronger people. If we use the experience wisely, Hashem will “break our yokes and burst our bonds”.

Our forefather Joseph needed his time in the slammer to be able to rise to the second-greatest leadership role in the land. The children of Israel needed to experience slavery in Egypt to prepare them for the receiving of the Torah. Jeremiah used his spell in the poke to record at least part of his vital message to his errant people. Samson’s dungeon duty gave his hair time to grow back, without which he couldn’t have thrust out the columns of the Philistine temple, killing the Jews’ oppressors (sure, Samson died too, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make in the name of Hashem, so presumably he got a nice spot in the hereafter).

Does incarceration – whether physical, mental or spiritual – give us renewed appreciation for our subsequent freedom? All forms of prison remind us that we are fallible beings, and that there’s always room for improvement.

One of the highlights of my stay (other than the morphine – did I mention the morphine? God, I loved the morphine – I was ready to
divorce my husband and marry the morphine!) was when a friend showed up on the Friday afternoon with a Shabbat Box. It had everything one could need for Shabbat away from home: candles, matches, wine, challah, a prayer book, a gourmet feast in little plastic containers, a havdallah candle and spices. Kind of like a religious lucky packet.

It made me think how even when we’re confined, we have the freedom to make choices. We just need the right tools. Thankfully in this country this includes freedom of religion, and despite the fire hazard, the bewildered nurses let me burn my tea lights from 18 minutes before sunset. (“Must be the morphine,” they were probably whispering to one another.)

Hospitals improve our health; jails reform our behavior; Shabbat restores our souls. Like the formers, Shabbat may at first glance seem restrictive, but if embraced correctly it holds the power for positive transformation. It’s a freeing kind of independence, figuring out what you believe in, knowing you can stand on your own two feet, spiritually.

Six days later I was allowed to go home. I was delighted to see my children again. Frankly they were more interested in my hospital bracelets and the various bits of cotton wool stuck on my body. I don’t think they noticed the new, improved Mommy that had walked into their lives.

But I’m acutely aware of it. In fact I’m grateful for the whole kneecessary experience – and even more grateful for getting out of it, on
my own two feet.

Until next time.


Eskom and the “kom”ing of Moshiach

Lauren Shapiro

Not everyone knows their blood type, star sign or income tax number offhand, but you can bet your high-heeled boots everyone knows their load shedding block. Our neighbourhood usually has the pleasure of this little electrical coquetry on a Saturday afternoon, which suits us fine because we’re generally just hanging out with the kids on the porch swing or – if they’ll allow us – catching a Shabbos shloff. 

Recently, however, I got the short end of the circuit when load shedding tripped the switch of the mikvah heater, and it didn’t come back on after the power returned. That night as I stood, shivering slightly in the water, the lady who was overseeing my mitzvah apologized profusely (for about the 1000th time) for the water temperature. “Please,” I said sincerely. “It’s not your fault. I blame Eskom. Everyone else does.” And with that, I took a deep breath and went under.

In Jewish homes a generation ago, one was more likely to hear the exclamation, ‘es, kind!’ than ‘Eskom!’ But that’s all changed now (although we do still implore our children to eat, they should grow to be strong and successful, ken-ein-hora). We’re living on the edge in SA at the moment (sometimes it feels like the edge of reason). Day to day, we don’t know whether we can plan our schedules around regularity, or level 1, 2, 3 or 4 load shedding. With Eskom, it seems, the lights are on but nobody’s home. 

We’re in the dark about a lot of things, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

For one thing, load shedding may be a blessing in disguise. Admittedly, a very, very good disguise complete with a trench coat and spectacles with a fake moustache hanging from them. We rely on electricity for so much. There are machines to wash the dishes and make the coffee. We can buy groceries through a screen. I just paused for thought and counted six electrical devices running for my personal convenience right now (including my computer, internet dongle, cell phone, ceiling lights, desk lamp and air con). Nine, really, if you count the kettle for the cup of tea I just made and the toaster for my Marmite toast and the fridge out of which came the butter.Convenience is a modern gift, but it seems to me we may have traversed that delicate line between the sublime and the ridiculous. I confess that, although I chat to my family and close friends every day via apps, the gaps between actual visual sightings are growing vaster. Today there are even audiobooks to read our children bedtime stories, and blenders to chew our food for us (because, really, what else is a smoothie?). I don’t know that it’s really such a bad thing that sometimes we have to make do without all this electrical gadgetry. 

if it didn’t get its name because the government has turned Eskom into a scapegoat onto which people can shed their loads of anger and frustration with the political system. (Conspiracy theory? Nah…) This brings up all sorts of questions of power, and not just of the electrical kind. The world may have experienced The Enlightenment three centuries ago, but a non-history-student would be hard pressed to spot any evidence of it today. Since then, autocratic governments are on the rise, and atrocities against people’s physical and mental liberties have grown in both scale and brutality. How far have we come, really?

Progress is great, but not without the foundations on which good values are built. My old school motto was “Torah Or” – “knowledge is Light”. It was a daily reminder that, as we learnt about new facts and cutting-edge biological experiments involving dead frogs (I am still scarred), real enlightenment came from one very old source: the Torah. 

They say the darkest moments come just before dawn. Well, that’s great news then – either for us or for Eskom. Some believe that Moshiach’s arrival is imminent. Reasons include the apparent fulfillment of a prophecy of a pre-Messianic age of atheism and assimilation (an interpretation of Isaiah’s prediction that “judgment will turn backward… and truth will fall in the street” ), and the formation of the modern state of Israel (the ingathering of the exiles to Jerusalem). The Zohar – that’s the medieval Kabbalistic work, not to be confused with Adam Sandler’s Tzahal commando-cum-hair-stylist, The Zohan – predicted that towards the end of the sixth millennium (that’s round about now), there would be an explosion of knowledge and technology which would precede the messianic age. Hmm, starting to sound convincing? 

One tradition predicts that the Messiah will arrive riding on a donkey – that’s probably because he won’t be able to charge his hybrid car due to load shedding. Maybe when Moshiach arrives he’ll sort out the electricity grid too. 

Meanwhile, I hope that this column will enlighten you, or at least lighten your mood (assuming of course that in between load shedding we can actually go to print). Until next time.



By Lauren Shapiro

I’ve often wondered how rabbis come up with ideas for their sermons. They seem to be able to twist the tiniest particles of the Parsha into meaningful lessons for modern life. I think I know how now. I got a taste of it at Generation Sinai, the Chief Rabbi’s scheme to get parents to learn Torah with their children each year before Shavuot.

Our task was to discuss what Torah idea or value is most important to us, and to illustrate this by way of text and decorations on a cardboard cutout of a Torah scroll, after which, we were promised, there would be chocolates. “Well, team?” I addressed my husband and two sons (my daughter – as part of the play group class – had been exempted from the spiritual discussion group). “What about sharing?” offered six-year-old Ariel. “Good!” I replied. Being close to Shavuot, I’d been aiming at something from the Ten Commandments, but anyway. Avraham shared his food with strangels (my self-coined term for strangers who turn out to be angels); the children of Israel shared their valuables for the furnishing of the mishkan; and Hashem instituted sharing as law by way of tithes. 

“Why don’t you write that down right here, Ari?” (Long pause. When you’re in Grade 1, correctly forming seven letters – in the correct order and with the correct spacing – can take a while.) “Well done, Ari!” I praised, once he was done. “Do we get chocolate now?” piped up nearly-five-year-old Yishai.

“Not yet,” I said. “We first have to discuss the idea and write about it. What do you like to share?” “I like sharing cake,” Ariel replied. So I helped him draw a cake. I mooted a cheesecake, it being Shavuot and all, but he wanted pink icing, and I wasn’t about to quibble. Thus I outlined a vaguely circular cube which he coloured in pink, then added a cherry with a red koki pen.

Satisfied with our artistic contribution, I turned to Shai. “And what do you like to share?” “I like to share my toys,” he smiled, and proceeded to scribble anatomical approximations of his current favourite toys, Baloo the Bear and an orange monkey. (I’ve tried to explain to him that its colour suggests it is actually an orangutan, but he insists on calling it Monkey. Again, I chose not to quibble.) “Do we get chocolate now?” asked Shai. “Not yet,” I said. The other parent-child clusters were still immersed in deep discussion and earnest scribing, so I thought it was a bit premature to call it a day. 

I was mentally clambering for a way to make this Torah value meaningful for my small children, when the six-year-old had one of those unexpected profound moments. “It’s like my name, Mommy,” he pointed out. I’m Ariel O-share!” (For those of you who don’t clip out my columns and reread them regularly, we gave our firstborn the middle name Osher, meaning happiness.)

“That’s great, Ar!” I commended. Then there was a long pause. So, in a desperate attempt to include my other children, I began some robust mental gymnastics. “And look, Shai,” I said, grabbing a koki and writing out his full name. “Your middle name is Shalom. Do you know what that means?” He looked at me carefully, probably judging whether it was too early to ask again about the chocolate. I powered on: “It means peace. But if we spell it differently, it says piece. See?” I pointlessly directed the illiterate four-year-old’s gaze to the words I’d jotted on the cutout. “So if you had a cake,” I pushed on, gesticulating optimistically at the pink blob, “you could share a piece with your friends!”

By now my husband was visibly cringing. But no, good readers, this was not enough. You see, I was on a roll, and I wasn’t about to give up. “And what about your sister?” I asked rhetorically. “Well, her name is Aviva Ahava. And what does Ahava mean?” I looked at the boys, who looked back at me. “Love,” answered Warren, probably in an attempt to stop me from talking. “Exactly!” I cried, scrawling furiously. “And what do loving people do? They share!” I then drew a big heart around her middle name to illustrate it, and a little pink bow for good measure.

“Do we get chocolate now?” asked Shai in the pause that followed. “Sure,” I conceded, suddenly out of keich. “Go ask Rabbi.” My husband gave me one of those incredulous looks where I’m not quite sure if he’s astounded or aghast.

And there’s the value of Generation Sinai – indeed in most rabbinical efforts these days: the point is to make the old scroll relevant to each individual. The Torah is timeless, but a sermon written in Moscow may not have the same appeal to a Durban audience. A 1915 sermon wouldn’t have the same impact on the same congregation in 2015. One aimed at adults may not speak to kids, and so forth. That’s how rabbis manage to find incredible and sometimes mind-boggling connections between current affairs and Torah events. They make gematriacal leaps and grammatical bounds to reach the most profound conclusions.

If these links sometimes seem improbable, they’re not. We’re all links in the chain back to Sinai, and beyond. All beings, all happenings and all things stem from the same divine Source. The extraordinary meaning is there, because the Torah is not just a scroll, it’s a life force, and it lives through each and every one of us. Its lessons are as relevant today as they were then.

At this point, Shai returned, prize in hand. “That looks delicious,” I commented. “Yes,” he slurred through a mouthful of melted chocolate. “But I’m not sharing.” 

I said the lessons were relevant; I didn’t say they were heeded. We can only keep trying! Until next time.


In Her Shoes

By Lauren Shapiro

They spoke to me. In their own unfathomable language, they called out to me from somewhere in the depths of the store. I couldn’t see them, but somehow I knew they were there. I had to find them.

I’m talking, of course, about the perfect pair of shoes.

I did find them – in my size, whoop! – and took them home, lovingly cradling the cardboard box that I knew my kids would fight over (one wanted it for a doll’s house; another to store his toy cars; the other to make an ATM. Let’s see which one grows up to be an accountant).

I wore the shoes the very next day. By lunchtime, I was in agony. My toes were pinched and my ankles ached. I felt so angry and disappointed. But credit where credit’s due (and I’m not talking about my poor Mastercard here), I stuck by those shoes. I wore them until they softened. I grew to understand them and – I think – they me.

Like the perfect pair of shoes, finding your spiritual path is not always easy. Sometimes it’s painful. You won’t always understand why the process is as it is. But sometimes Hashem calls out to you, and you just know it’s right. You and He make the perfect pair.

Before I’m accused of comparing the Almighty to a pair of shoes, let me finish. I quite see the distinction: one is about your sole and the other is about your soul. One’s about shoes and the other about Jews. But in both cases, the way to achieve contentment is to take a step in the right direction, to walk the walk, and to put your best foot forward (okay, enough with the clichés – I’ll stop now before I put my foot in it!)

I have a friend who has a Shoe Fetish. Wait, let me clarify. I have a shoe fetish – I think all women to some extent or another have a shoe fetish – but there’s a fetish, and then there’s a Fetish. This girl has racks upon racks and then drawers upon drawers of shoes. She’s got pumps, boots, heels, trainers, sandals, loafers and stilettoes. She’s got plain shoes, colourful shoes, patterned shoes, classic shoes and trendy shoes. She plans outfits to match the shoes, not the other way around.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk in her shoes. Our lives couldn’t be more different, even in aspects other than footwear. I have children; she does not. I am vegetarian; she is not. I still think the Spice Girls are kind of cool; she most assuredly does not. I scramble to meet deadlines between frying eggy bread and schlepping to swimming lessons; she is established and respected in her corporate career. She travels overseas every year, sometimes twice; I occasionally trek across town to take the kids to Ushaka Marine World. She appreciates fine wine, coffee and haute cuisine; I’m happy with a veggie dog and a cold beer on the porch. She is always impeccably turned out in well-tailored garments; I’ve always favoured bright, flowing flea market specials.

But I’m not friends with her only because we happen to share a shoe size. I respect her creativity, ambition and passion. I love her commitment to her family and she throws the best dinner parties in the world.

Despite our superficial differences, we are both God’s children, she and I. He created us with love, and our (admittedly incongruent) lives are united through love, as per our daily prayer to “unify our hearts to love and fear” Hashem.

The Talmud teaches that each and every one of us should believe that the world was created especially for us. A perplexing instruction, and like so much of scripture, easily misconstrued by the egomaniacal members of our flock. But it’s not meant to be interpreted with arrogance. Rather, a more mature, broad-picture attitude is required.

So was the world created for me? For my friend? For you? For my children? For yours? The answer, of course, is for all of us. But it is also for each of us. Because there’s a difference between the planet, and the world we live in. Even in the same physical space, we can – and do – inhabit different, unique worlds.

Sometimes these worlds collide. Sometimes they don’t. That’s okay. We can love each other anyway. And we can bridge each other’s worlds, if only we have the right spiritual footwear. We learn about derech eretz – “the way of the land”, because the path to a righteous, fulfilling life is a journey. Get your Torah tackies on, people.

There’s an old adage that says that, before you judge someone else, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away, and you have their shoes!

But seriously, just because you don’t understand someone, or feel that you don’t fit into their world, don’t judge them. Hashem created them, their world, their challenges and their blessings, just as He created yours for you. The real goal is to appreciate the unique contribution each of us has to make in our families and communities.

There’s a thought that every day, as we go about our lives, we change the world – for better or worse. Hashem gave us the Torah to help inform and guide our decisions towards creating a more loving, structured world for all of us. So we all have the opportunity to fashion the world, and who says we shouldn’t do it in fashion? Perhaps fashion got its name because it’s made to express the individual and their role in the world.

Maybe I’ll never fit into my friend’s world, but I might fit into her leopard-print peep-toe pumps… until next time.


The Torah according to Hollywood

Lauren Shapiro

Last month I wrote about my son’s response to The Prince of Egypt, Disney’s animated version of the story of Moses and the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt over 3000 years ago. 

This year, 20th Century Fox released Exodus: Gods and Kings, director Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the same story. Pitting gods (note the unapologetic plural there) against earthly kings, the film makes some harsh modern social commentary about possibly the greatest religious leader of all time.

My husband dragged me to see it on a rare romantic date night – primarily because it afforded him an opportunity to wear his incredibly sexy 3D glasses and he gets a kick out of things being hurled at him out of the screen (it makes me nauseous).

Ignoring the obvious irony of Moshe Rabbeinu being played by a man named Christian Bale, there are many moments in the movie when anyone who’s attended cheder might have been left feeling a little baffled. Like when Moses offs a couple of Egyptians in a dark alley out of fear, not because of “striking a Hebrew” (Exodus, 2:11). Or the representation of God as a precocious 11-year-old boy with whom Moses has hallucinogenic arguments. There was no mention of staffs-turned-snakes (Exodus 7:10), matzah (Exodus 12:39), or a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). You’d think, with a hundred-million-dollar-plus budget, Scott could have afforded a researcher or two.

Last year’s Noah, directed by Darren Aronovsky, raised similar religious rankles across audiences. Apparently the ark in the film meets the precise biblical specifications (mazal tov, Darren), but other elements of the film leave me mystified. His “watchers” (angels trapped in grotesque giant CGI “rock” bodies) are not specified in the Chumash. Apparently it’s an outsized and Talmudically tenuous reference to the nephilim (“men of devastation”) mentioned in Genesis 6:4. Kind of like sci-fi meets Kabala. Go figure.

