The Heart of Bat Mitzvah

 

As many of you know, my main calling these past twelve years or so has been to work with b’nei mitzvah. I started this work, or perhaps it found me, to enlarge the scope of what was possible for girls in the South African Jewish community (it has come to include boys, but that’s for another blog). At first, reading from the Torah in halachic contexts became the cornerstone of my work for girls and I’ve blogged a bit about that journey. But over time, reading from Torah has become one of many facets on a bat mitzvah journey. It has come to include learning, community work, social awareness and more. But one of the pieces that has become essential to my Jewish coming of age process, is a final ceremony,  which  culminates in a rock pool swim.

At first glance,  this day, with the braai, the singing, the art work and the swimming might seem like a fun day where the girls get to bond one last time, one last hurrah.   For me, on a deeper level, this ceremony is a response to the dominant patriarchal line that has woven its way through Judaism and has split off masculine god imagery from feminine god imagery and the soul from the body. For me,  this type of ceremony is one way to return the repressed energy  of the feminine to Jewish life.

Bat Mitzvah occurs when a girl is transitioning into adolescence, a time of evident sensitivity, vulnerability and potential power. Mary Pipher Riley and others have spoken about this incredible time in a young girl’s life and how generally, our culture fails our young women as they enter the world. Just consider the messages they receive from television, magazines, pop culture and now of course, social media about what it means to be a young woman. One of the ways Pipher-Riley says we can help our girls, is through ritual. Because I wear the hat of both a psychologist and a Jewish educator and because I remember how hard this time of adolescence was for me in some ways, I have always wondered: what ritual could we do for our b’not mitzvah to give them the very best start in this next phase? If ritual really has power (and I believe it does)…if ritual matters (and I believe it must), then goddammit, let’s find the very best rituals to help Jewish girls become women. My initial focus was making it more possible for girls to lein and read from the Torah. In South Africa, I was sometimes accused of ‘wanting to be a man’ for advocating this option (I know and that this is seen as an insult, no less…). For me however,  I always felt that the actual act of reading from the Torah is quite gender-neutral and beautifully human. It is about literacy, about ancient languages being brought into the moment,  about story telling, about history, about song and about community. Still, bat mitzvah rituals are relatively new, dating only as far back as the 19th century. I strongly believe that girls and women who wish to read from the Torah should be able to do so. But the bat mitzvah should not just be a space of mimicry where we accept inherited models of what boys have done, and copy them. Precisely because it was not previously defined, bat mitzvah remains an emergent ritual space, ripe for potential creativity and innovation.

Bat Mitzvah is not simply a time of assuming Jewish legal responsibility. From a Jewish point of view, bat mitzvah is a time of soul expansion; something shifts in terms of the moral capacities of a young person, they are able to engage with the yetzer harah and the yetzer tov. From a physiological perspective it is around this time, that women’s bodies change, from menstruation to developing breasts and hips to the awakening of sexual desire. There is NOTHING in our tradition that honours and celebrates this transformation of the body from girl to woman. When I was growing up in an orthodox community, the only acknowledgement of these changes was to be told by my teachers that I now needed to wear knee-high socks or stockings as opposed to ankle socks, that I needed to be careful how I placed my legs on the lower bars of the desks so that the Rabbi teachers couldn’t ‘see’ and that one day I would need to observe the laws of mikvah when I was married. Ze Hu!  The overt message of ‘cover up’ concealed some underlying assumptions,  ‘your body is holy and sacred yet potentially dangerous’. I dare say, these messages were just as impoverishing as the messages that the Western world feeds women about their bodies needing to conform to a certain ideal that fits the ‘male gaze’.

How is it possible to give our girls the message that their bodies are amazing, every flow, every curve, every ache and longing? More, how to give our girls this message without splitting off from Judaism but just the opposite to connect the marvelous awakening of the body to their Jewish selves? This is a crucial question and if I may be so bold, I would suggest it is a question that ‘adult’ women need explore as much as I am asking it about b’not mitzvah.

Love leaf

Towards the end of the year that I work with girls, I start to address these issues more directly. I bring mystical ideas to class that talk about the body as a holy vessel. We look at the idea of Shechinah as the immanent aspect of God that resides in our bodies and I slowly introduce them to an idea of a feminine God, in our bodies that brings about our bodily changes and desires. Let me add, that twelve year old girls are blushing their way into these transitions and I present these lessons in humorous, light, sometimes indirect ways. But the girls GET it. I also talk about Western expectations of women as communicated through the media and how girls tend to be overly critical of their bodies as they become teens. There is an instant mirror recognition.  Like a flood opening, they talk about how girls have started putting themselves down ‘your hairs too curled’, ‘I am too tall’, ‘you are too fat’, ‘you need more makeup’. Without knowing it, these girls have already been initiated into the Western Woman’s Way. And it’s a cruel initiation. So in the class, I drop these ideas about being kind to ourselves and each other and I link it to Shechinah, to a feminine God that loves our bodies.

Love shadow

And then we prepare a ritual in the mountains. We prepare it together. I explain to them that in Judaism we don’t have recorded rituals of our changes from girl to woman.   So we will create a ritual. At the core, we will swim in bathing suits in rock pools. I explain the healing, transforming power of natural water and its origins in Jewish tradition in the gathering of natural waters, called a Mikveh. Don’t get me wrong: This is not a mikveh in the traditional sense. Firstly, we aren’t completely naked. And secondly we don’t say the traditional Tevilah blessing (although one could). But we use the symbolism and power of this ancient Jewish practice of ritual immersion in spring water to help these young girls transition positively, with love, hope, and intention to this next phase in their lives. Each year, the girls have different suggestions of how to do it. This is what we did this year:

We arrived in the beautiful Magaliesberg mountains and immediately learned about Miriam from Biblical and Rabbinic text. Miriam: prophet, dancer, singer, poet, and water woman. Besides for the well known ideas about Miriam from Bible and Midrashic sources, that she was responsible for Moshe’s birth, that she led a song at the sea, we also look at lesser known sources. One source in the Zohar describes how Miriam facilitated women’s soul gatherings during their wanderings in the desert. I share the source because it is so inspiring:

All of the righteous women of that generation used to come to Miriam at those times. They would rise up like a pillar of smoke in the desert. That day was called the day of joy. On Sabbath eves and holidays the women would all come to Miriam and work at achieving knowledge of the Master of the Universe. Blessed was that generation among all others. (Zohar, Emor 116)

Wouldn’t you love to know what Miriam did with the women? When I ask the girls to imagine Miriam’s tent and how she helped the women get to know God,   they are clear; the women baked bread together, studied Torah,  danced, sang, ate, swam and prayed.

This year, straight after learning about Miriam, the girls had requested a Henna ritual. Each girl chose a different Jewish symbol, from a Hamsa, to stars of David, from the words of the Shema to hearts. There’s an old quote from the consciousness raising group Riot Grrrrrrlz which warns women of the damage we do to each other when we criticize our own bodies. The quote ends something like this, ‘It’s just not cool to criticise your body sista.’ There’s been a lot of literature to talk about girls being mean to each other in different ways, about social exclusion and putting each other down. But, surely the antidote to this phenomenon is loving each other and ourselves. The henna painting was an act of care for each other’s bodies. It was fun, it was playful AND it was loving. As each girl chose a symbol she wanted on her body and her friend caringly painted it on, I was overcome by how women can love and support and indeed, help to heal each other. As the girls chose Jewish symbols to paint on their bodies, they connected their Jewish life with their feminine body-self. No words.

