Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Call Me Desperate

“Look, the father has no money.”
“How do you know?”
“The shadchan said ‘A poshiter yid.”
“That just means a normal person.”
“No. That’s the same as saying, ‘Somebody insignificant, I can think of nothing he is noteworthy of.”
“Then how do you know it is only money he doesn’t have? Maybe he has no brains either?”
“You’re learning!”
“Or yichus or personality or looks?”
“Right.”
“So what else did he say?”
“He said the girl is sweet.” This is uttered with a smirk of distaste.
“Ah? And that’s not good?”
“Motty, I thought you were listening? What is sweet? Sweet is pretty? No. Pretty is pretty. So Miss Sweet is not pretty.”
Motty is used to the logic of the Talmud and he recognises a straight line when he sees one.
“Ok, so she’s not pretty. Vus noch?”
“She’s got ‘a good heart.” Again her words hang starkly in their inverted commas.
“OK a ‘good heart’ I know this one!” Motty shouts jubilantly. “A good heart is a laidigayer and a Shaigetz whom you can find nothing at all nice to say about.”
“No,” she says wearily, “that’s for a boy. When you say a girl has a good heart it means she has no personality. It is usually joined up with, ‘She always makes peace among all the other girls.’
She is the one nobody wants to be friends with and she has a good heart for not fighting back.”
“So what else do we know about her and her family?”
“They don’t have any friends.”
“Nu, how do you know that?”
“He described them as quiet people living simple lives and not showing off.”
“Ok. So that’s it? That’s all you know?”
“She is average height, she has brown hair and brown eyes and she is eighteen and a half.”
“Wow! How did you figure all that out?”
“The shadchan told me.”
“Oh. So then we should tell him, why should we take a girl with no family no money and no looks and who everybody bullies for our son?”
She stops him with a stern look and holds the silence for a moment.
“He will ask you, ‘You are selling any better?”
“Nu, I will say, ‘Yes. Maybe I am not Rothschild but I make a living.”
“If the shadchen knew what you are earning, he would tell them about you what he told us about them.”
“My father is an important man.”
“Important to whom? To your mother? To his tenants? To the people he owes money to?
Leave me alone with important. If they are as important as your father I will be happy.”
“Shoin. So I will say, ‘I want a girl mit a bissel character. More a leader.”
“Ovay! You know what you are saying? They will start bringing you all the chutzpah girls . The loud ones. A leader? What's a leader? A leader is the one who gets all the others in trouble. A troublemaker they call a leader. Azah leader, I would lead her to the prison.”
“You are so clever my neshamele. So what should I say to the man?”
“Tell him he should make a time and we will meet these people and see what they got.”
“You sure?” he asks earnestly, uncertainty evident in his voice.
“Yes, Motty dear. And do me a favour; the kids are running around upstairs, go up there and show them who the man is in this house.”

Monday, July 06, 2009

JFS Between Ourselves

Britain's United Synagogue has determinedly struggled to portray Judaism as an alternative version of Christianity for as long as I can remember. The clergy look the same as the same as their Christian counterparts and usually sound roughly the same. Most are equally apologetic for any inconvenience their beliefs and customs might cause and equally eager to bend over backwards to accommodate any difference of opinion even at the expense of watering down their own quasi-beliefs.

True, our star does not look quite like the cross, and the crucifixion and resurrection are only remotely mirrored in secular Judaism's holocaust and independence worship, still to the week-end adherent the two religions are differentiated only by superficial minutiae.

I attended a lavish Bat-Mitzva party recently. It was in a popular, very upmarket venue and the menu was kosher style. I, the lone kosher guest was honoured with a specially ordered, enthusiastically cling wrapped and doubly sealed kosher meal. The theme was High School Musical and a talented troupe of 'high school' dancers entertained the guests between the elegant courses.

I had just remarked to my wife how 'normal' it must seem to the goyim who had probably come with a little trepidation to a Jewish religious party, when one of them leaned across the table to me. “I love your Jewish parties,” he screamed above the blaring rendition of Start of Something New. “They are so much more meaningful than ours.”

Israel's Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is unapologetic in his views. His declaration last week that the innocent victims of the holocaust were probably reincarnates who had sinned in previous lives raised a ruckus when it was reported in the media. This apparently is what he believes, based on his vast, intimate and probably unique perception of His workings. The great unlearned in the media, who in their utter ignorance chose to portray it as criticism of the departed are just as entitled to make their point as he was. Rabbi Yosef remains unperturbed and unrepentant.

