Thursday, January 29, 2004

Peyos and Qs

I took the bus to work this morning. I do not usually do that but today my wife insisted on taking the kids to school by car and I, being the model husband I am, got up too late to strenuously object. Incidentally the issue of women not really being allowed to drive cars in our society is one that I am going to come back to in one of my rants, but today I have something else on my mind.

As I was sitting on the bus a group of Chassidic kids got on. It must have been a boy taking his siblings to school. The time was 9.15 so they were obviously going to be late. As it was a big boy with at least five smaller ones I have no doubt that this was not the first time and the reason was just as obvious. However the fact that their mother obviously has more children than she can cope with is again not what this post is about. What bothered me was the obvious lack of manners they displayed.

The group of them were led by the oldest child who must have been just past Bar Mitzva, he was wearing a long coat and a hat and he had a Godawful pair of earmuffs on, that looked like they came out of the Neo Nazi Fashion Collection Autumn and Winter. I think that some well-meaning nerd imports them from Canada or somewhere specially to make these kids look camp.

The boy was a frummer so he stayed purposefully staring at the floor and did not raise his eyes once all the time I was watching him, obviously so he would not see any women. He got on the bus, paid his fair and then went to stand next to the first pole and stayed put. Next to him was a free bench and two of the smaller ones went to sit on that. The rest of the kids with him all stuck close, obviously too scared to go ‘alone’ to look for somewhere to sit. Apart from the fact that these boy stayed blocking the gangway of the bus for the entire ride, their behaviour caused nasty looks from all sides that they remained oblivious to, but the worst was when an elderly lady, who was unable to pass, had to stay standing there precariously balanced on the swaying bus, eying those two seats that were taken by the children but she was too polite to ask them to stand up and they did not even bother to notice.

I am not sure whether the parents are the ones that carry the ultimate blame for a badly brought up child or whether the society has to share the blame for allowing that to happen without pointing it out. I have no doubt that had these children been taught to look out, when out on a bus, for someone weak or elderly and offer them their seat they would have done it. These were no bad kids. These were simply kids who had never been taught any manners. I suspect if their mother had had 4 children instead of fifteen she would have had time to do it. On the other hand it is not practical now to ask the mother to return the other eleven. At the end of the day these children spend the best part of their childhood in cheder (religious boys school), if they are not being taught basic human decency then the rest of what they are being taught is well nigh useless. Admittedly the kids from JFS are no better. But the kids from JFS were never supposed to be our kids’ role models.

The great Maggie Thatcher, when she was still minister of education, came to visit our school. The YHS. She came to see for herself what the religious schools look like. The then principle Rabbi Pinter, after showing her the school and seeing she was basically unimpressed, explained to her that in our school in the previous fifteen years there had not been one single incidence of drug abuse. There was not one single student or ex-student with a criminal record and there were no recorded incidences of violence against teachers. Maggie remained silent for moment and then she said. Rabbi Pinter, I would be happier if there were a couple of criminal records and your school was just like all the other schools. In some respects her wish is being granted.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Hang ups and Hang ins

Somebody once made a phone call and got a wrong a number. Instead of hanging up he said “you know what, seeing as we are on the line already, let’s talk anyway”. Although that sounds absurd I must venture to say that absurdity does not seem to be a factor when our dear Rabbinates set our lives up. I am talking of the D word. Divorce!

I am not in the possession of any data as to what percentage of our couples that get married discover not long after that they have made a terrible mistake. I do know for certain that it is much higher than that of couples who actually get divorced.

I am not an advocate for divorce-on-demand. I do believe that marriage is an institution that should not be gotten into, or out of, lightly. I am an advocate for happiness though and I fail to see how a Rabbi, any Rabbi whose training did not involve psychology, sexology and marriage counseling, can take it upon himself to decide that a couple should stay together when they have decided they cannot.

Most of you who have never been in this situation (I hope that’s most of you now that I think about it) will probably not be aware of the difficulties that are put in the way of a couple who do decide to part ways. When I say difficulties I do not mean the insistence that the unhappy two try to put some effort into salvaging the marriage. That I can understand, and even live with, which is usually more than the couple can say for each other, because a divorce is even harder to reverse than marriage, and if everybody could divorce at whim I suspect the world population would dwindle within a couple of generations. What I mean is the blind refusal of many Rabbis to give a divorce at all (except to members of their own families when they need it).