But let not all the frustration fall on Aronovsky and Scott. These conflicts between the big screen and the silver scroll have been going on since the innovation of motion pictures. Charlton Heston’s histrionic Moses in Cecil B De Mille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments springs to mind, and don’t forget Mel Brooks’ classic scene of the receiving of the holy tablets in his 1981 comedy History of the World.

What I really don’t get is the directors’ motivations. If you’re going to make a movie about the Torah, then stick to the Torah. If you want to create pure fantasy, then make a movie about aliens taking over the earth or the Rand overtaking the Dollar.

In trying to get to the heart of the matter, I have to wonder: is the Bible a blockbuster? For sheer magnitude as well as depth of characters, the Torah deserves a few golden statuettes. But what the Oscars sometimes overlook in their critiques of actors, soundtracks and special effects, is essential meaning or spiritual significance. They don’t have an Academy Award for that. The goal of the movie industry is to make money. To make money, you need to sell plenty of tickets. To get people to buy tickets, you generally need to make a lot of jokes, feature a heart-breaking love story, or blow stuff up.

With the budgets of Hollywood, Holy-wood just can’t compete. The Torah is concerned less with profits than prophets. The aim is not to make money, but to teach people how to live a better, more meaningful life.

On balance, the one positive thing I can say about biblical motion pictures is this: they sure get us talking! Save modern politics, or the price of kosher meat, the most lively conversations around the Shabbat table can be spurred by, “So, who’s seen [the latest biblical film]?”

I was an English teacher in a pre-children incarnation of myself, and – Heaven have mercy upon my soul – I remember advising a particularly disinterested matriculant that if he absolutely refused to read Hamlet, he should at least watch the movie. (But not Michael Almereyda’s unforgivable 2000 rendition set in modern-day New York City). It’s no substitute for the depth of the literature, sure, but it was something. Incidentally, the kid passed the exam.

As one Rabbi blogger said of the year’s biblical blockbuster: “It’s a terrible movie - but you should see it anyway.”

Watching filmic interpretations of the Torah is not a substitute for reading the Torah. However, for someone who would not have had the inclination to sit and page through the Chumash in the first place, it’s a nice “in”.

I’m currently sitting here with the actual Chumash open in front of me, stuffed with post-its bearing comments and questions. Already I’ve learnt so much I didn’t know about Noah, Moses and their contemporaries (I should be receiving my rabbinical ordination off the internet any minute now).

These movies give viewers (like me) reason to go back to The Book and compare notes. And then to consult some commentary and to learn more about the whole thing. And then to point out, ad nauseum, the biblical failings of the film and the true Torah descriptions, to my friends and family, including to my young children. And to all of you. 

Until next time.


The Pesach Grinch

Twas the night before Pesach last year, and my then-five-year-old – after having watched Pixar’s The Prince of Egypt – commented on how sad it was that “Hashem doesn’t do miracles anymore”.

I was too busy wrapping tinfoil around the stove plates to respond, but the comment stuck in my mind like that goo at the back of the fridge that we tackle but once a year in a pre-Pesach cleaning blitz (what, that’s just me?).

The five-year-old then went off to push trains around the garden with his siblings, and I sank into an exhausted heap on the (immaculate) kitchen floor. The kid had a point. The Pesach story is all about miracles. The Haggadah is full of them: the plagues, the pillars of fire, the splitting of the sea. Look further into the Torah and commentaries and you’ll find the burning bush, the staff that turned into a snake, and more. So why doesn’t Hashem do the big-screen stuff anymore? It may appear as if He’s given up the miracles line. But I couldn’t really give it too much thought at that moment, as I had a kitchen to kasher and a family to feed (a tricky balance when all some of them eat is pasta).

Someone once told me that in some places They (that elusive entity) build houses with separate Pesach kitchens, little nooks off the house kitted out with separate ovens, stoves, sinks and – the best bit of course – cupboards ready-stocked with Pesach pots, pans, cutlery and crockery. The idea is that, come the 13th of Nissan, you simply close up your regular kitchen, and open your Pesach kitchen. Voila! Two turns of a lock and you’re good to go. 

But for most of us, Pesach means flat-out heavy lifting, unpacking, organizing and slaving over the stove. We empty grocery shelves, schlepp boxes of Kosher-for-Pesach pots and dishes out of the garage, and seal cupboards (it took me years of losing battles with masking tape before I discovered insulation tape, by the way). We end up running around town two days before the chag chasing Pesachdikke products that hadn’t arrived on time, in between cooking vast pots of food and cleaning out the car/toy box/utility closet/bookshelves/school bags/arts and crafts box/laundry hamper (because when you have young kids you are almost guaranteed to find chametz there).

It’s easy to look at this as Hashem’s way of reminding us of when we were slaves in Egypt. It’s laborious, and it’s even harder when you’re surrounded by small people running around reversing your efforts and demanding to be fed/wiped/entertained. By the time said small people were all tucked up in bed that night, Warren and I still had hours of work to do.

I’ll admit here – and only to you – that I had a bit of a snap-attack that night. I was tired, stressed and grumpy, and I gave my tantrumming three-year-old a run for his money when I flung the tinfoil across the kitchen and shouted, “For God’s sake, why do we do all this??”

Yes, folks, I had turned into the Pesach Grinch – that lesser-known relative of Dr Seuss’s Christmas creature – who steals all the joy out of Pesach. My long-suffering husband steered me out into the garden and cracked open our last can of beer. Well, we had to drink it before 9:42½ the next morning anyway, didn’t we?

Turns out I was spot on. We do all this “for God’s sake”, and for our own. It’s very humbling, all this work. In many ways it’s a blessing, reminding us to be grateful for the things we take for granted the rest of the year. Our effort is an aide-mémoire for the “true meaning” – to borrow again from Dr Seuss – of Pesach.

Like the prototypical Grinch, I too experienced a change of heart. The following morning, the kids pattered through to a changed kitchen. (Who says Hashem doesn’t do miracles anymore? He just has a little help from parents.) While the children slept, a transformation had taken place. And not just in the kitchen. There’d been a renovation of our mental space, too. We weren’t just entering a whole new kitchen; we were entering a whole new world: a world of history, heritage and tradition. A world free of chametz in all its forms, from leavened foods to risen egos.

In order to understand this, we have to remember why Hashem allowed us to become enslaved in Egypt in the first place. Well, truth be told I’m not actually sure what the answer is, but I am sure that it was part of His Divine Plan(™?). He’d told Abraham generations before: “Your offspring will be strangers in a land not their own, and they will be enslaved and oppressed” (Genesis 15:13).

It’s all part of The Plan, people. Perhaps we need to go through the rigours of slavery to appreciate our freedom, and that’s why every year we’re compelled to repeat the process (okay, suitably cushified, I’ll admit – give me housework over hard labour any day). But still, it is a symbol and a reminder. We are commanded to be as if we ourselves are liberated each year (“bechol dor va dor” ).

Perhaps it’s because, without all the work, these eight days might slip, unnoticed, through the cracks in the calendar. They’re there to remind us of the true miracle of Pesach: our personal, spiritual and national freedom which exists today.

So to all of you who, like me, are suffering from PPS (Pre-Pesach Syndrome) right about now, take comfort in the following: although my kids are too young to understand it yet, Hashem does indeed still “do miracles”. He showers us with blessings constantly. Sometimes blessings can be tremendously hard work (think of children!) but they are blessings just the same, and I for one would not forgo them for all the matzah in Bnei Brak. Until next time.


Le dor va dor

- Lauren Shapiro

It’s a sad time in our house. My grandmother, Bitsie “Ouma” Oshry (ZL) has just passed away. It feels funny to write that for the first time: Ouma (ZL). ZL is the customary appendix to the name of a Jewish person who has passed on. It stands for the Hebrew phonetic Zachor LaTov, remember for goodness. Remember. Because she’s not here anymore.

Ouma had a long life, blessed with a loving husband, four children, 13 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren, and she passed away peacefully with no pain, having chalked up an extra two dozen years on her allotted three score and ten. 

She was born in a time when people’s phones were screwed to the wall; when sending mail took days, not seconds; a time before TV and microwaves; before Monopoly or the Frisbee were invented (1934 and 1948 respectively, according to Google). She lived through the Great Depression, a world war, the creation of a Jewish state and all the wars which followed. 

What she must only have thought of the world we all know and now take for granted, I’d love to understand... actually, she told me she thought we’re all meshuga. But that only goes to prove my point about the distance between her generation and ours. 

Or does it? I was remarkably close to my gran. In fact, I was privileged to have grown up surrounded by almost all of my grandparents, and my life is richer for it. But it’s only since having my own children and seeing their relationships with their grandparents (and great-grandmother) that I realize just what a special thing it really is. 

There are several reasons I think grandparents truly are grand: Grandparents are much more fun than parents. They have a certain genealogical prerogative, summed up neatly by my mother as “Savta’s house; Savta’s rules”. This allows children to indulge in all matter of silly behaviour and processed foods without compromising parental authority. 

Grandparents are far more patient than parents (that’s because they only have to deal with the critters for a couple of hours at a time and can focus on the cool stuff while Mom and Dad worry about tedious things like homework and bedtimes). 

Grandparents are wonderful for children’s egos. The love and encouragement little ones get for even the slightest achievement (a scribbled squiggle from the four-year-old or a barely comprehensible gurgle from the one-year-old) boosts their confidence more than any paid professional or external reward system ever could. 

Grandparents are cheaper than therapy. Often retired, grandparents have all the time in the world to listen to their grandchildren’s problems in the most enthralling detail. And the bonus is: they’re actually interested! I can’t count the pots of rooibos tea and piles of ginger biscuits I consumed at Ouma’s kitchen counter whilst regaling her of the latest love disaster (this was before I married Warren, obviously!), social dilemma, work challenge, and later whatever issue my children were currently going through at the time. Quietly eavesdropping on the conversations my kids now have with their own grandparents, I sense nothing’s changed. 

Grandparents give kids different perspectives on life that parents can’t always offer. For example, Gampa, an erstwhile engineer, teaches my offspring all about planes, copters and how things work, and Dr. Nana provides the bedside manner when all they get from me is a Winnie the Pooh plaster and a “well, next time wear a helmet”. 

Savta the music buff exposes them to a range of tunes beyond my Bon Jovi generation (they particularly like Renee Olstead’s “Hit the road, Jack” and John Lennon’s “Power to the people”). Saba teaches them to take risks in a way their mommy never could (“Come on, jump, I’ll catch you,” he yells from the deep end of the pool while I hyperventilate quietly in the lounge). I’m sure those are life lessons that will stand them in good stead. 

That’s enough reasons to write a promotional pamphlet, but it’s not like there’s nothing in it for the grampsters themselves. Urban wisdom proclaims: grandchildren are your reward for not murdering your own children. 

There’s a lot to be gained from this very special relationship, so encourage your children to call their grandparents today. If you don’t have grandparents around, adopt some. There are plenty of ready “resident grannies and grandpas” whose own progeny are far away and who would love to spend some time with your young ones. (Of course, this is an entirely altruistic suggestion for the benefit of their relationship and has nothing whatsoever to do with the prospect of free babysitting…) 

Grandparents are the link in the chain that keeps our culture going. Between the ice creams and the cuddles, the stories and the board games, grandparents transmit to their grandchildren the values that their grandparents passed down to them. That’s why, over 3000 years later, in a world barely recognizable to the crowd at Sinai, Jews still read the Torah and value the mitzvot that make us into mentschen. 

Ouma (ZL) was the last of her generation in our family. We will miss her, but her legacy will live on through her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Le dor va dor – from generation to generation. Until next time.


Happy Channukah, Tu Bishvat Sameach, Good Yom Tov, etc A word or two on timing

Lauren Shapiro

I’m typing this sitting on the porch where we buried a list of our family values in the cement seven months ago. The hope was that we would (literally) build our home on those values. Now the house is built, and we’re 90% unpacked. 

We’re also the kind of people who take down their sukkah in March and leave pictures leaning on walls ready to hang until the dust is thicker than the frame, so 90% may be both an achievement and a status quo. 

Our moving date coincided with the first day of Channukah, and since Channukah is a time of blessings and dedication (the word Channukah itself means dedication), we decided to hold a Channukat Habayit, a house-warming-cum-dedication-ceremony-cum-mezuzah-blessing-cum-generally-being-very-jolly-and-having-a-few-too-many-Peronis-on-the-porch. We wanted to capitalize on the spiritual significance of holding the Channukat HaBayit during Channukah itself, so we had less than a week to pull this little shindig together. The three preschoolers, on summer holiday and desperate for something to do, followed us around ‘helping’ and generally getting in the way. At one point I may have thrown a dreidel at one of them. But, several frenzied days of unpacking boxes and frying latkes later, it all came together. 

As we lit our Channukah candles that evening, we blessed Hashem’s greatness and prayed that He would bless our family home with the miracles, redemption, mighty deeds, saving acts, and wonders that He has shown our people throughout the centuries. 

Now that I’ve had a few weeks to settle in both physically and metaphorically, I’ve made a few interesting observations about the experience. Firstly, unpacking was an interesting inventory of a combined 84.5 years of life, mostly evidenced by my uncanny talent at hoarding. (Seriously? I still have that Caboodle makeup case?? And I’m sure I got rid of that pile of Habonim T-shirts years ago. But I’m not letting go of the blankets I wrapped my babies in or the trimmings from the boys’ first haircuts.1)

Overwhelmed by the amount of junk materializing from our boxes, we asked guests not to bring house warming gifts. We really didn’t need yet another sugar bowl. How many can one possibly use? We’ve already dedicated one each to white, brown, muscovado and non-nutritive sweetener and our tea tray is getting too heavy to carry. 

Instead, we asked for herbs for our as-yet empty garden. We felt it a fitting symbol of the growth that we hope our new home will foster. True to their generous selves, our family and friends flooded our doorstep with coriander and mint, parsley and chives, and even a mini rose bush which I really, really hope will survive my not-so-delicate gardener’s touch. By the time you’re reading this, those little seedlings will, PG, be a thriving herb garden. Each time we use those herbs to flavour our meals, we will be nourished both physically and spiritually by our nearest and dearest, favouritist people in the world. 

Your reading this will also coincide with Tu Bishvat, the day established by our Sages for appreciation of plants and the vital role they play in our lives. We’ll be celebrating the festival by planting a lemon tree, which has become somewhat of a family tradition of ours. 

The second observation is about timing. The word that comes to mind is auspicious: holding our Channukat HaBayit on Channukah; the resultant garden springing (well, summering, I guess) to life on Tu Bishvat. I love that our religion has festivals to acknowledge and celebrate these aspects of life. No matter what time of year, we’re always looking forward to the next reason to commemorate, to rejoice, to remind and to sing praise. Built into our calendar, these are opportunities for bringing meaning to our lives. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we review our year and resolve to improve ourselves; on Sukkot we come face to face with our vulnerability; on Pesach we express our gratitude for freedom; on Shavuot we stop and think about the laws that still define our people 3000 after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. They’re not just opportunities to get together and eat, but regular reminders of important concepts and values. 

I love that the ‘reasons’ for these festivals (the ones we explain to our young children) may have happened millennia ago, but that the significance, the real reasons they’re still important in our lives (the ones our kids will hopefully understand as they mature) are so clear and relevant today.

As Isiah so eloquently pointed out, there’s a time for everything under heaven. A time to move and a time to stay put. A time to pack and a time to unpack. A time to light candles, and a time to plant trees. A time to work hard and a time to sit back with a beer on the porch and enjoy the results. Until next time.



Lauren Shapiro

If you’re not online these days, you don’t exist. That may not be scientifically provable, but it’s as good as fact. Most professionals have their own websites these days, and everyone who’s anyone has a social media presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. [Disclaimer: in the time it takes for this column to get from my desk to the printers there will likely be new sites which I didn’t know about at the time of writing.] 

These profiles tell the world (or at least the world-wide web) about you. They give your name, the city you’re from, and often allow you to include a photograph of yourself (or your kids, or your dog, or your coffee mug). They may list where you went to school or university, where you work, or what movies you like. They can tell people how to get in contact with you, or when your birthday is (sometimes they also offer a handy reminder of other contacts’ birthdays - it’s worth signing up for this feature alone!)

It’s very important to keep these profiles up to date. I’m not just talking about accurate postings on your Facebook Wall about what you had for breakfast, or removing potentially awkward references to romantic relationships no longer extant. These days people rely on your online profile as their first impression of you, so it really can make the difference between getting that job/client/man/woman/other, and being resigned to spend the rest of eternity with nothing to pass your time than… updating your online status. 

This month I sat down to update my various social media profiles. It was a very in-depth process. Electronic prompts asked me for all kinds of information, from my favourite TV show (Charlie and Lola - I never get to watch grown-up TV anymore) to the sports team I support (I don’t follow sports so I left that one blank) and my relationship status (happily married, if that makes any difference to the rest of the world).

