From North London to Brighton via New Zealand

Zalman Lewis describes his journey around the world and the different Passover rituals he has experi

Walking down Western Road in Central Brighton on a Friday night often attracts surprised looks, as revellers are taken aback by the sight of a bearded rabbi clad in black, usually flanked by a few Kippah-wearing guests. To me, the surprised looks are not unusual. In fact, I often get similar astonishment from residents of my home community in Stamford Hill, when they learn that I live and work in Brighton.

Although Brighton is only 50 odd miles south of ‘home’, Passover in Brighton is worlds apart from the experience I had when I was growing up at home. That’s not to say that the rituals or meaning have been altered, on the contrary, to me things are very much the same, yet altogether different at the same time. At my father’s Seder table, one could not help but notice my father’s passion for education, as he engaged us kids in lengthy conversation about the slavery and exodus. Time stood still at those Seders, and I often find myself wandering down memory lane, as I picture my late Bubba expertly pouring the contents of Elijah’s cup back into the wine decanter. The ritual, accompanied by a moving melody, was often held somewhere between three and four in the morning.

In Auckland, New Zealand, surrounded by 100 Israeli backpackers, Seder night was vastly different. I was studying in Melbourne in the late 1990s, and spent two Pesachs leading Seders in Auckland where wine flowed quicker than the pace the text was read; the Matzah was downed between chatter about skiing, bungee jumping and upcoming trips to India or Thailand.

Today I’m the father, but blessed to be surrounded by more than just my biological children; students and young adults also look to me for insight and inspiration. Gone are the long hours of discussion; gone are the many minutes of carefully analyses, both of text and of detail. But the soul of the evening remains intact. The spirit, the song, the joy and the essence of the evening, expressed both in the meaning and significance of freedom, as well in the simple act of consuming the Matzah, reveal the very core of what the evening represents for Jewish people the world over.

A trip across the globe, combined with the memories of Seder night at home, inspire me each Pesach to impart the lessons taught to me by my father, albeit greatly condensed, to the participants at our Seder in Brighton. And even if the guests are gone and we’re already fast asleep while in Stamford Hill my mother has just started serving the soup, the core meaning of the evening, its experiences and its joys remain the same.

Zalman Lewis studied in Talmudic schools in Manchester, Australia and New York, prior to moving to Brighton, where he and his California-born wife Shterna direct the Chabad Student Centre, serving Jewish students at University of Sussex and universities on the South Coast.
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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.