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Interview: Eve Harris

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 | Permalink

by Shira Schindel

Eve Harris's debut novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, was published in April by Grove Press/Black Cat.

Shira Schindel: You’ve talked about your personal connection to Judaism and in particular your spirituality. Was some of the religious frustration you explored in the book also personal to you?

Eve Harris: Well, I am spiritual but I’m not religious, because it was not my upbringing. My father came to England when he was ten years old as a Holocaust refugee. My mom was born right after the war in Poland, and on both sides my grandparents were survivors. My father wasn’t in the camps, but he was in hiding. In the past I believe my family was religious, but we’re no longer a religious family because of these experi­ences, because of the Holocaust. My brother and I were brought up with Shabbos dinners and we kept major holidays, like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, but we were a very secular household. I was also brought up in West London, where there are very few Jewish people. I think that had an effect on me. I had to work hard to find Jewish friends, and to make sure to meet a Jewish partner. In some ways I think I missed out on a lot.

SS: Was it a culture shock for you to then enter the private Haredi girls’ school where you once taught English and Drama?

EH: Yes. When I got the job at this really religious school—which became part of the inspiration for the book—it gave me a fly on the wall view of a world that I would never have glimpsed if I hadn’t been teaching there. That year was truly transitional for me. I’m not saying I became more religious in the sense of keeping more observances; I didn’t, but it was fascinating.

As a teacher I was expected to dress according to Haredi Jewish custom while on school property. I got married that year as well, and once I was married I was expected to cover my hair on school grounds, which I did. It always felt a bit like playing Wonder Woman, because after school I would take off my hat, whip off my headscarf, and look like my normal self again. As I was going on the train toward my stop, away from the school, I would feel more and more relieved. I often felt like I was playing a part.

SS: In what way did that year inspire you to write this book?

EH: While I was teaching at the school I’d often walk with teachers into Golders Green, and people would tell me things. I soaked it up like a sponge. I had no intention of writing a book at that point, but I found it interesting and I just listened. Maybe it was easy for them to talk to me because I was an outsider. But there are no secrets in the book.

One thing I learned is it can seem very calm and perfect in this com­munity, like everyone has their roles to play and behaves in a certain way. But there’s also a lot of frustration, and I wanted to write the book to reflect how human it was. Even underneath the veneer of perfection, even with the framework these individuals can fall back on when times are bad, it’s not easy there either, and these are just human beings struggling. I think it can be hard to see ultra-Orthodox Jews as people with the same types of human frustrations you experience. I’ve tried hard to give my characters depth, and to have compassion for them, so that they will seem real.

SS: Now that the book has been published, have frum (religious) readers reached out to you?

EH: When the book first came out there were some invitations to Shabbos dinners! One girl had gone to the school where I taught, and wrote to say that I had it spot on. We met for coffee. She’s not frum anymore. She said to me that while reading it she did a two-day cringe-binge. I had a few emails like that. Nobody likes a mirror being held up to him or herself. But it’s not a documentary. It’s a book. A piece of fiction, and it’s supposed to be entertaining. So, make of it what you will.

SS: What do you think Rivka would be doing now, a couple of years later?

EH: I think Rivka’s probably at home. It’s evening now in London. I reckon she’s got a really nice flat just a few miles down the road from her kids in Golders Green. And I think she’s making her eve­ning meal. She still can’t bring herself to eat treif. She’s probably got the radio on, or her computer on. She might be working on something. I don’t think she’s back in the community, but I think she’s always got that pull-push with the community. I think she’s definitely got her hair down and she’s wearing some jeans! I don’t see her going back. She’ll never be the same person she was before she entered that world.

Shira Schindel is the head of Content and Acquisitions at Qlovi, an education technology startup accelerating literacy in K-12 classrooms. She formerly worked in the literary department at ICM Partners, and studied creative writing at Columbia University.