Love in stone

Then the girls put on their bat mitzvah dresses with bathing suits underneath and we walked to a group of cascading rock pools. I wished for a photographer to capture the girls in their gauze and taffeta, their beautiful bodices and pointy A-line frocks, in pinks and reds and blacks and whites. We formed a colourful group against the earth-red African mud path and the clear and generous blue skies. We walked the last walk of young girls and came to the rock pools. Then symbolically the girls removed their beautiful frocks and stepped into the water. A beautiful rock slide emerged and the girls said ‘let’s each say a word we want for this next part of our life as we slide down the rock’ We all waited at the bottom of the slide as each girl ascended and called out her word to us and to the Universe. Each word was a prayer: ‘Love’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Success’, ‘Happiness’ ‘Adventure’. They called out and then gave themselves a push to roll down the slide, arriving with a splash, a little submersion and then a loud cheer from the rest of the group.

Afterwards, there was ah exchange of gifts. Nothing expensive, purely symbolic: “this is what this group and this journey has come to mean to me.“ Enriched with their friendship gifts, with the soft afterglow of rock pool water on their skins and the sun lowering behind us,  we drove back to the city.

sunset

We live in a world where sometimes our strongest rituals are the ways in which we make our coffee in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I am not belittling anyone’s coffee! But in an increasingly secularized world, I fear we have forgotten how to use ritual for healing and transformation. Our rituals have become so secular and often revolve around technology,  cell phone voyeurism or the holy gathering around the television at night time. At worst this disconnect leads to more extreme rituals, the unconscious rites of overeating, binge drinking, drugs and more.  On the other side,   with the strengthening of religious fundamentalism,  religious ritual is in danger of becoming blocked, staid and stripped of all meaning. In between the worlds of no god or only God, we forget that ritual is a reservoir of symbolic play and huge transitional power and energy.  Unlike the messages some of us received at twelve and thirteen which split soul from body, and a masculine from a feminine god energy,  my hope is that these girls take with them a soul memory of this day, something they can return to throughout their lives when the criticism and self doubt creeps in. This soul memory is whispered through the rituals of learning, dance, art, Henna and water immersion. Here’s some of the whispers on the wind:

Hashem is masculine and feminine

you are wonderful

your bodies and appetites are wonderful

you are beautiful as you are

your life is celebrated

live your truth

Be kind to yourself and each other.

Raise the sparks of this world.

Love ace of hearts

 

What’s a girl (or boy) to read?

Hello everyone,

One of the things I love about December holidays is the chance to read. There’s no doubt that my reading of adult books has declined since having kids although I did read the latest Gershon Baskin; In Pursuit of  Peace between Israel and Palestine this summer which was a real ‘behind-the-scenes’ eye-opener as to why the peace-process has stalled in the Middle East – I highly recommend it.

Truth be told, I’m not reading adult books as much as I used to. But…I read children’s books all the time. Many of them are insightful and beautifully illustrated and frankly, read like poetry. On many a night, Margaret Wise-Brown’s Good Night Moon has carried me to sleep reminding me that there is a world of delight in the simple compositions of a soulful bedroom. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are beautifully reminds me that some alone time with our imagination can transform and redeem a bad mood and bad behaviour (a message as relevant for me as it is for my children).

The older my kids grow, the more I realise that like everything else, the stories we read our kids matter. Along with all the incredible stories out there, there’s also some pretty bad children’s writing, stuff that reinforces stereotypes and stories with sentimental moralisms. You’d think that in 2017, having come out of feminist revolutions and the end of Apartheid, we would be living in more ‘woke’ times. But a visit to my local book or toy store reminds me that ‘the best of’ Disney still holds sway.

When my daughter was little she absolutely loved her Disney Fairy Tale book. Disney was Pre-Pixar or anything ‘woke’,  and this collection was the best of princess and prince stories complete with big eyes, long hair and teensy waistlines. Now don’t get me wrong, I too spent my twenties eating sushi while watching Sex in the City and dreaming of the day my own Mr Big would show up.   I have indulged the last decade with The Good Wife and concomitant fantasies about Will Gardner, Downton Abbey (and concomitant fantasies about no one in particular) and a whole bunch of series which might be classified as Disney for thirty (and now forty) somethings. But there is also incredible television and literature out there for adults and the same for kids. The only thing is,   if you want to do better than Disney (and its lesser brand equivalents), you need to dig a little deeper.

As a child, I remember voraciously devouring a two-volume set called ‘The World’s Best Fairy Tales’ which my parents subsequently gave away in a de-cluttering frenzy in the early nineties.

World's Best Fairy Tales

Over the last few months I has been TRYING to remember a story from this volume about a young African girl called N’tombinde. I was utterly surprised to find this very book, complete with the story of N’tombinde, peeking from the bookshelf of our holiday rental in Cintsa Bay this past December. On night two of our stay, with the sounds of the bush whirring outside, I snuggled with my kids in our wooden bungalow and read this story. N’tombinde is about a young girl, the daughter of an African chief. As with many daddies in fairy tales, the Chief wants his daughter to settle down and get married. But not N’tombinde. She wants to see the world. Her father agrees to let her travel to a faraway river, renowned for its dangers, before she marries. And so N’tombinde goes on an adventure with a group of young maidens (not unlike the eery story of Jeftah’s daughter in the Bible), that involves dangerous wild monsters and near-death experiences.

Ntombinde

On her safe return, her father again reminds her that it is time to settle down. But N’tombinde will not simply surrender her destiny. She tells her father that there is only one man she will marry, ‘Snake Man’. It turns out that Snake Man is a mythical creature who lives in a faraway village. She travels to find him and eventually it emerges that a terrible spell has been put on this man turning him into a snake. It is only when N’tombinde encounters the snake without fear and is able to tenderly care for him, that the snake transforms into a prince. Redeemed by N’tombinde, the prince is free to marry her and so the fairy tale ends. Finding N’tombinde again made me reflect that here we have a story rooted in African oral history about a young woman who embodies an empowered ideal. Why is this story not published and on sale in every South African book store? Snow White and Sleeping Beauty loom much larger in our children’s awareness than N’tombinde.

I am not against princesses being rescued. I mean for goodness sake! Who hasn’t longed to be rescued and carried away once in a while? I once received a book of fairy tales that had been re-written in a politically correct way…  I found it so contrived, to read about Sleeping Beauty waking up of her own volition with no prince in sight. I tend to think that fairy tales, like myths, speak to deep truths of the human condition, fears, anxieties, longings and desires. There’s a time to be helped and there’s a time to empower our inner saviour. There’s a time to be woken up with a kiss on the lips, and there’s a time to take on the big, bad witch ourselves. But in our world, we need to ask why is it that Sleeping Beauty is so easy to access while N’tombinde not so much. Why can’t we find N’tombinde backpacks and t-shirts at Woolies? Can’t we do a little better (and more interesting) than Ben Ten and Frozen…again?!

When my son was born, a friend in London mailed him a beautiful little night gown and alongside his gift there was a book for my daughter titled ‘The Paper Bag Princess’. This story, by Robert N. Munsch, relates the tale of a princess on the eve of her marriage to a tennis-playing prince.  Before the marriage takes place, her entire palace is destroyed by a dragon, including her princess wardrobe. With a paper-bag her only option for attire, and without any moments of ‘feeling sorry for my self’, the bereft princess sets out to find this dragon and teach him a lesson.  Using her wits she manages to subdue him and rescue her suitor. On rescuing him, she realises he is a bit of a wimp and she decides not to marry him at all. This delightful story upends all the ‘prince rescues victim princess’ narratives. But my favourite part is that she wears a paper bag. I think it gives such a good message to our daughters and sons about how you don’t need to be wearing a pink, puffy gown (or its designer equivalent) to be wonderful and do great things in the world. The story really manages to affirm the young girl’s inner qualities; her resourcefulness, independence, courage, wit and chutzpah. In our social media obsessed world, where the crowning apotheosis of our girls and boys initiations into adulthood has come down to their amount of  likes on Instagram, I’m quite happy to let my kids chew on a princess who tames dragons and wears, you know.. a paper bag.

