The idea of not touching a man before you marry him is obviously alien to non-Orthodox Jews – some of whom, like me, consider non-marriage a prime occasion for touching men. By not touching I mean not touching at all; not nudging, hugging, poking, pinching or anything else. Ultra Orthodox Jews are not meant to have friends of the opposite sex, either. This is considered a distraction – a betrayal, even – of energy from the main sexual-romantic bond: the husband or wife.
This week in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to talk at length to several haredim (ultra-orthodox) about their approach to matchmaking and their theories of intimacy. What I realised was that for all that this version of the religion is devoted to warding off, controlling and legislating sex, its practitioners end up getting obsessed with it. That you want what you can’t have is nothing new; but when what you can’t have is dressed up in robes of holiness and existential sanctity, I believe it creates a Himalayan mountain range out of a mere mountain (of variable size), with neurotic results.
Let me say something here – I think this effect is worse in religions where sex is considered a sin. In the Torah it is actually a mitzvah when done in marriage, because of its procreative and thus spiritually profoundnqualities. Sex is a mitzvah, but desire, apparently, is more like other appetites and must be carefully controlled (the Greeks would have been on board with this).
The Torah also stipulates the woman’s right to sex, and the man’s requirement to please her and not make her ask for it – which we can plonk rather roundly into the Biblical category of crumb-throwing to slaves/women.
Curious about the combination of respect for sex and seemingly excessive prohibitions surrounding it (no TOUCH! before marriage) in Judaism, I acquainted myself with the central arguments, courtesy of a woman called Gila Manolson, author of The Magic Touch. I suppose in a fair enough interpretation of the Torah, she said how sex is only meaningful understood as a sign of commitment and trust. Touch, she said, sends hormones firing and all sorts of emotions zooming through the lust-filled culprits, leading to an itch that can’t be scratched without disgrace or an unwise marriage.
Fine, fine. I took some of her reasoning – secular people do sometimes place such a great emphasis on sex that they stay with people for chemistry alone, ignoring their awfulness as human beings.
But, as I sat opposite a 22-year-old single Haredi woman this week in a Jerusalem suburb, and heard her – in hushed tones – talk about what a big deal sex was, how nervous her friends had been of it, the rumoured pain and so on, but for all that, safe in the knowledge that it would be a spiritual act when it finally happened, I was overwhelmed by a sense of archeological mismatch.
That is, understanding mere touch as a force for untold sexual appetite is a relic of the past, the days when men exclusively wandered about with sheep pelts and spears on Masada, hunting while women tended the fire back in the cave, only perhaps meeting on the way to the baths. The haredi of today – having never experienced touch – think that touch still has the power to ignite, whatever it is. And maybe, for them, it does – some of them do manage fairly expertly to avoid contact with the opposite sex, by going to single-sex schools etc, and living in religious areas.
But what they won’t know, as they bite their nails in expectation of the holy marital act, is that the spiritual and physical fireworks suggested in the Torah will, more often than not, surrender to the awkwardness and ineptitude of first timers who barely know each other – and, in the biblical sense, don’t know each other at all.
If only the hyper-religious of all ilks knew that while sex can be serious, very serious (rape is a good example), it is precisely with the people you love and trust that it can be most banal. Amusing; delightful; meaningful but above all, various and variable. And that it is precisely the sorts of expectation the bible heaps on the Jews that are not likely to help the interchange take flight. If sex prohibitions were relaxed, there might be many fewer inner cries pouring out of Meir Sh’arim: “THIS is what I’ve been waiting for?”
Before leaving Gangtok on Friday, Tom and I had to do one last thing with the kids: host a Shabbat dinner. Classic fare for a school full of Buddhists and Hindus, really. As the only Jew on hand, it fell to me to lead this Shabbat, while Tom would participate boisterously. Now, I have never led a Shabbat. I know a couple blessings from Hebrew school classes I attended at age 10. When I go to Shabbat dinner, I’m usually daydreaming about the first bite of challah bread (and: did they home-bake it with honey or is it store-bought?), not memorising the order of ceremonies.
Since I had the day to myself (the 12th graders who were my main charge had no classes), I was told in no uncertain terms that I had better “prepare”. This involved telling the school administrator/PA that we needed candles, bread and dark juice to mimic wine, and googling “how to hold a Shabbat”.