Unfortunately, our Great British leaders have none of this decisive finality.We can only choose between the U.S. politically correct approach, which teaches us to think we are probably right but also to accept that the others might be right too; So we are the chosen people but if that offends anyone we can negotiate it away. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, the local Charedi leadership, teaching that we are the chosen people and if anybody says different they are fascists and antisemites.

It has not always been so. England's former Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jacobowitz was never one to mince his words. Among other controversial remarks, he risked the ire of his own community to publicly opine that eventually Israel would have to make peace with the Arabs. In a time when that view was considered almost blasphemous in his community, he suffered for his frankness but refused to qualify it. As one paper wrote when he passed away, “He is the one prelate whose preaching did not, in the views of Mrs Thatcher, give God a bad name.”

London's late Rav Padwa was not one to be pushed around either. He once spectacularly agreed to remove his rabbinate's revered stamp of approval from a kosher hotel in Bournmouth, after some pious wankers in his rabbinate complained there were TVs (gasp!) in the bedrooms. After promptly giving in to them he went on to declare that henceforth his hechsher would apply only to the food served there. As his supervision had always been limited to the kitchen and dining room anyway (to the best of my knowledge there were never any hidden video cameras under the eiderdowns) nothing actually changed.

The JFS policy of enrolling only orthodox certified Jews is a cynical attempt at maintaining as Orthodox a Jewish school where most children's exposure to yiddishkeit is practically limited to the school's 'Love of Israel' program and the occasional Bat Mitva bash.

The school will not maintain a Jewish character by refusing admittance to those it does not consider Jewish enough. Empirical evidence has shown that Jewish values are nurtured in the home, not school, and they are rarely eroded by exposure to non-Jews. Conversely the school Purim and Tu Bishvat celebrations so beloved by the secular parents for being universal, normal and inoffensive will not on their own nurture a new generation of committed Jews however goyrein the class.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Age of Experience

With age comes experience, they say.

I don't know whether the reason my views change is to do with experience gained or simply because we change as we age. What is certain is that much of the anger that boiled within me when I first started blogging has largely subsided or muted. I have come to accept that the lifestyle I promote is no more necessarily correct for everyone than the one I like to bash.

Indeed the Torah im Derech Ertetz model that worked so well in Germany before the war, and that I see as a model for chassidic neo-orthodoxy, actually relies on the societal norms to curb the worst of the most base of our urges. That does not necessarily work in today's world. We have mostly therefore chosen to shelter our children from most of the excesses of the permissive society. Exposure to the internet however is still supplying our youth with the same information that the precocious local youth is getting.

To illustrate: A young newly-wed I met, was briefly briefed on the facts of life a few weeks before he was wed. He had known before of course, and he had seen some porn once or twice on the web, but it was still quite an experience for him to be suddenly thrown into bed with a quivering virgin. He rose to the cause though, and they set off on life's journey together.

There was just one little thing bothering our man of the hour. She compared slightly unfavourably, in provocative prowess, with the Liliths in those movies. As time progressed and he assiduously studied 'her problem' on the net, the way boys today do, he naturally came to the conclusion she was frigid and needed help. Of course, when they heard, both families came up in arms and it was only with some very professional help and lots of diplomacy that friction was removed from two shattered families and restored to a truly messy conjugal bed.

You cannot just nibble at the apple of knowledge. All the little 'bits' interlink in a million possible ways and there is no way you can control the flow of information once it begins its path. I used to counter-argue that the Internet does have the function of providing the only loudspeaker inside the community. Like this blog gets away with saying what no one dares sign their name to.

I lied.

There is one man who dares to say what no one else dares to say. He lives in New York and his name is Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg. He is a man with a mission. An international mikve expert, he has a telephone hotline in Yiddish in which he regularly rails against sexual abuse of boys in the community. And he does not just rant. He spits into the blind eye of the community authorities. When he gets wind of anything untoward he warns the Rabbis in charge and if it is not dealt with immediately he informs the relevant authorities.