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The Things I Miss About Israel

Friday, April 11, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eve Harris shared her experiences in a Charedi school in London that informed her debut novel The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I made aliyah in 1999 at the age of 25 and lived in Jerusalem for a year, and then for two years in Tel Aviv, working as an English teacher in high schools. I returned to London in 2002 for a break, feeling very burnt out by the intensity of life that is Israel. I needed to recharge my batteries and make a decision about whether living in Israel was really for me. I ended up being offered my old teaching job back at a girls’ Catholic Convent school. I realised at the same time how much I missed the breadth and variety that London has to offer, and its solidity—which is no small thing, having just spent two years living through the second Intifada. Then I met my husband so my fate was decided. While I love Israel deeply and go back to visit nearly every year, there are still a few things I continue to miss about the country:

  • The smell of baked tarmac and hot, moist earth the minute you step off the plane
  • The fact that December 25th is just another ordinary, sunny day
  • The road signs that loom out of nowhere in the desert for places called Sodom and Lot
  • The brilliant, white curves of restored Bauhaus buildings against an azure sky in Tel Aviv
  • The fading, crumbling colonial gems that appear like ghosts flitting between modern blocks, down narrow forgotten streets in South Tel Aviv
  • The existence of Modern Hebrew everywhere—screaming billboards, shop signs, radio jingles, the language of the street and the courtroom, of commerce and of lovers, of politicians and mothers
  • Eating chunks of sweet, fleshy watermelon mixed with salty feta cheese at a café on the beach at midnight—my toes in the sand
  • The sultry scent of oleander, its waxy flowers adding another ingredient to the olfactory explosion that is a Tel Aviv summer night
  • The sweet relief of rain after the relentless barrage of summer
  • The old, wooden poles that support loops of ugly electric cable that hum at night in Neveh Tsedek
  • The screeching of stray cats pursuing their amorous adventures at the back of every apartment block
  • The bliss of stepping into the cool, quiet luxury of air-conditioning
  • The blinding, biblical sunlight that strips the world of colour at midday that can’t be found anywhere else
  • The ancient city of Jerusalem with all its secrets, curses and shadows
  • The modern bubble of Tel Aviv with all its vim and vigour and love of youth and hedonism
  • The quiet and peace that steals over both cities just before sundown on Friday
  • The old, moss covered sycamore trees that look like old men with beards that line Rotschild Boulevard and the fruit bats that live in their branches and haunt your peripheral vision with their silent swooping
  • The smell of hot pine resin and crushed pine needles from the little playground where I used to play as a child near my grandparents’ house
  • The knowledge that if England were to ever throw me out for being a ‘dirty Jew,' I would always have a home

Eve Harris was born to Israeli-Polish parents in Chiswick, West London, in 1973. She taught for 12 years at inner-city comprehensives and independent schools in London and also in Tel Aviv, after moving to Israel in 1999. She returned to London in 2002 to resume teaching at an all girls' Catholic convent school. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was inspired by her final year of teaching at an all girls' ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in North West London. Eve lives in London with her husband, Jules, and their daughter Rosie.

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A Glimpse into the English Charedi School System

Wednesday, April 09, 2014 | Permalink

Eve Harris was born to Israeli-Polish parents in Chiswick, West London, in 1973. She taught for 12 years at inner-city comprehensives and independent schools in London and also in Tel Aviv, after moving to Israel in 1999. She returned to London in 2002 to resume teaching at an all girls' Catholic convent school. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was inspired by her final year of teaching at an all girls' ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in North West London. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.

The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately - long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births.

After a successful interview with the headmistress, I was offered the job. I won’t name it, but it is a private day school attended by 300 girls from North West London aged between 11 and 18. It is one of many such schools to be found across the UK. The mood inside was completely alien to any educational establishment I’d entered previously – quiet, calm and dignified, more like a place of worship than four walls containing hundreds of hormonal teens.

The girls here, though, were different, inhabiting a tiny bubble constructed for them by their community. Banned from going on the internet, reading unsanctioned books and newspapers, or listening to the radio. Jeans and make-up are taboo and boyfriends are completely unheard of. The television in particular is regarded as ‘a sewer in the living room’. No girl is accepted by the school unless her parents first sign an agreement that they don’t own one of these demonic sets. This censorship is so successful that not one of my pupils had heard of Madonna, Rihanna or Beyoncé. They are vigilantly protected from the hyper-sexualisation of the modern world we’re so used to that it’s become the norm. The result is a childhood preserved and extended to its full limits, not curtailed by worldly knowledge of adult things. What struck me most profoundly in those first few weeks, as I compared the girls to the numerous twelve and thirteen year-olds I’d taught (some of whom had had children at that age), was that at 12, 13, 14, 15 these girls are still innocent, living the lives of Enid Blyton characters in the 21st Century. And it was beautiful. They were vivacious and lively; not downtrodden, meek or mild, but bursting with life, and generally very happy.