Ten minutes or so before the kids were due to arrive (a select 11 or so), I figured I should probably put away all my crap and set the table. It was my first time covering a “challah” bread (I was expecting naan but they’d managed to rustle up a brown loaf, bless them) and I did it with a green Buddhist prayer flag. I lit the candles then realised you’re meant to light them in front of everyone. Anyway, in the event, I gave a lecture on the Jewish Sabbath that was surprisingly voluminous given I know next to nothing about it, amazed the kids with the extremities of kosher laws and and proceeded to say a few blessings, a tiny bit by heart, but mostly reading sweatily off my laptop, which Tom held high for me (this only seconds after telling the kids that phones and other technology was banned). It was great though, and I decided to take up regular Shabbats.
At 8:30 sharp, our driver arrived and, giving some regal waves to the disciples, we loaded our suitcases in and hunkered down for a 4.5 hour drive on the world’s most treacherous roads, skirting ravines, boulders in the middle of the road, the rubble from half-cleared landslides, massive trucks thundering on all sides…and all in darkness. The drivers in Sikkim are clearly the best in the world.
Our treat for sitting out this journey was arrival at the Bagdogra airport hotel. Bagdogra is not a nice place and the odour of rubbish floated to us even on the silent midnight air. But the hotel was fine – the usual damp and coverless duvets – and we were early for our flight to Delhi. Good thing we were early – the flight left 20 minutes early, outta nowhere.
Back in Delhi, the clouds thickened and as we made our way to Lutyens Bungalows (stay here, anyone visiting Delhi!), some kind of typhoon struck and ridiculous amounts of rain fell. The cars and tuktuks bore on, however. Nevertheless, the driver stopped, parking in a puddle/flood so that we could visit a jewellery emporium he thought we should visit. We did so. Then we got back in the car, checked in at the hotel and started out again for an epic drive across town to Old Delhi. The car parked somewhere, instantly absorbed into a sea of identical cars. In the suddenness of this dropping off, we hopped in the first rickshaw cyclist we saw (in a cluster of dozens, all shouting) and headed off to the Red Fort and mosque. What had appeared a typhoon before was apparently nothing. For now some kind of proper deluge began, just as we were strolling towards the second Princely pavillion in the Red Fort. The umbrella promptly broke, and while Tom grimly and Britishly kept it over us, we were both knee-deep in puddle water within 4 minutes so it didn’t amount to much. Many Indians had stayed for shelter under the pavillion roof and a row was just erupting between the guard and lots and lots of people who were forbiddenly clambering up into the pavillion itself.
My shirt got soaked, and it was white. This made matters – already tricky with the pervy men who seem to be everywhere – even trickier.
We made it back to where we left the rickshaw man and he popped out of the driving rain and in we hopped again. This time to the mosque: our driver peddling us through oceanic puddles and bumper car driving conditions. Tom held the umbrella over the rickshaw driver’s head in a Raj Reversal moment that made everyone stare and giggle. As our remarkably hardy driver headed down the final stretch – this time an four-lane ominous highway, with trucks hurtling past our bicycle chariot – he said he wanted to discuss payment. And to receive it. I felt a bit sick. Tom said a number quite a bit over the man’s expectation, but that didn’t stop him demanding three times that much. Tom was happy to oblige and even disembarked the biped barouche with a handshake and a thank you, though I felt there was something of the gunpoint about the man’s demand, as if he’d knock us onto the highway, or stab us, if the money wasn’t passed over there and then.
As it happened, he’d have fed us to the dogs, or their equivalent – strung-out clusters of those sinister male drivers who, on seeing me (despite the presence of Tom) in their midst, anxiously searching out our driver – clutched their genitalia and leered. The Delhi rape trial – death for the murderers – was decided only last week and, though it’s never far away in this city, severe discomfort of a sexual nature gripped me. But Tom’s generosity paid off and our bicycle man shouted at us to look a row back and somehow our driver emerged from the sea of white cars.
Soaked and rather relieved to have found our driver – even if several parked cars blocked our way out – the journey back to the hotel was like the feeling of returning to safety. When, I wondered, did I become such an old lady? On arrival back to the hotel, soaked through, I thought hey, let’s go see the swimming pool that we won’t be using. I then slipped hard on the thickest, muddiest mud ever and got half my body daubed in what did very much resemble feces.
At this moment, Tom decided, in the fast-coming, dripping darkness to venture to the next door Lodhi Gardens for a bit of Bahai Lotus Temple viewing. I declined and sat under the shower, next to the muddied clothes, for 20 minutes watching rivulets of mud run round me.
