The story of my friendship with an extraordinary Jewish family
Translated by Jane Hedley-Prole
When 20-year-old student J.S. Margot responded to a job advertisement in 1987, little did she know it would open up an entire world. Taking on a challenge six of her fellow students had failed, she agreed to tutor the four children of an intriguing Orthodox Jewish family living in Antwerp’s tight-knit community.
Here she would encounter endless rules – ‘never come on a Friday, never shake hands with a man’ – and quirks she had not seen before: tiny tubes on the doorposts, separate fridges for meat and dairy products, their own customised phone book. As she taught the children and fiercely debated with the family, she also learnt from them: why do Jews often isolate themselves despite their history of persecution? Why did Jewish rituals and traditions make her feel indignant one moment and envious the next? How could she and her boyfriend, an Iranian political refugee, reconcile their sympathies with Palestinians in the face of intense Zionism, while the Intifada and Gulf War loomed?
Full of funny misunderstandings and unexpected connections, Mazel Tov is a heartwarming, provocative and disarmingly honest memoir of navigating clashing cultures and unusual friendships – and of how, where adults build walls, sometimes only children can dissolve them.
‘Margot’s voice is exceptional’
‘In our hyper-partisan times there is hope to be found in the friendship between Margot and the Schneiders, however complicated and difficult it is to maintain. So much of Mazel Tov is about a quest for understanding, an acknowledgment that empathy has its limits, and the admirable determination to forge relationships with people from vastly different cultures anyway. These days, that seems like an almost quixotic mission, but it’s rewarding to read about a time when it did happen, and the pleasures it bought to lives of the people on both sides of the ideological divide.’
For the first half-hour I sat opposite Mr Schneider in a room that was called “the office”, on the far side of the ground floor, just past the lift.
The lift! That such decadence existed was new to me: that there were people living in the city, people without physical disabilities, who had a lift in their house.
Another thing that greatly impressed me was the thick white carpet: your feet sank right into it. My mother believed in tiles: you could throw a bucket of soapsuds over them and scrub them clean in a trice. In this house, people had lined the access routes with deep-pile white carpet.
The CCTV images flickered on the wall of the corridor, show- ing the street from various angles. A hazy passer-by walked past. Someone stuffed leaflets into letterboxes.
In the office stood a desk and a bookcase, only a single shelf of which was filled. I recognized a French grammar book and a French dictionary. The other books were Hebrew works, I assumed: fat tomes whose leather spines were embossed with gold lettering and curlicues. The windows stretched from floor to ceiling and overlooked the courtyard garden whose main feature—in the middle of the city!—was a pond with a footbridge. On the edge of the big marble terrace was a basketball stand and hoop, and farther down the garden, a swing hung from a shiny red metal frame. The lawn was immaculate: bright-green grass, freshly mown.
Mr Schneider turned out to be a tall, thin man in a white shirt, dark suit and dark-blue yarmulke. He didn’t have sidelocks and his black beard, speckled with grey, was fluffy and didn’t hang down like a bib between his chin and his chest.
Mr Schneider had a powerful voice, and his French accent was less marked than his wife’s. He looked a bit like my father, but a Jewish version, and with somewhat deeper grooves in his forehead and around his eyes. Some people’s cheeks are never red, and Mr Schneider appeared to me to be such a person. His skin looked to be permanently pale grey. His moustache and beard framed his mouth, lending colour to his face.
“We’ll do this just once, shall we?” Mr Schneider asked after we’d shaken hands. I didn’t know what he meant. He took off his jacket and draped it slowly over his chair, taking care to align the shoulders exactly with the corners of the chair back, then asked me to take a seat. “If you hold out your hand to me, I will shake it, juffrouw,” he said, having apparently read the confusion on my face. “Because I respect you and your customs, n’est-ce pas? But as a precaution we, Orthodox Jews, do not shake women’s hands. It has to do with ritual cleanliness and suchlike. But we will not speak of that now. It would be nice if you could respect our tradition.”
I smiled at him. Sheepishly, I imagine. I looked at my right hand and wondered how it could be unclean. Though admittedly, my fingers did bear traces of Tipp-Ex.
On a wide shelf of the bookcase, surrounded by three round hatboxes, lay a black hat with a broad, stiff brim. I’d once snapped up a similar hatbox at a flea market; in it I stored all the personal letters I’d received in my life.
Mr Schneider started on a long monologue. He did not leave any space for interruption, and when I attempted to ask him a question he responded like politicians in chat shows, suffering the intervention and then continuing unperturbed.
“I have four wonderful children,” he said, “two exemplary sons and two equally exemplary daughters. All four of them are different, which is logical, and I shall try to shed some light on that.”