But there were also some very intriguing questions. Facebook asked me what achievements I was most proud of. Linkedin had me list my volunteer experience and causes I care about. And Twitter is always a challenge - how do you fit your life, your personality, your principles into 140 characters or less?

Social media may seem like a fickle mistress, but it (she?) can force us to reflect on our lives, and allow us to connect with people and values that make our lives better. Of course, we shouldn’t be defined by our education, our job, or even the causes we support or the skills we sport. But these things make up a significant part of who we are. From these we can extrapolate character traits and qualities. We can reinforce our positives and identify room for improvement. Until we’ve figured this out, how can we really do a proper analysis of ourselves and our souls? 

This time of year we’re all thinking about spiritual stock-take. It’s not just those metaphorical scales of judgment and justice that encourage us to weigh up our lot in life. The shofar sounds its heavenly wake-up call. We say selichot (prayers for forgiveness and mercy) to help us achieve Teshuva (not just repentance, but a return to divine purity). Tashlich allows us a beautiful symbolic way of discarding our sins so we can start the new year with a clean slate. 

There’s no reason why social media shouldn’t play as large a part in this process as it does in our daily lives. With the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) almost upon us, perhaps we should all be posting our values out there (tweeting’s not just for the kaparos chicken). Instead of using our Facebook Timelines to track our social engagements, we can focus on the events that have engaged our souls over the last year. The Day of Atonement has always been about soul searching, but in today’s digital age, perhaps it’s become more about soul surfing. Catching a wave on the www in the lead-up to Yom Kippur can help us to connect not just with our friends, but with ourselves and perhaps even our Creator. 

Let me explain. Some people go online to update their status a bunch of times a day, to let everyone in the world know how they’re doing, what they’re feeling, who they’re voting for on Idols, etc. But how often do we take the time to update our status with God? Here I am, Hashem. Here’s how I’m doing today. If your i-pad is your gateway to Facebook, your siddur is your gateway to something even greater. Think of it as your Face-to-Facebook. It can get you up close and personal with the things that really matter. 

We need ways to help us relate to an invisible, omnipresent, omnipotent power. Social Media is something we “get”, so it makes a perfect metaphor for connecting with our Maker. At the end of the day (or quite frankly at any time of the day), all Hashem wants is to be linkedin with us. I mean, Who do you think came up with the idea of communicating via tablets?

With Rosh Hashana around the corner, I challenge you to update your status with meaning and the values you want to carry through the coming year. Who knows – they may even go viral (for the tech-challenged, that means to spread fast and gain popularity rapidly. It’s actually a good thing.)

If you don’t have social media accounts, open them (they’re free, and not as hard as they look). Your friends, followers and connections will thank you, but ultimately you might be the one who benefits the most.

A new year is a perfect time to give your status - and your psyche - an update. What’s not to “like” about that? Catch you online. Until next time. 



Lauren Shapiro

As a woman, I’m not obligated to pray in specific times or places. And a good thing that, too. Shacharit usually takes place while I’m running around locating socks and library books and trying to get the older kids to the school bus on time. During the official mincha/maariv services, I usually have ketchup in my hair and am up to my elbows in Shipmate bath bubbles.

That’s why I love my mid-morning yoga class. It’s an hour where I can put aside the distractions of work, kids, domestic chores, climate change and the global economy, and reconnect with my soul.

Let me make plain right up front: yoga has nothing to do with religion. It’s a physical practice of balancing one’s body and energies. It’s practiced by plenty of Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, Jews and those of indistinguishable conviction.

Yoga is not prayer. But for me, it’s the perfect foil to prayer. I find both more fulfilling when I bring the benefits of each to the other.  For example, I get a lot more out of prayer when I’m not plagued by aching muscles and a creaking body. So when I do the Amidah, I use the mindfulness of the mountain pose to keep my spine erect while the prayer straightens up my spirit. When I bow, I use yoga awareness to protect my back on the recovery. The mandatory standing, bowing, and stepping in our prayer rituals is a reminder that, like yoga, prayer is a coming together of the body, mind and spirit, in service of our Creator.

Conversely, when I’m on the mat, I try to bring the consciousness of prayer to the experience. When I’m doing downward dog, I think about how my four limbs, evenly placed, bring harmony and stillness to the body, just as the people from the four corners of the world will, please God, come together and bring peace and harmony to the world. Resting in child’s pose is a beautiful, humbling reminder that we are all Hashem’s children.

The similarities between yoga and prayer run deep. Some days you get more out than others, but you always get something out (I could make a rough joke about prayer and insurance brokers at this point, but for fear of a libel case, I will hold back). Just as regular yoga keeps our muscles toned for other activities, so consistent prayer keeps our neshamas in shape for other areas of our lives, like shmirat halashon (guarding our speech) and gemillut chassidim (acts of kindness).

Yoga, like prayer, is a non-competitive sport. An ergonomic mat and designer yoga gear won’t make you more peaceful, just like a fancy siddur or payot down to your knees don’t mean you’re more spiritual than your neighbour. Sure, there are the contortionists who make their appearances on calendars and greeting cards, but most yogis are humble individuals on their own personal journeys towards self-improvement.  

Even within this journey, progress can vary like Freddie Mercury’s pitch in “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Some days I feel strong and I can lift my heels to my ears. Other days I’m tired and distracted and I can barely focus on standing up straight. But whether I feel like it or not, I force myself to go to class because I know that when I walk out I always feel better than I did when I walked in. It’s the same with prayer. Sometimes it can feel like I’m just going through the motions, mouthing the words as my eyes gloss over the pages of the siddur. But sometimes I feel a deep, spiritual connection with Hashem and the world around me, my prayers acting as a link between the daily grind and the grand divine.  

In Sanskrit, the word yoga comes from the root yuj, meaning union or joining together - the connecting of the body, mind and spirit. In Judaism, all these elements come together with the blessing of Hashem. Hashem, after all, represents the ultimate unity. The shma - which we are called upon to recite every day and every night - proclaims the oneness of Hashem for all to hear.

There’s a time and a place for formal worship, but with our frenzied modern lifestyles, it’s not always easy to get to shul each time we need to connect - and with all this frenzy, we need the connection more than ever. Some people find focus and closeness to God in pounding the pavement or swimming or painting or knitting or whatever it is that helps them feel in tune with His divinity. For me, it happens on the mat.  

I sometimes chat to God while I’ve got my head between my feet, it’s true. We ponder things that have been playing on my mind, and He often pushes me in the right direction (I don’t blame Him if I lose my balance and fall over).

Yoga brings me peace. I call it shal-OM. Yoga is gentle enough that everyone can do it, but powerful enough to change your life. Just like prayer. Perhaps I’m laboring the point now, but prayer is like yoga for the spirit. We need both the physical and the spiritual aspects of our lives to attain true contentment and fulfillment.  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to roll out my mat and do a few trikonasanas (trikonasanot?). Then I’m going to whip out my siddur and roll off a few prayers. Then I’m going to take a deeeeep breath and launch into triple dinner-bath-and-bed-time. Shalom, and namaste. Until next time.


Concrete Value

Lauren Shapiro

We’re building a house. It’s all very exciting. Since my husband has the visualization skills of a mole - and even less interest - I get to handle the fun stuff like choosing taps and tiles and putting plug-points in the right places, but he’s on site, as it were, when it comes to the real structures of the thing.

The plans, with all their little squiggly lines which I have to translate for him into walls and windows, downlights and ducts, read like a map of our future. There are the kids’ rooms (for when the boys grow up and no longer want to bunk in together, and the baby is finally out of our bed…). There’s the kitchen with the open-plan counter where we will prepare many happy family dinners. There’s the garden where the kids will play hide and seek (and probably cricket and soccer and all those boy-ish things I’ll no doubt have to learn to love…). There’s the porch where we’ll spend sunsets sipping beers (juice for the kids) and discussing how our days have gone. 

When the builders were about to “throw the slab” (I’m learning all sorts of new jargon these days), the bundle of mush that is my dear father-in-law came up with the idea to write down our family values and bury them in the foundation, so that our home will literally be built on those values. Twee alarm! I loved it immediately. So I sat down to write out a list of our values. And I came to the astonishing and somewhat frightening realisation that I didn’t actually know what they were! 

The family conference I called backfired spectacularly. The one-year-old can’t talk yet, the three-year-old was more interested in his trains, and the five-year-old couldn’t quite grasp the abstract concept of values (he thought I was going to bury all our family valuables under the house - ‘but Mommy, what if we need them??’). 

So Warren and I stayed up many nights after we’d put the kids to bed, asking difficult questions. What do we believe? What are our values? How do we define them and how are we going to teach them to our children? It was an intriguing exercise. Some values we took straight from the Torah; for others we had to dig deep into our hearts. 

Then last week, armed with our rolled-up list of values printed on pretty paper and tied with ribbon, we traipsed down to the building site. What fun, I thought as the boys pulled on their gumboots and Bob the Builder dress-up gear, complete with plastic hard hats, tool belts and tools. What have I done, I thought as we stepped onto the site. Note to the timid: do not take small children to a building site. There are lots of dirty, sharp, deep and/or heavy things that are not supposed to be played with. Once we’d gathered the children away from the large machines with the spades and blades, we found a nice spot towards the back of the site and held a little ceremony where I read out the values while Warren listened dutifully and the kids played in the dirt, and then we laid down the list in the foundation trench just under what will become the porch, and retreated to a safe distance to watch the real action. 

The five of us watched, enthralled, as the massive concrete mixer churned to life. We observed the machine feeding the wet cement into a huge flexible tube controlled by hydraulics and a remote control (my five-year-old had to explain this to me), and saw the muck gush into the trenches. 

In no more than 20 seconds, our little list of values was covered in concrete, never to be seen again. It struck me as a bit of a metaphor, actually. Too often our values get so obscured by the rush of everyday life that it’s hard to see them, and even harder to find them. Sometimes we need to sit and chip away at life’s concrete to get to them. Unless they are stored safely in our souls. 

This whole exercise has taught me so much. I learnt that that thingamajig attached to the concrete mixer is called an aggregate hopper (this also from the five-year-old). I learnt that cement doesn’t come out of a dry-clean-only blazer. And I learnt that if you really want something to be meaningful, you have to put in the meaning. Our values are what give life meaning. We don’t all get to design our dream house, but we all have the chance to design our dream life. I feel so blessed to have had both of these opportunities in one month.

Sure, building a house is a lot of work, but you get out what you put in. Ding-ding-ding! Life metaphor alert! Each small improvement to the plan, each carefully repositioned brick represents the things we do to improve our lives, like tweaking the master plan of our goals and dreams, rearranging the bricks of our actions - the tachlis of our daily lives. 

Building is a part of life, physically and spiritually. Sometimes you need a hard hat; sometimes you need a kippah (or a suitably feminist-appropriate female equivalent…).

There are times to build, and then there are times to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour. As we sit on our porch in our new home, it will be comforting to know not only that our values are there, but what they are. Until next time.



Lauren Shapiro

Bedtime is an important ritual in our house. From the days when I followed the baby books to the letter, we start with a soothing bath. Well, a bath, anyway. Over the years it has become less and less tranquil. The drops of lavender essential oil have been replaced by bomb-drops from the rim of the bath when I turn my head to get the soap (“mind your little sister!”). The gentle baby massage has given way to chasing them around the house with a hairbrush (to tame their wet and wild locks, no reason more sinister than that!). The little sister escapes this step as she still has no hair.

After bath, the older kids put on their pyjamas, and have a milky drink and a bedtime story. Then comes the pinnacle of the routine: bedtime prayers. 

As a prelude to the actual liturgy, we do what has become known as “grateful things”, where each child gets to list the things for which he’s thankful that day. Sometimes these are exceedingly sweet and mature, and other times we get random inventories like: “I’m grateful for my toys and my nightlight and all my friends and Shai and the beanbags and Mommy and Daddy.”

Then I sing Hamapil (the bedtime prayer), and we all do the Shma together. The boys still mispronounce half the Hebrew words, and there’s always much mirth expressed at the line “ve’dibartah bam” (“Bum! Hahahaha!”), but they’re getting the idea. 

Funnily enough, for me that line is the most significant of all. It translates to “and you shall speak of them” - them being these matters discussed in the Shma, of loving Hashem with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. The verse goes on to say “ve’shinantam le’vanecha” - “And you shall teach them to your children”. It gives me immense warm fuzzies to note that that’s exactly what I’m doing. Through our little nightly ritual, I’m teaching them the basic tenets of our faith: the oneness of Hashem; to love Hashem; to speak of Him often; to use tephillin and mezuzot as constant reminders of His presence. 

They may not realize it yet - to be honest I think they consider it more a sort of lullaby - but I’m ingraining this seminal prayer in their minds and hearts. I’m passing on not just words but an entire heritage. It’s more than a tune - it’s a tradition that links generation upon generation. Should they choose to, they will always be able to access its wisdom. 

But after dark wisdom often seems the furthest thing from my mind. (My kids know their stories - Cinderella loses her slipper on the stroke of midnight; Mommy loses her sense of humour when the clock strikes seven.) So after prayers it’s a goodnight kiss (for the younger son; the older one “does not do” kisses but will accept from me a manly-ish attempt at a hug), and we end with a nauseating ceremony of “I love you”; “I love you more”; “I love you more more”; “I love you more more more”… which I only win by backing out and closing the door.

 At this point I lean on the darkened passage wall and sigh a sigh of deep gratitude, listening to the giggles slowly subsiding behind the door. 

Bedtime is such a special time. It’s a time of infinite vulnerability. Without the comfort of the day’s distractions, we feel the darkness of night, the closeness of sleep - death’s distant cousin. There’s a reason that kids are only frightened of the Boogeyman at night-time. They need protection from the terrifying harshness of the world, and my maternal urge to protect them is strongest at night. 

But then I think we all harbour fears of the great darkness, literally and figuratively. Even grownups need protection, and we get it from above. To quote Psalm 91, traditionally included in the bedtime prayers: “Who dwells in the refuge of the Lord, in the shade of the Almighty he shall dwell.” It’s a clumsy locution (probably sounds better in the original Hebrew), but the gist is that if we stick by God, He’ll be there to protect us.

After all, we’re all Hashem’s children, and we’re all given a clean slate every night, as innocent as these little guys in their Smurfs PJs, clutching their stuffed animals to their chests.

 Perhaps Hashem looks down on us like I look down at my sleeping babies, their cheeks soft and pale in the glow of the nightlight. Perhaps He gets a lump in His throat too. 

I don’t say my own prayers every night. Well, not officially from the book, anyway. So often there are competing priorities - lunchboxes that need packing, telephone books that need sewing into bunting (true story, don’t ask), laundry that needs hanging, deadlines that need to be met (ahem, ahem, she says, glancing at the clock) - that I just collapse into bed, half-asleep before my head hits the pillow. 

Besides, I figure I’ve done the service twice already by then - once with the boys, and once with their little sister, who is still too small to take part in this bedtime ritual, so I whisper the prayers in her ear as she has her evening feed in my arms. 

But that doesn’t mean I don’t pray. I thank Hashem for protecting me and my little munchkins. I pray for the safety of my family and friends, for our health, success and happiness. And I ask Hashem to give me the strength and direction to be the best parent I can be, to protect my children from so much more than just bedbugs.

Prayer is connecting to Hashem, and I can think of no time more opportune nor appropriate than bedtime. Our little ritual is part of a heritage I feel blessed to have inherited, and grateful to pass onto another generation. And with that thought, it’s time for bed. Goodnight, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite. Until next time.



Lauren Shapido

We often take our children (now five, three, and not quite a
year) to shul on Shabbat mornings. While the adults are praying,
the kids mostly play with their friends and climb up the grassy
banks behind the building – in their “Shabbos best” (sigh).

There’s also a wonderful youth service, which I’ve written about
before in this column. Aimed at the under-sixes, the goal of this
service is to familiarize the children with the prayers and rituals
that go on in the “big shul”.

Now I have to be totally honest here. My kids enjoy the youth
service. They sing the songs, clap their hands at more or less
the right times, and delight in their turns carrying the cardboard
Torah scrolls around the room. But the real reason they go is
the chocolate.