I spent the Shabbes morning meal with such a couple. They are desperately unhappy together. Not in a hateful and spiteful way but because they are on two different mental planets. She is vivacious, highly intelligent and an extremely well versed woman. In any other society she would be influencing events. In hers the only events she can influence are bring and buy sales and cook-ins. She married her Talmid Chuchem because she thought that would be second best to fulfilling her girlhood dream of going to Yeshiva herself. In some ways she is in Yeshiva, if having young men with earnest faces all around you at all times and living in a space where books are more important than people is the Yeshiva experience.

Her husband is a scholar that has gotten to be that through pure grit. Not exceptionally bright he has the ‘bren’ (burning desire) that makes Talmidei chacumim (Torah scolars) and the social skills to match. He considers asking his wife where she put those papers he left in the hall, having a conversation. He is an exceptionally well-meaning man and has done his best to make her happy. They both laugh when she tells the all the stories of the things that have gone wrong as he earnestly but ineptly tried to make her happy but failed miserably, because he simply does not have any idea of how she ticks. Like the time he planned an outing to Greenwich because a counselor suggested that as a form of quality time, but he took with a bocher (student) so he could learn on the boat up the Thames.

Some years ago, when the family consisted of them two and a baby, they had both agreed that would both be happier with other partners. They went together to speak to a Rabbi who suggested that they should not rush into so momentous a decision in haste. He suggested that they give it a few months longer to try if they could not accommodate each other’s needs. A laudable decision they both agree. What happened next is a comedy of errors. They tried six months of various suggestions including some ideas so laughable and insane that it simply a shaila of lushen hora (a question of libelous gossip) against the Rabbinate to repeat them. The upshot was that after a about a year they returned to insist that they still were of a mind that they needed to go their own separate ways. The Rabbi then told them that he was not able to grant them a get but e recommended that they see his colleague who maybe could. They met him and he suggested that they first try a period of monitored counseling.

I am not going to describe all the rest of the story. Suffice it to say that this farce has been repeated many times. They have endured speeches explaining to them that the Mizbayach (the holy alter) cries when a couple divorces. They have been explained that his learning would suffer if he were to divorce. They have also in that time been obliged to bring another three neshumes into this world, which now form another reason why they cannot divorce of course.

I do know that her spirit has been broken. She is a closet skeptic and her talents and gifts are lost for the community. He is a broken man whose lack of a warm and close relationship has stunted his personal growth. The kids are being brought up in a home that is lacking in familial unity and so cannot possibly develop to their full potential. One of the local Rabbis in London is said to have gravely informed a couple that were having problems. “there is no romance in Jewish Marriage”. I disagree. It is true that there is no romance in some and those are the ones that have to be broken while they still can. Divorce is not a punishment it is right that is granted by the Torah and any couple who demand it should be granted the privilege. The alternative is that we end up like some areas in the Catholic Church, bankrupt, mean-spirited and a breeding ground for pedophilia and extra marital sex. I think it’s time for us all to wake up - next to whom we want to!

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Sad Ya Grama!

One of my kind readers brought to my attention a disturbing article describing a new book by a certain Rabbi Sadya Grama called Romemut Yisrael Uparashtat Hagalut.

I have not read the book, whose author would no doubt prefer I called it a sefer but I won’t. It is reported to be about the superiority of the Jewish race or the inferiority of all the others. I believe it was Joshua in Mordechai Richler’s Joshua Then And Now, who says The Germans are my second favourite people - my favourite is everybody else.

There are two points that the Forward article brought to my attention. The first was in a comment by Rav Kotler the Rosh Yeshiva. “..Kotler rejected Grama's philosophy and said that he had not carefully reviewed the text prior to endorsing it”. Now what the hell is that supposed to mean? He endorsed the book without properly reading it? Can we accept that all his endorsements are equally well researched?

I have noticed this disturbing phenomenon in many of the sefarim that are on sale today. Every sefer I buy has a whole list of haskumes (endorsements) from practically everybody in Jerusalem and the frum diaspora with a beard. Many of them have patently not read the thing. I have even seen some that say “I know the author and he’s a fine chap” (read “I have not read it, even though I got it for free, but you should buy it”). When you consider that these sefarim are targeting a group who consider themselves the cream of the intellectuals it sometimes amazes me how patronising the haskume givers can be.