To be fair, I must add that I have spoken to many of these men of dark cloth myself and despite their dangerous and damaging silence, it seems to me that most are truly well-meaning. Most Charedi rabbis display almost pathetically naïve ignorance both of the gravity of the damage sexual abuse causes and the frequency at which it occurs. There is also a strong sense of defending the community by denying they do any wrong much like parents would if you accused their son of stealing.

I again stress that I disagree with those who state it is more widespread than most other places, or even that it is particularly widespread or generally condoned. But it does happen and the fact that touching does not involve a biblical prohibition should not diminish the gravity of the deed.

Rabbi Nuchem says all this and more. He publicly shamed the Jerusalem Rabbinical authorities, who had allowed a Mikve in their own back yard to turn into a den of iniquity right in their blind spot, into placing guards there who would protect the children from preying lechers. He has named many Schools and Yeshivas in the States who harbour molesters on their staff. He is listened to by thousands of Chassidim all over the world and he has suffered much abuse for it.

He has been assaulted and had his life threatened, he has had to call on the local police for protection. He has been called all the names in the book by sect after sect - each as one of theirs was targeted. (Before that each had smugly revelled in the other's discomfort.) But he persevered. He has been labelled a publicity seeker, but I have learned he declined to be interviewed by the British Guardian newspaper because their anti-Israeli image suggested that it would provoke negative publicity rather than momentum for change.

Reb Nuchem has made a very personal sacrifice for the sake of the pure little victims who would have their innocent lives shattered to relieve the fleeting urges of the sick and egotistical parasites who roam the education system like greedy diabetics in a candy store. He humbles me, who would not sacrifice my personal well being and that of my family for the cause. But I am still a good sight younger than him.

I sincerely hope that by the time I reach the age of his wisdom the problem will no longer exist.

Monday, January 05, 2009

terse verse

Do not be blinded by their lies
Hatreds as old as the hills are a playing here,
Rage, rage against appeasement of the beast.

Though wise men know sometimes dark is right
Our liberals strike but fork their lightning.
Do not get blinded by their lies.

Good men wave goodbye with heavy hearts.
Have the deadly deeds over, let’s live in peace.
Rage, rage against appeasement of the beast.

Wise men who truly know no race nor creed
Having learned too late they were used by It,
Do not get blinded by their lies.

Sad men, near death, who still focus with deadly sights
Blind eyes, could blaze with meteors and still be gay?
Rage, rage against appeasement of the beast.

And you, my Father, there on sad height,
Bless us instead with your fierce tears, I pray we
Do not get blinded by their lies.
Rage, rage against appeasement of the beast.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Gladiators

They were two Lubavitchers, a Bobover and a Satmerer, a woman about to make Aliya and a backpacker. A group of Jews united by chance in a place far from chassivilisation, now frozen together in time, forever seared into our collective memories as the victims in Chabad House, Mumbai.

I cannot begin to imagine the horror of their last hours. A police doctor who examined the dead remarked that the Israeli corpses evinced signs of having been exceptionally savagely tortured before being executed, to the extent that he could not bring himself to speak of the depravities he had remarked. The terrorists were probably aware that Chabad House did not represent the state of Israel and that, like all Chabad Houses in the world, it would house Jews of all denominations and persuasions. That on any given day it could contain anybody from a peacenik who had travelled to be a human shield in Saddam's Iraq, to a Golani on holiday and from a street musician junkie to a shy Chassidic mashgiach. The instructions they had received, to kill whites and westerners and especially Israelis, was sadly not an expression of blind hatred for Jews, it is likely that they had never met any Jews before. But from a cold strategic point of view the amount of media coverage dead Jews get is completely out of proportion to their number. And in this gruesome war, deaths on TV are a means as well as an end

It is a cruel irony that the main grievance of those who had directed and ordered this butchery -objection to the crusade like export of the miniskirt and fruit flavoured condoms under the guise of democracy- is one they share with the Chassidim. It is in the methods they use to combat it that the Jews and Muslims differ. Indeed, if you talk of a clash of civilisations then the finest warriors of both sides clashed in Chabad House, Mumbai.

Our side's weaponry is well known to me. Like any religious Jew who travels I have basked in Chabad's hospitality and kindness. I admit, to my shame, that like many of my Central European Chassidic friends I used to treat them with a little disdain; their wide fedora hats symbolising for us slightly wacky cousins who sometimes embarrass us a little with their exuberant religiosity. They often acknowledge it good-naturedly. However, after spending some time with them in their cultural oases I have been humbled by the true asceticism of these young families and more by their utter assurance that spreading God's love to lost Jews and making a kiddush Hashem is the real answer to all the problems of the world, from decaying society to Islamic terrorists.