My heart sank. I couldn’t stand exemplary children. Never got along with them, could spot them a mile off: by their shoes, by the way they walked, the way they looked at you. I could measure their obedience just by the angle of their chins.
“Simon is our eldest,” Mr Schneider began. “He is now sixteen. He is most like—in terms of character I mean—his mother, my spouse. He is gentle and tough at the same time, vous comprenez? You will understand when you meet my spouse. A hard worker who prefers to be silent than to talk, that’s his way. But you should not underestimate him; both his heart and his tongue are well cut.” As if he were talking about a diamond. It made me smile.
“If Simon opens his mouth, juffrouw, it is not to talk, but because he has something to say, if you know what I mean. N’importe: you will not have much to do with him, he is studying maths and sci- ence. His subjects are too difficult and too specialized for you; you have a flair for languages, I understand, you have a different type of brain, n’est-ce pas, you can only help our Simon with French and Dutch, perhaps also with history and geography. Our oldest son will himself indicate when he has need of you. But if he does, we want him to be able to count on you, n’est-ce pas.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Jakov is our second oldest,” he went on. “We had two boys, one after the other, and two girls. It could not have been better. First the sons. Then the daughters. We are blessed, my spouse and I. Jakov is thirteen, he will turn fourteen next month. He is the spitting image of me at that age: a scamp who is very popular with his schoolmates. Jakov has many friends, just like I did. He connects very easily with others. A sociable boy. We have to take care that he does not connect too quickly, also with girls, if you get my meaning. When I was young, I was content to wait. But my spouse and I married in the 1970s. Since then everything has changed, the world is moving too fast, and Jakov likes speed. He is very bright. He always wants to try out new things and he likes excitement. So he will push boundaries, chal- lenge rules. I don’t know if Jakov will have need of you. He is wilful. Nevertheless, we would like you to test him regularly on his study materials. He needs to be taught discipline. You will have to be strict with him, but not too strict—you need to find the golden mean.”
I nodded, somewhat bored. I would rather see his sons, those exemplary boys, than listen to him singing their praises, but I didn’t dare say so.
“You have already met Elzira and Sara,” Mr Schneider continued. I realized that I was nodding again.
“Elzira is our oldest daughter; Sara—the little rascal—our young- est. Elzira turned twelve in August. She’s just two years younger than Jakov. And I would never say this in their hearing, but Elzira is cleverer than her two brothers put together. It’s just that she can’t concentrate—she has fits of nerves, and that worries us.”
He paused briefly. A tall boy walked across the garden.
“At school they recommended that we have some psychological tests carried out, which we did. There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just a bit different.”
Once again he paused.
“Most of your time will be spent with Elzira; our daughter lacks self-confidence, you know, like all teenage girls, of course. She’s very uncertain, and Simon and Jakov undermine what self-confidence she has, even though we tell our garçons they shouldn’t, n’est-ce pas. I can give you an example: Jakov refuses to play chess with Elzira, even though they are well matched. He doesn’t want to play with her because he knows she will knock over half the chess pieces…”
He stared silently into space for at least half a minute. Those thirty seconds seemed very long.
“I will, in the strictest confidence, tell you that Elzira has dyspraxia. The diagnosis is official. I do not know if you are aware of that condi- tion. Her handicap—although we never refer to her condition in that way when she is present—has nothing to do with her intelligence, n’est-ce pas. Her motor skills regularly go haywire, c’est tout. She loses dexterity and has difficulty with balance and coordination. She has a tremor, like people who suffer from Parkinson’s. Sometimes her hands shake, she can’t control her muscles, she often drops things and therefore can appear clumsy. One part of her brain doesn’t always communicate smoothly with the other, that’s how you have to imagine it, like a short circuit, but that clumsiness has nothing to do with her intelligence, n’est-ce pas, I say it again, I would like to say it all the time, there is nothing wrong with her intelligence.” I’d sat up straighter, because Mr Schneider had started to talk faster and faster, and because he was saying “n’est-ce pas” more and more often.
“You know, of course, juffrouw, that to develop, a person must have self-confidence, motivation and ambition. Well, we are worried that our daughter, because of this so-called defect, will become withdrawn and fearful. She must not lag behind the other pupils in her class. That would not do her justice. We do not want her to suffer. We do not want her to become the subject of discussion. That is your main task: be patient with Elzira, enable her to excel.” His eyes had become damp, and he coughed between sentences, but he did not slow down.