Paper Bag Princess

I’ve noticed that often girls are praised for being ‘a little lady’ or affirmed for being ‘so eager to please’. In 2018, I think we can do better than rear our girls to be little ladies and please others. Personally I’d like to hear girls and boys also praised for being disruptors and bringing on the next big thing. Roll on in Princess Smartypants. When Princess Smartpants (by Babette Cole) is sent to finishing school by her parents to become the perfect little lady, she rebels against the makeup and deportment lessons and soon has all the girls wanting to develop some muscle, learn leadership and play electric guitar. Because of my line of work as a bat mitzvah teacher, I think a lot about the messages we give our daughters and how to balance obedience with questioning,  following the rules with courageous curiosity. Princess Smartypants sends such a great message to our kids. Bring it on!

There’s also the magnificent story by Rafe Martin called The Rough Faced Girl about a young Algonquin Indian American young woman who like Cinderella is bullied by her older sisters and consigned to the housework where she develops a rough face from the embers that blow from the fire.

rough faced girl

In this beautiful, mysterious story, there is an invisible man whom everyone wants to marry but the only person who can marry him is someone who is able to see him. The Rough Faced Girl’s older sisters try in vain, in their magnificent outfits, to snare him but they are unable to see him. As you can imagine it is the Rough Faced Girl in her torn and umkempt clothes with her rough face, who is able to see the invisible man and in turn, to be seen by him for her beauty and her value. The power in this story is that is doesn’t detract from the romance between the Rough Faced Girl and the Invisible Man, but it makes us think about what it means to be really seen for what we are. When I read this story to my kids at night, it gives me pause to think about beauty, to think about how I value my self entering my forties and to reflect on the power of seeing oneself and being present enough to witness others. (PS, can you spot the invisible Man in the picture below?)

Rough Faced2

 

When my daughter was two years old, one of my bat mitzvah students gave her the most special gift, her entire childhood book collection. And so we entered the world of Angelina the Mouse and Katie and the French painters and so much more. Among them was a book I have never been able to find online, called Laura by Binette Schroeder.

Laura1

Laura tells the story of a young girl who lives with her eccentric artist aunt in a tree house. She plays in the nearby forest where she befriends an egg called Humpty Dumpty who has his own fears and anxieties. Together they help each other and at the end of the story Humpty Dumpty hatches into a beautiful bird. The story takes us to the ideas of loneliness and friendship as well as re-birth, how the broken egg can signal not the end of life but actually the beginning of something so much better. The story ends with a picture of Laura flying on her bird friend over the forest with her aunty painting on an easel down below. The art work in this story is exquisite, sometimes reminding me of a Monet or Chagall painting with a feel of dream time.

Laura2

Some of you might know the sublimely beautiful book by Eric Carle, Papa, Please get the moon for me. It’s about a young girl called Monica who loves the moon. She tries to reach for it because she longs to play with it. But no matter how she leaps and jumps she cannot get to the moon. So she asks her Papa to fetch the moon for her and Papa with his extra special long ladder is able to climb to the moon and have a very important conversation with it. The moon explains that when it wanes and becomes small, it will be handheld size and Monica will be able to play with it. And so at its smallest point of waning, just before it disappears, papa retrieves the moon for Monica and she delights and plays with it. Eventually, it disappears to the point of nothingness and Monica feels a loss. But then, the moons births itself anew, in the evening sky and her joy is restored. I love this story deeply. The moon has long been associated in Jewish and other mythologies with women and feminine consciousness. I see Monica’s longing for the moon as a desire to connect with her innate power as a woman. The story also points to the incredibly important role that good fathering can play in a child’s life, in helping them connect to their deepest longings. I also love that Monica (and the reader) learn the beautiful and deep lesson about the cyclical nature of life, about loss and finding again and about waxings and wanings, expansions and contractions.

Papa and Monica

The last incredible piece of art I wanted to refer to is the musical and story collection  Free to be You and Me by Marlo Thomas and Friends. This is the most incredible collection of songs and stories talking about a world where men and women are able to self determine and where they aren’t bound my labels and strictures. I was lucky enough to have access to this on my record player as a child (another wonderful children’s singer/songwriter, Judy Irwig loaned it to my mom). It was Apartheid South Africa and I was at a very religious Jewish day school, so I wasn’t without my own labels and strictures.  But, I remember listening to Marlo Thomas for hours in my playroom, using a little handheld mirror as a pretend guitar. I remember looking at the picture of Marlo Thomas sitting on a jungle gym with a bunch of kids and wanting to be one of those kids, so close to that amazing singer with long hair,  in that world  that seemed so free and so cool.

Marlo Thomas

With songs like ‘Mommies are People’, ‘William Wants a Doll’, ‘It’s alright to Cry’ and a haunting song about a pre-feminist world called ‘Girl Land’, the audio takes kids on a journey and some of my favourite moments now are laughing in the car at some of the stories or talking with my daughter about what they mean. The lyrics from Girl Land are worth reflecting on:

‘They are closing up girl land/some say it’s a shame/it used to be busy then no body came/ and other folks tell you they glad that’s it’s done/cause girl land was never much fun/…wonderful girl land the island of joy/where good little girls pick up after the boys/ come on in and look about, you go in a girl and you never get out/And soon in a park that was Girl Land before/you’ll do what you like and be who you are/as you wander in and wander out/and pretty soon forget all about/Girl Land, Girl Land, Beautiful Girls and boys.

free-to-be-U

I feel this audio is a must for every girl and boy. The messages are as relevant today as they were in the

seventies.

All this makes me think: Some stories wake us up and some stories keep us asleep. So what if all the mommies and daddies were reading these and similar kinds of books to our children at night? Maybe we would treat each other and ourselves more kindly, maybe we would feel more courage in our hearts, maybe we would imagine that the world can be a different place, bigger, wider, more expansive and deeper than we ever dreamed of.  With the recent watershed moment of #metoo, I have been reflecting that the problems with patriarchy and disempowerment don’t start as adults. They start with the  stories we are told as kids, both the real life stories we see around us and, just as important, the stories we read to our children. So let’s choose our stories wisely.

 

 

The Work of 2017

The Work of 2017

 

I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, oh, I am miserable,

what shall—

what should I do? And the sea says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.”

Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

 

waves-and-work
Myoli Beach, Sedgefield

 

If I go onto my FB newsfeed these days, I am awed and overwhelmed by how my American friends are rolling up their sleeves and committing to a new kind of work, the work of watching over their President and protecting their cherished values. If you are someone like me who was hoping for Hilary, then December 2016 was not a happy time for the world. Equally, as a South African, (and we are deeper in the mire than America), there was not a lot to celebrate coming out of 2016. But this is not a post about overt activism, though I honour and respect its place. This is a post about remembering our selves, our deeper values, our world….remembering as an act of defiance. Some might call this too subtle, but I am talking about this as I work out how to navigate my life in this Zuma-Trump and also increasingly fundamentalist world.

To start, a story. With a group of eight families, we’ve started a partnership minyan in JHB. That’s a whole other blog. But we’ve opened it up to the community and it’s growing! Four months ago, we held a minyan one rainy Friday night and then shared a potluck dinner afterwards. During the dinner, we all gathered round our host’s lounge and we started singing songs and telling stories. It ‘happened’ to be the week after Trump’s victory and Leonard Cohen’s death. At the gathering old people and young ‘uns, people of different observance levels and different values shared their wisdom. There was nostalgia, there was longing for a different world, there was fear and anger. There were tears. That night as I slept I realized this was the community I wanted to help build, a community that turns to art, music, story telling and the sharing of food in order to remember what we can be as a species on this whirling dervish of a ball that circulates around a massive sphere of fire among a landscape of zillions of stars. I don’t think the talking circle would have happened in quite the same way, without the pot luck dinner!

