- Book: Mazel Tov
- Location: Antwerp, Tel Aviv
- Author: J S Margot
The 20 year old author applied for a job to work as a tutor for the four children of the Schneider family (she has changed their name to preserve their anonymity), a modern Orthodox Jewish family living in Antwerp. Her main charge is Elzira, who suffers from dyspraxia and needs quite some work on her self esteem. So the narrative in Part 1 is very much about her experiences in an alien culture and a growing fondness for young Elzira.
This memoir is of course a peek into a culture that remains very closed to goys (non-Jews) and you can almost feel her wonder and astonishment as she is invited in to experience snippets of their daily lives. Of course she can never be fully initiated, and as a reader you have a sense that she only really sees what she is allowed to see. She discovers that 613 Jewish commandments ideally have to be observed, that the kitchen is utterly kosher and that there is a strict delineation between products: milk products, for example can be ingested before meat but not after (therefore, there can never be an after dinner cheese selection at the end of a meal). She notes some of the Jewish customs that are of particular interest to her, the phylactery (which contains Hebrew texts and is part of morning prayers), for example, and the great reverence accorded to the shtreimel, which is the large hat that some Jewish men wear (as opposed to the kippel/yarmulke, the light skull cap that many religious men choose to wear). She struggles with the disabling clothes that women traditionally have to wear (just imagine trying to riding a bike in a flowing long skirt or wearing capes to go swimming). She is amazed that there is such acquiescence when it comes to some of these punishing, sartorial rules.
She teaches Elzira to ride a bike and actively supports the family’s decision for her to get a pet (this is Dachshund ‘Monsieur’). She notes that is very unusual for a family in the community to have a pet, although dogs are favoured.
Running alongside is the story of the author’s relationship with her current Persian boyfriend and so the contrast of opposing cultures adds an interesting perspective.
In Part 2 time has moved on a few years and she hasn’t really had contact with the family since the children grew up and moved away. She decides to visit them in Israel before some eventually decamp to New York. She lands in Tel Aviv after a chaotic flight and is tutored how to wear the full cover-up clothes (her attempt to bring a long cover-up skirt misfired as it was rather see-through). She is more than encouraged to wear tights in order to blend in with “all the mothers” (and not “all the women”) doing their shopping for Shabbat (The tights are thick and have pronounced seams so that there is no chance that the legs could be mistaken for naked flesh). To be a mother is the highest accolade for a woman in the community, she observes.
And gradually life moves on for all the people who appear in this book. There wasn’t anything revelatory in it, particularly if you are familiar with Unorthodox (Netflix), have seen the film Disobedience starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, and read The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (set in London). I think what struck me was the author’s desire to be part of the lives of Schneider family. They were accepting and inclusive as far as they felt they could be, they were delighted to see her when she contacted them. She certainly helped their children move on in their lives. And yet… there was a fundamental sadness that she could never really be included. The pivotal incident for me was when Elzira moved to Israel and the family passed her dog, Monsieur, on to friends to care for him. It deeply disappointed the author that she hadn’t even been considered as his new carer – she had after all spent so much time with the dog and his mistress. And that sort of sums up her experience, and yet she is desperate for more….
It is a narrative of interesting insights, textured by an unrequited need for inclusion and an underlying sadness. Towards the end the family stated that they didn’t really want her to write about her experiences with them, they felt it would be an abuse of loyalty. Grudgingly, they conceded that she should change their names if she were indeed intent on writing her piece. So, after decades of sporadic contact, where did this leave them all? I would be interested to learn more about her motivation for writing her memoirs and was her choice to do so actually going against their specific wishes?