It is a chilling irony that the network of Chabadpoints around the world is perceived by international terrorists as equal to an Israeli embassy. Ironic because I too, as a British Chassid, would probably prefer to be represented in a time of crisis by the apolitical local Chabad chapter than the Israeli embassy. Chabad has turned itself into a well oiled machine. While the other Chassidim, fearful that the permissive society would catch their young, enclosed themselves inside a greasy cocoon and banned anything that might open a window out, Chabad set up their training camps and sent scouts out into enemy territory. Instead of oppressing the strangers and misfits among them, Chabad nurtured the professionals and intellectuals that were joining and set to utilising their strengths. Their exemplary handling of the Mumbai crisis speaks for itself. Their media presence was uniquely professional and reliable. In the midst of the confusion and carnage they were cool and collected and even when the tragic loss of life became apparent, true to their crusade, their spokesman nobly called for an end to hate and extra prayer.

The equally well oiled machine they faced came armed too. With the very latest in high tech weaponry, an extreme indoctrination into the justness of their cause and, allegedly, a large amount of halal cocaine. They set to practicing their murderous craft with a vengeance. The kindest of hearts, the most endearing smile, the most attentive ear even the most helping of hands, stand no chance when up against the cutting edge of fanatical evil. It cannot be easy to torture, kill and mutilate a pregnant woman and a grandmother, scholars and rabbis, kind and gentle people who had dedicated their lives to spreading goodness and love to everyone they met, but they soldiered on the brave warriors of Allah the Merciful, and from their point of view they were victorious.

It is a scary irony that the Judaism that secular Jews in Israel, the USA and Britain hijacked to make it synonymous with the modern permissiveness that the fundamentalist Muslims so detest, is most easily recognised on my community. So it is we, the Chassidim, who not only are exposed to the petty hate on the trains and buses, while the secular Jews politely disregard our discomfort behind their copies of the Guardian, but are now also so handily easy to pick out in the crowd by any sniper or suicidal maniac who happens to be operational.

It is amusingly ironic to me that despite this, and despite having in the past many times slipped out of the garb when it was practical for me, I now wear it with even more pride than ever. I belong to The Army of God, and if it is my fate that one day I die for it, I will do so gladly rather than give in to a force that is evil to its very core. So base that it forces us to side with the USA, Britain and Israel in order to help defeat it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Who is John Gelt?

I don't think writing a blog can do much more for my cause than this one has. I had joy and some fun and my season in the sun, and with close to half a million hits, an achievement of sorts for the voice of the lone Chassid. I have managed to avoid being lynched and that is a victory of thoughts too.

I have come to the stage where what I have already written more or less covers what I have to say and challenging myself to find a new angle is not satisfying. I could put the points of what could have been the next four blogs in four paragraphs. It makes a far less enjoyable read but what difference does that make?

1) Growing consumerism is changing the face of Chassidus. When a young man can announce in shul that he left Kollel to afford a new kitchen to nary the bat of an eyelid, it is plain that our friend Lucre will eventually convert the bulk of Chassidim into (slim) curly locked MOs. It is the ascetics in kippot srugot, who forgo worldly pleasures for a gemara and stop under sniper fire to daven mincha that will be the Chassidim of tomorrow, even above the brave young Lubavitchers who do such fantastic work, practicing true chassidus with blind faith. Indeed the visit of the Belzer Rebbe to the victims in hospital of the heinous butchery in Merkaz Harav and the heartfelt bemoaning of it by the Satmar Rebbe seem to nod in that direction.

2) If we chassidim, the outsiders, wish to survive and prosper in a world that will polarise into them and us, we should make ourselves useful to society. An interesting idea that should be considered is to broaden the scope of the Hatzola into a Charedi civil emergency reserve for times of disaster. Zaka and Ezra L’marpeh have very successfully promoted the image of caring Chassidim as neutral emergency staff.