Which is why I’m thinking about remembering and I’m thinking about community and I’m thinking about food.

My last blog spoke to the humble challenge of seeking the best melk tert in Bloemfontein one fine morning in late December 2016. It was really only early January 2017, along the Garden Route at a farmer’s market in Sedgefield that I found a melk tert worth every calorie. Baked in the famous Sedgie’s Whistle Stop Café, this melk tert was more philosopher than activist. It offered the humility of uncertainty in its light consistency, and a flavour that spoke to deep Afrikaner care, custard, vanilla, cinnamon. I shared the pie with a group of friends and was profoundly satisfied.

sedgefield-melktert

 

Food has continued to occupy centre stage in my life. And I’ve been wondering as to why. I came home from our three week road trip around the Eastern Cape and Garden Route. I surveyed the clutter in our home, thought with some dread of school routines ahead and promptly began to cook. Our first day back I made an orange lentil dhal, a tray of roasted vegetables and a butternut coconut soup. As I cooked, things felt a little better. I sat and ate my lentil dhal amid a sea of books and stuff –   the year ahead seemed less looming.

This December I was introduced to the tales of Tannie Maria (Recipes for Love and Murderl Tannie Maria and the Satanic Mechanic). For those of you who don’t know, Tannie Maria is a new delight on the South African fiction scene. Written by Sally Andrew, the main character is an agony aunty who lives in the Karoo, just outside Ladysmith. She drives her blue bakkie into town every day and writes an advice column for the local newspaper. But her typical advice comes with a twist. Sure, Tannie Maria is not moralistic and she shows great sensitivity to difference around race, sexual orientation, class and gender. But more significantly, Tannie Maria believes that every social-emotional problem can somewhat be alleviated through cooking or baking the right food. Every letter of advice she offers is accompanied by a mouthwatering recipe, most of them traditional South African besties, like melk tert, bobotie, vetkoek and so on. When she offers advice to a young woman who has lost her appetite over lost love, Tannie’s response is food: ‘Bananas, I thought. They are very healthy and would help her get strong again. How about frozen bananas, dipped in melted dark chocolate and rolled in nuts. I wrote out a recipe for her with dark chocolate and toasted hazelnuts. That should help her get over him. And in case the boyfriend read the paper, I put in a recipe for mango sorbet too. Mangoes were in season, and the good ones tasted like honey and sunshine’.

There’s something else about Tannie Maria: She loves South Africa. She has a big heart for the people, the animals, the land. With a mix of Afrikaans and English heritage, she is herself, no apologies. In the fictional landscape she navigates, she is friends with people from racially diverse backgrounds. She sits with her rusks (beskuit) and her cup of coffee on her stoep and watches the sun set behind the Swartberg or Rooiberg mountains. She isn’t going anywhere.

 

sedgefield-sunset
Sedgefield Sunset

Contrast the parochial happiness of Tannie Maria in the Karoo against the wider political landscape of 2017, and you might understand why her imaginal possibility was such a balm. As we closed on 2016, I became closer to popping a xanax. On a very personal note, the rise of anti-white rhetoric in South Africa on social media was deeply upsetting, while equally disturbing was proof of Zuma’s corruption and state capture from the Public Protector’s report, the violence on both sides in the #feesmustfall movement, the ways in which real issues of poverty alleviation seem to fall by the wayside and the seeming impotence of the population- what could we do?! Still, if life is driven by something more than material gain, status and prestige, if meaning and existential purpose are drivers, then it still feels in spite of the seemingly public corruption and chaos around us, that there is a great privilege and deep connection to living in a place such as South Africa. Tannie Maria seems to feel this deeply. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologian writes that a person has an inexplicable, yet profoundly unbreakable soul connection to the land in which they are born. He comments that if a person leaves their country of birth, and many may do this at some point, there is always a soul pain that accompanies this rupture. It’s goes deeper than job opportunities, first world versus third world amenities, even perhaps deeper than crime and corruption. It’s a connection to the land and the people of a place that is mysterious, profound. It’s the feeling of being ‘home’. I’m not saying one can’t find home in another country. And perhaps as Jungian analyst Marion Woodman reminds us, the deeper homecoming is really to integrate internally, mind, body and soul. But still, the land of one’s birth runs deep. Tannie Maria takes up her place on this land, and she reminded me that our country is much bigger than the voices on social media. Perhaps cooking our own food connects us to land and earth in a way that even the best and most well-intentioned store bought meal can not. Even if it’s from Woolies. Think about it: if Trump was cooking every meal he ate himself, he probably wouldn’t be denying climate change. So Tannie Maria reminded me, if I am to remain here in South Africa, I need to interweave myself in the fullest, deepest way to my community and land, to cook my own food and to dream of a different country, and to help in my own small way towards realizing that vision.

wilderness-big-tree
The Big Tree, near Wilderness, Garden Route

Which brings me back to food. There’s something about cooking which takes us very far from Trump and Zuma. Can you imagine either of them pouring their hearts into a red bean and tomato soup, or thinking carefully about baking a cake that would make the soul sing? There’s good reason for this. Cooking is associated with goodness and love and nurturance. It can also be dangerous, because when we sit around the hearth or the fire and eat lovingly prepared food, we might start singing, we might tell stories, we might dance, and through this all we might remember who we are and what we are doing here. And I think the powers that be might be relying on us forgetting.

When Antjie Krog, the Afrikaans poet and writer saw the first tremblings of transition in South Africa in the early nineties and sensed the journey ahead she felt a wave of panic. Instead of becoming utterly immobilized, she writes in ‘Country of my Skull’ that she went home and baked a fruit cake. She prepared the batter, carefully cut the fruit pieces, mixed the batter with the fruit and left it to develop its own alchemical magic before baking, ‘ I let it stand in a cool dark cupboard – a bowl full of glistening colourful jewels soaking in brandy.’ She felt better.

When Tannie Maria is in a panic, she bakes chocolate cake with a peanut butter coffee icing filling, mmm mmm. When I come home to find mess and apprehension for the new year, I cook. I don’t see this as a hark back to the days of the momma baby-boomers, the proverbial Betty Draper in her kitchen, preparing dinner. God no! I am thinking about preparing food as an act of power. Food is one of the last few places in our secularized world, where alchemy and magic intermingle with science and where the physical experience of eating is linked to the greatest of those invisible forces, love.

I am also thinking about cooking as an act of disruption and transformation. When the girl in the fairy tale goes into the kitchen, we are often in the space of change and when the dreamer goes to cook something in the kitchen, we know that the potential for something shifting is in the air. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ sing the witches of Macbeth as they stir a pot around the fire and talk to the demise of a king! What if the witch stirring the pot was the precursor to all significant action? I am thinking about metaphors like ‘cooking up some trouble’,   ‘simmering a plan’, ‘letting it stew’ and of course ‘shit stirrer’. What if we all used our cooking to inhabit a witchy space, to let the cooking empower us to occupy a consciousness of defiance whether that involves asking your uncle to stop using the word shvartze, marching to the US embassy or asking your school to think more carefully about how they teach gender. When impotence and fear and disembodied feelings take over, cook, bake, stew and shake. And maybe the right ideas will come and the right action will follow.

So, I don’t have answers to the bigger questions of 2017. I am moved by the multiple activists, the Rabbis and Priests, the women and men who are speaking up against Trump, the voices of conscience in South Africa who are speaking up from the margins and who are articulating their visions of truth to power and reminding us of South Africa’s deeper constitutional values. I personally don’t have a clear action plan other than to get my kid to school by twenty to eight each morning. But, like the poet in Mary Oliver’s poem, I do feel miserable at times, and like the waves, I am remembering that there is work to do. I am watching, I am stirring, I am allowing things to stew. In the meantime, I intend to cook. I’m hoping that cooking will connect me to earth, nature, community, humanity and all the witches stirring over pots through the ages who have stood up to evil and fought for what matters most. May we  all generate mysterious alchemy that inspires multiple disruptive innovations.