“And then last but not least: Sara, without an “h”. Sara is only eight. She is a champion gymnast, as agile as a snake. We do not know from whom she has inherited this bizarre and useless talent, not from me at any rate, and my spouse has many talents, but agility of body is not one of them. If it were left to Sara, sport would be her only occupation. That is of course out of the question for people like us. We do not wish to encourage her at all in that direction. Not even if she had the potential to be a world-class gymnast. We want her to train her brain. Now she is only eight. But soon she will be eighteen, you understand—I take it you understand me.”
“Yes,” I heard myself say.
“Just to make sure, I shall summarize what we expect f rom each other, juffrouw: we f rom you, our children f rom you, all of us f rom each other,” he continued. “We give our sons and daughters to you. And you give them attention. You help them with their schoolwork. You are their tutor. You follow their lesson timetable and stick to it. You ensure that they pass with flying colours, n’est-ce pas. And we recompense you for all your efforts. You keep a list on which you write the hours that you have worked, and you also describe, using mots clés, keywords, how you spent those hours with them, is that agreed? Can my spouse and I count on you?”
I was beginning to feel a bit dizzy. As I sat listening to Mr Schneider’s litany, I longed for some fresh air. The little room had grown stuffy. Through the window I could see an upper balcony, where a woman was shaking out a tea towel. It occurred to me that Mr Schneider had always said “my spouse” and never “my wife”. I fidgeted in my chair. I was eager to meet the four children.
To talk to Little and Large. And see those fantastic sons in person. I also wished that Mr Schneider would ask me some questions. It wasn’t for nothing that I’d rehearsed a series of answers to imaginary queries: do you think the pay is reasonable, what are your strengths and weaknesses, how good are your language skills, explain why you think you’re the right person for our children…
Mr Schneider began talking again. It was apparent from what he said that I’d already got the job, and could start immediately. His assumption that I was okay with this—without asking whether I wanted it—made me rebellious. I decided it was time to go home.
Before I could get up, there was a knock at the door. A woman entered the room. Her hair was concealed under a chequered ker- chief and she wore an apron round her plump middle. After putting two steaming cups of coffee and two wedges of cheesecake down in front of us she disappeared again without a word.
“Do you know the joke about Moshe, who’s dying, and who calls his business partner Abe to his side?” Mr Schneider asked. And he began to tell the story. About Moshe, who doesn’t want to die before asking Abe forgiveness for certain wrongdoings.
“Do you remember when our first business went bust? That was my fault, Abe, and I’m sorry. I embezzled money and falsified the accounts.”
“I forgive you, Moshe,” Abe reassures him.
Moshe: “And that night when that car got totalled. That was me, Abe, I wasn’t wearing my glasses and I’d had too much to drink…”
“Let’s forget that,” says Abe.
“That time that 100,000 francs went missing from the safe: it was me who took the money, I had to pay off my son’s gambling debts.” “Ach,” says Abe, “don’t worry about it, Moshe, I forgive you everything. Because, you know, I’m the one who put that arsenic in your coffee.”
After telling the joke, Mr Schneider cracked up laughing. Because he kept on looking at me expectantly, I pretended to laugh too.
“I will leave you now,” he said as abruptly as he had launched into the joke. He hadn’t touched his cheesecake.
He stood up, adjusted his yarmulke—attached to his curly crown with a hairpin—and put his jacket back on. Fresh underarm sweat stains marked his shirt.
“My spouse will come and speak with you in a moment. I wish you every success.”
I automatically stuck out a hand, which he shook heartily. I could have kicked myself.
CULTUREFLY – Chloe Walker-23/01/2020
Mazel Tov charts the decades-long relationship between agnostic Dutch journalist J.S Margot and the Orthodox Jewish Schneider family. When she first meets them, it’s to apply for a tutoring job for their four children. It doesn’t go well, and she is not called back, but something goes wrong with the Schneider’s chosen tutor, and they are forced to hire Margot.
Initially, it’s hard for everyone. Margot is overwhelmed by the dizzying amount of religious rules that ordain everything about the Schneider’s lives, and feels they are judging her irreligiosity and Iranian boyfriend, Nima. The Schneiders, meanwhile, are frustrated by Margot’s inability to remember their customs, and the scathing way she reacts to some of the tenets they hold dear.
And yet as time goes on, and Margot refuses to join the legions of past Schneider tutors who have quit the job after a few weeks, relationships between the two sides begin to thaw; they even start enjoying each other’s company. Margot bonds with the children, becoming genuinely invested in their welfare. She spends time with them off the clock. They come to her with non-education-related problems. Slowly, gradually, Margot and the Schneiders become a big, important part of one another’s lives. That remains true even when the kids have graduated, and they don’t need her as a tutor anymore.