3) We are tired and sinking as we wait for moral or practical guidance from the tzaddikate. The Rabbinate is like an oracle. It can answer all your questions except the real one; What should I ask you? If we are to function as a society we must have government. Leaders who know how to lead and Rabbis -clearly briefed on the situation, the options and possible repercussions - they can turn to for guidance. These leaders need to be representative of the actual kehilla and not only those who pay a membership fee!
In the battle of civilisations, despite being ideologically closer to true religious Islam than Christianity, our laxity in promoting our own image to the outside world has allowed the secular and armchair yids to drag us with them into the Christian or humanist camps. We must not allow the non-religious establishment to represent us or to imply that their policy of grovelling and obsequious cameraderie with the establishment is the way of the Book to these people of It.

4) We must learn to admit our shame. Sex molestation is still going on in the community and we all know it. The names of people who prey on little boys must be handed over to the authorities to be dealt with. It is a disease that can sometimes be controlled but often not and it destroys lives! Oh, and Rabbi, please memorise this catchy little truism; Playing with a little yingele’s thingele, if you are not that yingele, is always sexual abuse!

However, this blog is not just my about my thoughts being read by other people. The Shaigetz living inside me has become part of who I am. The authority I gain by knowing how many people will read what I say colours not only the way I write but also the way I think and speak. I have become more assertive at work and have gained much in stature; such is the power of a blog.

I have become much prouder of being a Chassid, especially among goyim, since getting to know the Shaigetz, and much quicker to interact with them. The more I do the more I notice how many others are prepared to be as nice to you as you are to them, despite our inculcated notion that most goyim really don’t like us. (Funny to think they think we don’t like them.)

Lastly, I think to generate change might be easier than most would suppose. People welcome self-assured authority and true leadership. I am sure eventually someone with the necessary stature will emerge and effect some real and necessary change. But he will be flesh and blood not an ethereal presence. Maybe then someone will ask, “Do you think he was the Shaigetz?” and a (slim) Chassid will reply, “Who is John Gelt?”

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The World According to Carp

The morning dip in the mikve symbolises the washing away of impurities and a fresh start with a clean slate for the new day and although I have lapsed in the last few years and rarely still indulge, with the season of goodwill and cheer upon us and work on hold I thought what better time than now…

Like most mens mikves it is below ground and has a pretentious, six foot high turnstile gate to stop unwelcome guests from entering. I descend the stairs and the once familiar smell of shampoo, bleach and sweat assaults my nostrils. I take a neatly folded towel from the pile on a chair and push the changing room door open. I am hit by a blast of Vosene scented steam, the noise of running showers and the carefree chatter Chassidim only seem capable of in the mikve. My glasses cloud up immediately and I have to remove them to see where I am.

Astonishingly, nothing seems to have changed in the years since I last visited. The banal sickly green coloured floor to ceiling ceramic wall tiles that must have fallen off a local council building-site lorry, still lend an air of the public lavatory to the place. The rough wooden benches round the communal changing room and the metal hooks for the clothes above them are standard fixtures in every mikve. I used to be rather self conscious about this set up when I compared it to the luxury of the swimming baths where we all get our own cubicle. Seeing it now I realise it is no different to most sport club facilities I have visited. I smile to myself at one more indication we are not as different as we like to suppose.

The condensation was plainly not enough to cover my condescension and I am greeted with a gruff “Vus lachst di?” from a middle-aged heavyweight struggling to reach past his ample girth and pull his stretchy, off-white long-johns over his whiter shade of pale legs. “I am not laughing,” I reply as soon as I have collected myself but he is already busy untangling his trouser legs and ignores me.

I observe that the massive plastic bin for used towels is overflowing, evidence that a growing number of people take their ablutions here. With a dozen or more places like this in Stamford Hill alone, daily purity seems to be an in thing in chassidistan. I look around for a free spot to undress in and park myself next to a man I recognise. He considerately moves his shoes and clears a wider spot on the bench. He too can see I am no regular. As I fold my clothes and prepare my toiletries I listen to the men opposite discussing the new chastity laws.

I gather from their conversation that the Kedassia 9 have found a new way of marking their territory and are insisting that women buy only clothes that have been okayed by a group of checkers. I am encouraged to hear that the black-bearded guy with a very hairy chest and enormous pectorals does not like the idea of the hounds sniffing around his wife’s clothing and told his wife to ‘buy votever de hel she vonts’. Only one of the two others in the conversation thought maybe those exposed flesh seekers mean well, but even he did not sound too convinced.

