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A world of difference

Mathilde Frot hears from the author of a new memoir that recalls her journey as an outsider to the Orthodox Jewish community of Antwerp

Mazel Tov by J S Margot is published by Pushkin.
Mazel Tov by J S Margot is published by Pushkin.

She knew their worlds were completely different – but nothing could have prepared one twenty-year-old staunch atheist for the myriad of Jewish customs she had to wade through after an Orthodox Jewish couple hired her to tutor their four children. 

In many ways, theirs was an alien world she knew nothing about, but one she slowly came to embrace and understand.

“Sometimes you need time to see that what you experienced was exceptional,” says J S Margot, who recently penned Mazel Tov, her memoir of a six-year stint with the modern, but strictly observant Schneider family during the late 1980s in Antwerp.

A humanities student born Catholic and wholly unfamiliar with the nuances of halacha, Margot found herself bewildered when one of the children turned down a chocolate croissant bought from a non-kosher bakery, or when Mr Schneider appeared reluctant to shake hands after their first meeting.

She recalls wondering whether the Tipp-Ex stains on her fingers might have been the reason behind his discomfort.

The Belgian-born author, whose memoir marks her first foray into autobiographical writing and was recently translated into English, will share her reflections of entering this unknown world in Orthodox Unorthodox: The Truth Behind The Lens, a panel discussion hosted by JW3 on Sunday.

She will be joined by Eli Rosen, who starred in and was the cultural adviser for the hit Netflix drama Unorthodox, as well as social activist Yehudis Fletcher for the discussion, which will be moderated by journalist Pamela Druckerman.

Margot’s book, she concedes, bears some resemblance to the Netflix show in that it offers an insider’s perspective into a “closed society” and its everyday life.

J S Margot

“It is a religious book, because Jewish everyday life is religious, but I don’t mention any psalms or quotes from the Torah and Talmud,” explains Margot, who is now 52 and based in Antwerp.

Her intimate portrait of the family members – who were all given pseudonyms in the book – was nearly 30 years in the making.

“I knew that writing the book could be the end of a friendship, and I needed to be ready for this,” she says, adding that she was partly inspired to write her memoir as a response to growing levels of antisemitism and racism.

 The publication of Mazel Tov did not end her friendship with the family, “but it was a risk that I was ready to take, and I needed 30 years,” says Margot, whose real name is Margot Vanderstraeten.

“I wanted a psychological distance from the family. All the children are now adults and they are very strong in their own independent lives, which was very important for me too.”

 As the author recounts in the book, her first job interview with the family did not go well.

Grilled about her private life by Mrs Schneider, she revealed that she was unmarried and living with her boyfriend, Nima, an Iranian refugee of the Khomeini regime.

 But, over time, both parties opened up, Margot says, and she learned “tolerance, the love of languages” and the confidence to be herself.

Her experiences with the family gave her lifelong strength, she says, like an injection of “extra vitamins”.

 While researching Mazel Tov, she drew from her still richly-detailed memories of the period and pored over diary entries, letters and postcards and contacted old acquaintances – a research process familiar to her as a freelance journalist.

Margot was initially uneasy about putting herself in the story. “I’m often a bit reluctant to use the first person pronoun. Maybe I’m old school,” she laughs.

 The book has counted among its readers Queen Mathilde of Belgium – an honour for the original Schneider family, who have in their home a framed portrait of the country’s royal family.

The monarch’s enthusiasm for the book, she says, “touched them deeply and they regret a little bit that they cannot come out and say ‘it’s about us’, because they won’t do that.”

Mazel Tov by J S Margot is published by Pushkin. Orthodox-Unorthodox: The Truth Behind The Lens is hosted by JW3 on Sunday, 14 June, 8pm, www.jw3.org.uk

 The book, which has been translated into German and French, has attracted a readership among strictly Orthodox communities, with many younger members getting in touch, she says.

“They want to talk to an outsider, but for them it’s difficult to find a complete outsider. My book is an in-between. I am an outsider, but I now know a little about Judaism,” she says.

 Margot is currently working on a sequel to revolve around the Chasidic community, set to be called Beyond Mazel Tov and published next year.

“That’s a completely new world for me, the ultra-Orthodox,” she says. “But once a journalist, always a journalist.”

Mazel Tov by J S Margot is published by Pushkin. Orthodox-Unorthodox: The Truth Behind The Lens is hosted by JW3 on Sunday, 14 June, 8pm, www.jw3.org.uk

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