 

kaaimans-river
Kaaimans River, a  mystical spot

 

 

Melk Tert Mission

I’ll be sharing a series of mini blog posts as we trek through South Africa for the holiday season. You will understand if a lot of them revolve around food.

My husband can’t handle the whine of a child, so he prefers to leave JHB at three am and drive with sleeping kids in the car so that the little critters are silent for a few hours before the sun rises. I don’t deal well with this plan. Why would anyone rise from a good night of slumber to go anywhere? Maybe that is why, at closer to four am last night, as we left Jo’burg heading for Bloemfontein, I received a very strong image, some might call it a vision. It involved a slice of melktert. 

At that moment the early hours seemed meaningful and even deep. Pre-dawn darkness with the city lights in the distance plus the physical discomfort of trying to sleep with my aeroplane pillow in my car, had a reverse great trek feel, if you will: leaving the freezochinno world of the northern suburbs and heading on a search for something quite profound. 

But where to find it? I put out a search on Facebook to all my bloem contacts. The most diplomatic yet least helpful was my mother in law who reassured me that all the bakers in Bloemfontein were excellent. Said mother in law lived in Bloemfontein some 27 years ago and clearly she learned enough to know that if you enter the fraught territory of baking comparisons, you are at risk of making life long enemies who will ruin a good koeksuster to stab at your stomach. 

I turned to google and soon had a list of the top ten bakeries and cafes in bloem. It was a bit disconcerting that steers and debonairs pizza turned up on the list. But the top of the list was promising, an artisanal bakery called Picnic located at the dubiously named Loch Logan Waterfront. When we walked in, we received stares. I thought it was because we looked Jewish but on further pause it was probably because my kids were barefoot, sleep deprived and in their pajamas. There was also the fact that Adam went straight up to the cake display and poked his finger in a lemon meringue.

But I wasn’t focused on social acceptance. I made a bee line for the cake display which looked very much like a Tasha’s wannabe. And I was delighted to find among the brownies and chocolate covered shortbread, the croissants and the carrot cake, a magnificent looking melk tert. I attach exhibit a.


Given my exposure to melk tert through the pareve baking section of Pick n Pay, not to mention some chalav yisrael options that a class mate would bake every time we had a Siyum in primary school, you will appreciate my arousal at this offering. It was the depth and apparent firmness of the cake I found most alluring. 

I ordered it and while I waited I sampled a truly glorious red cappacinno with just a hint of cinnamon. My son ordered a croissant which on closer inspection had the density of a scone. But I was not concerned about the somewhat lack of expertise in French patisserie. This was after all a traditional Afrikaans tart I was seeking. 

The slice arrived and there was much oohing and aahing, a short photo shoot followed. 


I’ve kept you waiting long enough. I took my first bite. I was immediately reminded of T.S Elliott’s words ‘it was,you may say, satisfactory’. My matric teacher,Mrs Brown used this line from Elliot’s poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ where the speaker is searching for Jesus, to teach us about anti-climax. 

The cake was on reflection, too confident. One might say it committed the sin of pride. It makes one reflect, philosophically, that too much firmness can err on the side of stodgy. There was also the matter of flavour. This tert lacked sweetness. That usual explosion in the mouth of milk pudding offset by a bouquet of cinnamon was not there. It was more, I imagine what one feels like when you eat melk tert with a stuffy nose; a familiar texture with occasional whiffs of cinnamon. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I would still recommend The Picnic at Loch Logan waterfront in Bloemfontein for its ambience, service and Tasha’s in the Free State feel. I will add that their homemade ciabatta with tomato jam was to die for. 


On reflection, I wonder if the lesson in the melk tert is something about size over substance,super- confidence over an inner knowing. The experience has left me with much to meditate on. In my next blog I will recount the surreal experience of seeking a vegetarian dinner at ‘the little hippie’ which was a characterful pub and steakhouse in Aliwal North. At present it’s four am again and we are driving through a foggy eastern cape, heading for East London. As of yet, I have received no food prophecies this morning. 

Don’t Burn Books – Read Them, Kiss Them

 

With all the craziness around #feesmustfall and the adjacent issues of white privilege, I have walked around feeling a mix of rising panic, sorrow for my alma mater, empathy for students who journey through university with such disproportionate means and despair at the scapegoating on all sides. It’s hard to carve out a voice in this space. But I was reminded today of the words from the Mishnah, the Jewish oral tradition from a section called Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 1, paragraph 14: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am (only) for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?  So  – trying to hold the balance between my own life, my attempt to empathise with our students and ‘if not now, then when?’ – here goes!

 

To start, a memory: I was a tutor for the English foundation programme at Wits some 20 years ago. I worked with my fellow tutors and an amazingly dedicated course coordinator called Jenny Stacey, helping students bridge the gap between high school and university English language and literature. I became close to one of my students, an amazing, heart-filled young man by the name of Lwandile (Wandi). Wandi had a great longing to learn and we had extra English sessions, really working on his skills of textual analysis. He did well and at the end of the year, we celebrated and had lunch together. At this lunch, Wandi opened up to me and told me of the tough times he experienced at university. He had been kicked out of his accommodation many times. He didn’t have money for transport. Every day on his way into university, he would buy a bunch of bananas for R2. That bunch of bananas was his food for the entire day. I looked at Wandi with absolute shock. I couldn’t believe that this energetic, motivated student had spent an entire year eating bananas. I was humbled. I have never forgotten this moment. After talking with Wandi, I recognized how lucky I was. Every time I went and photocopied a chapter of a book I needed without thinking about the twenty or thirty rand I was spending. Every time I went home for a dinner that my mother had cooked. Every time I typed and printed out my essays on my home computer. Every time I drove myself to campus. There is no doubt that students function in two parallel universes at South African universities. I just so happened to be in the good universe.   But this isn’t a blog about my white privilege. There’s a lot of rallying against Western thought in some of the rhetoric of #feesmustfall. But I wonder if you might indulge some reflections from a Jewish tribal lass with ancient roots originating in the Middle East.

The first #feesmustfall movement took place about 2000 years ago, when a woodcutter called Hillel found he did not have enough money to pay for his entrance to the House of Study (called the Bet Midrash) in Jerusalem where the great Rabbis studied Torah. At the time, the great teachers Shmaya and Avtalyon presided over the Bet Midrash and as legend narrates, Hillel would use half his daily wages to feed his family and the other half to enter the House of Study and drink from the wisdom of Torah. When he didn’t have enough money that particular wintry day, he climbed the walls of the study house to the roof and leaned in through the chimney, listening to the words of the esteemed teachers through the night. In the morning, the Rabbis noticed that the usual morning light was not streaming in from their chimney. They looked up and noticed a human form curled over the chimney. A snow storm had fallen through the night and when they retrieved the frozen body of Hillel, he was lying under 1.5 metres of snow. As they warmed his body around their fire, it was decided to abolish the entrance fee to the House of Study. #feesmustfall circa 60 BCE.

The story of Hillel leaves us with something almost mythical. I like to imagine that when the Rabbis, sitting and studying the lofty ideas about ethics, God and destiny, looked up and saw a human form in their chimney, there was a moment of epiphany. They saw that all their beautiful ideas, their insights, were for naught in relation to the human being in the chimney. Hillel the woodcutter became a mirror to the Rabbis. He showed them that academic learning can’t be elitist. It must be linked to praxis and ethics. We are taught, ‘learn, in order to teach, in order to do’

Hillel went on to become one of the great sages of our early oral tradition. His way of ruling influenced the Jewish paradigm. He was renowned for qualities of leniency and compassion (in comparison to the strict Shammai) and so the woodcutter on the chimney came to influence the way Jewish life and law unfolded.