As I head for the shower room armed only with a flannel and soap, Mr T. is expounding on how tzniusdik (chastely) yet beautifully his lovely wife dresses, to the delight of a young boy listening in with a voyeur’s intensity. The shower room contains five showers in a row, four of them in working order, making this one of the better maintained mikves in town. With the impressive row of shower gels and shampoos on display the old canard about Chassidim using only (kosher) margarine won’t wash anymore.

The hot water flows for about a minute each time you press the shower tap. With a good ten men in the room, each time a shower stops its inhabitant makes way for the next one to enter, in a bizarre sudsy musical showers. Our Chief Rabbi is getting a real washdown – That is a metaphor of course, I don’t mean the popular intellectual who wants to curb multiculturalism and has much to learn about the dignity of deference to traditional Torah values, but our own ineffectual scholarly leader who commands all the dignitaries who do defer, and is against any kinds of cultural awareness.

The issue is the latest fad for investment in Eastern European property. Apparently it has become popular in our circles to buy properties in these emerging economies, and a whole new class of bankrupts have lined the pockets of these emerging capitalists with the last of the savings of many a sorry opportunist. All the soapy limbed oracles are in agreement that for many of the uneducated newly weds we so avidly breed, such deals are their only chance of actually feeding their families.

A man with a face shaped like a ponderous fish with a very big mouth, sinewy thin limbs and a long pink loofah is adamant that the problem is that Chassidim do not want to work. If they did the goyim would employ them. "After all we are cleverer than them and better in every way."
"This is reeeely the truth." another one pipes up helpfully. Big mouth waves him dismissively down with his loofah.

“The real truth is we are too clever to work a whole day in an office for a measly paycheck. Ven you vont to live kosher you need real money and dis you don’t make by vorking vid your hands.” At this I notice a few irritated expressions from the other shower users and I realise that this orifice has spoken before.

The rabbi who had been studiously scrubbing himself departs hastily for the pool, and as that theme is further expounded and blame heaped upon the rabbinate, tzaddikate and sundry, I retire there too. The waters of the mikve itself are warm and murky and I'm grateful for the strong chlorine smell. Two more people are already relaxing in there and had obviously been listening to the speech from the showers. As the Rabbi ritually bobs under the water and comes up each five seconds gasping like a whale, a red bearded head observes that he was right to escape from there before someone asked him what he is doing to remedy the situation.

“Nothing, they do, except find new ways to make our life even more expensive. But it’s no use, nothing will change. Frummer and the Shaigetz have even given up complaining about it.” I leave the mikve into the freezing cold London morning knowing at least one of their problems can be remedied.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Falling Apples of My Eye

Children, even the best brought-up of all, like mine, have a nasty tendency to grow up. I should not have been surprised therefore when my son announced that he is considering going abroad to study next year. As the perspective merits of different yeshivas were bandied around and I glibly and lightly helped them weigh the merits of the brash but proud Jewishness of the American model against the arrogant but more spiritual intensity of the Jerusalem one, inside my heart sank down into my nether regions.

If there is one question that I have always avoided answering readers of this blog with any clarity it is about how I bring up my children, torn as I am between the intellectual freedom I have chosen and the closed insularity of the community I reside within.

The years I spent in yeshiva in Israel were among the most miserable of my life. Separated from my books, radio and indeed any contact with the outside world, I felt lost and trapped. The study of Talmud, although in fact difficult enough to be a satisfying challenge, was carried out under such duress and with such dogmatic simplicity that I spent every waking moment dreaming of what I would do when I was old enough to assert my independence and live in the way I saw fit.

The lack of physical comforts were easier to bear for one like me, brought up in the poverty inherent to families where learning is the only respected profession. As my father tarried in the evening with his true love in the hallowed halls of learning, we regularly sat alone to our meagre supper and my mother would remind us that to those who valued learning above those prized above rubies, greater rewards await in the kingdom come. That argument sometimes lacked conviction for me and I often swore to myself that my children would have a loving and warm family and as many creature comforts as I could possibly provide.

As soon as I was old enough to shake off the heavy hand of parental and rabbinical authority, I left, and celebrated my new-found freedom with gusto. The liberty to do as I pleased was a revelation, and I revelled in it. Yet the happiness and peace of mind I had envisaged and yearned for eluded me, and following each euphoric high I found myself tumbling into the inevitable and interminable nights of gnawing guilt, doubts, and the sure and certain knowledge that His vengeance would be visited upon me unless I repented and returned to the yiddishkeit I was brought up in.

