Monday, December 27, 2004

Manning the Tables

I once read somewhere that George Orwell’s Animal Farm (a parable belittling communism, in case you have never read it) was smuggled into the Soviet Union under the heading Agricultural Manuals. To paraphrase him; All Chassidim are equal but the boys are more equal than the girls. Let us leave aside for a moment the questions of a Bar Mitzva that boys do have and girls don’t. I suppose one could argue that not only Chassidim discriminate there. I do find it ironic that the likelihood for a girl to have a Bat Mitzva party is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of her keeping any mitzvoth.

Chassidim do not usually invite each other for meals unless it can be considered a Chessed (good deed). It simply is not done to unnecessarily put yourself into the position of sharing the table with a strange woman. My personal problem is slightly more immediate. I just don’t like the food.

Chassidim always eat the same foods Shabbos and Yomtov. On the Hill every lunch will start with salmon. I do like poached salmon. I do not like the overcooked cardboard variety in heavy syrup Chassidim inevitably cook. The gefilte fish that usually accompanies it has become far more edible since the young generation made it acceptable to buy the mixture done. I just wish they would add a line to the cooking instructions saying “If you are going to cook salmon in the same liquor add it for the last ten minutes only.”

Ei mit Zwiebel invariably follows the fish and is one of the most horrible tasting Jewish traditions ever.
In essence it is an egg salad with onion. The onion in remembrance of the Manna that fell in the desert and for some inexplicable reason, we are told, could taste like anything in the whole wide world except onion. (Someone has a sense of humour.) Because we are not allowed to eat an onion that was left tailed overnight, the onion cannot be kept chopped in the fridge but has to be hand-chopped shabbos morning. This, coupled with the idea that fat in enormous quantities makes it better, does not usually for a refined salad make.

The next round is cholent. I am a cholent eater. I eat it Friday afternoon to check it is good. I try it before going to bed to check it is still good and then just a sniff before davening in the morning to numb the olfactory nerves before the mikve. One has to be a seriously bad cook to completely ruin a cholent. Unfortunately Cholent happens to be the nutritional equivalent of an atom bomb.

It is in the meat course however where the real pitfalls lie. This is the course where the rules are less fast. Some go for cold cuts and salads in the summer. Some plump for cold roasted chicken with kugel and some eat decomposed meat from the cholent. The worst of all are the ones that try out something new especially for the guests. For some reason the Chassidic cooks I have met all seem to think adding sugar to food makes it gourmet. I have had to stoically eat chicken boiled in pineapple syrup, lettuce salad with strawberries and cranberries and countless other failed experiments, never forgetting to compliment the blushing Chef

Food at the Chassidic table is rarely put on serving plates and handed round. In our households Mummy puts food on your plate and you eat it. I was a little surprised, last time I ate out, to notice that the boys were served first and only then the girls - including my wife. As I am polite I waited for my wife to get her portion before I started to eat. I then noticed that my daughters were given children portions while the boys had had the same plates as I. This was too much for me. I took my plate and deliberately gave half my portion to my biggest daughter. The looks that passed between the host and his wife were a picture. I will probably never be invited again. Who cares?

I am considering publishing a manual on table etiquette, maybe called the Shulchan Aruch.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Strangers in our Midst

As Chassidim we have for years looked upon our Sephardim as second-class citizens. We don’t admit it of course, even to ourselves. We patronize them to their faces and pat ourselves on the backs in smug satisfaction every time we throw an expansive Shabbat Shalom at anyone looking suspiciously brown. Us racist? Some of our favourite mashgichim are brown.

Forget Dor Yesharim, the real skeletons in any real chassidish family line have wog written on them. Because that is where it really shows. As any BT will tell you, it is easy to gain acceptance into the Chassidishe crowd. To be invited to the weddings and danced with in Shul. To be learned with and shnorrered from and have kids in our schools. But to take part in a wedding is a different story. It’s OK if they marry each other but we prefer not to have them in our own family. It has nothing to do with colour of course; we hardly notice such things. It’s all to do with minhagim and dinim of course. The fact that the hapless individual has obviously been totally stripped of his culture and immersed himself in ours seems to count for little. Maybe, like cultivated roses, they have a habit of reverting after time.

This week Shas did the Sephardi community proud! They voted against the withdrawal and stayed true to their opinion, (mistaken as it is IMHO). By declining to join the coalition they forgo what must have been a lucrative bribe. Let UTJ and the other Frummer parties please take note. After thirty years of Haredi politics someone voted for their conscience not their pocket. Maybe one day we will be able to do that too.

The other thing Chassidim have a tendency towards is overprotection of our own. It is admirable that we do stick together and help each other out. There are times however when this can be taken too far. I am against protecting sex offenders from the arm of the law. I am against shielding any perpetrators of violent crime be it an abusive husband or angry landlord.

In Antwerp resides a Rebbe whom I happen to admire. He has been careful not to offend anybody since he came upon his throne. In the Chassidic world that is not easy and his position was not made easier by having a part of the town hostile to him from the start. He therefore pleasantly surprised me this Shabbes by ejecting a known Chassidic Arafat apologist from his Shul. Most Chassidim were angered by the pictures of those miserable idiots in their shtreimels and kaffiyes outside the high court in the Hague or singing tehillim outside the French hospital. None did anything about it though and my Rebbe did.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Ode to the Shaigetz

I call myself The Shaigetz because that is what they would call me if they knew who I am. I wear the name with pride because I would hate to be anything else.

The new generation of shgatzim is going to go places. There can be no doubt in my mind that Chassidism in its current state will implode. A generation of young people, brought up in third world conditions in the middle of an urban jungle, is going to need the tools to survive. When they realise the establishment has denied them these they will learn to question. Sadly it is only the more intelligent or the lucky that will still learn to adapt. I don’t want to think what will come of the rest but I believe the shgatzim will survive.

A true shaigetz is, in my definition, a believer in God and His mitzvos, who also sports a healthy dose of cynicism towards those who use Him for their business objectives. For me the appeal of the shaigetz is that he has been brought up in the repressive society of the Men in Black and yet has persevered. The true shaigetz is pragmatic enough to accept that he can never leave but astute enough to realize their way, in its current form, can never be his or His.

It encourages me when I notice there is a burgeoning community of shgatzim out there. It is impossible for me to get the details of all visitors to the blog but I know the vast majority comes from within the Chassidic communities of New York, London and Antwerp. I am not under the illusion that all that visit are shgatzim but I have no doubt many are and in any event, the fact that they visit and are interested to hear puts them in class above the mindless zombies who make and enforce the rules.

So welcome to The Shaigetzphere. Here few of us care (or is that dare?) to use our names yet somehow that just makes it truer. Here you either accept my opinion or reject it on its own merits. Would you be able to do that if I signed my name and you had to?

Here we are happy to read
The Hassid and even get into a discussion with him about his butter sandwich with chicken soup. We might secretly be glad he ain’t our son but we nonetheless see no reason to deny him the opportunity to make his point, and take the time to politely disagree.

Here too we can meet Dasi, sadly, as yet without a blog of her own, yet her wisdom sparkles here and there on other comments rooms in the shaigetzphere. Would we guys be able to appreciate her exquisite wit and wisdom in some front-room in Heimishtown? Would I dare to give her this compliment in public if we knew each other’s name? Same goes for Hoezentragerin who obviously sees herself as the power holding up the throne in her household.

Tamara lives in the capital of the shaigetzphere where the digit system starts at 4. She was the first to welcome me when I dropped in. She has a slightly different idea as to what a shaigetz is. But she’ll learn. I could go on forever listing the interesting personalities I have come across here from the kind and learned Yessir (whom I suspect to be part of the establishment) to the knowledgeable Doc who I wish was.

I am proud to have had a hand in forming this space and I hope it will further develop, as the new generation of shgatzim join and become active. I believe the day of reckoning that we all face in the great shteeble in the sky is an awesome occasion for the best of men. I am not among them. Still I suspect, as the Rebbishe prosecutor pompously reads out the long litany of my transgressions against Chassidus and its appointed henchmen, He will covertly lower one deific eyelid at me in conspiratorial wink.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Call Me Stupid

They banned TV and we all understood. They banned video and we went along. They banned the Internet and it is difficult not to accept that they have a point. Now it’s the mobile phone they have in their sights and it is time to say no.

For as long as any of us can remember there was kosher business and the business of kosher. Sadly it has been obvious for almost as long that the latter is no more a part of the first than vice versa. It is no longer even worthy of note in our community when the Rabbinate ‘discovers’ some product we have been using for years is no longer kosher, days before a kosher equivalent emerges. We acquiesce without a murmur as products are pushed in and out of our plates at the whim of the Hechsher givers, blessed be they.