I love this story. For obvious reasons. I can cry when I think of Hillel climbing the roof on a winter’s day to listen in to the words of the Rabbis, just as I cry when I think of Wandi with his bananas and his thirst for learning. There is often such a profound disconnect between the academies of higher learning where we indulge in abstract theory and the lives of the people who interface with those institutions.

Still. And this may make me unpopular. But Hillel’s method was different from our modern #feesmustfall. He didn’t call for a shut down of all learning. Hillel wanted to learn, but he wasn’t going to destroy the house of study if he was denied access. He was going to find a way to learn, no matter what. In putting education first, his actions changed the whole policy. I’m not suggesting students climb onto the roof of Central Block and listen in on the great secrets of the humanities. That’s just not practical. But something about this ancient story and the values it represents might shed some light on the modern iteration of #feesmustfall.

Jewish people are often referred to as people of the Book. We revere the Torah scroll as an object of great sacredness. Containing the Five Books of Moses, if someone drops a Torah scroll, the entire community must fast or give charity. We keep the Torah lovingly and reverently behind a curtain in a holy Ark and when we take it out, we stand up. The Jewish people’s awe for sacred writing translates to books. When I was in Grade One, I was given my first three books; a book of Genesis in Hebrew, a Hebrew prayer book and a book of Psalms. My teacher explained to us that when we placed the books in our locker, we had to place them in order of sacred importance. The Psalms was at the bottom of the pile, the prayer book in the middle and the book of Genesis on top. The order was counterintuitive. You see, the book of Psalms was physically smaller than the prayer book and the prayer book was diminutive compared to the book of Genesis. Every day I would have to do a special balancing act placing the books from bottom to top so that they balanced in spiritual symmetry, against the laws of physics and gravity. If we dropped a book, we would pick it up and kiss it. And we never placed a book facing down.

Some of you might read this with indulgent amusement, ‘the obsessive book antics of the religious’. Let me fast forward. When I studied in New York, I became friends with a rabbinical student who introduced me to the American poetry of Stanley Kunitz and Mary Oliver. We would read poetry together and after reading a poem, my friend Rabbi Lauren would kiss the poetry and say, ‘you should kiss holy words’. Her wise recognition that all words of wisdom should be acknowledged with the gratitude of a kiss made me suddenly want to kiss a whole lot of books. You don’t have to agree with everything inside, but books are sacred. If they advance our consciousness in any way, there is much to appreciate in books. Besides no one ever got educated by reading only the books that concur with their opinions. In 1998, I spent a year in Jerusalem. I was a little nervous that I would get sucked into the vortex of fundamentalism that can circle around those parts. And so I brought books with me, books by Toni Morrison, books on post-colonial theory, J.M Coetzee, William Faulkner. I would walk the streets of Jerusalem, fascinated by the sights and sounds, the politics, the religiosities. But at the gym, I would read post-colonial theory and I would be reminded of a world beyond the beautiful,white stone of Jerusalem. Books have saved me, over and over again. I kiss their holy words.  I saw that at Wits, some students found some ‘fallists’ in the Matrix trying to burn some books and the students told them simply, ‘don’t burn them, read them’. I couldn’t agree more. I cannot think of a more powerful protest to education denied, than climbing up to the top of the chimney and learning anyway. When you revere books, you don’t throw faeces in the library. You occupy the library. You move in, you dust the books and you read the books!

Universities tend to be very focused on the status of academics. It’s a vertical culture. There are students and there are lecturers. There are assistant professors, full professors, there’s emeritus. There’s the hallowed and understandably desired status of tenure. The traditional mode of study in Judaism is both vertical and horizontal. In one respect, there is huge respect given to the Rabbis and teachers who precede us. It is hard if not impossible to overturn the rulings of previous generations and there is huge authority invested in the patriarchal trajectory of learning. That’s part of the legacy us Jewish moderns are working with today. We have our own decolonization work cut out for us. It sets up a wonderful challenge for the feminists among us, not to mention the universalists who rail against particularism, the LGBTQ community who challenge the hetero-normativity, and those who challenge the seeming rigidity of the law. Decolonization much?! But it isn’t all vertical and top down. There’s another method of learning in Judaism. Everyone in the House of Study has a study partner or chevruta. Chevruta, which comes from the ancient Aramaic means ‘friendship’ or if you will allow the association, ‘Comrade’. A Chevruta is part friend, part opponent, part teacher, part student, part therapist, part shadow. You and your chevruta approach each page of the book you are learning together. You learn together, you grapple together, you offer different interpretations and solutions to the same problem. In between, you talk about your life, you get irritated with each other, you stare into each other’s eyes as you try to figure out what a sentence means, you fall in love with each other. The Western university is impoverished by not having the Chevruta system. Chevruta balances the top down method of the lecturer and professor. It means that half the work is done already before you go to class, because you’ve sat with your study partner and grappled with the text in a depth that you won’t approach with all the expertise in the world of the lecturer. Chevruta is empowering.

There are already multiple, conflicting narratives colliding in this mess of #feesmustfall. There are reports of students burning property, throwing rocks, threatening the lives of workers, intimidating students, punching vice-chancellors, throwing faeces into libraries, disrupting academic programmes. There are reports of police brutality, shootings, stun grenades, rife arrests. There’s so much anger. There’s racist rhetoric on all sides. There’s fear. There’s even the shadow of Hitler veneration among some leaders. It’s hard if not impossible to know exactly what’s going on. All ‘sides’ are responsible. In many ways, we are all responsible. But tonight I am talking to #feesmustfall. A huge amount of power lies in your hands. A huge responsibility.

I don’t know if the fallists want the support of the world, of the larger South African public. I don’t know if they care what I think about this uprising some two km from where I live. But, when I think of people excluded from higher education on all levels, when I hear about the modern Hillels not allowed into the house of study, I desperately want to get behind this movement of questioning, brave, revolutionaries. Hate me if you will for what I am about to say next: Your movement becomes tainted when violence and intimidation creeps in. It becomes tainted when you burn the books. It loses nuance. So, I am offering a challenge. An invitation. Let the revolution embody the education you desire.

What if all the fallists formed chevruta, or study partners and sat in pairs, in a formation from the concourse at Wits all the way down to the library lawns. What if you all studied Homi Bhaba or  Kwame Anthony Appiah in chevruta? What if you arranged yourselves from first year through Honours and worked through your various curricula in study partners so that if we looked from space we would see bodies leaning towards each other, in conversation, in gesticulation, in exclamation, in education? Academics and non-protesting students would be confronted with these images every single day as they walked across campus. Students sitting next to and opposite each other over books might not give the media the blood some of them are after. But it would give them art and subtlety. It would give them tears. It would raise consciousness. What if you did this every single day at designated times? We need a Hillel moment, we need the morning to come, we need to be confronted with the body curled around the chimney. Can this revolution bring us together instead of slicing us apart?

I don’t know if you care or you don’t care. But if the value of education could rise, creatively to the top of this battle and the violence could recede, I would join you with my two little children. We would bring our books and we would sit and learn and read and cry with you until this country wakes up. I dare say, I think thousands of others would come too. You’d get a wave behind you, of local and international support. I’ve read some of the polarizing rhetoric in this battle. I know I for example am perceived as the other. I am white. I am Jewish. I am privileged, yes. I can’t be but what I am. I am challenging you and you are challenging me. Can we look to each other in all our hard and challenging differences and see also humanity? Can we join you as you create one of the most powerful moments in South African history? Can we use it for creation and life and words and learning? Can we kiss the books, not burn them? If I am not for myself, then who am I? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, then when?

