Judaism, literary lust—and ‘fat camp’

‘Discovering Judaism has been a profound and fascinating process, from celebrating festivals to the spiritual joy of synagogue’

Diary

This summer I’m doing two things highly irregular for a 26-year-old. In August, I’m getting married—well under the average age for most British women who, according to ONS data released in March, now wait until they are 31.5 to get hitched. And before I get married? I’m converting to Judaism—again, a little rogue for a twentysomething with no previous religious leanings, especially when religion is on the decline amongst us millennials, as we find meaning and affirmation through social media instead.

Discovering Judaism has been a profound and totally fascinating process, from celebrating festivals to the spiritual joy of synagogue, and challah with chicken soup, and I’ve had huge support from several brilliant rabbis. But as the date of my admission to the club draws near, there’s one book which I’ve been revising from religiously. Not the Torah or any other prayer book. My bible right now is Judaism For Dummies. Yes, one of those deeply Nineties, glaring yellow-and-black textbooks dedicated to marketing and Excel and running small businesses, which sold like hot cakes every time a new version of Windows for your PC came out, thanks to chapters like “That ‘cut and paste’ stuff” and “Cruising the World Wide Web”. How quaint. It’s the sort of guide Ricky Gervais would have on a shelf in The Office, the joke present you might buy a friend about to start up an ill-fated cocktail bar or yoga studio. When you can learn how to do literally anything from YouTube tutorials and Wikipedia, For Dummies is amusingly retro (if slightly insulting when recommended by one’s rabbi). But my prejudice turns out to be completely unwarranted. Judaism For Dummies is brilliant. It breaks down all the basics about Jewish traditions, history, festivals and practices that we’ve covered in classes into witty, clear chunks; there are jolly stories and factual check lists; practical tips and signposts marking particularly crucial points. There’s even a recipe for matzo balls, which I’ve threatened to attempt for my new husband. The For Dummies guide speaks to my inner schoolchild prepping for GCSEs. Now I just need some coloured magic markers for colour coding my notes.

***

And a Football For Dummies, apparently—or at least a Standing Up To Everyday Sexism For Dummies. I’m used to my fiancé’s ability to fill a lull in small talk with any male stranger, anywhere in the world, with football: Argentinian mountain guides, Italian hotel managers, every cab driver ever. It’s fine. Not annoying in the slightest. Then halfway through a refresher driving lesson (I haven’t driven in five years, and never in London—learning to do so is my way of adulting pre-married life), the instructor and I run out of chat. We’ve covered his upcoming holiday to Kosovo and daughter’s degree, my job and imminent wedding, Brexit. There’s a pause. Then: “So, what team does your fiancé support then?” This is obviously outrageous sexism  but I’m concentrating on not crashing into an HGV in front, and rather than launching into an impassioned speech about his lazy gendered assumptions and how brilliant the FIFA Women’s World Cup is going to be, I mumble “Um, Arsenal?” And spend the next 40 minutes in an entirely one-sided conversation minutely dissecting the Europa League match by match and the myriad failings of Arsenal manager Unai Emery. I concentrate so closely on my driving as a distraction that I pass the session with flying colours.

There’s a movement on Twitter dedicated to the absurdity of alternative serving-dishes in restaurants (chips served in toy wheelbarrows, bread served in top hats, etc) called We Want Plates. It’s the mantra of most weddings, apart from ours. My food-obsessed restaurateur partner already has enough crockery to feed the five thousand (not a miracle that gels with my new creed, obviously). So instead, we want books, and our wedding list is at a bookshop. Happily, after the Kindle sounded the death knell for paper books in the early Noughties, the worm has turned. The UK paper book market grew 2 per cent in 2018, the fourth consecutive year of growth, and the number of indie bookshops is on the rise, after a long-term decline since the mid-Nineties. Our shop of choice, John Sandoe in Sloane Square, is a bibliophile’s fantasy—teetering piles of lesser-known classics, rare editions and coffee-table books way too beautiful to risk a spilt latte. Walking round the shelves picking things for the list, I go a little mad with literary lust. “When are we ever going to read a book about the world’s rarest vegetables or a Persian legends pop-up book?” asks my fiancé, which hardly seems the point.

***

Before I get married, there’s one crucial preparation that doesn’t involve knowing the Passover rituals, or taking up psychoanalysis. I’m off to fat camp: a Spanish fitness and mindfulness holiday where food is 100 per cent plant-based, there are countless hours of exercise a day and mobile phones are banned. I pack my For Dummies and arrive, fortified by the 5,000-calorie dinner of bread, cheese and meat consumed as detox preparation. It is tough but jolly. Meal times are strict, workouts mandatory—but when it comes to the no-phone policy, there is a little leeway. The main market for this kind of holiday boot camp is the Instagram generation looking simultaneously to switch off and show off; equally, the best marketing for the camp is positive posts from guests. So a clever system is at play: rest stops during circuit classes are called “water and Instagram” stations, when social media action is briefly allowed. We feel grateful for the dopamine hit of illicit scrolling and posting; the camp get a continuous flow of free endorsements. That’s called having your chia protein ball and eating it.