The bulk of Mazel Tov takes place when Margot is in her twenties, though she is writing the book as someone comfortably into their middle-age. This makes some of her overzealous pronouncements a little easier to take; is there ever an age where you’re more convinced you know everything than your early twenties? Whilst it’s easy to wince at her lack of sensitivity – you get the sense that looking back, the elder Margot is wincing too – there’s a definite benefit to the blunt expression of opinion in an area that is too often treated with kid gloves. In that regard, this is a very honest memoir. The author is open about her concern that the constrictive laws that govern the Schneider’s lives have a negative effect on the children. She worries about them not being able to fully associate with their atheistic peers, and is completely stumped by the import of things like kosher food and women covering themselves in public. Margot and the Schneiders may become good friends over the years, but much of their lives are still a mystery to her.
In our hyper-partisan times there is hope to be found in the friendship between Margot and the Schneiders, however complicated and difficult it is to maintain. So much of Mazel Tov is about a quest for understanding, an acknowledgment that empathy has its limits, and the admirable determination to forge relationships with people from vastly different cultures anyway. These days, that seems like an almost quixotic mission, but it’s rewarding to read about a time when it did happen, and the pleasures it bought to lives of the people on both sides of the ideological divide.
Mazel Tov is published by Pushkin Press on 23 January 2020
METRO NEWS, London, 19/01/2020
Writer JS Margot on discovering Antwerp as a young punk through its Jewish quarter
by Js Margot Published January 19, 2020
THIRTY years ago, in Antwerp’s closed Jewish community, the door of the Schneider family opened to me. It never shut again.
For six years I tutored the Schneider children after school. Thanks to this Orthodox Jewish family, I gained a better understanding of my city, my country and the world – not to mention myself. I like to think the Schneiders would say the same of me. Even though our relationship had its ups and downs, which was as it should be.
Before I rang the Schneiders’ doorbell, I – like so many of the city’s non-Jewish citizens – hadn’t had any contact whatsoever with members of Antwerp’s Orthodox Jewish community. Despite living less than half a mile from the Jewish quarter. And despite the fact it was among the largest in Europe. I knew the underground stations below the neighbourhood better than the streets above. Diamant. Plantin-Moretus. Centraal Station. I knew the stops and the Metro lines like the back of my hand. But the people who lived above the ground? That was something I never stopped to think about.
Back then I had no reason to frequent the Jewish quarter, with its own shops, its own schools and its own customs. I was a godless, rebellious student of 21. I had no need of kosher groceries. I didn’t pray in any of the dozens of synagogues, big and small. None of my family or friends lived there. I lacked the curiosity – or courage? – to make the acquaintance of men with black breeches, fur hats and curling sidelocks.
The women fascinated me when I saw them in the park with their chestnut-brown, pageboy hairstyles and dark, ankle-length skirts but that was as far as it went. The divide seemed huge. I mean, I wore drainpipe jeans, short skirts, high heels and a red leather jacket with Sex Pistols, U2 and Simple Minds badges on the back. It was the 1980s.
Then the Schneider family posted a job vacancy on the university notice board: ‘Student (m/f) wanted as tutor.’ So off I went to apply, without my red leather.
Even that first visit to their house opened my eyes. I noticed that nearly all the doorposts in the neighbourhood had transparent tubes attached to them containing a rolled-up piece of paper. Everyone who crossed the threshold touched the little tube with their hand. I saw multi-branched candelabras in many windows. Hordes of children on scooters and bikes raced past me on the pavement, calling to each other in Yiddish. So independent and full of confidence.
Yet at the same time, when I rang the Schneiders’ doorbell I sensed a mistrust. It was a mistrust that lingered, certainly for the first months.
It took at least two years before I got the slightest understanding of its many strata. Starting when one of the Schneiders remarked in passing that a ‘whole generation of Jewish children grew up with the question: Daddy, what’s a grandfather?’ They’d never had one because the grannies and grandpas hadn’t returned from the camps. The Schneiders never spoke of the Holocaust. That was too painful. Instead, the talk was all about life, about the desire to live like their ancestors.
The Schneiders observed the rules of the Torah and the Talmud. Not a week went by without me encountering yet another curious tradition. At the same time I was initiated into the wonderful world of Jewish humour. The family liberated me from my own little bubble. In their house, something that had been unfamiliar to me took on colour, smell, shape, a face. These days I can no longer talk about ‘the Jewish community’; for me it’s become ‘our Jewish community’.
You get to know a city by getting lost in its streets and among its inhabitants. The most important bridges and access roads aren’t built by engineers but by friendships. Making friends with unknown neighbours isn’t so hard. But to do it, you do need to come up from your own underground. Mazel tov!
■ Margot’s Mazel Tov: The Story Of My Extraordinary Friendship With An Orthodox Jewish Family (Pushkin Press) is out on Thursday