On the right hand lintel of the front doors of the houses of most Jews I know is a mezuzzah, a little tube with a particular Biblical quote in it handwritten by a professional scribe in Hebrew letters. Visiting Lithuania some years ago it was heartbreaking to see the shadows of mezuzzahs on the paintwork of old houses taken over during the Holocaust.
But it’s pretty odd really. Why is the scroll handwritten when nobody will ever read it? And why… But every religion has its idiosyncrasies which make no sense to outsiders. In the Jewish world the more Orthodox you are the more rules you follow and the more odd these appear to outsiders and even other Jews.
Into the world of Jewish Orthodoxy steps JS Margot, a 20 year old student, employed to do some home tutoring for a middle-class Belgian Orthodox Jewish family. That itself would be unusual. She had no previous connection to the Jewish world and hadn’t a clue about the life she was walking into. Surprisingly, she stayed for years and years, becoming a family friend.
Of course she gets things wrong, but this isn’t a book of humorous interludes (though there are some). She also disagrees with the family in their Zionism (not, by the way, a position at all universally held by Orthodox Jews) and finds the actions of the Israeli government and troops upsetting. She gets to understand anti-Semitism, but the most interesting part of the book is her reflections on her own life. She is a modern woman, has boyfriend trouble, true, but initially sees her modernity as better than their traditional life. Yet over the years, struggling financially and emotionally she finds herself more sympathetic to that other world especially when she is adrift in her own.
No, she does not convert, nor fall in love, and is still bemused and at times angered by what she sees. But her unlikely closeness to the family gives her an insight into a world that neither expects or wants our interest or understanding. The author is constantly discovering more. The eruv for example, “a ritual enclosure of a specific domain” – in this case, and uniquely, the domain is the the whole of Antwerp which turns that public space into a private space. Thus, on the Jewish sabbath, “certain strictly defined actions were permissible: carrying a baby, carrying shopping, pushing a pram…” because a boundary had been created, an enclosure sealed by overhead wires joining other physical boundaries. Without the eruv Orthodox Jews could not do any of these activities on their sabbath. Margot writes, bemused, “I didn’t know what to think of the eruv.” Don’t even think about the dietary rules. But she has to.
There’s a form of “orientalism” in the way the black-hatted Jewish men and their modestly-dressed wives and large families in Stamford Hill in London (or in Antwerp, the setting of this book) are seen. There’s certainly a lot of interest – Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (a novel that became a film) in which an Orthodox rabbi’s married daughter has a forbidden lesbian relationship had a big circulation a few years back. Currently the book and film covering related ground is Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, which describes her journey in leaving the Satmar Hassidic group. Feldman provides a cover quote for Mazel Tov, thus linking the two books.
If there is a tendency to read books like these and feel a bit voyeuristic, Margot covers our back here as the book is as much about her as it is about the family she befriends.
Mazel Tov, by the way, means “congratulations”, a Yiddish phrase used by religious and secular Jews. Margot and her translator can be congratulated on an excellent and accessible read.