Diana legacy good for charedi Jews

THE death of Princess Diana 20 years ago was a watershed in British emotional history.

The great traditional British stiff upper lip largely gave way to an unprecedented outpouring of emotion which brought in its wake a new touchy-feely culture, that is thankfully still with us.

It is exemplified by her sons’ princes William and Harry’s promotion of mental health charities and their own openness about their traumas.

In many ways, the rituals of monarchy are similar to those of established religions like Judaism. Much emphasis is put on outer manifestations like ceremonies, dress and approved behaviour.

The whole world was enchanted, watching the fairytale wedding in July, 1981, when Diana married Prince Charles.

I took my kids to the home of a friend who had a colour TV set while ours was a mere black and white. But something made me walk out in the middle and take my children on a trip to a local lake.

It was a decade before I realised what had made me walk out on that exquisite storybook wedding.

By that time, my own marriage was breaking down at the same time as Diana’s. The myth of living happily ever after had been broken for both of us.

After that, I felt huge empathy for the tragic princess who had the courage to break with stifling conformity and express what exactly she was feeling.

One thing about the charedi lifestyle is the predominance of weddings and other simchot in their large families.

On a regular basis, mums have to put all the multiple worries of their large families aside and don their best sheitels and glamorous clothes and fake the smiles on their faces to perpetuate the myth that the charedi lifestyle is just one continuous simcha instead of what sometimes amounts to a sheer struggle for emotional and physical survival.

In her moving book For My Child, charedi mother Chaya Spiegel describes the ordeal of being pregnant with a child diagnosed with a rare genetic condition which meant that its chances of survival were very slim.

The child died a few hours after birth, but the good news was that just over a year later Chaya gave birth to a healthy child.

In gratitude, she decided to go public and write about her experiences to help other couples who might be facing similar problems.

Like many in that and other communities, Chaya and her husband Shlomo Stamm were private people and did not want anyone but their absolutely closest relatives to know the problems they were facing.

Consequently, attending a family wedding became an ordeal as Chaya was bombarded with inconvenient questions about her pregnancy medical care.

And faking it just didn’t work as Shlomo’s brother Menachem cottoned on that his brother had not been himself at the simcha and forced the truth out of him.

At this time of the year, religious people believe that God sees into their innermost hearts, yet in their lifestyles they often persist in consistently putting on a front of conformity.

Holocaust survivor and inspiring rebbetzen, the late Esther Jungreis, whose face — until she died last year, aged 80 — was a marvel of facelifts and make-up, used to advise faking it, putting on a happy face and then the rest would inevitably fall into place.

It works sometimes, but not always.

The male charedi lifestyle can be as exacting, if not more so, than the female one.

Besides having to go to shul to pray three times a day, all charedi young men are expected to follow the same Talmudic curriculum, regardless of their abilities and individualities. The ideal is to stay in learning, supported by one’s in-laws, for as long as economically possible.

How many young men fake it in the beth hamedrash in order to continue in the style to which they have been accustomed and in order to gain communal prestige?

How many who find the pressures of this excessive conformity turn away totally from Jewish practice?

And how many develop mental illnesses when they feel they are unable to conform with the excessive pressures and rapidly lose their self-esteem when they deem themselves failures?

In recent years, the global charedi community has become much more open about emotional and mental health problems, but its pressured lifestyle and often lack of flexibility still puts unbearable pressures on some individuals.

The charedi population explosion is an amazing phenomenon which is regalvanising world Jewry, not just demographically but in terms of commitment and emotional fervour to Judaism.

But if it wants to keep its adherents emotionally healthy, it needs to allow a little more flexibility into the system to allow for individual needs and preferences.

The Diana legacy of emotional honesty can be good for charedim, too.


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