Come “table time”, at the end of the service, the children are
all invited to gather round a symbolic
Shabbat table for pretend candlelighting,
a swig of grape juice, and a
little hunk of challah. Then they’re
each given a chocolate.
Oh, the excitement! There’s a
flurry of plastic wrappers and then a
horde of chocolate-covered children
stampede out the door, bound back
– no doubt – to the grassy bank to
work off their newfound, sugared-up

My older two also pop into “big shul” to greet the Rabbi and
they’re given another chocolate. (Now every time my threeyear-
old sees a man with a beard, he puts out his hand and says,
“Shabbat Shalom!”) You might wonder about the need for giving
children these fatty, sugary, caffeinated, processed treats, which
are only bad for their health, not to mention their teeth (spot
the parent, anyone?). The truth: it’s because it’s good for their

The point is to make the kids want to go to shul. If you examine
the evidence, this type of persuasion by confection is not
without historical precedent. Generations of cheder teachers
would drizzle honey on the Aleph-bet for their new students
to lick, so that by association the words of the Torah would be
“sweet on the tongue”. We throw sweets at barmy boys and
batti girls to celebrate their initiation into the world of mitzvot.
For all I know, the great sages rewarded themselves with a nice
cup of tea and a chocolate-covered date at the end of a long
day’s study.

In my own experience, chocolate has played an important
role in my Jewish education. I attended Habonim Dror’s
youth movement meetings and camps for over ten years, and
chocolate usually played some sort of a role. We played The
Chocolate Game (you know, where you have to eat as much
chocolate as you can, using a knife and fork and wearing gloves
and sunglasses and other impediments, before the next kid
throws a six on the dice). We did chocolate treasure hunts,
played musical chocolate, and even hosted – I am being 100%
serious – a chocolate Seder. Chocolate was frequently used
for prizes for games and activities (even though the socialist
ideology meant things usually ended in a “Habonim Draw”).

Slabs, Smarties, chocolate bars, chocolate milk, chocolate chip
cookies, hot chocolate, chocolate sauce… you name it, and
the “Maddies” (leaders) found a way to use it. Yes, perhaps I
only showed up to get my sweet fix. But over the years, I learnt
about Herzl and Zionism, Israeli politics and culture, chaggim
and biblical heroes, prayer, Hebrew, and the Holocaust. I also
picked up Jewish values and ideals, ethics that have stood me in
good stead throughout my life. I suppose you could go as far as
to say that it’s because of chocolate that I am the strong, proud
Jewess I am today. We don’t have the same sort of structured
youth movement presence in Durban nowadays, but I still want
my kids to grow up with an appreciation for their Jewish history
and culture. So we take them to the youth services and activities
that are available. But how do you get
children under five (or frankly, under
25) to want to give up their free time,
without some sort of incentive?

They say the way to a man’s heart is
through his stomach. I think that’s true
for all people, including small ones. So
if we want to get Judaism into their
hearts, what better way than to go
through their stomachs? Is it bribery?
Maybe. Is it so bad?

I don’t know. So they come for the
chocolate. And while they’re there, they learn something.
Better, surely, to lure them with confectionery than to drag
them by force?

Honestly, it’s not dissimilar to the adult enticements used to
encourage people to participate in community events (think
cheesecake, herring, salmon, sushi, bagels, bubka… oy vey, I’m
getting hungry just thinking about it!).

I’m not saying that’s the only reason people attend. I’m just
saying that they enjoy themselves, while they’re benefiting
spiritually, and is there anything wrong with that?
The shul AGM is coming up, and I’m proposing a resolution
to provide all adult congregants with chocolates on the pews
during services. No? Alright.Just the kiddies, then.
And maybe their parents.Until next time.



Lauren Shapiro

This morning I was standing in line at Pick n Pay, minding my
own business while waiting to pay for my groceries, when the
woman in front of me began verbally assaulting the cashier. If
words were fur balls, it would have looked like a catfight. I’m not
sure exactly what the cause of the disturbance was. By the time
I’d dragged my attention away from the YOU cover story and
focused it on the till point, the argument was in full swing. Well,
I say “argument”, but that implies a two-way conversation. This
was a unilateral harangue of epic proportions. The woman was
spurting language that would make a sailor blush and inferring
things about the cashier’s intelligence, competence, and family
members. The cashier, meanwhile, was attempting to apologize
– continuously – but couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
Presently a lady with a name badge shepherded the rest of us
to another till while the situation was being resolved. What a
horrible person, I thought. I’m so
sorry that the poor cashier had to
go through that. Heck, I’m sorry
that I had to witness it! Why did she
have to ruin both of our days?
It wasn’t until a bit later, when I was
drowning my sorrows in coffee and
cheesecake, that I felt the penny
drop. There I was, wondering what
Hashem could possibly have been thinking in creating such a
beaut, when I realized: He wants to make a point! He wanted
the cashier to experience that. He wanted me – and everyone
else in the queue that day – to witness it. That woman was sent
to teach us a lesson, and in this case the lesson is in how not to
behave to other people.

I’m sure He has a plan for her too. Hopefully she will encounter
someone else in the next day or two who will teach her a lesson.
Not in the malicious sense, but in the truest, most genuine
sense. Perhaps she’ll meet someone who stands as an example
of grace under pressure or kindness to others. Or maybe she’ll
see someone acting similarly to the way she did in Pick n Pay,
and she’ll realize just how ugly it really is.

The whole incident got me thinking about interpersonal
relationships. I believe that Hashem really does orchestrate
everything for a reason. Every single person we encounter has
been sent to teach us something. Some teach us how to live
good lives, and some teach us how NOT to do so. Our job is
to try to learn the lessons from each of them. PirkeiAvot puts
it concisely: “Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is
written (Psalm 119:99) ‘I have gained understanding from all my

But it’s not just the people we currently encounter that can
serve as our teachers. Even people who lived thousands of
years ago can teach us these important lessons. The Torah is
full of examples of individuals who set positive and negative
role models for us. Think Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau.
The Talmud brings examples too, like, “Let a man be always
humble and patient like Hillel, and not passionate like Shammai”
(Shabbat 31a).

Hashem wants us to live the best and most fulfilled lives we can,
and so he sends us teachers to show us the way (or to act as
warning signals for the wrong way). We only have to look for

From those around us we can learn the ins and outs of how to
dress, how to speak, and how to drive. Other parents teach us
how to be (or not to be) good parents. Our colleagues teach us
how to be (or not to be) effective professionals. The children
in our lives teach us how to be (or not to be) juvenile, and our
elders teach us how to (or how not to) age with grace. Hashem
has blessed us with free will. Choose your teachers carefully.
Why not do a little experiment? For the next few days, assess
every encounter you have with another human being, from the
man at the robot to your boss to your mother-in-law to your
acupuncturist’s secretary. Do they laugh and smile, or just moan
and complain? Are they kind to others, or stingy of spirit?
Assume that each of them has been
sent specifically to teach you a
particular lesson, and try to figure
out what that lesson is. Is it bravery?
Humility? Perseverance? Humour?
Love? Is it how not to behave in the
face of stress, or how to triumph over
adversity with grace?

Another important point to remember is that we, too, are
teachers to every other person that we meet. So we might like
to ask ourselves from time to time what kind of lessons we want
to be teaching. What values do we wish to portray and what
legacy do we wish to leave behind with our daily actions? What
lessons has He sent you to teach? What is your mission on this
earth? We could all be that woman in Pick n Pay. Or we could
not. The choice is ours.

All this has certainly given me food for thought (and I’m not
talking about the cheesecake). I dedicate this month’s column to
the woman at Pick n Pay. I’m sorry you were having such a bad
day, but I thank you for the lesson you taught me about patience,
and common decency. I hope your day got better, and that your
life keeps improving, lesson by lesson. Until next time.
Pull-quote: “Every single person we encounter has been sent to
teach us something”



Lauren Shapiro

I love my garden. Okay, you wouldn’t think it to look at it. It’s in a total state at the moment. The cabbages are droopy, the basil is scraggly, and the mint has taken over the joint like a horticultural mafia. The lettuce has grown nearly a metre tall (I’m not sure it’s supposed to do that) and the parsley is an unbecoming shade of yellow.

I didn’t mean to let it get so bad. When I started this project, the idea was to have a gorgeous blooming garden, providing hours of wholesome recreation for my family and oodles of organic produce for my sodium-free stockpot.


Yes, that would be rather nice. But it’s not always achievable.
Or should I say, it’s not always achievable at the same time as raising three kids aged five and under, meeting deadlines and getting the laundry done. Something’s gotta give, and I suppose better the garden than the kids, right?

Well, I’ve been thinking, and maybe it doesn’t need to be either-or. You see, kids and gardens have something in common. They’re both organic. They both have the amazing capacity to survive and to thrive, even with the most intermittent of attention. Even if you feed them Oaties for supper every night for two weeks (the kids) or forget to compost them for months on end (the plants).

And when you are able to give them more focused care, oh the strides they make! The naches they bring! They grow tall and strong and full of life. They produce amazing fruits and flowers, talents and middot. With children, as with gardening, nothing stagnates. With or without your efforts, they will grow. But the more involved you are, the more joy you will reap from the process.

The Torah’s like that too. In fact it’s often referred to as the tree of life, because it’s a living thing that’s always growing. How is that possible, you ask? It’s been the same old scrolls, the same ancient words for generation upon generation… Yes, just like our ancestors sat under the same date palms, fig trees and grape vines we have today. See? The plants in your garden in South Africa in 2014 may not have the same physical tubers as those from biblical times, but they share an essence, a source. Originally, somewhere along the line, they did come from the same roots. And yet they are still growing, adapting, thriving.

We too are not the same people as those who walked the earth in the days of the Tanach, but we have the same “roots”. We share literal and spiritual DNA. And yet we are growing, developing, dare I say flourishing.

With the Torah, it’s its meaning that constantly grows and evolves. Like plants in a garden, sometimes the significance of the parshot may become faded and scraggly if you don’t pay it enough attention, but all you have to do is water it with your spirit and it miraculously grows, blooming meaningful lessons and beautiful flowers of wisdom.

A friend has a little rhyme engraved on a plaque on her porch:

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth;

You’re closer to God in the Garden

Than anywhere else on earth.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Back to my wayward little allotment, I decided to make a fresh start this year. That’s the beauty of gardens. All they need is a little love and water (or, heck it, a hoe and new tray of seedlings) and you can begin all over again. And, I figured, what better opportunity to do so than Tu bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees?

Images of rows of neatly sown seedlings entered my head. Prize-winning produce. Guinness Record-sized vegetables. Ooh! I thought, I can build a greenhouse! And a hanging garden. And a bird bath. And a fountain…
Then one of the kids came and pulled on my skirt, needing to be fed/wiped/read to. Visions of my perfect garden whooshed into the ether.
But after all, as the Torah teaches us, life isn’t about perfection. It’s about dreams, family, faith and values. It’s about constantly striving to live a better life – emphasis on the living, if you please.

I love my kids and my garden. And I can have them both. It’s about perspective. You see, scattered between my dejected veggies I notice some red petunias and some brightly coloured numbers whose name I don’t know that my eldest picked out at the nursery. We planted these together, my kids and I, on an afternoon when the TV was off and the sun was shining.

I guess this is a case of every tired veggie patch has a silver lining – or a very colourful one.

And that, dear readers, is what I really love about my garden. It’s a wonderful metaphor for my life: messy, multihued, needing attention in many areas but always growing. Nothing – save the ceramic gnome – is set in stone, and there’s always the potential for new shoots to spring forth in unexpected directions. I may look at it with vague disappointment on one day, but the very next day I can tidy it up and plant something new and wonderful. I can make it whatever I want it to be.

And in the meanwhile, I can always focus on the flowers. Until next time.


The view from the bima

Lauren Shapiro

We’re not particularly observant. We make a seder at Pesach. We build a sukkah when the time rolls around. We pass on the pork and we take the kids to shul most Shabbat mornings. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re religious. 
We’d like to be more observant, but let’s face it: Judaism, with all its laws and rituals, can be quite intimidating. However, as I’ve realized, this can also be seen as a challenge.
My husband is big into challenges. Perhaps it’s a man thing. That whole caveman-competitive-survival-instinct job. Whatever it is, if someone throws down the gauntlet, you can be sure my hubby will swipe it up. In fact, sometimes he throws it down himself, just so he’ll have that chance to challenge himself.
This year, he attempted to make his own sourdough bread from scratch – a lengthy and laborious process involving a bowl of fermenting flour in our laundry room that eventually got out of control and had to be relegated to the rubbish bin. What should have been hamotzi lechem ended up as yitgadal veyitkadash.
Moving swiftly along, he decided he was going to run a marathon. At the time, he could run 5km before collapsing into a puddle of schwitz at the kitchen door. But he went out and bought all the clever doodahs (special shoes, GPS watch, knee braces, glow-in-the-dark water bottle and trendy strap-on earphones, etc) and started training like one possessed.
In the meantime, because it’s as good a challenge as any, he got it into his head he’d like to read a haftorah portion. On Rosh Hashana. In front of the entire congregation.
He practiced and practiced, some days carrying around his Tanach like our toddler carries around his bedraggled, sucked-upon comfort sheep. By the time the big day came we were all humming bits of the trop as we toddled off to shul.
I don’t think he’ll mind my admitting he was nervous. In fact, I overheard him whisper to a fellow congregant that he was more nervous than when he appears before a judge of the high court. The pithy response was that he should be more nervous as he was about to appear before the True Judge. (For those who think I married a gonef, he’s actually a lawyer by profession.)
When he went up on the bima, our two sons (aged three and not-quite-five) followed him up, and our baby daughter and I watched from the women’s gallery above.
He stumbled once or twice and heaven knows under his suit jacket he was probably schwitzing like he was running a marathon, but he did it.
My heart bursting with naches, I turned my attention to the boys. I’m not sure what I expected to see – little chests puffed with pride, jaws dropped, wide eyes, stupefied silence. Wasn’t quite like that though. They were good enough (only having to be told once by the gabbay to shush), but they were more interested in the shiny gold tassels on the tablecloth than their father’s achievement.
Initially I was the teensiest bit disappointed. I thought my boys had missed the significance of the moment; were perhaps too young to appreciate what was going on around them.
And that’s when I realized that I’d gotten it completely wrong. It was quite the opposite: my boys’ reaction spoke volumes about the significance of the moment. To them, this wasn’t some amazing, out-of-the-ordinary achievement. This was Daddy doing something that seemed quite normal to them, like fixing their bicycles or tending the braai. To them, it was just another thing daddies do (well, Jewish ones anyway).
It struck me that, to the boys, it was so… natural. They watched on, interested but un-awed, as their father stood with the holiest of scrolls and read an ancient portion in a foreign language before his congregation and his Creator. To them, this was part of life, just another part of being Jewish. And that was beautiful.
It gave me such naches that my boys felt so at home on the bima, and were so accepting of their dad’s actions. He’s not a chazzan. He’s not a rabbi. He’s just a regular Joe (well, Warren), doing a mitzvah. It made me realize that if he can do it, anyone can.
One’s view of life depends on where one stands. From the bima, I guess spiritual goals seem more attainable, because you’re already in a “higher place”. And we can all get up on the bima, as it were, by adjusting our mindset.
Whether it’s baking, running or spiritual improvement, we all have the capacity to surprise ourselves with our achievements – if only we’d try. We don’t have to be a Boulanger, an Athlete, or “Observant”. We just have to get up on that platform and start. Someone – mit a kepitel S – might just help us out, if we ask nicely.
At the point of writing, Warren can now run 30km before the schwitzing and heaving get the better of him. The less said about the sourdough the better, but the challenge is on. And who knows? Maybe one day soon he’ll be reading from the Torah.
I’ve learnt a lot from all my boys this month. And I’ve decided to join them all on the metaphorical bima. The view’s good from up here. Until next time.