As the store shelves swell with the welcome additions that really do make life easier we tend to keep mum as all our favourite brands are replaced by low quality, higher priced kosher versions. I do not need a hechsher (kosher certificate) on my sweet corn or my candles. I was happy drinking Ribena and using black pepper from goyishe sources.

All these however are relatively minor irritations.
I can still drop into my local supermarket and buy what I want. Provided of course, if I am not bothered by those besnooded, busybody, yachnes who stare at every product I bought as it sails past the checkout and exchange knowing glances with their equally dowdy counterparts further behind in the line.

Bank Leumi in Israel is about to launch a Shomer Shabbes credit card. Two of the eminent Rabbis behind it have already proved their worth – literally – in the kosher market before. Now they have come up with a credit card that only works in the weekdays and can only be used in stores that keep shabbes. The Haredi community in Israel does not use credit cards for whatever reason. The Rabbis are hoping with this new product to introduce the 21st century’s spending models into our community. If this scheme is successful I have no doubt it can be expanded, not only to encompass the Diaspora with its vastly superior spending habits, but also the snooping can be widened to include having spot checks on all our spending to make sure it is in accordance with the latest rules. It is certainly reassuring to know that their concern does not end on our plates.

The Chachamim seem to have discovered their economic muscle and they have to be stopped before it is too late. The mobile phone might have inherent dangers to those who seek to control lives and I did not argue when the school insisted the children were not allowed to use them, even though I would have been happier if my daughter had one when she walks home in the dark. The Israeli Rabbis have recently banned all mobile phone adverts in religious publications. The rumour mill talks of the big companies scrambling to get Rabbinic approval for a phone service with a hechsher. The new service will be stripped of all those filthy pornographic services like text messaging and service info. Wap GPRS and all other services will of course be blocked and –so as not encourage young people to use it too much - it will also be somewhat more expensive that the others. A minor detail really seeing as the bills are to be paid by credit card and Orange is open Shabbes…

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Find me a Catch

Whenever I get into a discussion with a goy about being a Chassid they ask me about our arranged marriages. Years ago the picture they had in their heads was the Fiddler on the Roof style Shadchente, selling her ‘jewels’ over sweet Russian tea, with no consultation with the future bride. Today, with the western media’s obsession with everything Muslim, the image is more of beautiful maidens married off at a young age to a man they do not know, while they are in love with somebody else. Neither could be further from the truth. Our matches are indeed arranged in the sense that we do not choose our own partners off the street. There is a big difference however between a forced marriage and an arranged one.

Our way is certainly no worse than any of the alternatives. I have seen no evidence to suggest that all the effort daters put into finding Miss Right result in happier families than those of who just went with the flow and married the FAV (first available virgin). I will be the first to acknowledge however that our matchmaking system is far from perfect.

There are two things fundamentally wrong with our shidduchim.
The first is the obsession that Chassidim have with gitte informatsiye (positive information)’. Of course everyone expects their best friends to say nice things about them. When it comes to shidduchim this goes much deeper. I feel that there is pressure on people to say what the prospective parent-in-law wants to hear, regardless of whether it is true or not. It ought not even be necessary to explain how damaging this can be, yet it is common knowledge that giving correct information about a prospective match, especially if that results in the shidduch not happening, is not looked upon kindly. The result is that many young people find themselves married to totally unsuitable partners. In our society, where divorce is not really an option, that can mean spending the best (or worst) part of your life married to someone you got under false pretences.

The second is a flaw that runs through most of our institutions; there is no built-in mechanism to protect the week and less privileged. If your parents are divorced, your brother is sick, your grandfather was in prison or your father did not repay a loan - ask not for whom the belle calls; she calls not for you. In any other society, where people are left to choose their own mates, the family and its skeletons are of secondary importance. I will not pretend that the concept of the unsuitable match does not exist outside of Chassidgrad. I do believe it to be true though that a boy or girl of average looks and intellect should not have to worry from the age of fifteen and up whether anybody normal will ever want to marry them. And I cannot believe it is right that a child who has already suffered the trauma of losing a parent should have to agonise over whether that fact also means the loss of any prospect of a good match.

The bloodsuckers at Dor Yesharim are already blocking matches for a growing list of potentially devastating genetic imperfections. A disturbing text I found on a site called ‘How to be fruitful and mulitply’ says An estimated one in seven Jews is a carrier of a genetic disorder prevalent among Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Oriental Jewish populations. In addition to Tay-Sachs, Canavan and Gaucher disease, the trust [Dor Yeshorim] hopes to test for cystic fibrosis, Fanconi anemia, Niemann-Pick disease, familial dysautonomia, mucolipidosis IV, glycogen storage disease and familial hyperinsulinism. The trust is also interested in expanding the test "panel" to include dominant diseases, such as Huntington disease, for which only one copy of a gene can cause the disease to be expressed, (my emphasis).” At the rate they are going there soon won’t be any FAVs left.

The least we can do for those who have not yet been excluded is to ensure they are not punished for the sins of their fathers - or their lack of one. And let us remember the phrase the puritans coined 'There but for the grace of God go I.'

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The no's to the right

There is no tradition of democracy among Chassidim. The idea that a leader should be chosen by the led is alien to us, who have had their leaders chosen by God himself since time immemorial. With a deity on high running the day-to-day show, voting is seen as a time for settling scores and paying debts. The recent presidential election in the states can be better understood with that background. The Jewish community voted largely for Kerry in the belief that their future would be rosier under the Democrats and that Israel would not unduly suffer from an embrace somewhat less close. The Chassidic community, their future safe in competent hands, voted for Bush in gratitude for what he did for Israel in the last term.

In Israel itself last week a similar attitude could be observed. The Charedi block in the Knesset, the only constituency that consistently refuses to shoulder any responsibility for the engagement in Gaza, voted unanimously against the disengagement. This despite it being common knowledge that at least one of the leaders has been vocal in his opposition to the continued occupation where lives are put at risk. Rumour has it that on the eve of the vote one of the older Rabbis called and cajoled or coerced him into line. I do not dare to presume what was promised or threatened in that phone-call but I do know that any last vestige of integrity the Charedi block had was scuppered by that vote despite a two page spread in a newspaper explaining why the no really meant yes.

How the Tzaddikate decided that it was in the interest of Charedism that the troops remain in Gaza is beyond me. The only excuse that I can get from anybody is that it was a punishment for Sharon for allowing the family allowance to large families to be cut (a reduction that was especially painful to the large charedi family). Like many over the hill personalities, the block try with grand gestures, to make up for their total lack of influence where it really matters. As it happens the vote was won by a wide enough margin to make the Charedi ‘no’ a minor irritation. Nobody who knows anything about Charedi politics doubts for one moment however, that if the vote had been close and the God-fearing vote had counted, it would not have been ageing rabbis threatening and cajoling but ageing politicians with even bigger budgets and even bigger sticks.

The result would have been the same because the actual issue of whether the Torah would be for or against staying in Gaza has never been discussed. The question discussed was, do we punish Sharon by abstaining or by voting no? The fact that one of the team actually had an opinion on the core question was not allowed to interfere with the real issues at hand.

Charedim do not participate in the running of the state. Or so we are told. There are no right and left wing charedi parties because we are supposed to be voting for single-issue parties. The mandate these parties have is to ensure that our rights are vigorously defended in the face of a society that sees us as parasites and leeches. The latter proves that they have not done their job at all well, at least from a PR point of view, while the mandate does not cover voting on issues as fundamental as the disengagement plan at all, much less doing so with the cavalier disrespect of a students union on pot.

These people are supposed to be representing Charedi Judaism, which includes me. I have no option of voting them out of office any more than I have an option of changing the American president. But I can make my voice heard and that I am doing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tie a pair of teffilin (round the old oak tree)

I am not much of a shiur (lesson) listener. I do not enjoy sitting and listening to someone expounding on a theme that sometimes has one minute of inspiration and has been padded out with another thirty or so minutes of brag. It seems a shame that if there was one thing we had to learn from our Lithuanian brethren it had to be the showbiz aspect of Torah.

What I hate even more is when some spark or other from one of the Baal Tshuva organisations comes and starts talking Hashkafa. I have spent excruciating hours sitting there listening to some or other pseudo-intellectual expounding on The Meaning of life According to Karpenkop (fish-head). Next to me some of my friends who consider themselves aufgeklärt will be nodding their heads in agreement with every laboured point; turning to me beaming their hope that I am impressed with the point made, but more importantly still their appreciation of it. Meanwhile my mind and soul silently scream out for Monty Python.

In fact some of the ‘proofs’ I have heard would not be out of place in Life of Brian. One famous ex-snooker player Maggid tries to convince us that there is a God because if not how comes the world works so perfectly? Art and culture can be conveniently belittled by referring the media as smellivision and all art as infantile scribblings. An ex underwear model assures us he has seen the world and we can take it from him that ours is the true path. If the world he saw is in any way similar to the way the world saw him I have no illusions as to why he should think so, but I am not convinced that is in any way relevant to most of us.