The curriculum was divided into two balanced strands. Kodesh, or Jewish studies, which included Torah, Jewish ethics, philosophy and prayers. The other strand was Chol, or secular studies, including English, maths, science, French, history, Yiddish, sewing and cooking. The last two might sound backwards to our ears, but actually, I came to think it was fantastic. Ultra-Orthodox families are so large – having twelve children is common – that knowing how to churn out nutritious food and mend hand-me-down clothes is a crucial life skill.

The entire curriculum, however, was heavily censored, which often made teaching difficult. Whole pages of the biology textbook were glued together or ripped out. Art books containing pictures of Boticelli or Michelangelo nudes were covered in white stickers to block out breasts or genitalia. The selection of English literature texts that wasn’t deemed impure was miniscule. The Year 7s were taught Heidi, because once you begin to look, there’s hardly a poem or novel that doesn’t make reference to sex or have inappropriate language. Romeo & Juliet was out, due to its steamy love scenes, as were Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Tempest, because they involve love stories and sex. Macbeth and Julius Caesar however, full of murder and violence, were fine! Even Harry Potter was frowned upon for being too magical and worldly. So we studied Wind in the Willows, Roar of Thunder Hear My Cry, Kindertransport, and Journey’s End. Over and over again. Despite this, the girl’s results were impressive. They loved English because it was a porthole onto the outside world.

Everything I taught had to be sanctioned by the head of department, and I got into trouble on numerous occasions. I was once teaching an illustrated and annotated version of Julius Caesar to a group of 14-year-olds, when one put up her hand and said ‘Miss, are we supposed to be looking at this picture? I don’t think it’s appropriate’. I looked down and saw an inch-high cartoon of a man wearing a loincloth, representing the Colossus of Rhodes. I thought nothing of it, and said ‘what’s wrong with him?’ and she, grinning like a Cheshire cat, said ‘he’s immodest!’ I took it straight to the head of department, who promptly collected every copy in the school and together, using black marker pens, we hurriedly gave each Colossus a t-shirt and shorts.

On another occasion, I was scuppered by a William Blake poem, "London," which contains the word ‘harlot’. The head of English told me she had to keep the word in because it would be in their GCSE exam, but that I should be very careful to gloss over it. If they asked what it meant, I was to say ‘like the fallen women in the Torah’. My pupils were very academic and ambitious and they all wanted A grades, so I knew this sketchy cop-out wouldn’t suffice. Sure enough, they pressed me, and I found myself explaining that it meant ‘a woman who sells her body for money to survive’. They wrote it down word for word. Later that day, one girl’s father looked at her notes and wrote a stinking letter saying ‘why is Mrs Harris teaching this filth to my child?’ The head of department was furious. She had to pull the poem from the curriculum. It was another text lost.

In a similar vein, the girls have little scope for self-expression – the uniform of long sleeves and long skirts mimics the same muted colours and conservative clothes they will wear as adult women. Save for one difference – once married, the majority will wear wigs, allowing only their husbands to see their natural hair. A woman’s hair is a symbol of her sexual attraction and a married woman should only display it in the privacy of the marital bedroom. This lesson was firmly drummed into the girls once a year when the school held its annual ‘modesty campaign’, consisting of a week-long marathon of DVDs and sermons from various female figures of authority on the importance of buttoning up and covering one’s hair.

On one occasion, I found myself sitting in a school assembly listening to a woman tell the girls that a married Jewish woman who allows even a strand of hair to show is responsible for the sins of the world. I was wearing a headscarf that partially covered my real hair. Other secular members of staff were wearing hats. Some of the girls turned around to gawp. I remember feeling embarrassed and extremely irritated. The lack of respect that is sometimes shown for Jews who are not Orthodox is distasteful. Some of them would not even consider a woman like me to be Jewish.