I do not regret either the break with my past that forced me to examine and justify my lifestyle nor the decision to return and marry within the fold. The first, because I can today honestly say that any hardships I endure for my religion are of my own choosing, the latter, for the blessing of a perfect and loving soulmate and equally perfect children.

I know in my heart however, that although I have managed to subject my independence of spirit and effectively hide much of the rebellion that rules within my mind it is only because I went through all I did that I am able to thus straddle the fence. Those born outside our closed world and who chose to enter it, inevitably find themselves either unable to exercise their own freedom of thought or else unable to enjoy the serenity and utter conviction they so sought, and envy in the mindless sheep around them. It is for this reason that if I wish to offer my children a choice of membership or not they have to fully belong first.

And although I could sow the seeds of rebellion, and I dearly am tempted to with the more naturally rebellious of my offspring, I choose not to. Because revolution is painful and its outcome uncertain and the prospect of pain, and risks, should only be taken on by each individual for their self. Because we are all victims of circumstance, and I cannot force these upon them if I am not to be like my father, forcing my own choices upon my children.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Gospel According To Me

Once again Rosh Hashana aproaches. Once again I have to endure the familiar exhortations from the pulpit, for critical self-judgement. So once again I arise from my Shabbos afternoon nap, early, and off to listen to the yearly rant on how I should better myself.

I do not like listening to my Rabbi speak. Having gotten used to listening to speeches with a recognisable structure, a beginning a middle and an end, I find myself irritatedly editing what he is saying in my head, and deleting segments, at the same time as arguing with the points he is making. I wish I had a Rabbi who actually bothered enough to make it interesting for me and my kind.

Boredom begins to set in after a while and I start observing the shabby shul I daven in. Despite its recent makeover, it has the air of a dilapidated refugee camp. The walls are painted in the cheapest shade of brilliant white. The windows, curtainless and finger marked, have an opaque film on the inside, whether to stop people looking in or out I am never quite sure. Beyond them, metal grills protect us from the vandalism and terrorism we have been raised to expect.

The furniture, unlike in the formal churchstyle shuls, is light in colour and weight. The tables are Formica topped, metal framed and past their prime, The almost matching benches, with flip-up seats that can cause a painful pinch if a stray bit of flesh gets caught between them, are uncomfortable and remind me of those the litigants sit on while waiting to be called to the real bench. Up front the ambo faces the wall. Beneath four sorry looking candlesticks, the traditional Shivisi drawing, drawn by a 'local artist', and designed to inspire loftiness into him leading the prayer, has some of the naivete of Haitian art when observed from afar. Close up it is hideous! Another example of how, in our desire for insularity, we have deluded ourselves into ridiculous grandeur.

Happily, the room has nothing else that could be termed decoration, unless you count the various plaques at a million strategic spots commemorating all those acts of (often forced) kindness that made everything possible. Nothing that is, except for all the kinky, plastic covered velvetwork cloths on the bima (dais) and Amud (lectern). The plastic, of course only there to protect the exquisite needlework embroidery that commemorates yet another donation. The lighting, from bare flourescent tubes, is harsh and bright and a faint whiff of sweat and garlic bears testimony to the heavy, customary shabbos meal and many an afternoon nap.

The speech has come to the part where we all must remember to take a good look at how we behave. I wonder whether he does? I mean, I know he does look at how we behave. But does he look at how he does? Does he ever wonder if he might not be driving his big bus, with darkened windows and no stops, straight towards an abyss? Does he ever wonder whether his credentials as a Torah scholar qualify him to lead a generation of kids often dealing with challenges he cannot even fathom? Does he ever wonder whether he is preaching a gospel that cannot be for everyone?

Then again, do I? I too stand on on pulpit and rant but have I changed anything for the better? The obvious difference is that I have only a pulpit whereas the Rabbinic one stands for so much more. They claim to have the right to rule our lives, so they should have to prove they are doing it, well. If most people are happy and well adjusted. If the community is providing for itself, fiscally and emotionally, if the prospects are good and the future is looking rosy, then they obviously know what they are doing and we can all sleep tight. If not it might be time to look for a new bus driver in the new year.

Wishing all my fair readers a Shana Tova!