If I were a non-believer the last thing that would convince me is arguments as feeble as the ones I have heard so far. My worry is that if these are the guys that are bringing the lost sons home the wrong sons are being attracted. Are we really in need of trainloads of society’s misfits and dropouts, to swell the ranks of the depressed and hopeless we already have? After all, how long does it take before a new returnee discovers that his life is still all bent out of shape and all that’s really changed is the society he’s misfitting in?

In all honesty I sometimes look at the before and after pictures that these organisations like to print, and truly wonder whether it was a good idea to take some of those regular-looking guys and turn them into the bewildered, bearded and belittled individuals depicted being patronisingly ‘learned with’ by some fat ‘Rebbe’ who has proved his preparedness to accommodate the modern world by removing his jacket and exposing his enormous tzitzis.

As I have said before there are plenty of people, born into this gefilte-fish-cradle, who need help adjusting to it but who can be counted on to settle in and settle down. Let us spend our efforts on dealing with them instead of devising pathetic arguments to counter questions most have not even understood.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Ai du

The Torah is all for the marriage unit. The classical English translation of one of the first mentions of man reads; “…therefore a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall be as one flesh”. Apart from the fact that ‘cleave’ is hardly the word I would have chosen as the translation for ‘Vedubak’, there is no word in Hebrew for spouse so the question as to whether that works both ways remains open.

Chassidim will argue that the Torah has no need to tell a woman to leave her father and mother; she has to do that anyway. Indeed it is true that the laws regarding obedience to one’s parents do not apply to a married woman. She is supposed to give precedence to her husband at all times. In practice these are moot points in my opinion. The theories of dominance by right or subservience by law anyway are overridden by the plain family dynamic. I know families where the wife rules with a high hand and families where the husband is a true despot. Personality types and the atmosphere in the parental home seem to define the interpersonal relationships far more than what is taught in school.

What interests me more is the cleaving part. It seems that the Torah expects the couple to love and cherish each other in a way that is hardly possible within the rules and regulations we put out as law. The male of the species typically sits in kollel or goes to work for most of the day while the other half either works or looks after the king-size brood. In the evenings, most males will go back to shul after supper for Mincha Maariv (evening services) and are encouraged to learn some Torah then. When you remember that maariv in the summer can be as late as 11pm. it is clear that there is not much time left for cleaving.

With Yomtovs at the Rebbe taking a further bite out of any quality time and the separation of the sexes at weddings and functions now starting at the car park I sometimes wonder whether some of these couples would recognize their ‘other’ in a crowd.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Baumgarten was the Rav of a yekkishe shul on the Hill and a great man. He would greet the ladies of the congregation, waiting to walk home with their cloven, with a polite Good Shabbes as he left the shul. With the Chassidisation of the Hill today, no Rav would risk being drummed out of town for that. In fact one the commenters on the previous post brought to my attention a paper urging women to leave the shul as soon as the davening ends so as not to be seen by the men when they leave.

In my opinion it is some of the elders’ obsession with visual temptation that is stifling the cleaving of many young families. I do not believe that the generations before us, where couples walked home from shul together, went together to sheva brachot and barmitzvas, that were celebrated at home and in rooms with no mechitza (partition wall between men and women), were more likely to cleave with the wrong mate than we who are so well insulated from any potential pitfalls. Nor do I believe that the reason five year old girls are no longer allowed to enter the men’s shul even on Simchat Torah is because there is a real problem of anyone being led astray by their good looks. I have never noticed any risk of cleavage with a five-year-old girl and if the strict segregation we practice leads to impure thoughts about kids then it might be high time we abolished either the rules or the kids

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

One Set to Love

It is not quite true to say Chassidim do not engage in sports. It is true that the nature of the sports differs somewhat to that of the wider world and that contributes much towards the confusion surrounding this issue.

There are two sports popular with Chassidim. While the older generation tends to disapprove, many of the younger chassidim go swimming on a fairly regular basis. I have often observed a childish playfulness, in and around the swimming pool, that is usually so lacking in Chassidic males past the age of thirteen - when we become grown-up and all frivolity becomes a contemptible waste of time better spent learning. It seems that the repressed human behind the façade does dare to show its face when the body transient is almost naked and bareheaded. I am not going to elaborate on this, lest some bright spark on the Hill takes me up on it and starts campaigning to ban swimming altogether.

The other sport that is popular has just past its zenith for this year. It is in fact the only popular sport played by both Chassidim and Litvaks (OJ’s following the puritan form of Judaism originating in Lithuania). Its growing popularity as a spectator sport can be evidenced by the huge amount of photographic documentation in the press as well as in fan posters hanging in Sukkahs at this time of the year.

I am talking of course about Esrog and Lulav searching. Every year as we, the proletariat, go out to spend some of our hard earned cash on a lulav and esrog, the dream team kicks into action. In their established uniform of sagging, baggy black trousers with big billowing tzitzis and armed with magnifying glasses, toothpicks and Q-Tips, they set to work probing and looking for errant black dots on esrogim and split middle leaves on lulavs. As with any sport, proponents of the game actually believe that it has some value and watching them play you could almost imagine that it was being done for God’s sake.

To see a match all you have to do is go to your local esrog seller. Of course the top stars have their own surgery where eager fans will bring what they think is a great esrog and then queue for hours sometimes to play with the star. Most will have theirs disdainfully dismissed or cavalierly okayed as the case might be. It is all worth it however because once or twice a day the player will peer over his glasses at some lucky groupie and say “A Hiddur” (a beauty) allowing him to go home on cloud nine and remain there until the last person in shul has heard of it. In every esrog store however there will always be a couple of minor starlets in action, earnestly battling over the virtues of ones’ sexy shape against the flawless skin of the other.

Of course none of the star players will ever admit openly they can hardly wait for Yom Kippur to end just so that the championships can begin. Nor will they acknowledge that the real quest for the perfect esrog is not played out on the field of citrus peel but in the hearts and minds of those that buy them. For esroletes the sport is all about black dots vs. brown crusts and in the league table for the highest paid Esrog, like the Olympics, it is all about winning, effort or means do not count.

So let the sports fans wax lyrical about their campaign to find the immaculate exception while I go about my work - to help finance their hobby.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Begging My Pardon

I nurse a very special bit of my disdain for my whoever came up with the idea of buying an Aliya for someone you want to appease. I can think of no more cynical a way of mending bridges with someone than buying something for them, in public, that they then have to come over to thank you for.

A Jew and a goy were once walking down a dark alley at night when they saw an evil looking character coming towards them.
Petrified and convinced they were about to be mugged the Jew turned to his friend and said ‘let me give you that ten quid I owe you.’

Yom Kippur is the traditional time for begging forgiveness from all those you might have offended through the year.
In this period we are reminded, by all and sundry, to get the forgiveness of our friends before we ask that of God. I must say though that God, in his infinite mercy and his well documented wish to spread forgiveness far wide, might be happy to hand it out at the drop of a hat. I am no God. My mercies are spread somewhat thinner and I do not feel inclined to be forgiving to the scroungers who wait until my moment of weakness, just before Kol Nidre, to come to ask for it.

It is not that I am not inclined to forgive anybody who might have slighted me. I do however expect those who want my forgiveness to really want it. Leaving it to the very last moment causes me at best to question the asker’s sincerity. I do admit that I too have on occasion felt pangs of remorse over some vestiges of bitterness that have accumulated over the year and have even at times had the inclination to go over to some in an attempt to pave the way to a better understanding for the future. I then have to weigh the advantages of getting my quick fix of sanctimonious glow versus the knowledge that whoever is on the receiving end of my magnanimity is probably feeling a lot like the goy in the alley.

So you guys out there who think you know who I am, learn this; If you do feel like appeasing me don’t come crawling before Kol Nidre because I will not reply. Just so that you don’t think I’m being unreasonable however, I will accept an Aliya on Yom Kippur as the best alternative in the circumstances.

Wishing you all a Gmar Tov and a very happy new year.

Monday, September 13, 2004

From the mouths of babes

I was brought up as a Chassid, in a home where contact with anyone less than ultra-orthodox was well nigh limited to decorators and storekeepers. Until my barmitzva I believed that anyone who shaved their beard or wore fashionable clothes was destined eventually to spend eternity in hell, unless they could be gotten off in the heavenly court with the Tinuk shenisba excuse (our equivalent of ‘They know not what they do’).

Since I rebelled at a certain age I have changed my own opinion somewhat and my perception of both Chassidim and the more liberal-minded has gone through several metamorphoses. I have discovered that many a deeply religious fervour can lie hidden behind a highly assimilated exterior and, as those many less religious people at work who used to call me Rabbi have learned, there can lurk a disturbing void behind the beard, big hat and dark coat too.