The Good Old Days

Lauren Shapiro

There are certain things you can count on. For example, at any Shabbos table, on any Friday evening, anywhere in the world, you can bank on the following being up for discussion: the outrageous price of kosher chicken (or any kosher food) (or any food at all); the terrible job the current government is doing; whose second cousin twice removed is dating whose sister-in-law’s uncle (or who should be set-up in similar shidduchim); and the standard classic – how much better life was in the Good Old Days.
Ah, the Good Old Days. Be it Apartheid South Africa, Czarist Russia, Communist South America, the United States during the Cold War, or Israel’s chalutzik splendour (despite any of the wars), somehow everyone harks back to the past with a tender nostalgia I cannot always fathom. Perhaps I’m yet too young, but I just don’t get it.
Ask any bobba or zeida and they’ll tell you life was better in their youth – at least on the important issues. I’ll bet their bobbas and zeidas said the same. And their bobbas and zeidas before them.
For Jews, I find this hankering for the past even more surprising, considering our history. Right from the start, we’ve had nothing but tzuris. The Flood – sure, that was a real hoot. Slavery in Egypt – what a lag. Being lost in the Wilderness – ah, such good times.
And then it doesn’t end there – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust… the Good Old Days just seem to get better and better!
Of course that’s not to say that there weren’t good times in the past; I just find it interesting that when people look back, they are often able to overlook all the (at times overwhelming) bad bits in order to see only the good.
It seems to be a human phenomenon. In fact, sometimes I wonder why Hashem put our eyes in the front of our heads because it seems like the natural function of the human psyche to look backward.
We all do it. For example, we all look back with frothy nostalgia on our childhoods, even though we must have had times when we fell and grazed ourselves, got lost, faced tests, were punished, etc. Yet when we look back, all we remember are the good parts. I guess that’s not such a bad thing.
It’s the same on a grander scale, I suppose. As the Children of Israel, we’ve also had our moments when we fell from grace, lost our way, were tested and even punished. But each time Hashem was there to help us through the bump, and each time we came out better and stronger than we were before.
It’s nice to remember the good bits, as long as we don’t get too stuck in the past. Dare I say we need to get past the past? What about looking towards the future?
There’s that old cliché that if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going. Geographically, this is true. Otherwise we might turn back down the path from whence we came, heading backwards and not forwards on our journey. Spiritually, it’s true as well. It’s vital that we know where we’ve come from and where we’re going, lest we be destined to repeat history until we get the point and turn to face a new path in life.
Past, future, oy vey! All this back-and-forthing is making me a bit dizzy. I’d better sit down and have a cup of tea. And maybe a slice of cheesecake (not that they know how to make real cheesecake anymore – oh dear, I’m doing it too…) And while I’m at it, I have a final point to make: the Good Old Days are called that because they’re good for something. And that’s for learning lessons from them.
Here’s where Hashem is so brilliant – He’s given us this passion for the past, but He’s also given us the Torah and its wealth of literary appendices so that we can learn its lessons by reading about them, rather than reliving them. Modern day examples abound too – we have books, museums, and websites to commemorate and celebrate the events and achievements of the past. Whether it’s a Holocaust Centre, a book on nineteenth century farm life or a web page dedicated to fashion through the ages, it’s all there, all preserved, all waiting for us to learn from it. And that can only be good.
This obsession with the past is more than just some passing fad. Some things, like silver bell-bottoms, are best left in the past. Other things, like rose-tinted spectacles, it seems will always be in fashion.
So I say let’s honour the past and its lessons, but let’s also embrace the future. The Good Old Days are great up to a point, but only in informing the Great New Days to come. And that’s how it should always be, as sure as there’ll be challah on a Shabbos table. Until next time.


The positive side of negative

Lauren Shapiro

My four-year-old came home from school the other day with a very long face. “What’s up, Ari?” I asked him.
“Mrs T was mean to me today,” he said.
I was surprised. He is in love with his teacher and she is generally held in very high esteem in the community.
“Really?” I responded. “What did she do?”
“She said loshen hora [evil or cruel speech, forbidden in Judaism].”
“I see,” I continued, still stumped. “What exactly did she say?”
“She said ‘no’!”
A quick SMS to Mrs T verified that she had verbally prevented him from throwing paint at the jungle gym.
My husband and I had a good chuckle over this little anecdote at dinnertime, but it has stayed with me. Possibly one of the reasons Ariel loves “Mrs T” so much is because she gives him boundaries. Although children may put on a performance when they’re told “no”, the truth is that they really want and need to hear it from time to time. It shows them that someone is in charge; that the world is not a dangerous, random place with no-one to protect them. It shows them exactly where they stand, and that makes them feel safe.
Children need this feeling of security. But then don’t we all?
I began to think about this in some depth. Even as adults, “no” is a fundamental and important part of our lives. As I look around, I see signs of “no” everywhere – “no smoking”, “no left turn”, “no entrance without hardhat”. Thank God for these messages. They keep us safe from cancer, car crashes and concussions, amongst other things. They make me feel safe, and I’m grateful for them.
Imagine a world where nobody ever said “no”. It would be a lawless, unruly mess. No bank and airport security guards denying entry to people carrying knives and guns. No judges banning dangerous substances. No red lights stopping vehicles from colliding at intersections. No metro police officers preventing you from parking within walking distance of your destination (okay, that might not actually be so bad…).
But generally, the picture of a world without “no” is pretty scary. People could do whatever they want, even at the expense of others. Perhaps just as scarily, even at the expense of their own best interests.
Sometimes we need someone else to put their foot down. Imagine if your gym instructor or dietician never said “no”. I don’t know about you, but I’d soon turn into a cheesecake-swollen ball with fingers and toes sticking out of it.
If your boss never said “no”, you’d never get any work done (I am my boss and I know I wouldn’t!).
If your wife never said “no”, you’d probably go out in public in your ancient, faded, slap-chip-oil-stained rugby jersey. (Admit it – you would, wouldn’t you!)
We generally understand and accept “no” when we hear it, even if we don’t like it. With one possible exception. Why is it that we don’t always accept it when it comes from above?
We all pray for things that we don’t necessarily get. Oftentimes that’s because we don’t really need them. Sometimes they would actually harm us or lead us down the wrong path. Just like our teachers sometimes know what’s best for our children before they can see it, so Hashem’s got the Children of Israel’s backs when it comes to our real needs.
Perhaps because we can’t see Him, we fall into the trap of taking a negative response as an absence of response. Faulty logic. Hashem ALWAYS answers our prayers. It’s just that sometimes we don’t want to hear that the answer is “no”.
Perhaps, maybe, there’s a chance that Hashem actually knows better than us – like our teachers, parents and lawmakers sometimes do – and He sometimes says “no” for our own good.
We could do as my young son did, and alternate between sulking and tantrums for the rest of the day. That’s certainly one way of dealing with it. But there is another approach. We can realize that sometimes it takes a negative to really become positive. That sometimes “no” can drive us in the right direction, or keep us off a dangerous path.
Just like kids, the truth is we all really want and need to hear “no” from time to time. It shows us that Someone is in charge; that the world is not a dangerous, random place with no-one to protect us. It shows us exactly where we stand, and that makes us feel safe.
We need to hear “no” occasionally. It makes us feel secure. So the next time you’re met with a “no”, take it as an opportunity to “no” thyself. Figure out why your boss, your trainer, your teacher or your Creator is saying “no”. What lesson is in this experience for you? How can you come out of this interaction a little stronger, a little wiser, or a little happier in yourself?
So there you have it. Now you’re in the “no”. Until next time.


Green Eggs and Ham – When things just aren’t kosher

Lauren Shapiro

What did you have for breakfast? Fruit? Toast? Special K? (okay, you’re waaay too virtuous – please stop reading now!). Many of us are partial to eggs.
Eggs give the edge to so many delicious dishes, including traditional favourites like cakes, challah, kugels and knishes. They’re grated over herring and liver (or a delicious aubergine alternative) and baked into shakshuka.
While too many eggs can do nasty things to your cholesterol, they are generally considered a good source of protein, brain-boosting choline, natural happy-drug tryptophan, and several vitamins and minerals. Really, they’re an egg-sellent egg-zample of egg-ceptional nutrition (I’d keep going – isn’t that what you’d egg-spect? – but I don’t think my editor would egg-scuse me).
Now I hear some of you wondering why the vegetarian is eating eggs at all. I mean, at the end of the day, an egg is a baby bird in the making. So here’s the juice: I do try not to eat too many eggs. I use substitutes whenever possible: 2 Tbs water + 1 Tbs oil + 2 tsp baking powder successfully replace a whole egg in most baking recipes; tofu makes a good scramble; and flax seeds or oil replicate the omega-3 fatty acids found in eggs.
But I do enjoy the occasional Humpty Dumpty with toasty soldiers (you know, the ones who couldn’t put him together again). Naughty vegetarian!
Here’s how I justify it: one of my major problems with eating animals (health, environmental, financial and general grossness considerations aside) is the cruelty factor. And happy eggs from happy chickens significantly reduce this factor.
Judaism has specific laws to ensure that trauma to mother hens is diminished (this mitzvah, called shiluach hakan, comes directly from Hashem in Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Now this was all well and good in the days when all we had to do was pinch an egg from the nest when Mom wasn’t looking. But in today’s industrialized egg trade, things aren’t always egg-zactly as they seem.
Battery eggs (as most commercially available eggs are called) come from factory farms where hens are kept in cruel conditions in overcrowded cages. Each hen – have you ever seen a hen? They can get pretty gezunt – is allocated a space not much bigger than the magazine you are reading at this moment (just this page – not the double page spread). They cannot walk around or stretch their wings. They never see sunlight or get to scratch for grubs in the soil. Often, they are de-beaked with a hot iron to prevent them from “damaging” each other when the stress becomes too much for them to take.
I’m no egg-spert, but it seems like an egg-speriment gone horribly, horribly wrong. One animal rights group terms this process “from shell to hell”, and it surely can’t be what Hashem had in mind when he created the feathery creatures.
If this little egg-sposé has left you feeling uncomfortable, it gets worse. Some Jews have actually lauded this system on the basis that, because battery hens don’t romp around with the rooster in the yard, their unfertilized eggs are guaranteed free of embryonic blood spots (and Jews are forbidden to eat blood).
Somewhere along the way, the message about kosher eggs has been scrambled, and it’s not the chickens that have ended up with egg on their faces. Although cheaper, battery eggs are an egg-stravagance we cannot afford.
This is not just hard-boiled hippy talk. Hens kept in cruel conditions constitute tsaar baalei chaim (suffering of living creatures), which Judaism prohibits (see, for example, Exodus 23:5). In my mind, I can’t see how eggs from these animals can be considered kosher, when they are born of suffering and misery at the hands of man.
Let's not put all our eggs in one basket – kashrut is not only about the letter of the law, written in blood or otherwise. This sort of myopic focus is what leads to a one-dimensional understanding of halacha, and dangerous stereotyping of the religion as a whole. Judaism - and kashrut, I believe – is also about compassion.
There’s no egg-scuse. We Jews know all about the yolk of slavery, so why enslave our yolks? Considering all the suffering we’ve known throughout our history, I’m ill at ease inflicting similar suffering on other creatures.
So I buy free-range1 and check for the spots2. Or I don’t buy eggs at all. Some people argue that free-range eggs are slightly more expensive. So eat less of them.
They might be less convenient in terms of checking for blood spots. So set aside more time, or use egg substitutes. Many stores not only stock free-range eggs but now have proud policies and ad campaigns around them, but for argument's sake let's say that in some areas they might even be less accessible. So change where you shop.
I like my eggs scrambled, fried, poached, boiled or Benedicted (minus the ham), but never cruel.
Okay, I’ll quit now before my editor cracks. No-one is forcing us to buy or eat eggs at all – it's our decision. Hashem has blessed us with free choice – more than can be said for the poor battery hens. So my advice? Let's not cluck this one up. Buy free-range, or pass the peanut butter. Until next time.
1A little egg-stra info: In researching this column I checked with the very helpful people at the UOS (Union of Orthodox Synagogues). They explained that all eggs sold in supermarkets today – even those labeled free-range – are safe from blood spots because they would not have been exposed to fertilization. In the case of genuine free-range eggs (bought directly from an old-fashioned, coop-less, rooster-boasting farmer), those with bloodspots may not be eaten according to halacha.
2What about boiled eggs? I can hear the cynics among you clucking. Obviously it’s impossible to check the eggs before boiling them. Well, ever wondered why your Bobba always boiled at least three at a time and always an odd number? It’s because, statistically, the odds are smaller that you’ll find bloodspots.


Hashem is where the heart is

Lauren Shapiro

You try explaining to a four-year-old the concept of an omnipresent, invisible being.
“He’s everywhere. Yes, at the same time. Yes, even in your bedroom. Yes, even in your cupboard. No, you can’t see Him. Because He’s in the air. Yes, the same air that you breathe. Um, yes, I suppose He is in your nose right this very minute. Yeah, I guess that is pretty cool…”
The conversation takes a new turn when he asks me where Hashem’s “house” is. “In the sky. Oh, that’s right and in shul. Yes, there are lots of shuls. Hashem has lots of homes. No, He didn’t win the lottery.”
It’s a difficult concept. But the untiste shurer – as I tried to explain to my son – is that Hashem is everywhere and in every aspect of our lives.
Some people contest this, but I firmly believe that the only reason Hashem may not be present in our lives is if we don’t let Him in.
It can be a challenge to bring Hashem into such a secular world. We’re all very busy with not-particularly-spiritual things like work and lift schemes and the sale at Nine West. But I’m here to show you that we can bring Hashem into every facet of our daily lives, even shoe shopping!
Let’s start with the morning rush hour. Think you can’t combine Torah and traffic jams? Keep a stack of inspirational CDs in your cubbyhole or some shiurim on your MP3 player. Or plan ahead and organize to share lifts with a group of friends and use rush hour for pious discussing, not irreverent cussing. Call it a Kabbalah carpool, if you like.
Once you get to work, don’t leave Hashem in the lobby. The Talmud dedicates a large amount of space to business ethics, so He’s quite at home in the boardroom. Put Him on your agenda. Keep your corner office kosher with a regular business lunch shiur, or make your desk into a miniature altar with a pile of holy books next to your mouse pad. Then make time to actually read them.
When you knock off for the day, you can combine leisure time with learning time. How about a round of Gemorah golf, where stimulating religious discussions are par for the course? Or what about a Midrash Mani? Discuss Rabbinic stories whilst having your nails done. Take up Jewish Jogging, or have a parsha playdate, talking about Hashem and His ways, whatever you’re doing with your time. Expand your circle of friends: invite a friend to lunch with the Chafetz Chaim; bring Maimonides to your book club.
Back home, fill your space with the physical manifestations of Hashem’s glory. Mezuzot, Judaica and Jewish art will remind you that He is in every room in every minute (yes, Ariel, even under the bed). Use brachot to bring Him into your kitchen, and even the bathroom.
No Jewish home is complete without bookshelves of spiritual books. Surrounding yourself with Jewish books will prompt you to pray or debate – both worthy ways of acknowledging and interacting with Hashem on a daily basis. If you’re of the Kindle persuasion, thousands of traditional texts are now available electronically, as well as kosher i-pad apps, Skype shiurim, and mobi sites for your smart phone. Yes, folks, the Torah has gone tech, and Hashem is riding the cyber wave (picture Him in floral board shorts if it helps you).
As we mentioned before, Hashem has His own bachelor pads strategically situated around town. If you’re really having trouble letting Him into your space, go into His. Of course everywhere is His space, but sometimes it helps our human frame of reference to dedicate a place to a particular function, like praying and connecting to our Creator. We are as vital a part of this connection as He is – or, to put it another way, it takes Jew to do the spiritual tango.
In fact, a synagogue is but a building unless there are Jews in it. But not just inside the physical structure. We have to really be in it (or into it, as the cool kids say). Immerse yourself in His ways, and you’ll see Him in all your days.
Yes, even when you’re elbowing out the competition over the sale table at Nine West. I did promise I’d tell you how to bring Hashem into the process of shoe shopping. Well, if Hashem is where the heart is, and you put your heart and sole into everything you do, then you need shoes. That’s just simple logic.
What it really comes down to, I explained to my wide-eyed child, is that Hashem really is everywhere your heart is. We need only bring Him into our lives. Beckon Him, welcome Him, and He’ll be there. Until next time.
Sidebar: Durban resources for bringing Hashem into your daily life:
Tzion Study Centre, Great Synagogue, 75 Silverton Road, 031 201 5177 – books, regular classes, and an electronic shiurim database.
Multimedia Centre, Chabad House, 11 Flamingo Lane,
031 561 2487 – computers, books and DVDs plus refreshments. Also offers group and one-on-one classes.
Rabbi Isaac Richards Memorial Library, Temple David, 69 Ridge Road, 031 208 6105 – over 2500 books and a coffee shop on Thursday mornings.
The Durban Kollel at the Umhlanga Jewish Centre, 81 Campbell Drive, 031 566 3005 – offers a wide range of group and one-on-one learning opportunities.