Teenagers are renowned for their propensity to rebellion, but attempts at defection were surprisingly rare. I heard that one girl was expelled from the school for wearing jeans at the weekend, and another for climbing out of her bedroom window to meet a boy. The majority, however, comply, I believe, simply because they’re happy. They know they’re going to get married and they don’t have to worry about money. They don’t have to worry about loneliness either and their sense of family, community and friendship are incomparable. They know what is expected of them and they’re content.

Their view of our society is that we’re living in sexualised chaos, where everything is allowed and there is no respect or family life. They look at the outside world and think we’re in hell, that we’ve got it all wrong. They call us ‘the goyim’, a derogatory Hebrew term for ‘the others’. They believe that the messiah is coming, and soon, and for him to do so we need to be in a purified state. That’s not to say that sex doesn’t have a place in Judaism. Sex is a very important part of their lives as long as it takes place in a marital bed, and there it is celebrated. The myth about doing it through a hole in a sheet is just that, a myth. When I married my husband a few years ago, we went through the Orthodox system and my husband was given a sex lesson by the rabbi. The rabbi said to him, ‘your wife’s pleasure is more important than yours, and it’s very important that you satisfy her desires when required and learn to restrain your own needs when she shows uninterest.’ Orthodox Jewish women are far from the subservient chattels they’re so often perceived to be.

For the girls I taught, the fairy-tale ending was to be married to a good Jewish boy, from the right sort of family, and to lead a spiritual life where they honour HaShem (God) and have lots of children. They don’t see marriage the way we see it. It’s not about romance and falling in love. Their idea of a relationship is that you build it, getting to know each other over time. You’re a partnership. Passion and love are not important, but they can come, later on in life. You have very elderly orthodox couples who are extremely in love with each other and have beautiful relationships. They knew nothing about each other at the beginning, but they’re told ‘respect each other, learn from each other, grow together’.

Typically, Charedi girls marry from 19 upwards, and if you’re not married by 23, you’re panicking. The ratio of girls to boy is skewed for some reason, and so the boys get to pick the youngest, prettiest ones. There’s a lot of pressure, and girls can get left on the shelf, or end up marrying someone much older.

If you’re an unmarried girl, what do you do with yourself? Very few go to university, and if they do, it will be the Open University or the local college so they can live at home. Even fewer get jobs; their role is to have children and bring them up in the yiddisher way. Without a husband and kids, you’re an oddity, a freak, and so most people turn to special matchmakers to help them find someone of the right sect, health and wealth. The first meeting usually takes place somewhere pretty anonymous, like a hotel foyer, and there’s no chaperone; they meet on their own. They have coffee and talk, and if it doesn’t work they move on.

At the school, the religious Kodesh strand of the curriculum is taught by ex-pupils who are waiting to get married. Every morning these girls would pray in the staffroom for God to send them the right match. They have to turn east towards Jerusalem, and the fridge happens to face east. So they would bow and pray in front of it, and people would get frustrated because they’d come in to have their breakfast and these girls were in the way and you can’t disturb them! In the end someone stuck a note on the fridge saying ‘please do not daven (pray) in front of the fridge’.

Charedi couples have as many children as they can, because the Torah commands that you go forth and multiply, but there’s also a deeper, more poignant reason. Behind that extraordinary Charedi insularity, behind everything they do, is a dark shadow – the holocaust, Hitler. They’ll never forget, and many of those who become Charedi are the children of survivors. They want to make up for the six million who were murdered and they do that by having a lot of children. Their fear of interacting with the secular world stems from the same thing. To outsiders it seems extreme, but they believe that ‘if we let our children out with people who are not Jews they’ll lose their spiritual purity, they will turn away from God, and we’ll be doing Hitler’s job for him’.

For all that I found it difficult, I couldn’t help but envy aspects of my pupils’ lives. Their innocence was beautiful. Their lives have meaning, and there’s a contented calmness to the cycle. Making lots of money, the pressure we have to succeed and be interesting, just doesn’t exist for them.

After a while, I came to find the censorship stifling, and teaching the same few sanctioned texts became dull. So I left the school, but the girls forever stamped themselves into my heart, contentedly living their lives in a glass bowl, whilst the rest of us scurried and hurried around them.

This article first appeared in The Times.

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