This week the Slichot dragged me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning at the annual start of a calculated and highly effective routine of ever more intense traditions and symbolic ceremonies designed to set the stage for my ultimate showdown in Shul Rosh-Hashana. The accumulated guilt of the entire year gradually comes to the fore to climax as I find myself standing before my maker waiting for the shofar to blow, feeling an abject failure unworthy even to ask Him for the things I need.

I was thus pleased to be humbled this weekend by a woman whom I had hitherto regarded as completely devoid of religious sentiment. We were discussing Rosh Hashana and I could not resist asking what she felt coming to Shul for the first of two annual visits and whether she did not feel like an impostor arriving at the party of a host who had been callously ignored all year. “No,” she said “I don’t feel that way at all. I see Rosh Hashana as a celebration of God’s reign. I don’t feel bad celebrating the Royal Birthday just because I haven’t thought about the queen once all year and I don’t think Americans who avoided the draft feel foolish celebrating the fourth of July. God says I belong and if I belong I can celebrate. If God loves me, as everyone assures me He does, then He will be happy to see me at least once.”

In this coming year, that by all indications will be the one when we finally acknowledge that the western world is at war with Muslim fundamentalism, I believe we Jews will once again find ourselves united before a common enemy. There is a belief among some that we the Chassidim have more in common with the fundamentalists than the assimilated Jew. To certain extent this is true were it not for our passionate belief that every one of God’s creations is worthy of his compassion, and certainly ours no less. I am grateful to her for showing me that side of our religion and reviving in me the chutzpah to beg for Him for a peaceful year.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Trip Up

Traveling for Yomtov to the Rebbe is another one of those Chassid things I just don’t understand. Did the old tzaddikim never envisage what the effect would be on a girl growing up in a family where the father is never home Yomtov? For those who are not familiar with this concept, let me explain. Genuine Chassidim of former times used to travel over Yomtov to visit their Rebbe in the village he lived. The journeys were often long and rough and much of Chassidic folk tales are of the travelers-tale variety. This probably adds considerably to the mystique of today’s highly popular trips For Yomtov To The Rebbe.

Travel today is less dangerous I suppose. You could still face the ultimate test of your strength, when you arrive last onto a plane, with too much hand-baggage, to find yourself holding the card to the only place left and it’s next to a woman. Naturally as proud bearer of the flag you will explain to the two hapless stewardesses with finality (and your eyes averted of course) that you “cannot possibly sit next to woman. It’s in the religion.” Some have been known to fail this test.

Not every chassidus (Chassidic sect) is equally notorious for being family Yomtov poopers it has to be said. Some chassidi no longer encourage the very long Yomtov trips, invariably undertaken by young heralds on their own. The damsels are left at home to fend for the hearth- and that should be read literally, with the hearth holding a fair few toddlers too. Only one notable exception still has young men coming for three even four weeks to immerse themselves totally in the loving embrace of the group, yet I believe most still encourage their adherents at least to prove it over Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.

I have never been quite sure what the real reason is for these trips. I am sure a lot of it has as much to do with male bonding as the strengthening of those divine bonds. And have oftentimes wondered whether there is not some flaw in the marital ties of those men who prefer a month with their friends and Rebbe to the marital brood.

I have to steel myself not to cringe when I see some of those Rebbe-widows forlornly standing there outside shul after davening, waiting for a nebbich of a thirteen-year-old boy whose job it is to be the Man in the house for Yomtov. As a thirteen-year-old girl once told me “We never have a Yomtov meal except when we are invited out. My mother does not bother when my father is not there.” I have to keep mum when I am earnestly explained that the school fees have to got rise, again, because so many of the younger parents cannot afford to pay at all. I suppose they back-pack to Israel or the States.

I have no problem with my own son going to his Rebbe. As long as he is young and single and his bills are paid let him have his fun. I regularly insist at home that trips to the Rebbe alone are a bacheloric luxury and that they will have to stop when he is married. And I hope he will listen to his dad even though his never did.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Quaver vs Quaver

Daniel Barenboim is a fine conductor. The fact that he was the first to conduct Wagner in Israel probably says as much about his passion for his music as it does about his empathy for his fellow Jews. The man has done some admirable things in bringing musicians from all races and creeds to play music together. And indeed it was the man who caught my attention, not the musician. In an extensive interview on BBC TV’s HardTalk or similar program, he was asked about all facets of his life. His answers were measured and intelligent and he came across as a thinker, a liberal man, idealistic, maybe to the point of naiveté. It was only right at the end of the interview that he was asked the inevitable question ‘What do you think about the separation wall?’ that he lost my sympathy.

In the fashion I have come to recognize among the many Jews I know who spend much of their time with goyim (especially the intellectual left-leaning types), he was quick to distance himself from the entire controversy and to condemn it as illegal. He has his right to this opinion and for all I know he might be right. My irritation started when he expounded on his theme as he seemed to bask in the unspoken approval of the interviewer. He went on to explain, in a particularly condescending way, that the wall does not bring security, does not save lives and on the contrary will only bring more grief and more death to the country. Listening to him you could be forgiven for thinking this was the defence-secretary or the army chief-of-staff.

I don’t know in what capacity he answered the last question. I certainly don’t understand in what capacity he was asked it and I resent the implication that by being Jewish and active on the political-left’s propaganda machine, his opinion on the security impact of the wall, matters. What is certain to me is that the people on that side politically, tend to use every opportunity to plug their sound bites for maximum effect and are shameless in their promotion of their ideology.

Borat, or Sasha Cohen, formerly best known for his Ali-G character has shown me the best of genuine Jewish politics-in-art, with his latest shenanigans in a town called Tuscon in the USA. In his own inimitable style he gets on the stage in a little town tavern and starts picking out a song, rather shakily, on his guitar as he sings about the problems of transport in his native Khazakstan. The crowd, about a dozen locals, look bemused and not especially interested, but sportingly claps along a little to “Throw transport down the well”. In the next verse the problem is the Jews -taking all the money and never giving it back- who need to be thrown down the well, and the enthusiasm in the crowd visibly grows. (See clip here)

By the time he repeats the refrain the third time the whole audience seems to be singing along and one woman is even putting her fingers up as horns. A disturbing scene that is telling and revealing yet still entertaining and hysterically funny when you realise who the joke is on in the end.

Sasha Cohen (who incidentally describes himself as an orthodox Jew) knows that he cannot say there is a problem of anti-Semitism even in the United States of America because nobody will believe him. Instead he uses his medium as a TV comedian to prove the point itself. Of course we can argue as to whether his point is a good one, or a valid one but at least it is well made, relevant and in keeping with his profession.

Let Barenboim show me a message with his music as powerful as that and I will respect his music and his opinion more.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Peyos and Queus (part 2)

Most Chassidim do not look down on Goyim. The reason Goyim get the impression that we do, is because they misinterpret our lack of common courtesy and consideration, as a sign of disrespect. In fact this is our normal behaviour and we dole it out fairly and in equal measure to Jew and Goy alike.

One could argue that informality in religion is the hallmark of Chassidus. The Shtiebel differs from a Shul (Synagogue) in precisely that. Where the Shul is supposed to be strictly a place of worship, the Shtiebel was created to be a kind of clubhouse for hanging out with God. Thus standing around and chatting it is allowed in a Shtiebel but not in a Shul. In addition to prayer the Shtiebel is used for feasting and study, research and learning, chatting and singing and communal gathering, while none of the latter is allowed in a Shul.

The Chassidic culture too is one of informality and within the confines of our bubble it works remarkably well. It is this familiarity and lack of ceremony which allows the rich and the poor, the old and the young to be part of the same social group. The successful lawyer, the physician and the (literally) great unwashed can mingle together and fuse into the single group. All strengths complement all weaknesses and few communities can claim to be as classless as ours. It is important to remember though, that informality is a concession that has to be granted. It is all well and good between consenting adults but hardly appropriate with strangers outside.

Chassidim are not taught to hold the door open for another to pass nor do they beg their excuses before pushing past. They think nothing of interrupting two people talking and are not averse to taking the last piece of schmaltz herring - even after six of them when others have had none. Chassidim among themselves are used to this and indeed expect nothing else. Just as between siblings it is neither unusual nor sinister to hear “Shut up moron.”, but on the street it is both, much of our casual behaviour in Shtiebel is inappropriate outside. Indeed I have heard from many who came to Chassidus later in life that that this is one of the hardest adjustments they have to make.

Unfortunately as we Chassidim become ever more insular and isolated so we are losing touch with the impression we make on those outside. What to us seems like friendly informality often comes across as arrogance and callousness and disrespect. So next time a chassid pushes you out of the way as you read the notice board, or a child allows a door to swing closed in your face, try telling them that what they just did is called rude. He will probably snigger and question your lineage but at least it’s occuring inside and, frankly, who

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Choices, Choices.
I have failed my parents they tell me. Yes, they can tolerate the lifestyle I have chosen but they still feel that by lowering my standards of chassidicity I have essentially let them down. I hope they really mean I have let God down, because if they mean them, that has to be one of the most egotistical things a parent can say.