An hour later, Tom was still gone and it was pitch black. I began to assume he was dead and to plan a rescue mission. Two sips into my second Kingfisher, he reappeared, having got lost. We both had dinner with a high degree of enjoyment and excitement for bed. On the morrow, Tom was to fly back to England, me to Cochin in Kerala.
The road from the airport is lined with enormous signs advertising wedding silk and jewellery shops. Hmm, I thought. Have I come to India’s biggest wedding depot? “Saris!” was all I could get out of the driver for an explanation. But soon enough, bright pink and turquoise beach shacks began to line the road, zen-looking men in diaper-like skirts appeared and a general aura of awesomeness began to emerge. This was a backwater, due to the backness and waterness of it, but a groovy, prosperous backwater.
There is New Cochin and Fort Cochin. The latter was the centre of the spice trade for centuries, from before Medieval times. It was the stronghold of the Portugese, Dutch then British empires. We stayed somewhere called Brunton’s Boatyard, a large, mahogany Raj-esque open-walled hotel (apart from the rooms) that was right on the busy bay. A curious mix of modern industry – a water treatment plant (or something that looked like it); construction sites – were the background for a lively traffic in pointed fishing vessels in bright colours and old-school ferries with hand-painted lettering scooting between Fort and New Cochin. Swathes of leaves flowed up the water past our balcony.
As for the town: at first, stepping out, I found myself accosted by so many persistent tuk tuk drivers I felt disappointment – was I basically in Delhi-on-Sea? But no –these were humorous chaps that you could banter with as they drove slowly alongside you. I saw most of them over the next few days again. Fort Cochin is a totally charming series of lazy but lively streets; the following day, a wonderful man drove us all around in his Tuk Tuk that had a big Ferrari sticker on the back, to the Dutch Palace (built as a thank you by European colonists to the local royalty in the 16th century and richly frescoed in images of Hindu mythology), several churches and to Jew Town, with the oldest (15th century) synagogue in the Commonwealth. It was beautiful and colourful, and had a group of Muslim men hanging out in it near the bimah (alter). Indeed, the whole of Jew Town – including the shop of one Sarah, Cochin’s oldest Jew at 90 and a lifetime native (though of Baghdadi origin) – was managed by Muslim merchants and shop-keepers. Passing a woman in a headscarf selling lovely white cotton dresses (of which we bought two), we remarked how unusual it was that she worked in a shop called Shalom. “It means peace, in many languages” she said. Indeed: she seemed peaceful, Sarah’s Muslim sidekick (who proudly showed us pictures of her history in Kerala, and knew exactly what I meant by “kepah” and “baruch atah adonoi”) seemed peaceful, with his arrangement and his boss/mother figure, the other shopkeepers selling challah covers seemed peaceful and indeed we felt at peace on this curious bit of road.
On the way back, I hopped out at an arts centre with an Ayurveda centre at the end of it, buried way in back. I had a terrific and vigorous massage for £12 and returned to the hotel feeling culturally and physically sated and smug with the day – in such a good mood as I was, I actually welcomed the bargainous, often highly cheeky calls of the tuk tuk drivers.
We’ve now been at a beach resort – Marari beach in Alleppey – for three days and it’s been so divine in that classic palm tree expanse-smooth Arabian Sea-idyllic pool-endless white beach-eco-friendly villa type way that, what with all the yoga, swimming and reading I really haven’t had the time to write much. Back to London on Sunday.
Indian cuisine is delightful, as we all know. Who doesn’t love a chicken tikka, a tandoori-cooked fish, a masala, a biryani or indeed, a roti? Nobody, that’s who. Some of the best food I have ever eaten has hailed from this continent.
I can’t recall ever being too abstemious about carbs when eating Indian food in England. I mean, I usually walk away feeling too full so the pilau rice and slabs of greedily torn garlic naan may indeed be the culprits.
But compared to the cuisine on offer here, in Sikkim, a curry dinner in England is the equivalent of a die-hard Atkins powder.
I like a carb. But there is a point when there are just TOO MANY of them. Like when your natural taste for breads and rices and the like becomes slowly extinguished by a constant, unescapable, necessary stream of carb at breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner and after-dinner. The thing with carbs is that they breed the desire for more carbs.