Aging Gracefully

Lauren Shapiro

My mother warned me this would happen. Yes, even to “the best of us”. Hairs that are a little too pale to pass for blonde. Lines on my face. Wrinkles on my hands, and miscellaneous marks and spots where the pages of glossy magazines tell you they shouldn’t be. I’m not yet 35, and age is catching up with me like a boisterous puppy with the mailman.
As I compare myself to my newborn daughter, whose skin is literally as smooth as a baby’s bum, I realize quite how much aging bothers me (and many other women, I imagine).
The beauty industry preys on this feeling, producing and advertising wonder potions that claim to eliminate wrinkles, even out imperfections, and make you look up to several decades younger.
A few years back, during my first pregnancy, I bought one of these “miracle creams” which promised to prevent stretch marks. I devotedly rubbed it into my belly every day, and I was pleased with the results. Then one day, getting out the bath, I caught my reflection in mirror - from behind. No-one told me you can get stretch marks on your toochus!
I’ve been giving this topic quite some thought lately. When I started writing this column over eight years ago, I was a carefree varsity student and aside from the odd alcoholic overindulgence (okay, regular alcoholic overindulgences), I was pretty happy. I liked my body, hair and skin well enough.
Now – eight years, one husband and three kids later – in addition to the stretch marks, I have wrinkles, cellulite, some varicose veins, and that "stray eyelash" on my chin that my mother warned me about (how does that work??)
When I bemoan my increasing physical imperfections to my friends, they comfort me (“It’s not so noticeable.” “Have you tried this?” “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal”). When I carp to husband, he squints at me and says, “What wrinkles?” (Good man! Or perhaps age is catching up with him too and he needs new glasses…)     
In Judaism, the physical aspect of our existence holds huge significance. We are both spiritual and immensely physical beings (at least in this world). Without our bodies, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill many important mitzvot – our arms lay tefillin, our hands light candles, our lips recite prayers. Throughout our life cycles, our bodies are integrally related to many special rites, from brit milah, to marriage (in the biblical sense) and childbirth. Even after death, they are treated with the utmost respect (cleansed by the ritual of tahara and buried in accordance with strict laws).
But we must remember that ultimately our bodies are little more than glorified sand castles, like those elaborate edifices on the beach that pull in a few rand each day and are washed away by the elements.
Our bodies are houses for our souls. Perhaps stretch marks are Hashem's way of teaching us humility; scars His means of reminding us of important lessons. Wrinkles are graph lines of how far we have come – outward markers of our spiritual journey, which is ultimately why we are all here.
Despite the changes, I like my body. It’s served me well in creating a meaningful life. My cellulitey legs can still run after my boys. My (slightly) flappy arms can rock and soothe my baby. My face – even with its new lines and wrinkles – can smile, kiss and talk to my friends. My hardening hands can still cook and clean, keeping my house welcoming. Most days I can still reach the peanut butter on the top shelf and get myself dressed and where I need to be almost on time.
So my “fine lines” are fine by me. And I guess I don't really mind the stretch marks on my bum - they complement the stretch marks on my heart.
The beauty industry aims to keep you looking the same age forever, as if it can stop time. But if I stop to think about it, why would you want to do that? I love this moment with its story books and sand castles and milk-scented cuddles – but I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the “nappy stage” forever! I want to grow; I want to watch my children grow. And if that means a few more wrinkles, it seems a fair trade.
Technology can only go so far – it may be able to recreate a youthful complexion, but it can’t create a smile. Money can buy miracle creams, but not happiness. Science is skin deep, and ultimately your face is not as important as your faith.
In fact, the concept of a miracle cream is a bit of a modern paradox - the process they're trying to hide is the true miracle. After all, wrinkles are a symbols of growth, of a life lived fully – that’s the real wonder.
So yes, gazing at my baby's perfectly smooth skin, I must admit I am a little jealous. But not only of her complexion. I'm jealous of the exciting journey she still has in front of her. Her skin is like a blank passport waiting for stamps. My wish for her is laugh lines and stretch marks and other signs of growth and joy.
I have more to look forward to on my own journey, too – sunspots, thinning hair, turkey neck, crow's feet, bunyons, bingo wings… Oy, vey! But it's okay. They make creams for all of that.
Instead, I’m choosing to focus on anniversaries, on grandchildren, on growing older gracefully and gratefully. Until next time.


A New Born State of Mind

Lauren Shapiro

She’s here.
Yes, folks, you read it here first – we have been blessed with a beautiful baby girl!  
We all know that 3000 years ago Hashem delivered the Children of Israel on Pesach. Apparently He sometimes still does that. Aviva Shapiro was delivered in the wee hours of the eighth day of the festival. We chose her name because one of the names of Pesach is Chag Ha’Aviv (festival of springtime), signifying new life and new beginnings after an extremely challenging pregnancy characterized by Perinatal Depression (PND). It’s also known as Chag HaPesach (festival of our sacrifice – think paschal lamb), Zman Cheruteinu (time of our redemption) and Chag HaMatzot (festival of the unleavened bread – representing our speedy deliverance from oppression to freedom). She symbolizes all of these things to us.
Shortly after Pesach, we read parshat Tazria-Metzora, which begins by describing how a woman who has given birth must follow protocols of tumah (separation) and then bring a sacrifice to the altar of the Mishkan.
Hang on just one gosh-darn minute, I’m thinking. Surely giving birth – the first mitzvah commanded in the Torah – should be rewarded, not punished by demanding a sacrifice?
But then, Leviticus is full of seemingly crazy laws: thou mayest eat this and thou mayest not eat that; stone this person and burn that one; ostracize him and quarantine her. As with most of these commandments, we need to dig a little deeper in order to truly understand them.
Why would a new mother be called upon to bring a sacrifice? There are two elements to consider here.
The first is a sin-offering (a turtledove, in case you’re interested). Now pregnancy and childbirth are wondrous events, but they are not all sunshine and roses. In addition to the potential horror of PND, nausea, varicose veins, mood-swings, and the pain and fear of labour may prompt women at some point or other to have thoughts along the lines of “why the hell” or “never again”. Perhaps it is these “sins” for which the poor turtledove was meant to atone.
The second aspect is an elevation offering (a sheep within its first year). Ignoring for the moment the gory imagery of sacrificing one creature’s baby to elevate another, this makes some kind of sense, bearing in mind that in those days sacrifice was seen not as a punishment, but as a privilege; an opportunity to purify one’s soul and bring one closer to Hashem.
Today, we use prayer to represent the sacrifices used in the times of the Mishkan (thrice daily – hence the Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv services). A new mother offers up prayers as a kind of spiritual sacrifice, and in many communities it is customary for her husband to be called to the Torah at the time that she would once have been called upon to bring her sacrifice to the altar.
While the notion of sacrifice has certainly evolved, its purpose is still the same: to bring about healing. Children are the perfect example. We sacrifice so much for them – our bodies, our sleep, our social lives, our careers, our resources, sometimes our minds, and very often part of our souls. But it’s worth it for the love and joy they bring.
In the midst of the PND I felt as if I had come to the end of the road. Birth and Aviva have reminded me that, of course, this is just the beginning.
We are all constantly blessed with new beginnings, and in today’s day and age we don’t necessarily have to give birth or burn a turtledove to start anew. Every day Hashem blesses us by returning our souls and making the sun shine down upon us. We are commanded to declare our faith several times a day by reciting the shma – so if perchance our conviction has wavered, we never have to wait long for an opportunity to reinstate it. Shabbat, Shmita and Yovel (the Jubilee year) all offer occasions to stop and reflect on our lives before we begin again.
Ours is a religion that celebrates new beginnings – Rosh Chodesh rejoices the start of each new month, Rosh Hashana exults the new year and Yom Kippur offers an annual clean slate. In fact, we have four new years scattered across the calendar to give us frequent chances to start afresh. Pesach is one of those new years.
For me, that Pesach coincided with Aviva’s birth was like the cherry on top of the matzah pudding. Birth offers a new start in life – not just for the baby being born, but also for the mother and everyone involved in the miraculous journey.
In many ways, Aviva’s birth was almost like my own rebirth. I feel infused with a new appreciation for life, the universe and everything, and I greet each new challenge (be it broken nights, leaky nappies or a trio of screaming children) with a content acceptance. They are sacrifices which bring healing.
I look at my precious baby asleep in her crib and wonder at how such a tiny thing can be the hugest gift. I thank Hashem every day for pulling me through and giving me the opportunity to start again. With apologies to Billy Joel, I’ve been rocking Aviva to sleep crooning, “I’m in a New Born state of mind.”
We can all achieve this state. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it takes some major sacrifices. But it’s worth it.
Whatever your challenge, your sacrifice, whatever your new beginning – may it bring you healing. Until next time.


Seder Surplus Sorted

Lauren Shapiro

I love Pesach. I love the food, I love the songs, I love the opportunity to turn the house upside down and reorganize everything (though that’s another column…) But there comes a time when even the most Pesach-positive person can’t bear to look at another kneidle, and the thought of more matzah makes you want to run for the hills.

There’s sound psychological reason for this: Jews over-cater. International studies have shown that the tendency to make too much food is due to a gene located right next to the guilt gene in our DNA (okay, I’m making this up – but I’m pretty sure that if research was done this is exactly what they would find!)

I can’t bear to throw out food, so I’ve come up with a few ideas to help extend the joy of the season, without leaving a bad taste in your mouth:

Charoset Smoothie
Despite its popularity at the seder table, this sweet paste loses its appeal after a couple of days crouching at the back of the fridge. I have found the perfect solution! Add leftover charoset to some yoghurt and mashed bananas and you have a sweet, sustaining smoothie that makes a perfect breakfast.

Maror Mash
Horseradish may be bitter on matzah, but it makes killer mashed potatoes. If you really want a taste sensation to liberate your senses, add some cream. (A word of warning: if you use the red stuff in the jar, it does turn the mash an elegant pink.)

Matzah Pizza
We always end up with boxes and boxes of leftover matzah. One of my favourite ways to utilize it (even long after the eighth day has come and gone) is to make matzah pizza. Spread sheets of matzah with tomato paste, sprinkle with mozzerella and add your favourite toppings – I love olives, sliced peppers and chunks of pineapple. Grill til the cheese bubbles, but wait for it to cool down before tucking in!

Ways and means with eggs
Many people boil more eggs than they need for the seder in case some break, are off, or just because Jews are incapable of not over-catering (there’s that theory again). The obvious solution to leftover boiled eggs is to grate them and douse them in mayo – sandwich between matzah and you have the perfect quick and portable chol hamoed lunch!
Another alternative with a slightly traditional twist is to add chopped, boiled egg to fried onions and serve them on yet more matzah or a bed of greens (and if you have leftover romaine lettuce from your seder this is a fantastic pairing).

Nuts about nuts
Some people have the custom of putting nuts on their seder table. My mom’s always done so and it’s illustrated on well-known brands of box matzah, but no-one can tell me why. A rabbi friend found a possible obscure reference in Shir Hashirim but my personal theory is that someone’s Bobba had a nut tree in her garden and the idea went viral. Anyway it seems to have become an established custom in some households.

If you frequently buy enough for a lavish centerpiece and then find it looks like a squirrel has been using your grocery cupboard to hoard for winter, put them to creative use: dry-toast them in a frying pan and sprinkle over salads, blend them with fried onions and eggplant for a rich pate, or combine with butter, garlic and parsley (there’s that seder plate surplus cropping up again!) for decadent stuffed mushrooms.

Leftover wine
When discussing ideas for this column with my best friend, she looked at me blankly. “Leftover wine?” she asked, “What’s that?”
If you’re not currently wiping tears of laughter from your eyes, here are some ideas: The sweet stuff can be used for Kiddush and Havdallah all year round, but it’s also great for preserving tiny onions, carrot sticks or even chillies. Alternatively, poach pears in wine with sugar, cinnamon sticks and lemon peel for an easy but impressive dessert.

Tzimmus Soup
There comes a point each year when I cannot open the fridge for fear of being confronted by the congealed reproach of my pot of tzimmus. Here’s a happy little trick to repurpose your leftovers and take your palette straight from shtetl to souk:
Fry up some onions and garlic with a bit of cumin, coriander and thyme (chilli too if you can handle it). Add the tzimmus (liquid and all) and thin it out with soup stock. When it’s heated through, add a lug of cream (or a parev equivalent if your tzimmus is not vegetarian), and serve with soup nuts or – after the chag – with garlic croutons.

Kugel Fry-up
In other parts of the world a slice of potato kugel is called a hash-brown, and forms the basis of a hearty one-pan meal kept company by fried eggs and tomatoes. (My personal confession: if you’ve had more than the obligatory four cups of wine the night before, this is the perfect breakfast pick-me-up!)

If your kneidlach are soft and fluffy I’ll be surprised if you have leftovers! If, however, like me, you occasionally end up with little cannonballs, you can always use them as doorstops or throw them at your kids after the millionth post-seder rendition of ‘chad gadya’.    
Wishing you a chag kasher ve’sameach – until next time!


Next Year In Jerusalem

Lauren Shapiro

A friend of mine, let’s call her Sarah, was telling me about her preparations for Pesach. She’d bought a small box of dehydrated powders that promised to turn into kneidlach and chicken soup.

“Next year I’ll try to make them myself,” she said, almost apologetically. I was initially a little perplexed at her tone – I wouldn’t love her any less if she made kneidel from a box! – but then I realized that her contrition had nothing to do with me.

Sarah doesn’t keep particularly kosher, and isn’t especially observant of many mitzvot, but it is important to her to create a traditional seder. She wanted to have a hands-on, involved experience of Pesach. For Sarah, making her own matzah balls and soup represents a level of competence in her Yiddishkeit to which she aspires.

I got it. We all have goals in our Judaism, and Pesach in particular is a time of year when we focus on our goals. Every year at the seder we say, “L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim”

(“Next year in Jerusalem”). We pray that next year we will celebrate the seder in Jerusalem as free men (and women, as I always chip in since the Hagaddah fails to do so).

It’s a beautiful notion, but let’s be honest: it may not be a practical goal for all of us. Firstly – every single Jew in the world crammed into the confines of one zip code? Come on! Secondly, we don’t all have the resources – financial or logistical – to make a transcontinental trip, even for one chag. 

So some of us may never actually fulfill the dream of “next year in Jerusalem”.

Or will we?

You see, I’ve been thinking. I was never much good at Geography at school, but I did love English. So I’ve been looking at the prayer the way I would at a poem. As a metaphor, if you will. Jerusalem is of course very much a physical entity, but it is also a spiritual one. And perhaps that is what we should be aiming for. Let me explain: it’s like one of those indecipherable diagrams they post in shopping malls with “you are here” and the toilets always at the furthest possible distance. For the purposes of our metaphor, “here” is our spiritual status quo, and our divine destination is “Jerusalem”. Not measured in kilometres, but in spiritual steps.

Anyone who drinks coffee with sugar knows that even the longest journey must begin with a single step (thanks, Huletts). We all understand that we cannot physically jump from Durban to Jerusalem. We also know that we cannot make the trip in one continuous journey – we can only walk for so many hours a day, and then we need to rest.

So we might get from Durban to Joburg, then stop over at mishpocha for a night. Then we might make it to Gaborone and find a nice little B&B. We may get to Malawi and have such a great time that we decide to stay for a few weeks. And so on, up the face of Africa, we head towards our goal, using the rest breaks to refuel and plot our next steps.

“Jerusalem is of course very much a physical entity, but it is also a spiritual one. And perhaps that is what we should be aiming for”

(Post-script in the middle of the story: Warren just read that last paragraph over my shoulder and pointed out, between chortles, that that must be the most indirect northward journey in history. As I said, I never was much good at Geography. But I’m not going to correct it because I think it actually proves my point – that our journey need not be precise and linear, and that sometimes it’s the tangents that make it all the more special. So there!)

It’s the same with our spiritual journey. We can’t jump 6790 cosmic kilometres in one giant leap. We need to take one step at a time; we need metaphorical rest stops (and occasional tangents) – and slowly but surely we’ll move closer to our “Jerusalem”.

And what’s so special about Jerusalem? It’s the spiritual centre of the Jewish people. Both of our holy Temples stood there, and the last remnant (the Kotel) is the holiest spot in the world.

The city’s very name contains the Hebrew letters shin-lamed-mem – YeruSHaLayiM – the same root of the words shalom (peace) and shalem (whole). That’s because, in terms of our spiritual goals, “Jerusalem” is where we need to be to feel at peace, whole, and spiritually fulfilled.

But how do we get there?? I hear you asking. Good question. And I posit that I may just have an answer. See, unlike a physical journey, we don’t need a map or a signpost. We’ll know it when we get there. Kind of like that searching game kids play, only it’s Hashem that’s whispering in our ears, “warmer… colder… colder… freezing!... warmer… warmer…”

If we listen, He will lead us on the right path.

The Pesach seder reminds us of our journey towards freedom and spiritual fulfillment. But luckily, in 2013, we’re not destined to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness. We can forge our own path.

It might mean making our own matzah balls, or saying more prayers, or keeping Shabbat, or giving more tzedakah or guarding our tongues better or doing new mitzvot or anything that will take us closer to our spiritual goal.

Whatever it is, enjoy each step of your exciting itinerary, and keep heading towards your goal. Until next time – in Jerusalem.


Purim Pastry Perplexities

Lauren Shapiro

A non-Jewish friend came round to tea on the day that just happened to be the day after Purim. Along with the biccies and sarmies, I put out the leftover hamentaschen so that they shouldn’t go to waste.

“Ooh, this is delicious,” she said as she bit into a prize hammi. “What is it?” “They’re called hamentaschen,” I said proudly. Then, prompted by her blank expression, I continued, “Uh – a long time ago a bad man tried to kill us but he didn’t so now we eat things shaped like his hat.” Admittedly, a crude (and possibly factually deficient) précis of one of our most important festivals. But not bad, I thought, for an on-the-spot response! Still, it got me thinking. Why the hat? I mean, we sing songs about it, dress up in replicas of it, eat pastries dedicated to its shape, but really – what’s the deal with the triangular headgear? I wanted to know more.