I am a chassid because I was born one. If I had the choice to undo my first twenty years and be brought up as an MO I certainly would. I find the MO approach to be both more humane and more Godly and I have great respect for some of them. After all, the average Chassid can hardly accept credit for not eating treifa when they feel guilty for buying a slice of Pizza. And that is no exaggeration! In Stamford Hill there are no proper kosher restaurants because most Chassidim are brought up understanding it is vulgar to be seen eating out. The MO, on the other hand, has to regularly make real sacrifices to keep kosher. Our system of denial and disparagement of anything that might lead to a temptation has also managed to almost obliterate any possibility of resisting it. I wonder therefore, whether for God’s sake I should be bringing my kids up that way?

The question is a complicated one. There seems to me to be no doubt, the choices I make will affect my children’s lives irrevocably, and I fear I might be selfishly doing exactly what my parents did. I am utterly convinced that for my children to be able to choose whether to be a Chassid or not they have to be brought up as Chassidim. There is no way effectively that someone brought up any other way will ever fit in really comfortably in a Chassidic community. To become MO, on the other hand, would be relatively easy, were it not for the pressure put on by the community with the threats of banishment and the ever present guilt.

I have been living the lifestyle I chose for twenty years now. I have seen my difficult times behind me and can claim to be settled now. Yet for my children exactly the same story might be about to begin. Having gone to Chassidic high school I now offer them the choice of yeshiva or study. In all honesty these are empty words though, because without a GCSE degree how will they go to study? And then there’s the peer pressure from their friends, all Chassidim and all they have.

The reason I chose to bring them up this way is because I thought my support would be enough to help them overcome all those, if that was what they wanted to do. Yet today I realise I paid a heavy price and maybe it is more humane to deny them some choices…

I am off for my annual holiday. As my wife has no idea I write this blog, although I know she is an avid reader, I can hardly justify needing an Internet connection in the place I will be. So I will sign out now for three weeks and ponder what I just wrote.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Cleanliness next to Bognor Regis
I used to have a poster on the wall of my office that read, “When all is said and done there’s been far more said than done”. There is that wonderful bit in Pulp Fiction with the Assassin who quotes from the Bible before shooting, because that sounded real cold-blooded, but he never actually thought about what it meant. I always loved the wittiness of the poster but never really thought about what it meant. As I listened to the umpteenth story of someone being told by the landlady of a holiday house that Jews leave the place dirty, I suddenly understood that poster.
The community has been divided, for as long as I can remember, into two camps. The Holiday Schmitzers and the Pitzers. The Schmitzers are slobs, famous for koshering their holiday kitchens as if it were for Pesach. They furiously scrub the whole place down then pour scalding water over everything they can. Then, armed with paper and tape, they proceed to gift wrap the counters and cookers and fridges and all in a frenzy of paper and foil. Anyone looking on from outside could be impressed by the obsessive cleanliness these slobs adhere to. A visit a week later will usually reveal the original paper all still there but now looking slightly more lived in. Meaty stains on one side only and cereal remains on the other stand testament to the strict adherence to some laws, if not those of hygiene, while a heap of black plastic bags is stuffed with enough paper and plastic-ware to clear a hectare of rain forest. The general level of tidiness completes the picture of laidback bliss. They will usually leave the apartment far tidier than it was most of the time they were there just by clearing up most of the trash to take back home with them. So they just don’t get what the landlord is in such a twist about - and he gets labeled an anti-Semite.
The Pitzers on the other hand have heard all these stories and they are paranoid about being bundled in with them. So they become obsessive cleaners and they won’t leave the house after breakfast till all the plates are dried and back in the cupboard and the back steps have been scrubbed. They leave flowers behind in a vase when they leave, having waxed the kitchen floor and bought a special product to polish the taps.
Although both are wrong I much prefer the latter, of course. Unfortunately they are the minority, as we all know. An old Yiddish joke is doing the rounds again now that I have to repeat for those who do not go regularly to shul on our Hill. When God made the Passover miracle and killed all the Egyptian first-born, He instructed the Jews to make a sign in blood on their doorposts so that it should be obvious which is a Jewish house. “Why”, asked some Jewish scholar, “did God need to have a sign made on the door when anybody can recognize a Jewish house just by the state it’s in?” His Rebbe sagely replied, “That happened before the Jews left Egypt, the Torah had not yet been given then”.
It is certainly true that it is harder to keep a place tidy when you have had to bring a mountain of food with you that is unavailable there. Having to bring all your kitchen utensils doesn’t help either and the endless changes of clothing that seem necessary even on holiday compounds all that. I therefore disagree with those who strive for perfection just to deflect any possible and unjustified criticism almost as much as I resent the Schmitzers.
My severe criticism I reserve for the Rabbanim. The few hard-core schmitzers have been doing their dirty job for years. The issue, like the joke, has been around for years, yet no Rabbi has roundly condemned this behaviour and punished a perpetrator. The reason they don’t might have to do with the fact that number of their own could be among the culprits, or it could just be that the whole subject is just not sexy enough to bother about. We the people however do think it is, we have been saying it and hearing it for years and we are still waiting for action. The honest truth is there is nothing they can do. The Rabbi’s are powerless because they have lost our respect. And that is what counts when all is said and done.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Charge of the right brigade

In Antwerp a 15-year-old yeshiva boy is stabbed by one of a group of Arab boys out patrolling the streets armed with clubs and knives. In London unknown arsonists burn a couple of shuls. In Paris a young mother riding the train with her baby is accosted by a group of youths, mostly Arab, who take her purse. When they see her address is in one the Jewish neighbourhoods they cut off her hair and her clothes and draw swastikas on her belly. For good measure they then overturn the buggy with her baby in it.

As a chassid, anti-Semitic attacks, ranging from verbal abuse to physical attack, albeit usually not really dangerous, are nothing new to me. I have been used to it for as long as I remember. When I was very young it was the teddy boys, then it was the punks and later it was the blacks that scared the shit out of us as we walked the streets. I have grown older and wiser since then and have learned to make the distinction between a few kids out for some fun who find someone weaker than them, and serious, potentially dangerous, hate.

With hindsight it easy to see that the punks and teds were wearing their threatening exteriors as a uniform or a front. I actually work today with a former punk who used to frighten the life out of me when I was a kid. He is a lawyer today and good friend. As he puts it ‘a thirteen year old boy wearing a big black hat, a long coat and a terrified expression is an obvious target for anyone out for a laugh and nursing an impaired self-esteem’. The blacks in Stamford Hill actually get on with the Chassidim probably better than the whites do, maybe because we have both known discrimination and have moved on.

The new threat we are facing today is far more ominous however. This is not mischief by testosterone driven drop-outs. The new threat we face from Muslims on the street is organised and focused. It is driven by a well oiled engine that is teaching hate to their youths on tapes imported from the middle-east and spoken by terrorists and murderers. To a generation of young Muslims, whipped into a frenzy by their Imams and youth club leaders and offered tacit support by the one-sided and sometimes downright provocative and false reports by the media, headed by the BBC and other local news channels, the visible Chassidic Jews on the street have become the target for all their hate.

To make matters worse, the comfortable Jews in Whitehall and in positions of power, hiding behind their goyishe exteriors and knowing no immediate threat to their own precious hides, take every opportunity to further their own particular brand of comfortable Judaism and immediately bring up their trump card; Anti-Semitism and the holocaust.

I, as a chassid, am fed up with that game. I do not need perpetual victimhood to define my Jewishness. The problem I face on the street today has nothing to do with nazis and everything to do with Muslim terrorists and their war against America and Israel. In Antwerp indeed the extreme right are the ones doing more than anyone to protect the Jews, and all the traditionally anti-immigrant movements in Europe are today much more bothered by Muslims than by Jews. It is indeed possible that the bare-headed ‘Jewish’ machers (busybodies) are right and as soon as the Muslim ‘problem’ is solved the focus will turn back to us, but in all honesty I don’t see that day coming any time soon and I prefer to live for the future than for the past.

Whatever the machers have on their agenda I will not feel safer because the BBC shows a few more holocaust documentaries on TV nor does it help me if all the children in Europe learn about the evils of anti-semitism at school. If the Board of deputies and their ilk want to help me they should make all their members and maybe the directors of the BBC too, go out on the streets for a few days wearing kappels and then they will see for themselves what recommendations need to be made. From within their ivory towers they are more help for the terrorists than for us on the real frontline.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

See how they run

Twenty years ago the day I went to the cinema for the first time. I think it was Footloose I saw. And to me it seemed like it was talking directly to me. A story of one boy’s fight with all the elders of the town to bring music to the youth. When I look back at me then I see exactly what the young shaigetz of today must be seeing and I understand exactly where they are coming from. But I have to add that there is a difference. The shaigetz of today has no passion for revolution, no urge to tear down walls. The shaigetz of today is wallowing in self-pity and indulging in self-destruction.