But here’s what doesn’t breed desire for more carbs, or indeed, for doing anything but lying in a large bed drifting in and out of a glycemic stupour. Noodles mixed with potatoes, served with rice, and rolled into parathas. Nor that meal’s predecessor of a bowl of white toast with nutella and chilli eggs on the side, with sweet (three heaped spoonfuls of sugar) and milky tea. Nor its sequel: a snack of Masala Fire crisps and sweet tea. Nor indeed, its grand finale: dinner of rice, papadum and shredded potato stew. One night last week, Tom and I went out for dinner. Searching out vegetables and necessitous of heeding Tom’s vegetarian requirements, we somehow ended up with vegetable biryani (I counted two small florets of brocolli and three peas within), roti stuffed with potato, veg pakoras (fried patties), potatoes in raita and chilli baby corn. Tricky. In Tom’s view, this was a light and nutritious meal compared to the one at Taste of Tibet, which involved spring rolls with more oil than a tanker normally carries and each the size of a fajita, gloopy soup (this was where we looked for vegetables) and fried rice.
Don’t get me wrong – the cooking is good, and the cooks extremely generous. The locals look smooth and glowy of skin, and slender. There’s a chance that I haven’t been exerting all the willpower I could be or making all the choices that one could. I mean, when one is peckish of an evening due to having eaten nothing but carbs all day, what is one to do but nip across the street and buy what there is for a snack? What is there are cookies and crisps, alas. I did try to move towards health by purchasing bananas. But somehow bananas have become the mere accompaniment of toast and rice.
Ok, so yes, it may be me with the problem (currently draining a mug of sugar tea as we speak). But after a week of tasty potato and noodle stew, served alongside bread and rice, and followed with chocolate biscuits, I hit a carb wall this weekend. We took a trip to an absolutely beautiful retreat in West Sikkim, a bastion of heritage elegance and hospitality. They prepared us the finest delicacies of the region: homegrown pork; hand-rolled beef momos (a kind of dim sum-esque dumpling) and immaculate, if challenging soups (for instance, cottage cheese and chilli). Not knowing how poorly we had fed ourselves en route (breakfast of paratha with peanut butter and nutella, several sugary nescafe coffees, Thai-imported crisps, biscuits), on arrival our kind guests served us several delicacies: a sort of rice granola and some delicious sugared pastry leaves that looked like rolls of dusky-gold manuscript paper. The pastry leaves were beautiful and demanded the full compliment of mass consumption by all present.
But it wasn’t long until the house speciality – chaang – an enormous flagon of sweet millett beer (8%) was served. Each chaang chalice is served with an entire big thermos (the sorts you see at conferences or big family picnics) of hot water, which you use to top up the chaang. It soaks up ever more water, providing a drink that tastes just as rich and strong in the fourth hour as the first.
After this you don’t feel hungry. You want a light, undressed salad – perhaps composed of chard, kale and spinach. Perhaps a few blueberries for dessert. Dinner, a spectacular array of pork and pork belly fat, rice, fabulous daal and curd, followed by sugar and curd-soaked Indian honey dumplings, was beautiful. It was just a bit more than my system could take.
In the West, there is much avoidance and consequently, much fetichisation of carbs. Perhaps the best way to learn to limit them is not by adopting a diet of deprivation, a la Atkins, but to place yourself in a situation for a few weeks where the only available safe, customary, cheap, tasty and popular food revolves around carbs, carbs and more carbs. In this way I feel that I have had too much of a good thing and will return to England looking only for greens and blueberries.
An anti-stalking charity has called for internet dating agencies to clamp down on potential stalkers following a wave of complaints from women. Men who have previously been convicted of domestic violence should be blocked from the sites, it says. The call is not entirely out of the blue. In addition to the complaints about harassment and the seemingly infinite spread of the digital dating empire, there is finally a regulatory body for internet dating called the Online Dating Association. It is taking steps to give users more security in the wake of an identity theft scandal by providing a kitemark on all approved sites. There seems to be some idea that the new security measures will offer technology that can be be marshalled for keeping wife-beaters from internet dating.
Paladin, the anti-stalking group, said it’s “‘extraordinary’ that a lack of regulation meant abusive men could keep joining dating sites. It said anyone who was found to be involved in stalking or violence should be barred from all dating agencies and the matter referred to the police” [Guardian].
Believe me, I’m all for regulation of the internet dating industry – in addition to its matchmaking successes, it’s a melange of weirdness, perviness and fraudulence with very little hard data or accountability to show for its £300m per year. I’m also all for the preventing of sex offenders having free reign to reoffend.