The Holiday Orgasm

We’re back in the crunch of the third term.  And the coastal getaway feels like it was – scratch the was- it feels like it never happened.    The truth is, this was the first time that we had ever gone down to the coast during our winter break.  In  Johannesburg, the fashion du jour is to  go to a town called Umhlanga which is just north of our port city Durban. It’s like the Hamptons by the sea.  We booked into a little self catering cottage a five minute drive from the  main holiday area so that we could dip into the social scene if we wanted, and retreat to some privacy when needed.

One of my favourite parts of a holiday is discovering new routes and views for jogging.  I’m not what anyone would call a runner. Twelve years of religious schooling ensured that I am much more likely to choose a Mishnah class over a marathon.  But as I’ve described elsewhere, moving more into my body has been an important part of my adult life. And I love running. Particularly running on the road. Connecting with nature. Panting. Heaving. Pushing into my hamstrings on an uphill and enjoying the free fall of grace on a downhill.  And there is not much that rivals with the feeling at the end of a run. I had heard about the famous Umhlanga promenade and on  our first day in town, I took myself there for a run. I was a little nervous that the run would turn into a ‘hello howzit’ scene but I managed to tune my ear plugs in and the social chatter out. Between my music and the sea views, I was in heaven.

 

view run umhlagan
View first morning, overcast and dreamy

At the end of the run, I ubered back to our cottage.  And when I got back, my husband  revealed something to me. You see,  early that morning he had nipped out for a cup of coffee. But his regular coffee shop was closed and so perchance he had found a bakery. At the bakery (yes, this build up is necessary), he had tasted the very best croissant of his entire life.  Yes, that’s a lot of croissants to compare in his forty something odd years.

Now, me, I’m not a croissant girl. I don’t know what this says about my karma, my neurosis, or my personal proclivities, but generally I am a chocolate cake kind of person. In fact, I will pass on a croissant any day. It might be that a nutritionist once said to me that she had seen the blobs of butter that pastry chefs dollop onto each sheet of pastry. I admit, the thought of that butter might have scared me.   It might also be the general absence of icing on a croissant but it has often felt to me like a ‘why bother’ kind of phenomenon. But this croissant looked different. It had a certain kind of je ne sais quoi quality and I had just been on a five km run. So I pour myself a mug of tea and take my first bite- ohmygod. Look, I know there are much more important things happening in the world at the moment. We are at this incredible moment between the sublime (our first ever woman president in the US) and the ridiculous (a clown occupying that self-same position).  But there was nothing finer I had ever tasted than those delicately crafted, thin yet firm layers of pastry, filled with a most abundant amount of almond paste in the centre and  a fine smattering of toasted almonds on top generously ‘glued’ on with even more almond paste. On top of it all, there’s a subtle  rainfall of icing snow. It was perfect. I ate the half my husband had left for me and somehow between the waves, the sun, the presence of family, the incredible five km run and the fact that I was putting on my bathing suit, mini skirt and uggs for the beach, but I was able to put the scary thought of butter out of my head. No… the croissant was nourishing, sensual and utterly satisfying. It made me decide that if possible, one should never eat anything unless it is absolutely delicious.

The next day, my morning ritual was planned. I would go on another five km run along the promenade. Hoping to repeat the same magic formula, I prayed that I would return home to another half croissant. Or if not, perhaps I could go to the ‘place’ where this thing had been discovered and acquire one myself. Enter Old Town Italy.

 

promenade run
Promenade Run Day 2

Imagine arriving at a restaurant and seeing the most incredible gelato ever. You walk in further and see cakes the likes of which surpass your greatest Magnolia bakery fantasy. Breads, kitkes, ciabattas. A fresh fruit juice bar. Organic vegetables on display for sale. Artisanal pesto sauces and espresso being sold to discerning customers. You walk further in and find a patisserie that sets the mind a goggle. Croissants, cronuts, canollis, puddings, trifles, all manner of biscuit, cake and tart.  Everything looks delicious. I am almost in a swoon.

kitke old town italy

cronuts
Cronuts of such girth and givingness

 

vanilla chocolate peanut butter cake
I didn’t get to taste this. But I certainly admired it.

And then, I hear that the almond croissants are sold out. Sold out? Do you have any idea what kind of orgasmic croissant experience I had yesterday morning? ‘Sorry honey’, the patissier explained. ‘But our almond croissants get sold out early in the morning’. So on day two, I had to settle for a custard croissant. Settle isn’t the right word. Imagine  not getting  a foot rub but getting an incredible back rub instead. I know. You’re crying for me. The custard oozed out of this delicately prepared morsel. Morsel isn’t quite the right word, because of the croissant’s size and generosity.  It’s like this.  It was big in stature but delicate in its composition and refinement. Like the Pope. Taking up space in the world, but composed of  subtle ideas.

custard croissant old town italy
These croissants ooze so much custard, they would offend a Victorian.
custard croissant inside old town italy
It might seem immodest, but I am sharing the centre of my custard croissant.

 

And so, my friends, our holiday unfolded. It doesn’t really matter what else happened in the day. We beached, we swam, we saw friends, we painted on the beach, we played with our kids, we bonded, we laughed, we ran to public toilets when our kids needed to pee. It was perfect in all ways possible.  But what stays with me were my five km runs and then my half a croissant from Old Town Italy with a meditative cup of Five Roses Tea.

family time ballito

almond croissant
Revealing the almond croissant in all its splendour

 

Which brings me to my next point. We returned. To life in Johannesburg. To school routines. To early morning wake-ups and anxieties about play dates.  And amidst and in-between work and school and rest and play, I am looking for a Jozi croissant that comes near to my Umhlanga experience. And at first glance, they don’t measure up. They don’t look fresh enough, light enough, abundantly filled enough with almond paste or chocolate or custard. I’ve walked around the bakeries and patisseries. I have bought…nothing.  I don’t need to go around tasting them. I can tell really, at first glance what a croissant promises. And the results have not been satisfactory.  I was in some wonder. How could it be that Johannesburg, a city five times the size of Durban, can not contain a patisserie of the same quality and old school grandeur as Old Town Italy?  I tried to describe to a fellow Jozi-friend my dilemma. I explained  the level of croissant I was looking for and after we discussed the high level croissants at the Westcliff and Moemas and even Vovo-tello,  he wisely said: maybe you aren’t searching for that croissant but for the perfect experience of your holiday around which your croissant was centred. Profound.

ballito view
Looking for Ballito in Jozi

I thought back. I remembered waking up. Playing with my kids. Ubering to the promenade. Running along the sea, with kugels and dog-walkers and moms and dads pushing their kids in prams and everyone in between. I remember coming home, showering and putting on my winter beach clothes, an old, ‘can’tletgoyet’ denim mini skirt and ugg boots. I remember getting my kids ready, packing a picnic and saying, ‘OK guys, let’s get out of here’. I then remember, in that glow of holiday jogs and sexiness and delightsomeness, heading out for my croissant en route to the beach. There was no other taste. And maybe there was no other taste because I was in an Umhlanga state of mind.

beachwear
Umhlanga state of mind (taken at Ballito, but still)

After I recapped this to the same profound friend, he kind of went weird on me and, with not enough bashfulness, he suggested that perhaps  my croissant glow came from more than just a five km run. He suggested that perhaps I loved almond croissants in Umhlanga because holiday-mode me was simply getting more lovin’ from my husband. How….indelicate a suggestion, when I am just talking about a croissant here! I have two small children. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to link the two.  And besides, who says that a faint glow of the brow and a glisten in the eye can’t come from a croissant and a jog and a little bit of mid-winter sunshine? But I take his point. When you are relaxed enough and have time enough to enjoy life’s pleasures, it makes all the difference. Back in Jo’burg, am I going to drop my kids at school and in between work, cooking and wiping someone’s bum, am I going to eat an obscenely generous croissant? Perhaps now and then…but not daily.   But maybe, just maybe, one Sunday morning when I’m not teaching b’nei mitzvah, I will go for a run and go to Moemas, my favourite Jo’burg Patisserie ….and…then  aaah…followed by some more….and then….mmmmmmm. Afterglow.

afterglow
Afterglow

 

 

 

 

Clarens and the end of the ‘titty’ era

Some of you might think that I just insert breasts wherever I can as a selling point for my blog. It’s not true. When I went away with my husband to celebrate our eleventh wedding anniversary, there was some trepidation. Because I was still breastfeeding my three year old.  How would he survive two nights without ‘titty’? If I analysed it too much, I would never leave him.  But  we needed to get away, just the two of us,  and so we went.