We have in our zeal created a monster called Heimishkeit. An all-encompassing mind control that freezes individuality, stifles creativity and strangles independence. We taught an entire generation that we the Heimishe know everything best and have therefore negated all knowledge from outside. We ourselves therefore know best how children should be educated and if modern psychology suggests different ‘we know who knows best’. We also know that people are incapable of self-control and therefore anything that might tempt them must be banned altogether. That is why universities are treif and learning of any kind other than holy are out.

Although I would not be classed a real shaigetz by most people who know me today I was at one time. Although that has all but been forgotten by most I flatter myself that I came out better for the fight. I know I could never have achieved what I have if I had always been a good little boy and I feel a good Jew inside. True there is a tinge of guilt that lurks around inside, occasionally sending little twinges out to remind me it’s there. But that is a small price to pay for what I do have.

Unfortunately the system that backfired so spectacularly with guys my age, has worked perfectly with the victims of today. They have come off the conveyor belt disillusioned, hopeless, helpless and lost. They will not become the leaders of tomorrow because they have neither the wisdom of the Tzaddikim nor the knowledge and experience of the Shgatzim. So they effectively self-destruct, either literally or by leaving the community altogether.

So this is a call to you youngsters hanging around trying to look cool. Don’t believe those Rebbes who taught you that they know best what Yiddishkeit is all about. If you think you know what is best for you and you feel God’s ok with it, then go ahead and do it and settle the bill with him. But do it inside and let the naysayers be damned. One day there will be a day of reckoning and my bets are firmly on one side.

This is also your answer you of those recent mails.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Sex Change

I had a post about the salt levels in our food prepared for posting. I feel unable however to ignore what has been playing out in the commenting on the last post and I therefore find myself coming back to the issue of sex education.

There was a story a while back in Bne Beraq when some odious young man forced himself into the confidence of some newlywed Chassidic ladies as a Mashpiya (advisor in religious law and customs) and, using that authority, sexually abused them. I believe he got a long prison sentence. Rumour has it that the reason it did get so far is because there was a daughter of a highly illustrious family among his victims.

Any regular reader of the Charedi press will know that the list of subjects that do not appear there includes anything critical of our way of life and anything concerning sex. This story was therefore mainly followed in the secular press and in the hallowed halls of Hydepark’s Bechadrei Chareidim. What was perhaps most disturbing, if not surprising, was the almost total lack of any action taken to correct the situation that allowed this to occur.

In an age long passed it might have been praiseworthy to manage to bring a couple together until the day of their marriage still ignorant as to the existence of sex. In the Chassidic world stories still do the rounds of individuals who had to be brought a glass of water on the morning of their wedding day after the Rabbi clumsily broke the news as to what the climax of the day’s program consisted of. In fact I still look back fondly on the moment when I had to go through the ordeal of pretending to look shocked when I was gravely informed by my Madrich what I was expected to do. Probably mistaking my carefully rehearsed surprise for revulsion or shock, he patted me on my back and solemnly informed me that I need not be worried I would get used to it. He then proceeded to smugly assure me that he himself not only did it but thoroughly enjoyed it, effectively making any further need for false revulsion totally redundant.

I do not think many youngsters today reach the end of their adolescence in ignorant bliss. The youth of today is sexually more aware than many of their parents are. Yet the education of the playground and furtive sessions on the Internet are no substitute for thorough education and training in how to reject and resist unwelcome advances.

There is an even greater problem that I have come across on more that one occasion and that is of young people becoming confused as to their own sexuality because they might have had same sex experiences in Yeshiva or School and become mistakenly convinced that that makes them gay. All in all there is need for a comprehensive overhaul of what information reaches our youngsters and how. If the Rabbis are not interested in doing maybe there is no option but to set up some websites that will give the information out to those that seek it. In any event something has to be done and the sooner the better.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Sounds of the Underground

There is a tradition among frummers to be especially frum for others. Tradition has it that Adam, told by his maker not to eat from the tree, in his fervour told Eve that not only were you not allowed to eat from it but touching it was not allowed. The wily serpent pushed Eve causing her to trip and touch it. “See,” he then crowed, “nothing happens, I bet nothing would happen if you ate from it either.”

I would venture a wager that there is not a single brain between two peyos on the Hill that has not heard this story and the lessons that must be drawn from it. That did not stop the Rabbinate from proclaiming a recent frum concert to be forbidden. Did they honestly expect a full hall of posteriorless seats?

Among Chassidim it is common to ironically say about something very good that it must be traif. There is an acknowledged feeling that most things pleasurable, if the Torah itself has not forbidden it, the Rabbis will. By the reverse token I would say that these concerts have got to be kosher.

When I was sixteen my father found my stash of music cassettes hidden in my sock drawer. The forbidden delights included stars like Mordechai Ben David, Jo Amar and suchlike. The hullabaloo that ensued ensured that while those particular cassettes might have been confiscated I have remained a fervent music addict. My way of hitting back was to listen, from them on, only to goyisher music and whatever Capital Radio and LBC had to offer. In keeping with the shgatzim of the time I listened to what I now see were the excruciatingly cloying sounds of Abba and Blondie. We would not be seen dead next to a MBD or Avraham Freed

My taste has developed somewhat over the years and my collection today would be more likely to feature tzaddikim like Eminem, the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, yet I know that I have started to grow out of having to prove myself because I deign to allow the odd religious CD to share the shelf with my ‘real’ music.

I have many times agonized over my inability to give up my music collection even though I would be reluctant to allow my children to listen to many of the CDs I keep locked in the glove compartment of my car. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe, but at least when I tell them I don’t allow them to listen I do not tell them it is because it is forbidden. I tell them that at their age they are too impressionable and that their schools would have them expelled, reasons I hope they understand are valid albeit unfair.

I hope that by the time they are my age the quality and quantity of Jewish music and the quality of religious education will have improved enough that they will be happy to listen to music just because they like it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Good Heavens!

One of the things that I think we really ought to adopt from society around us is the culture of questioning facts. Our system of learning discourages genuine questioning, but facts are not svorres (logical contortions in talmud), they can and must be verified before any judgements can be passed on any issue. This applies just as much to a kosher certification as to a person’s reputation in the face of gossip.

Sex, it is said, is unlike justice in that it does not have to be seen to be done. Puns aside, there is profundity in the implication that unless justice is seen to be done one cannot assume that it has. The issue of accountability is not one that comes up very often where the Beth Din (rabbinical courts) is concerned yet it should. In a court system where there is no right of appeal and no forced accountability it is more than likely that abuses will occur.

Shaitelgate is proof enough that the methods of research leave much to be desired. What bothers me more though is the lack of any sense of obligation by the Rabbinate to justify their decisions, even when they affect the lives and livelihoods of countless people who might not even have accepted their jurisdiction. The Rabbinic courts however are still models of rectitude when compared to some of the Rebbishe houses of today.

The tradition of going to a Rebbe for advice is as old as chassidus itself. In times of trouble a chassid would travel to his Rebbe and spill his troubled heart out. The Rebbe, in his infinite wisdom, would let slip some pearls of wisdom and, if necessary, rearrange the forces in heaven and hey presto all problems were solved. I am in no position to judge whether that still works today but I am sure that many still believe it does and I have no reason to deny those believers the comfort they derive from it.

I personally first became a little sceptical about the supernatural powers of the Rebbes when I went to visit mine many years back and he asked me what Masiach thought.
To say I was surprised puts it mildly. I mumbled a vague answer that I hoped sounded enigmatic enough to sound profound to Tzaddik who was on speaking terms with The Messiah. The moment I left the room I made a beeline to one of those in the know to ask what he could possibly have meant. I was given various interpretations of this mystical message and admit that I did feel honoured and special for while to be singled out by the Rebbe for my insights into the spiritual planes. It was only a couple of years later, when I discovered that in fact he had confused me with somebody else who was still childless then and was being treated by a man named Dr. Mashiach, that it all clicked.

It is possible that my very devout friends are right and it is not what the Rebbe thinks he means that is important but I what I think he means. I will admit that that story did have a profound effect on me and my behaviour at the time and it is possible that God wanted that. I do believe though that God may be used as a guide but not as an excuse. The laws of slander and libel should, nay must, apply to Rebbes, if not equally to mere mortals then more so. It is all very well to listen to a troubled heart and assure him that all will be well but when the actions or behaviour of others are part of the equation it can be the height of irresponsibility to pass any form of judgment without having heard another side to a story.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

DIY on the Hill

The Torah gives a father the right to marry off his daughter to whomever he wishes. Draconian as that sounds, relevant it is not, because that right is valid up until she becomes 12 years old. After that he can not ‘give her away’ a term that in this case is used literally, without her consent and in fact it is his consent that is neither asked for nor needed. The only limit that Halacha places on the choosing of a spouse is that a man may not marry a woman without seeing her (I suppose that works both ways but I have not seen it written).