However, I am fairly sure that internet dating – like all dating and all social decisions – is a case of “caveat emptor” – buyer beware. Why on earth should people be blocked from sites when they’re allowed in pubs or indeed in any place they could possibly meet a woman? At the end of the day, internet dating sites are not like schools or other places where there is a public duty to control who enters and participates. People on dating sites are all paying (or fully consensual) adults. They are consumers partaking of a product. Granted, consumer protection is a valuable concept – but there is just no way of making every man pass some online test requiring them to prove he has no convictions.
Walking down the street at any given time you may be passing paedophiles, murderers, embezzlers, or people who once had a fetish for poisoning dogs. So long as someone is not at that moment locked up, they can be the person you make eyes at on the bus, and it is your job to choose the people you trust wisely. In my experience, it’s fairly easy to sniff out a weirdo, no matter how charming they at first seem. Women who let men get away with violent or threatening behaviour more than once require assistance that an internet dating site won’t give them, no matter how fancy their screening system. Abusive men are online; they’re also tat the bar, in the workplace, at the shop, the neighbour. Calling for a block to men with convictions joining an internet dating site is a tiny bit like calling for everyone with a criminal record to be kept off the streets at night.
Claims that the internet is the most dangerous medium going, a place of uncontrolled seduction by stalkers, also seems strange. As any veteran digital dater will tell you, the Internet is NOT always such a seductive medium. A dangerous man is far more likely to hook you in with his personal charms in a club or by spiking your drink than by sending you a message reading “hey babe you look fit” attached to a dodgy picture in which he’s trying to smile over his bulging beer paunch and under his massive pattern baldness.
I’m all for protecting women. But when it comes to the people we date, women – as all people whatever their gender or orientation – need to be their own first line of defence.
A few months ago, a Canadian woman visited a school in Sikkim. Witnessing corporal punishment, she went to the authorities and made a stir. Instead of consternation at the corporal punishment (not so unheard of here), they expressed anger at the fact that a person on a tourist visa was allowed to schools. What followed was a strict clampdown on anyone on a tourist visa visiting, much less teaching, in a school. However, being organised, I got my visa for this escapade in June, weeks before I was told of this. I assumed it would blow over and I could go to the school. I assumed wrong. Neither willing nor able to jump through the hoops required for a last-minute business visa, I came as a tourist.
However, I am able to meet with the kids in an alternative, secretive venue that does not violate my visa. That place is a monastery a luxurious religious complex with a colourful gate of dragons, and thoughtful, well-fed monks padding around contemplating the view of the fog-shrouded Himalyas, covered in trees nearly identical to broccoli.
I had been a little grouchy that I wouldn’t get to the school – the kids are so cute, the lunch is delicious, the views are even better. But teaching in the monastery has turned into the most VIP teaching experience you can imagine. Firstly, a Jeep must drive me there as well as my students. The Jeep must then return for the students, and for me. It whisks me back to the guesthouse in time for an afternoon walk. At the monastery, we teach in a plush room, like a spacious living room in a house. Fulsome sofas, thick carpets, a big flip board and a coffee table sit before several imposing pictures of the Dalai Lama.
After taking my teacherly place on a sofa, facing the kids, I begin my lecture on the dark side of love in As You Like It. As the scrutiny of Silvius and Phebe’s painful alliance gets into full gear, the monastery abbot’s wife – a lovely calming woman dressed in pink silks – brings in a tray, with two huge pitchers of jasmine and mint tea and a bucket of delicious sandy butter biscuits. Nom nom nom. Resuming love in AYLI, we get to Touchstone and his use of words such as “foul slut” towards Audrey, whom he repeatedly calls ugly but at least therefore not a hussy. At this moment, the Dalai Lama catches your eye and you think, “is this the place for this lesson?” Then, remembering it’s the Bard, you shrug and remember it’s for the good – surely the DL can see that. Next up, Touchstone on Orlando’s cheesy love letters to Rosalind and the drippy and excessive quality of them. Here he comes to note “love’s prick and Rosalind” – Tom, who is co-teaching this with me, thinks it extremely necessary that our girls grasp the bawdy cleverness of Shakespeare’s clowns. Suddenly the lesson takes a turn for the even less monastery-esque: do the girls, in fact, know what a “prick” is? Surely? Err, no. They don’t. So Tom explains that it is “the male genital”. The girls look disconcerted and then amused, Tom looks bashful and I feel faintly sick, gulp down a bit more jasmine tea and peer at the DL. He didn’t look angry, and nothing bad happened – except that more biscuits appeared leading to uncomfortable over-indulgence.