To keep on the hat theme, I had a bee in my bonnet. So I put on my thinking cap, whipped out my Smartphone, and called Rabbi Google. I was amazed at how much web space has been dedicated to the history, recipe and symbolism of the not-so-humble hamentaschen. There I sat, eyes glued to the little screen, while my friend and the kids polished off the rest of the hammies. In fact, in an odd twist of roles, I became so consumed by the pastry that I opened my laptop after they’d left and continued the search. And here, dear readers, for your interest and edification, is the summary of what I found:

A pastry by any other name First thing’s first, let’s clarify the name. Hamentaschen – at least etymologically – actually has nothing to do with a hat. It comes from either Yiddish or German for “Haman’s pockets” (presumably because the pastries themselves are scrumptious pockets of yummy stuffing, and some authorities relate this back to the theme of hidden miracles that weaves through the Purim story). Interesting aside: in Israel they are called oznei Haman (Hebrew for “Haman’s ears”), and not even Rabbi Google offers up a sound physiological explanation for this interpretation.

Is it what’s inside that counts?
Gevalt, here’s potential for machloket and faribel. I found an interesting claim that the tarts actually have less to do with the villain than the fillin’ – that the pastries were originally called mon-taschen (poppy-seed pockets) until some opportunistic Yiddisher baker spotted the chance to capitalize on the holiday by linking the name back to Haman (or Homon, as was the likely pronunciation at that time). But mon does not hold the, er, mon-opoly when it comes to hamentaschen fillings. My mother always went the mon route, but my husband makes a mean jolly jammer variety. At school we were usually dished out apple.

"A long time ago a bad man tried to kill us but he didn’t so now we eat things shaped like his hat"

Last year my eldest brought home a chocolate one (and he wouldn’t share – the nerve!). I’d long harboured dreams of creating a savoury version with spinach and cheese, until my culinarily clued-up sister pointed out that the Greeks had already laid claim to this treat in the form of spanakopita. Ah, well. In reality there are as many filling options are there are bakers, from fruits and nuts to dairy to veggies or even meat (if you really must).

Everyone’s Bobbah will claim her filling (and the recipe she’ll take with her to the grave) is the traditional one. The pastry, too, is not laid down in law. Yeast, phyllo or puff; fluffy or crunchy; chewy or crispy; sugar-dusted, egg-washed, or bathed in butter – I’ve found recipes for all. In fact, someone could put out a recipe book (and probably has – I’ll Google it).

Easy as one, two, three?

I still want to know why hamentaschen have three corners. To symbolize Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Faith, hope and charity? Curly, Larry and Moe? The interpretations abound, but none appear decisive. Back to the supposed sartorial origins of the pastry, some sources suggest that tri-cornered hats have been worn throughout history by men of pomp and ceremony (think Napolean or George Washington), and that Haman did, in fact, sport the pointy headdress. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Halachic status

According to Megillat Esther – the scroll of Esther which we read on Purim –there are four key mitzvot associated with the chag:

• Megillah – recounting the story of Purim as set out in the holy scroll;
• Mishloach manot – sending gifts of food to friends;
• Matanot le’evyonim – giving gifts of money to those less fortunate than ourselves;
• Seudat Purim – eating a festive meal.

Anyone spot the pastry? Not specifically. The festive meal traditionally includes bread so that it constitutes a feast, but the desserts are left to discretion. Ultimately, the whole hullabaloo around hamentaschen is a matter of minhag (custom), not halacha (law).

Serve with love, and a dollop of cream The bottom line is this: your Bobbahs were ALL right. Even when they contradicted each other. Another reason why Purim is one of my favourite festivals! In essence, the concept of Hamentaschen is a sweet reminder of the variety and creative resilience of our faith. And if I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat. Until next time.


Hey Baby, There’s Something We Need To Talk About

Lauren Shapiro

The great news is that I’m pregnant! The not-so-great news is that I’ve been diagnosed with Perinatal Depression.

(Gawd, you’re thinking, how’s she going to find a warm, fuzzy spin on this one? Be patient, dear readers, and all will be revealed…)

A few months ago, when I saw that little blue line on the pregnancy test, I felt like I was walking on air. A couple of weeks later, a scan confirmed our little Butterbean (as s/he shall provisionally be known).

But soon I began to feel… different. Not joyful. Not content. I couldn’t understand it. We had prayed for this pregnancy and had been blessed with what, Baruch Hashem, appeared to be a healthy baby. So why didn’t I feel happy?

It will pass, I told myself. But instead of improving, I got worse. I realized something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. This was more than the usual fatigue and moodiness that comes with many pregnancies (including my previous two).

I got so bad that I was having major panic attacks and days when I was too terrified to get out of bed, even to take the kids to school. I had horrifying visions and I thought I was going insane. That’s when we sought help, and I was diagnosed and hospitalized with Perinatal Depression, or PND (often called postnatal depression, although it can occur before the birth as well as after).

"From morning sickness to labour pain (thanks, Eve), Hashem has made pregnancy every bit as challenging as it is rewarding"

It was a huge relief that I wasn’t going crazy. I had a recognized medical condition caused by hormonal fluctuations as well as psychosocial stressors associated with the huge change of life that comes with having a baby (even if you’ve successfully done it a few times before, apparently!).

Still, I was ashamed to tell people that I had been hospitalized for depression at what should have been such a happy time of my life. I was supposed to be radiant with joy and rubbing my growing belly with tender wonder.

I was sure that people would judge me. What kind of person is terrified of her own baby? When it hasn’t even been born yet??

People don’t talk enough about PND, yet statistics show that up to 30% of mothers suffer from it (and many more – some estimate as many as 50% – go undiagnosed because of fear and stigma). That means it’s extremely likely that you know someone – or several people – who have been affected.

When people do talk, it’s often in the form of loshing, koching or kibitzing, further stigmatizing the subject.

I’ve come to realize that we need to talk more openly about this very real, very serious illness. And since I have the blessing of an audience through this platform (and I love you both dearly), I thought it would be irresponsible of me not to use it to help others to recognize the condition and get help. Call it my contribution to tikkun olam (healing the world).

Our sacred texts speak of dor ve dor – generation to generation. Let’s begin the process of healing now, so that the next generation – our precious children – may never have to suffer the shame of unfair stigma and the severe damage that untreated depression can cause. If we succeed, our children’s children will live in a more compassionate world.

PND has potentially devastating effects on patients and their families. But the great news is that, like any other illness, it can be treated – and it has an extremely high success rate.

I am, BH, on the road to recovery, thanks to a combination of medication to correct the hormonal imbalances and psychotherapy to help me find new and better ways of dealing with these challenges. Butterbean is doing well, Thank God, and we look forward to meeting him/her in the flesh around Pesach time.

I couldn’t have come this far without an incredible amount of support. I know my darling husband makes the odd cameo in this column, but I really think he deserves special mention here. Warren’s faith in me and in Hashem that we would get through this trying time – and his ability to keep the kids, the household and his practice running smoothly – has left me in complete awe.

I’m also in awe of our amazing community. Family, friends, and even people I barely know have brought meals, made bikur cholim (visiting the sick) calls, and said prayers and tehillim (psalms) in our merit.

I’m extremely grateful to my amazing doctor (yes, he’s Jewish, but he’s married), and to Hashem for sending me the help I needed. As the Psalmist reminds us, Hashem answers our calls: “From the narrow place I called out to God, Who answered me with the Divine Expanse” (Psalm 118:5).

Nobody knows why Hashem allows people to suffer from PND (or, indeed, any other disease, condition or syndrome). Having told us to go forth and multiply, one would think He’d do what he could to make the process easy for us. But that’s not how it works. From morning sickness to labour pain (thanks, Eve), He has made it every bit as challenging as it is rewarding.

I suppose Hashem sends us all challenges we might not understand. It’s how He helps us grow. This pregnancy, I think I’ve grown more on the inside than I have on the outside.

As I light my candles this Chanukah, I will please God once again be able to appreciate the true miracle of light, of life, and of the resilience of our faith.
Butterbean, this one’s for you, baby. Until next time.

For more information on PND, I strongly recommend reading Recognizing Postnatal Depression by Zahava Aarons, Paula Levin and Andy Taub-Da Costa (2012, Penguin Books) – available now in all good bookstores. The statistical information in this column comes from this important book.


Car Trouble

Lauren Shapiro

The state of SA’s roads has long been a source of comfort to those who get a kick out of complaining. They never fail to disappoint – whether you’re kvetching about the non-existent lane lines, the confusion of new road names, or the lack of points-men at defective traffic lights (heavyweight kvetchers would say that’s tautological – “traffic lights” should suffice).

The other day I hit a pothole the size of a small sunken lounge. It was one of those unavoidable ones in the middle of the freeway with cars zooming by on either side, preventing me from swerving around it.

The kids loved it and begged me to “do the rollercoaster again!” but my heart sank as the thud of metal hit subterranean gravel and I knew that the “rollercoaster” ride was far from over.

Predictably, it happened on a day when I was schlepping two overexcited children to various appointments between several pressing errands and a deadline. Why do these things always happen when you can least afford them?

I made it home and Super-husband got out the jack and installed the spare (more squeals of excitement from the boys). I knew I couldn’t drive around indefinitely on a ‘Marie biscuit’, so I called the mechanic to book my car in. (Two-year-old Yishai got very excited at the mention of biscuits and was confused and disappointed when no food materialized.)

When I coasted into the repair yard, I was in for further surprises. In addition to the flat tyre, the mechanic found all sorts of other troubles that I never knew I had. It was like I’d suddenly been selected as an extra in an engineering soap opera: over two hours of thumb-twiddling, interspersed by escalating dramatic reports about the state of my tyres, wheels, balances, cambers and casters (yes, real things, apparently)… I felt like I was in a waiting room set on a hospital prime-time drama but the doctor was covered in grease, not blood. I half expected him to stand in the doorway, lower his eyes, and say, “I’m sorry, Ma’am. We did all we could…”

I’ve never heard of someone saying a “mi-she-barach” (prayer for someone’s health) for a vehicle, but if one did, now would have been the time. Several hours and a tidy sum later, I could once again safely ferry my children. But I realize how lightly I got off. If it weren’t for that pothole, I wouldn’t have known about – and attended to – all the other niggles that could have caused huge problems later.

The whole experience made me realize how much we take for granted. A flat tyre may seem a trivial thing, but with cars as well as humans, a little air can mean the difference between a happy journey on the road of life and a brush with death. (As I once read on a rather macabre bumper sticker: “Drive carefully - it’s not only cars that can be recalled by their Maker”.) Whether it’s a flat tyre, a health scare, a relationship shock or a career hurdle, sometimes Hashem sends us a pothole as a warning. It’s a reminder that we need to do regular 20-point safety checks in all aspects of our lives.

I imagine some of Hashem’s checks would read like this:

• Is everything in your engine still kosher?
• Are you filling up as regularly as you should? Are you using the right kind of fuel?
• Will alignment – you have been given free will. Are your intentions in alignment with your values, or have you let your yetzer hara (evil inclination) sway you off course?
• Check your rear-view mitzvah – have you been performing like you should?
• Test the pressure on your soul – not enough means you’re flat; too much  means you’re heading for a blowout.
• Monitor your oy-dometer. How far have you come on your life’s journey? If it’s been a bumpy ride, what can you fine-tune to make the future a better experience?
• Are you following the right signs, or is there a chance you’ve taking a wrong turn?

"We need to do regular 20-point safety checks in all aspects of our lives"

If life were a motor plan, we’d need to make sure we got all the right stamps in the logbook or we’d void our warranty. But with our vehicles, many of us tick off the service and then forget about it for the next 12 months – or until something goes awry.

Not unlike life, I suppose. For so many of us, Yom Kippur is like our annual service. We earnestly pull into the shul, examine all our moving parts, kick the tyres (al chait?), and listen to the horn. We pray, atone, contemplate, and hope that we will be sealed in the logbook of life.

Okay, okay, I know this metaphor’s getting a bit tyred (sorry, I just can’t help myself! I toyed with the idea of calling this column Yom Car-pur – but at least I stopped at that…)

But then a few months down the road (if you will), many of us are back to our old ways, riding the clutch and turning without indicating. That’s when Hashem sometimes needs to send us a pothole. Today sure has been a rollercoaster ride. But miraculously, here I sit, my children safe in their beds, and my column close to written!

Our lives – like our roads, I realize – are a work in progress. And that’s okay. Just as long as we keep on moving forward, we will get closer to our destination. So drive carefully – until next time.


The Best Facial in the World

A friend of mine recently had the pleasure of going on a revolutionary retreat to a very fancy health farm north in the province. She phoned me when she returned, positively gushing about the experience.

She was rubbed and prodded and smeared with organic essences from dawn ’til dusk.

Modern technological stressors like television, cell phones, tablets and laptops were banned. Just quiet time – focus on introspection and rejuvenation.

The food, she admitted, was a little on the sparse side – mostly leaves presented in organic, oil-free dressings and julienned steamed vegetables – but even this was created with mindful intention to help her achieve a higher state of health and happiness.

She completely escaped from the stresses of her daily life, and focused only on eating, sleeping, and nurturing her body and soul. As I listened, fighting pangs of jealousy and the urge to reach down the phone line and slap the smugness out of her, it slowly dawned on me that, in fact, there was nothing “revolutionary” at all about her retreat experience. Some of you might be thinking the very same thing: the Jews have been doing this every week for millennia, but with better food. It’s called Shabbat.

"It’s far more important to look into the mirror of our souls and see what needs fixing there"

Not that I’m knocking spas, mind (especially if any of you are offering to send me to one!). I firmly believe it’s necessary to take care of our bodies, as I have to explain to my husband each time I have my nails done (why do you think it’s called a mani-cure?). But I add the argument that we also have to pay careful attention to our souls, or our bodies will become nothing but empty (if pretty) vessels – hollow and meaningless. We need to become beautiful from the inside out, because true beauty comes from our neshama (soul).

Each Shabbat we are reminded of this in the blessing of Aishet Chayil: “Grace is elusive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears Hashem shall be praised”.

We all need to take time to refocus our lives, and we don’t (necessarily) need essential oils to do it. As I sit here on a Friday morning deadline with my glass of water and crumpled Kleenex (hydrotherapy and deep tissue treatment?), I realize that it’s far more important to look into the mirror of our souls and see what needs fixing there. What better time to do this than Shabbat? It’s a precious gift for body and soul, much cheaper than a health farm, and you can go every week!

To take this metaphor to the next level (and perhaps to within an inch of its literary life), Judaism provides us with opportunities for every level of spiritual grooming.

There’s Shabbat – our local spiritual salon, where we get our regular maintenance treatments done (waxing and nail buffing of the soul, if you will). Then there’s the religious equivalent of a fancy health spa – because sometimes we need something a little more intense to really cleanse, tone and moisturize our souls. These are the High Holy Days.

Within the structure of the chaggim, Hashem has even provided all the equipment to kit out our “spa”: there’s the mikvah to cleanse us, Yom Kippur to (a)tone us, and a whole range of mitzvot to enrich and nourish us (for is that not what a good moisturizer does?).

And here’s where Judaism really has the edge: spas can help you banish cellulite, prettify your extremities, and even reverse wrinkles. But no amount of wonder product can ever truly make you happy or fulfilled. That comes from a different kind of treatment called tikkun – repair of the soul.

If we took half as much care with our souls as we do with our skin, we’d be an all-round better (and happier) bunch of people.

So how about a spiritual detox this weekend? Soak away your worries and resentments. Exfoliate dead layers off of your spirit. Extract all your jealousies and pain. Yes, in many ways this is more challenging than a physical detox, but the bonus is that we don’t have to give up cheesecake.

I’ve come to a realization. The appeal of spas is all about perception. Think about it. When we were kids we would have klapped someone if they schmeared us with seaweed, wrapped us in plastic and then ran away for two hours. Today we’re prepared to pay for it.

We all want to feel pampered and taken care of – that’s at the heart of the spa industry. Again, though, it’s about perception. Hashem takes care of us every day. He blesses us with health, sustenance and spiritual fulfillment. He gives us opportunities to love, to grow, and to gain life-changing experiences (even if we do pick up some laugh lines along the way).

To attain true bliss, we need to face more than our wrinkles. We need to face our true selves and challenge ourselves to become better people. That’s a real facial. So, if you need me this weekend, I’ll be enjoying the best facial in the world. Until next time.

Lauren Shapiro


R.I.P. Dear Hadeda

(incorporating the story of creation, with apologies to the original author)

Just as I was wondering what I would write about this month, my inspiration was sent from heaven. Literally. In the form of a dead Hadeda, dropped out of the sky.

A Hadeda, if you didn’t know, is a large, grey, round-beaked bird of the ibis family, common to the parks and gardens of Durban. Its formal name is Bostrychia hagedash (I googled it), but it acquired its onomateopoeic nickname because that’s the sound it makes as it shrieks across the sky.