I am all for arranged matches for those that want them. They do not seem to work any less well than the western, freestyle matches and many claim that they work better. I have to add that my wife was introduced to me a day before we got engaged. We met for an hour or so at the home of one of my now mother-in-law’s friends. Sitting in two overstuffed armchairs we talked about everything you can possibly talk about to a nervous looking girl of 18 who is biting her nails and blushing every time you recross your legs. Outside the door stood my parents and hers, mine feeling slightly guilty for allowing modernism to creep into our holy family in the form of a meeting lasting longer than 10 minutes. Hers were on best behaviour for fear of ruining their daughter’s chances by disappointing their potential mechutanim (in-laws). The tension could have been cut with butter knife. When, after the hour was up, the parents walked in on us I realised I had not yet heard a single intelligent word from the girl opposite and saw no reason at all to make her my beloved.

My parents were horrified. “You just sat with a girl for an hour and now you say you do not see any reason to marry her? You should marry her unless you see a good reason not to!” “Ok,” I said “If I can sit with a girl for an hour and leave with no wish to marry her, then for that reason I don’t like her.”

The compromise was that we would meet again the next day. I like to say it was my natural charm and winning ways that caused her to open up. She claims she would have said anything just to get the meeting over and herself a gracious exit to the ladies room before that become unnecessary. Be that as it may, I do not regret the accident of fate that got me married to my wife.

God works in mysterious ways. I do not believe there is any justification or logic in denying a couple the right to marry if they wish to and there is no legal or Halachic reason why they should not, even if their meeting did not occur in our time honoured traditional way. There might be a myriad of reasons for creating an environment where there is no likelihood of that happening but if and when it does despite all that, it can be no less His work than any other.

It is true that in our culture there is little respect for that ‘crazy little thing called love’. To be honest there is rarely any mention of it. Yet those who have proudly gotten through life without it are hardly qualified to advise those who are smitten on how unimportant it is. In any event it is certainly counter-productive, for anyone who has made its acquaintance, to hear it described as if it were some vile disease.

It seems to me that those who are most sanctimonious in their condemnation of the chinuch, family, and kehille of those who do decide to tie the love knot are the same ones you can see in every huddle in shul, maliciously salivating over every minute detail of the salacious gossip. It seems almost as if they think that, by ensuring that the blame is laid squarely somewhere, they and theirs will be guaranteed the same will not befall them.

It is also worth remembering that the gentleman Kalba Savua was probably justifiably angry when his beautiful daughter informed him she was in love with a shepherd. Neither of them could have known then he would turn out to become Rabbi Akiva

Friday, May 28, 2004

BT fatique

I have been keeping statistics in my (snail)mailbox recently. I received in the last three months exactly 332 letters at my home address. Living in Stamford Hill as I do it is obvious that two thirds of these are invitations to weddings and Barmitzvahs, the vast majority of which I have no intention of attending or even acknowledging, in line with the wishes of those who sent them. Like much in our community the tradition of inviting everybody on the shul list to every wedding reception is one nobody knows the origin of and nobody has yet had the courage to abolish. So like everybody else I open the invitations and scan the names quickly. If they look familiar I say “Mazel tov! so Mendel is marrying Mindel” and if not they fly into my big bag of IFUs (Invitations to Families Unknown).

The next most popular form of letter is from some institution or other. It begs me to support their wonderful and inspirational task and showers my family and me with blessings and best wishes. Only good fortune and happiness should befall us in the zchus of this great and holy mitzvah I am being given an opportunity to perform. The language they use is sometimes remarkably similar to English.

The institutions asking for money are as often as not involved in the business of kiruv (returning lost souls). I have lately decided that I am no longer supporting the kiruv cause. I am all for people returning to their faith. I feel that there is much that we, who have been frum all our lives, can learn from those that chose to become frum. In fact I regularly have BTs (Baalei Tshuva or the newly religious) at my table. I like to talk to them about their reasons for becoming frum and I like my children hearing their perspective. On the other hand I do not know why the disaffected unwashed are more worthy of my hard-earned money than those who have suffered all their lives for the cause.

When I was 18 years old and contemplating leaving the fold for good, the one thing that held me back was the fact that I would have to break with my family, friends and entire society. While I felt intellectually unfulfilled I did not hate myself, or everybody around me, enough to justify such a drastic step. I believe becoming a BT is a similar experience and requites similar impetus.

It seems to me that as long as we have inside our own community people who are unhappy or disaffected enough to leave, and looking around it is obvious that the list is growing rather than shrinking, it is the height of irresponsibility to be investing money in importing the disaffected from outside. The amounts of money we send each year to support those institutions in arranging seminars in luxury hotels to proselyte the lank-haired youth should instead be spent improving the lot of those who feel trapped and lonely inside our own homes and shuls. Otherwise there will come a time when we all will dread the arrival of the next invitation and the horrors of the latest unsuitable match.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Hats off to the Shaitel Doffers

While shopping in my local delicatessen store I was listening to group of frum women chatting, all obviously self-conscious of the new sheitels they were wearing. One of them announced that she could not take much more of the uncertainty. The group unanimously agreed with her that it was impossible, with Yomtov coming up and every day new stories of this or that Beth Din deciding that all or some wigs have to be burnt

I personally am obliged to say that I am full of admiration for those women who had the courage of their convictions and got rid of their sheitels the moment they heard there might be a problem. I take my hat off to those ladies. I take my hat off to the ladies who proudly and defiantly walked the streets in snoods or swim caps the morning after the whole issue came out.

One customer of mine came in to keep an appointment with me wearing what looked like a wig borrowed from a participant at the Notting Hill Carnival. Always immaculately turned out, her head looked, to put it mildly, like something the cat had brought in. I cannot imagine what she must have thought when she looked into her mirror prior to leaving the house. I would argue that the sacrifice of giving up what is effectively your hair, from one moment to the other, is probably no smaller than that of the women in India who shave their hair off for their deity.

Yet as I write this I feel some ambivalence. They are calling the Shaitel issue a crisis. Phone calls to and fro between friends, frantic searches on the Internet for anything with the words Tirupati or hair, pages upon pages of responsa and frenzied queues at the sheitel-machers (wig dressers). These are the crisis of the well fed.

Meanwhile in our own country thousands of young men are risking their lives to protect their very homes and families' lives. I think we should all take a moment off to reflect on the fact that we can afford the luxury of allowing a head covering to disrupt ours. The soldiers who have been ordered in to Gaza contemplate seeing their comrades dying. The moral dilemmas they face must be horrific. I cannot even imagine what goes through the mind of a 19 year old reservist who last week was helping his 15 year old brother with his homework and now sees a boy of the same age in his cross hairs with a Kalashnikov in his hands. Meanwhile their families sitting at home hear the phone ring and a cold shadow flits across their brains.

I believe our determination and single-mindedness is what has kept us alive as a nation. The determination that lets a soldier put his life on the line to defend his country, his people and his way of life and, in a smaller but still significant measure, that allows a woman to walk the streets looking like a clown because, for her, disregarding an issur (halachic ban) is not an option.

Sometimes I am proud to be Jewish!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Hairy Krishnas

Anybody who has ever spent any time socialising with the Chassidic shgatzim in mixed company will know that when the schmooze turns to sheitels (wigs) it is time to head home. Not that I have anything against sheitels, on the contrary I find most sheitels far more attractive than what lurks underneath. I cannot however find it in me to be honestly interested in if the ends turn inward or out, or whether it was ordered from the new Russian star in Antwerp or that ‘cute’ gay hairdresser in Golders Green.

When the women started off about sheitels last night I automatically headed off for a heart-to-heart with an old friend from the Glenmorangie distillery. This was a miscalculation on my part because for a change this was no fluff; apparently the Rabbanim have discovered that the human hair that all wigmakers use comes from a Hindu temple in India where the people offer up their hair to an idol. This makes the hair Takroives Avoide zore (an offering to an idol) and it is forbidden to derive any use from it.

In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh there is town called Tirupati. Central to this town of about 100,000 residents, is the Sri Venkateswara Temple. With an average of 50.000 visitors each day this is certainly India’s most visited shrine. Indeed it records more visitors than either Mecca or St. Peter’s Basilica. It is dedicated to the four-armed Hindu God Venkateswara, who is supposed to be a reincarnation of the similarly quadribrac Lord Vishnu, the consort of Goddess Lakshmi. It reigns undisputed as the richest temple in India due to its export of one commodity: human hair. Every day a percentage of the pilgrims who visit the site offer what the people there call “the most beautiful part of the human body” as a sacrifice to God. The temples leader calls it “a surrendering of ego to God”.