The Maluti Mountains, the National Golden Gate Park and the town of Clarens are secret treasures some three hours from Jo’burg. Ever since they’ve been doing those awful road works in the Northern Berg by the Sterkfontein  Damn, it’s become harder  and longer to get to my favourite place in the world. But the beauty of the Maluti mountains is great compensation.

maluti view

We arrived at about two pm and immediately headed out from the Golden Gate Park Tourist Centre, on a  walk called Mushroom Rock. It’s an hour long and  someone had been so very considerate to put up a sign confirming our moment of arrival.

End Point Mushroom rock

 

Mushroom Rock is a gorgeous piece of pink – grey rock  that feels as if it belongs in the grandeur of Lord of the Rings. On our way to to rock we saw a small brown snake sitting in the sun alongside our path which obliged us by staying still so we could do a photo shoot.

mushroom rockSnake

The guides had clearly assumed that people walk very slowly as the hour long Mushroom Rock took us about half the time and so we headed out on another trail called Echo Ravine.  Echo Ravine took us through a small forest and into a grotto where sure enough, our shouts reverberated back to us. The winter had brought masses of yellow leaves into a dry driver bed and so we walked along  the river and into the ravine with a whistling wind gathering above us. Deep in the ravine we sat together, meditated for a few minutes and sang a song that  for some reason we sing wherever we hike. It’s from Psalms and we sing it in a slow mantra ‘Mah Gadlu Ma’asecha Yah, Me’od Amku Machshevotecha’ ‘How great are Your deeds, God, how deep are Your thoughts’.

Echo Ravine

When my husband booked our retreat as our surprise anniversary gift, he hadn’t realised that our holiday in nature was a ten minute drive from Clarens.  But as soon as I worked out the GPS details of where we were, I figured there was really ‘fine dining’ ten minutes away in Clarens and what’s more, it was an artsy town with a foodie culture.  We read reviews of the top ten restaurants in Clarens and we booked in to one that night called Clementines. I’ve already written about the wonderful surprise I received there. But  beyond engagement rings and romantic proposals, Clarens is delightful. It is  a cultural paradox in the Free State to find an artsy town with craft beer and artisanal bakeries, crowded with tourists on an out of season Monday. Upon arrival, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in SoHo or Williamsburg.

hipsters
Hipsters drink craft beer on main square in Clarens
We roamed art galleries, looking at paintings and sculptures. We met jewellery artisans and  got a sense of the local politics.

Freedom Frton

I sampled some of the best melk tert I have ever tasted at the Courtyard Bakery and Cafe while Farryl ate the best spinach and feta pancake of his life.

melk tert

We also discovered a painter by the name of Pieter van Der  Westhuizen who spent some time in Israel and has made some evocative etchings around the Jewish festivals and life cycle events.

But mostly we did hiking.  Our first morning after a good night sleep, ensconced in the electric blanket,  we aimed to do a  four hour hike called the Wodehouse trail. It started with some steep rock climbing, relying on chains to haul us up. Everything was going fine until one of the poles embedded in the rock wobbled and seemed unstable. When you are throwing your entire weight onto a chain that is hauling you up a sheer rock face at a ninety degree angle, you want to know that your poles are bedded deep and firm in the mountain. It was, to say the least,  unnerving. I suppose for all my bravado about how much I love hiking, I need to acknowledge that I am a Jewish hiker. It’s really a paradox. Picture Woody Allen in the mountains. I suppose this confession is necessary for what came next on the Wodehouse trail.  The next phase of the hike was not well signposted. My husband and I found ourselves skirting a narrow path along a mountain with a crazily sheer fall beneath us. We were hugging the long grass on the one side of the path and trying not to make eye contact with the drop that faced us on the other.  We continued this way,  bravely, courageously, like Vikings,  for about four metres. At which point I reminded said husband that we had two small children waiting for us at home. So we returned to  a main path and proceeded to simply bundu bash our way up the mountain in the hope of meeting the Wodehouse path again. Up and up we went through grass and over rock until we arrived at a very high peak. But there was no path. And there was no Wodehouse.  So we sat on said peak. Conversed for a little about how ‘it’s not the destination but the journey that matters’. And then made our way down.  On our way down, we came across a small flight of stairs just before the dangerously narrow path  which we had missed. We took these stairs and saw a sign saying ‘Wodehouse’.  It seems we were meant to go down these stairs and not along the narrow escarpment. If we were real hikers we would probably have continued on to Wodehouse but two hours into our hike, we decided to call it a day. We walked across a bridge  with a dangerously missing piece in the middle and reflected that the Golden Gate Park could do with some signage and general upgrades.

broken bridge

The following day, our last in the bush, we phoned a local farmer who advertised trails on the main road and we asked if he had a two hour trail for us to walk on our way back to Jo’Burg.  He said he did and so it was that at seven thirty am, amidst the mist of a winter morning we found ourselves meeting a farmer by the name of  Christo on his  Bokpoort Farm. He  pointed out a two hour trail we could walk and then left us to it.  His two dogs accompanied us for the walk and  it was very beautiful to soak up the nature and the place even though I ended up tearing my uniqlo jacket on a piece of barbed wire. When we returned, triumphant to the farm, we saw that Christo was girded up with four of his friends to go hunting for the morning. They had come out in full hunting regalia,  Texan hats, mustaches and all.  It was a teensy bit jarring for me, a sort of meat eater with vegetarian sympathies.

farm walk

After the hike, we stopped in at Clarens one last time and sampled the Highlands Coffee. From a food perspective, it felt as if you could get the very best of everything in Clarens. I mean even the honey they serve with their cappacinnos is pure and not the artificial drek we get in most restaurants in Jozi. What’s up with that!

peels

We drove back to Jo’burg. We had hiked, we had galleried, we had eaten well. There was really just the question about what would my son do when he saw me. Would he immediately ask for ‘titty’? On the way home, my husband goaded me, ‘ enough with the breastfeeding already. Put your foot down (or your top, as the case may be). He doesn’t need it anymore. He has been fine for two days. Stop titty now’. And so I firmed my resolve not to give my three year old titty.  We arrived home and when son asked for titty I told him a mountain fairy had taken away my milk. There was crying. There were tantrums. There have been many questions like, ‘Has the fairy returned your milk yet?’.  No Adam, the fairy has not given me my milk back. The mountain fairy has taken my milk forever.   Generally he has coped. We’ve used lots of TV and lots of biscuits in the weaning process.  And then, there’s the other coping mechanism he has developed. You see,  every morning when he wakes up, he  asks if he can just ‘hold’ my titty. Hold it? You mean as in clutch? No, it’s really just a gentle sort of reminder, a connection.  I mean…. what’s a girl to do!  So I allow him to put his hands on my breasts. It gets a bit awkward because my husband thinks the titties are his again now that  breastfeeding is over. So at times, there’s one small hand on the left and a larger, hairier hand on the right.   No, I won’t share a picture of that.