Except of course when it’s dead. Then it just silently falls out of the blue and onto my neat patch of lawn.

It appears that the Hadeda in question was attacked by a hawk or similar bird of prey. (I didn’t know we even had birds of prey in our urban neck of the woods, but there you go.)

There was a great flapping and shrieking, and then the hit-bird flew off, leaving the poor Hadeda worse for wear amid a cacophony of blood and feathers. If it didn’t die immediately, it was sure dead when I got to the scene.

Before I could dispose of the evidence, the boys saw it. “What happened to the Hadeda?” asked Ariel.

"Oy gevalt. How do you explain death to a three-year-old?"

I was sweating profusely (unsure whether this was due to the risk of upsetting my kids or the thought of having to touch the dead bird). I lowered myself onto the grass so that I could look Ari in the eye.

“Well, sweetheart… you see… everything has two parts: a body, and a neshama. You have a body, right?”


“Right. Your body is your arms and your legs and your eyes and your belly button. If you didn’t have your arms would you still be Ari?”


“If you didn’t have your legs would you still be Ari?”


“If you didn’t have your belly button would you still be Ari?”

(Giggling) “Yes.”

“Right. That’s because you’d still have your neshama. Your neshama is the special part of you that’s inside your body.”

Ari glanced down at his Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt, I guess trying to see the bit inside that I’m talking about. Then he looked back up at me expectantly.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead. It’s really hard to explain the concepts of life and death, especially with no time to organize your thoughts and while trying to stop little brother Yishai from poking the corpse with his plastic fire truck.

“You see, when we die, our neshama goes back to Hashem, and our body stays here and we bury it in the ground.”

“Why?” (That darned question again!)
“Because we come from the ground.”

There’s nothing like the skeptical glance of a three-year-old to make you feel about two inches tall.

“You see, when Hashem made us, He took some soil and He made a body, then He blew into us and gave us our neshama.”

“Like a balloon?”

“Um, yes. Sort of.” (I’m not sure that’s exactly how it’s put in Genesis.)

“Are we going to put the Hadeda in the ground?” Ari asked.
Ah, yes. We still had the small problem of the body on our lawn. My heart leapt into my throat. I couldn’t very well now toss it in the trash under the critical eyes of the little ones, so off we traipsed to my parents’ to borrow a shovel, and we went about digging it a grave at the bottom of the garden.

Have you ever seen a Hadeda up close? I’m talking smell-its-breath (assuming it had any) close? It’s a beeeg bird! Its head and tail draped over the shovel like a ragged grey tablecloth. Yet it was surprisingly light. I know that’s probably got to do with the aerodynamics of flight, but it also evoked for me the unbearable lightness of being – how frail and insubstantial we all are in life and, perhaps more noticeably, in death.

We didn’t have a minyan, so I kept the service simple. Ari repeated after me, “Baruch Dayan Emet” (“Blessed is the True Judge” – the bracha traditionally uttered when one hears of a death) and not-quite-two-year-old Shai said, “bye-bye, bird” and waved at the grave. Then they used their sandpit tools to help me cover the thing with earth.

This was all pretty heavy going for a midweek afternoon. Well, it was for me, anyway. The boys, it seemed, had already moved on (while searching for the shovel in my folks’ garage we’d discovered my old skateboard and the kids spent the rest of the day pushing each other up and down the garden path.)

The Hadeda that “got dead” (as Ari later told his grandparents) taught me a valuable lesson: we never know when our time on this earth will come to an end. One minute we’re up; the next we’re struck down with all the grace of a bundle of gizzard and feathers (metaphorically speaking).

As I watched my kids playing in the garden, I realized what a precious gift life is, and I decided to cherish every minute.

Rest in peace, dear Hadeda. And I hope our gardener doesn’t try to plant anything under the strelitzias – until next time.

Lauren Shapiro


Getting Drunk in Hebrew

I’m at that funny stage of life where I’m no longer quite a child, but I hardly feel like I’m grown-up enough to be a parent. Of course, genealogically I am both of these things, but I feel as if I have only a toe or two in each world. 

This came home to me the other day when I was talking to a real Parent (with a capital P) about their Child (with a capital C), and I found that, rather than taking sides, I could totally empathise with both of their positions.

The topic under debate was the Gap Year (another concept so weighty it deserves capitalization).

The Child in question wanted to go to Israel for his Gap Year. The Parent was all for the theory, but had several practical reservations, neatly summed up in the comment: “Why should I spent tens of thousands of Rands to send my child to Israel to get drunk for a year?”

Now as a proud graduate of “Shnat” (from the Hebrew shana meaning “year”, and a generic term for year programmes in Israel), I have to admit that a fair amount of time was spent in a pleasant, alcohol-assisted blur, but in defense of both the programme and my liver, I must stipulate that this was neither the goal, nor the focus, of the year.

Young people want to travel and explore. Why not encourage them to travel our land and explore our history and culture? Israel offers experiences you will never get anywhere else in the world. Kibbutz? You won’t get that in London. Grocery shopping in Hebrew? You won’t get that in the Far East. A stint in the army? You won’t get that in America. We all talk about Israeli politics, but until you’ve been squashed amongst hundreds of Israelis with sloganned T-shirts and placards, yelling their ideologies, you just won’t get it. There are great yeshivot all over the world, but only in Israel can you learn about Hashem’s laws in the land He actually promised to us.

And if you still want more travel, Israel is the only country in the world where you can cross over to any one of three continents for the price of a local bus ticket.

Yet parents may have concerns. A few believe that university courses are so long (and so expensive) that kids cannot afford the extra year before entering the job market. I’d argue that the life skills learnt on Shnat programmes will complement any university degree.

Of course, with our exchange rate, the financial concern is huge, but all of these programmes are subsidized to some degree, including full funding for eligible candidates.

Some parents – like the one above – worry about their children going “wild” once they leave home. The fact that many of these Israeli programmes are structured and supervised should provide some comfort here – surely, from a parent’s point of view, this is far preferable to putting their kids on a plane for a year of travel with nothing but a backpack and a credit card?

Kids will do crazy things, with or without the influence of alcohol. I was quite sober when I got my eyebrow pierced (sorry, Mom), when I dyed my hair pitch black (again, sorry), and when I danced along a 6-metre high haystack under the autumn moon, singing my way into the heart of the local kibbutz heartthrob (sorry, Heartthrob. I’m no Liza Minelli).

But the fact that I was experiencing these things in Israel, immersed in Israeli culture, made all the difference.

Yes, I got drunk – but I did it in Hebrew. All those deep, meaningful 4am conversations and those beer-addled plans to change the world happened in Israel. The formative processes of forging best-friends-for-life-and-all-eternity-not-even-joking-now-spit-shake-on-it, falling madly in love (several times), and realizing Mommy’s not there to clean up after you (literally and spiritually) happened on hallowed soil. After school kids need to find their feet in the world, and somehow that’s a little easier when you feel a deep connection to the ground beneath them.

Yes, it’s a lot of fun. A complete blast, actually. But fun you could do in South Africa. Shnat programmes are designed to instill values of leadership, independence, knowledge of our heritage, a work ethic, and exposure to a range of cultures to which South African youth just would not otherwise have access.

Sometimes the seeds sown on Shnat only bear fruit many years later. The aim is not necessarily to make Aliyah, to join the army, or to become a rabbi. It’s to grow and learn as a Jew, in a Jewish environment, in the land of our forefathers.

I arrived in Israel as a wide-eyed high school kid in ideological overdrive, keen to party all night and explore all day, to discover ancient cities and the archaeology of my soul. I returned home a mature(-ish) young woman ready to give back of her knowledge and passion to her community.

The skills I learnt that year have helped me in everything from project management to community leadership to parenting to camel-riding (if you haven’t been there, you won’t get it).

I may feel caught between childhood and adulthood, but the values I learnt on Shnat continue to help me bridge that gap. Whether you’re a Parent or a Child being presented with such an opportunity, I can only urge you to take the Gap! Until next time.

• For more information on Israel year programmes, including subsidization, contact The Israel Centre on 011 645 2560.



Our Shavuot morning began in the Emergency Room. Not very yontifdik, I’ll grant you, but young Yishai had developed a nasty ear infection and with our GP on leave for the weekend, we had to make a trip to Casualty to have him sorted out.

We returned home armed with antibiotics and baby Panado, and decided to divide and conquer the morning’s parenting duties: Warren would take Ariel to shul as planned for the Bikkurim ceremony and because Warren had an aliyah, and I would stay home and nurse the patient.

So the rest of this column is based on hearsay. As a journalist, I should know more than anyone not to base an article on hearsay, but I’m going to trust my husband’s account of the story and share it with you because it so warmed my heart.

Warren made it to shul just in time for his aliyah. Ordinarily, I would have taken the kids to the youth service while Warren fulfilled his obligation (in exchange, of course, Warren would watch the kids all afternoon so I could have a schloff, fulfilling my own time-honoured yom tov obligation!). But because Ariel didn’t want to go to the youth service “by his own”, Warren let him come into “big shul” with him, on condition that he be very good and quiet.

When Warren was called up to the Bima, very good and quiet Ari was allowed to come with.

"3324 years later, on the same day, the same law was passed down to yet another generation"

Warren gets all gooey at this point in the retelling. It was the first time in his three and a half years that Ari heard the Torah being read. As a father, says Warren, it gave him goose-bumps to watch his child hear the Torah just as the Children of Israel had done at Sinai. 3324 years later, on the same day, the same law was passed down to yet another generation. Even more significant is that the first Torah portion Ari ever heard was the Ten Commandments, the foundation of the Jewish people. Goose-bumps, indeed!

After the reading, as the Torah was held up before the congregation, little Ari’s eyes were wide, as if he understood the significance of the moment. Warren says it mirrored the Children of Israel looking up to the mountain all those years ago. I love this part of the story the most, because doesn’t that just confirm our role as parents? We’re trying to hold up the Torah for our children.

Ari sat (very good and quiet) whilst Warren dressed the Torah. At the last moment, before he handed it back, Warren says Ari leaned forward and gave the velvet-clad scroll a kiss. For real. (It’s entirely possible that someone standing on the bima encouraged him to do so, but I’m going to choose to believe he was overcome with emotion and love for the Law!)

While Warren was no doubt still wiping tears from the corner of his eyes, it was now time for the real business of the day: the Rabbi’s Bikkurim Quiz. Participants take this quiz very seriously, for there is a lot of chocolate at stake.
Of course, the motive behind all the chocolate is to teach the kids about Shavuot, bikkurim and the Torah. (Methinks the Rabbi is doubly cunning, because by involving the kids, he naturally involves the naches-seeking parents, so we all learn something.)

Before the quiz, the kids bring their bikkurim. Warren helped Ari carry the box he had decorated at school for this purpose, filled with apples and oranges, potatoes and onions, and lemons from our very own garden.
The ceremony recalls the bringing of bikkurim (first fruits) to the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem, in gratitude to Hashem. We may not have a temple anymore, but the lessons are relevant to this very day: what you sow, so you will reap (or, for the less agrarian amongst us, what you put into life is what you will get out).

And ain’t that the truth? When you put care and effort into your career, you reap the fruits of your labours. When you nurture friendships with love and respect, that’s what you get in return. What you put into raising your children, you get back in sweet naches.

Case in point: When the Rabbi opened the quiz with the question, “What did Hashem give the Jewish People on Mount Sinai?” Ariel apparently jumped up to his full 98cm and shouted out, “The Torah! The Torah!” How proud I am of my little munchkin!

Alright, alright, I’ll stop gushing now and get to my point. Shavuot is one of the most joyous festivals in our calendar, and a wonderful opportunity to thank Hashem for our innumerable blessings.

The first fruits are reserved as thanks for Hashem. The Hebrew word bikur shares a root with bechor, firstborn, and I love that my firstborn gives himself so willingly to Hashem.

Of course, that’s not to say that secondborns get the bum end of the deal. Shai and I had our own little bikkurim ceremony of sorts, singing Shavuot songs whilst enjoying fruit salad under the lemon tree. Then we both went inside for a nap. Heck, when life gives you lemons… Until next time.



There are some things in life that we don’t really think about until they’re brought into question by someone wiser (and usually younger) than ourselves. The right-of-way rule at a traffic circle, for example, or why a banana peels downwards but not upwards.

We think we understand things until we get asked a simple yet profound question.

This week Ariel asked me, “Mommy, what’s a mitzvah?”

It seemed like a straightforward enquiry. I learnt about them in school and I’m supposed to do them every day – yet when I opened my mouth to respond I suddenly realized I didn’t have a clear-cut answer for him. Several possible answers sprung to mind: “It’s a commandment from God”; “a good deed”; “a Jewish law”. Yes, yes, and yes – but a mitzvah is so much more than all that, isn’t it?

It’s difficult to articulate a concept as complex as a mitzvah. There are different categories of mitzvot – Mishpatim (sensible edicts like don’t kill or steal things), Edot (Jewish commemorative acts – think Shabbat or matzah) and Chokim (the Because-I-Said-So’s of biblical lore).

The 613 statutes listed in the Torah can be divided into positive mitzvot (do honour your father and mother) and negative mitzvot (do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk). They can also be grouped into mitzvot bein adam lemakom (those between man and Hashem) and mitzvot bein adam lechavero (those between man and man – or woman, as I’m sure Moses simply missed when taking dictation).

But all this might go a little above a three-year-old’s gorgeous golden head. So how should I begin teaching my children about mitzvot? Not by explaining, I realized, but by doing. And like many teachers, I have my teaching aids.

One is a basket. A pretty wicker one with a nice cotton lining. I call this my Mitzvah Basket, and for years it has travelled with me on a sort of Magical Mitzvahry Tour of Durban.

It’s delivered mishloach manot to friends on Purim; it’s carted bikkurim to shul on Shavuot. It’s schlepped meals to mourners and new mothers, and it’s carried muffins and cakes to family, friends, or anyone who needs a bit of cheering up. It’s even been the receptacle for donating toys our kids no longer need to children who are so happy to receive them.

It’s carried home Shabbat candles and wine to fulfill those mitzvot; it’s borne food home from the grocery store to prepare festive meals (mitzvot in and of themselves). It brings not only physical but spiritual goodness into our home.

"Sometimes mitzvot are hard work, but they’re worth it. Get this right and it’ll be strawberry fields forever"

But perhaps what blows me away most about the Mitzvah Basket is how it benefits not only those who receive the goods inside, but also those who’re giving them. The joy in this little wicker thing weaves simcha into my life. When you’ve got a Mitzvah Basket, it seems, Baby you’re a rich man (or woman).

Now that Ariel’s growing up a bit, it’s so cute to see him helping me carry the basket. It’s nearly as big as he is (it can fit an extra large lasagne and a bottle of bubbly, if needed). He heaves and grunts and occasionally has to be rescued from toppling over. But he insists on helping, because he knows it’s a mitzvah.

It’s a pretty nachesdikke feeling for me to see that I’ve taught him that. As parents, we know it’s our responsibility to teach our children that the important things in life sometimes require effort and endurance. From potty training to passing exams, from making the team to saving for that first car – you get out what you put in. Only the fool on the hill thinks that good things in life come easy.

Likewise with mitzvot. Sometimes they’re hard work, but they’re worth it. Get this right and it’ll be strawberry fields forever.

When the boys are a little older, I can’t wait to get each of them their own Mitzvah Basket, to stand as a constant, physical reminder of the importance of doing mitzvot, and as a tool to help them fulfill some of them. I can just picture them skipping down Penny Lane (or indeed any other lane), baskets swinging, splashing mitzvot in their wake.

It’s this joyful aspect that makes a mitzvah so difficult to define. Anyone can lay down or follow laws, but the spirituality of mitzvot elevate them to something that connects us to the Source of all joy and goodness. It’s been suggested that hidden in the word mitzvah is the root tzavta, meaning connection. I like this. It reminds me that the purpose of mitzvot is to bond us to Hashem. It’s not just to command, but to connect.

Which leads me to my point, I think: why do we keep mitzvot? My hunch is that it’s not just because we’re told to. I think we need to. In fact, I’d be willing to bet most of us want to, or you can say I am the walrus.

Mitzvot feed our souls. The more mitzvot we do, the more the world becomes a better place. Mitzvot are ultimately about love – love for each other, love for ourselves, and love for Hashem and His Torah. And didn’t someone important once say that all you need is love? (That might have been from the Torah, but I couldn’t find the reference).

I love my Mitzvah Basket. I realize of course that it’s not the basket itself that brings such joy, but the mitzvot that are carried in it. I also realize that we are all just Hashem’s baskets – simple vessels for carrying out His mitzvot. And I pray that Ariel and Yishai will grow up to be Hashem’s little basket cases, filled to the brim with mitzvot and simcha.

Yup, I may be a basket case, but as I shall quote the Beatles when my boys are older: Your mother should know! Until next time.