Most of the hair that is shorn is gathered up and sold by the temple to companies who will do all manner of things with it including extracting amino acids that could end up in our food or shampoos. The very long hair, shorn from a woman who has never cut it before - as is often the custom there, will be carefully tied together before removal and will eventually be sold as human hair. Tirupati hair is highly valued by African-American women, who use it to make hair extensions, because the Hindu women who donate it have often never washed it with shampoo nor worn it loose. It is most often worn braided at all times and lovingly massaged with coconut oil to keep it shiny.

The Temple is said to earn between $2 and $4 million a year from the proceeds of the 25.000 heads that are shaved every day and the 450 tons of hair sold each year.

I am no less Shaigetz for Hinduism than I am for Judaism so I am not really qualified to judge whether the Rabbi’s take on this whole affair is correct. Fortunately the problem does not affect me as my wife has hers custom made with European hair. Many women are not so lucky and unless the Rabbis will take action to ensure that the wig makers do not take advantage of the situation and go up with the prices of the out-of-the-box wigs it will be hard to suppress the feeling that this is just another scam to fill the synagogues coffers at expense of that Temple. In the meantime euphoria and self-satisfied gloating from those sticks-in-the-mud who have been trying to ban sheitels since they first appeared.

I personally am a bit sceptical as to what percentage of hair used in Jewish sheitels actually is from there. Those in the business had always told me that it is bought from Sikhs, not allowed to cut their hair as long as they live. I am furthermore not entirely convinced that Hindus do actually worship Idols. Take this statement “Hindus with a proper understanding of their religion do not think that the idol alone is God. The idol is meant for the worshipper to offer one-pointed devotion and he adores it with the conviction that the Lord who is present everywhere is present in it also.” ( )

I am most certainly highly suspicious of a trip that the illustrious Dayan Dunner made to Tirupati to ascertain that it is indeed idolatry. I hear that on his return he huddled up with a leading Israeli Rabbi behind closed doors and emerged beamingly to announce that henceforth all sheitels of Indian origin have to be burned.

I had to suppress a grin when I learned that none other than our very own Posh Spice brought the whole story to light. Apparently on some TV interview Victoria Beckham was asked if she felt no guilt wearing a wig that was probably shorn off some prisoner in a Russian jail. She replied that she did not care, but her publicists later revealed that in fact the hair might have come from Tirupati starting this whole furore.

In one respect the Rabbis did get it right. No good comes from watching TV

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The future is bright – without Orange

I was not invited to the Aguda convention in Bournemouth. An oversight on their part undoubtedly. A delegate who was, told me that one of the main concerns voiced by the fine members of this august group was with the growing number of dropouts that London is spawning.

It is indeed so that when I was a child I do not remember anybody actually leaving the gefilte fish cradle altogether. Yes, of course there were those that were severely orthodoxically challenged but few, if any, had the urge (or is it just the guts) to weigh anchor and sail out into the unchartered waters of goytown. It was said then that in New York there were many upgefurener Chassidim but with a smug smile the Rabbis assured our parents that it could not happen here. Well it seems they got it wrong again and London has become just like New York in one more way.

I do not know what has happened to bring this new phenomenon about. I wish I could say that it is all to do with the staleness of ideas that we present our kids. Then I would have a solution. Unfortunately I do not see much evidence of any intellectual frustration among the gangs of leather-jacketed ex-Chassidim that parade their shiny mini-coopers through Stamford Hill. To be quite honest I do not see much evidence of intellect at all among the laidigayers and dropouts.

This should not be taken to mean that I believe that Chassidism has maintained its firm grip on the hearts of its intellectuals. On the contrary, who would know better than me what goes on behind that façade of propriety among those that have explored and tasted the forbidden fruits of tarbus chitzoines (alien culture)? The Shgatzim do not need empty symbolic gestures to display their frustration, they have another escape route.

For one it is in literature and for the other in yoga, but alien culture is rife in the underground. The fact that is underground means that it cannot be utilized for the growth of the community and some of the keenest minds in our community are being wasted away on trivia while the conformists plod on mechanically toward the abyss.

The Rabbis at the convention however have no idea of this and with fiery earnestness debated what could be done to discourage more children from leaving. With a roomful of sated and rested leaders all concentrated on one major problem you would expect them to come up with a solution. And they did… Almost.

You see, they were able to put a finger on the core of the problem; just they could not quite figure out how to correct it. After much debate and heated exchanges of ideas they announced with great fanfare; “The problem” they said, “is caused by mobile phones”. Where would we be without the Aguda Convention in Europe?

Ok I have to go, my mobile...

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

In the Harem

The Saudi Arabians do not allow women to drive. They believe the emancipation of women is contrary to God’s wishes and somehow they see driving as one of the ways in which this manifests itself. How exactly driving does that eludes me and in fact I find it rather odd that it is less damaging to the collective purity to have women driven around by men drivers than to allow them to do it themselves.

Actually I could ask my local Rabbi to explain it, seeing as the same farcical rule applies to Chassidic women. If my wife wants to go to the West-end, she can hop on a bus or the tube and run the gamut of ogles from half the male population of London (ok yes she is exceptionally fine looking) or she can take a cab and enjoy an hour-long drive with some horny cockney ex-decorator or a Sikh refugee but if she gets behind the wheel then she is a preetze (wanton woman). Not that she complains. Why should she? Just like the pampered Saudi princess she needs just pick up a phone and call a cab and Emess will be only too pleased to oblige. A flourish of her pen and the bill will take care of itself until I cough up at the end of the month.

Allegations doing rounds recently (unsubstantiated for reasons chastity) of sexual impropriety and even rape by drivers for these Jewish owned car services do not seem to be reason enough to change our saintly leader’s minds. Instead the blame is laid squarely in the laps (an unfortunate metaphor in this case) of the ladies themselves. In time-honoured tradition the powers that be accuse the victims of looking too pretty or dressing too well or having a mobile phone. With excuses as good as these it stands to reason that the Rabbinate is pleased to do what they do best, namely nothing at all.

I find it scandalous that we who consider ourselves the hottest part of the words smartest race have not managed to notice that the world has driven forward and we have been left behind. Driving is not a luxury today it is a necessity. It is not viewed as sexy or even worthy of note to see a woman driving and it is high time the Rabbinate recognized that. And as for their antiquated views on feminine responsibility at least they are not alone. There too they have the agreement of all of the Arab World.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Thou shalt not assume

Suppose the Torah did not say, “thou shalt not steal” would it be all right to steal? I read a report by a police detective in Israel, who said that whenever a particularly callous spate of crimes is noticed in a specific area, the first thing they check out is if there is an ex-ortho in the vicinity. You would have thought that anyone brought up with as many rules as we are, in a society as strict as ours, would at least retain a vestige of morality even after leaving. That is patently not the case, as most who deal with such cases will tell you.

The reason is simple. We are not taught morality. What we learn is what God and the Torah allow and what not. That is all. We do not teach a child that it is wrong to hit, we teach them it is an aveira (sin). We do not tell our children that you must not steal, we teach them that the Torah says you must not steal. The result is that if someone decides at some point that he does not believe in God and the Torah, he is left with no rules at all and no inherent sense of right and wrong.

I do not expect our Rebbes and teachers to start teaching human morality. I am not sure they could even if they wanted to. I do remember that our former headmaster, the late Alexander Feurstein, used to take five minutes every day during lunch to teach us a din (halachic rule). Between the usual things, like how to wash your hands before eating bread, how to stand during prayer and what blessing to recite for rice, he would slip in some little nuggets of common decency. “If you see a woman carrying heavy bags, offer her your help. Stand up on the bus if you see an elderly person or a mother with a baby and offer up your seat. Shut the gate if you are rambling in the countryside, to stop animals getting out.” He made no distinction between the kind of din that is mentioned in Halacha and those that human decency dictates.

I do not claim to remember all those little things he told me. I do still get irritated when I see people dropping litter and I know he was the one who drilled it into me, and I am proud that I was brought up that way. The Yesodey Hatorah is now but a shadow of its former self. Today most parents prefer to send their children to the ultra-Chassidic schools that cater to a much more fundamentalist stream. There is no room in today’s curricula for such frivolity.

I was going to open a business at one stage in my life, importing a certain product from the United States. When we discovered that someone in the community was already doing it my partner and I had second thoughts. He went to ask a Rav what to do. The answer he got was that it was Halachically permissible.
When he asked “What about meschlichkeit (common decency)? The Rabbi replied, “You want to be more meschlich than the Torah?"

I don’t, but I am loath to suppose that the Torah is as unnmenschlich as the behaviour of some of those being taught its ways seems to indicate. As Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame so aptly put it “What God wants, God gets, God help us all."