I have never yet found a goyishe (non-jewish) book that has a blurb on the back saying “A fantastic offering by a man who is really nice and understanding. Buy it!” Which brings me to the other bit that disturbed me in the Forward piece. Chassidim do not suffer from delusions of grandeur with regards to the goyim. Anybody who has ever spent some time among Chassidim must know that far from looking down on the ‘goyim’ most of us practically revere them in a most unseemly manner. A Chassid who wants to win an argument hands down only has to add ‘a Goy told me’ or ‘even the Goyim say’ and he is home dry! The best compliment you can give your hostess after a shabbes meal is to tell her that her ice cream is ‘just like the goyishe’.

The whole issue of chilul hashem (desecration of God’s name) has been distorted away from being an exortation to do what is right, proudly, and become an exercise in PR to get the goyim to like us. We desperately try and get them to see how ‘normal’ we are really, which is why many won’t daven minche (pray) in public for instance. As if that were a chilul hashem. No, it just is not normal enough. The goyim might laugh to themselves about that funny Jew.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Difference is not funny, except to idiots and bigots. The goyim are not really bothered by what we do as long as it does not hurt anybody else. The real chilul hashem is when a book like Romemut Yisrael Uparashtat Hagalut comes out with a haskume from a Rosh yeshiva who later lamely claims he never read it.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Another brick in the wall

My nephew came to visit today. He is nearly thirteen. He is already learning for his Bar-mitzva. He is going to be a big boy soon. And the poor nebbich is looking forward to it. Getting caught up in all the excitement that is generated around the Bar-Mitzva he has no idea that, unlike in the less haimish circles, his childhood really is about to end.

Nu! Di bist shoin a bucher! (NU! You are a man already). That must be the most hackneyed phrase I remember from my early teens. Having dressed me in a hat and long coat, there I was, a kid, but no longer allowed to do anything that did not involve study. Admittedly not all Chassidic parents are as strict as mine were, but the trend is still disturbingly widespread and common. With a school program that starts with Davening (prayer) at 7am and then continues practically straight through until 9pm it is not easy for the poor kids to find the time to play even if they were allowed.

There are no teaching seminaries for male teachers. Most melamdim (male teachers) become teachers because they are not trained to do anything else. Which, incidentally should not be taken to imply that they are trained to teach. There are no teaching seminaries for men. What these melamdim can do is continue their time-honoured tradition, as handed down from the cheder classroom in central Poland a hundred years ago. Learning is done by rote. A typical day for these pale-faced youngsters will involve a couple of hours hearing a lesson on the Talmud. A couple of hours revising the lesson with a partner followed by half an hour for lunch (on the premises) and then an afternoon roughly the same just a different part of the Talmud. A break is necessary to allow for Minche (afternoon prayers) and then there will be a hour’s lesson on Halacha (laws) then maybe an hour or so for secular classes after which another hour or so study time with a partner again.

The only sport these ‘men’ will get is running home for supper. And run they must for they are expected to come back after to pray again and learn a little before going to bed. The only day in the year that we were allowed to run around and play was Lag Beomer, when we went out on an outing with the class and were encouraged to run around. The problem was that the outing was lead by our melamed who happened to be fascistic, sadist who beat us when we did not get good results at the end-of –the-week tests. He also had mastered the art of the sarcastic comment. So any kid who actually enjoyed himself was sure to hear ‘I see today you are in your element’. You can imagine what a bundle of fun that outing was.

It has never ceased to amaze me that the mothers of these boys, with the innate mother’s instinct, have never risen up and cried ‘enough, these are only little boys!’. Yet they do not, any more than the Arab mothers do when their daughters are circumcised or their sons taken away and taught to blow themselves up.

I know that I will get another flood of emails complaining that I have compared Melamdim to Hamas terrorist recruiters but let me say this. I am a product of such an education and I can say that, for me at least, it was a form of pure torture. I hated getting up in the morning and only did because I feared the consequences if I would not. I do accept that certain attitudes have changed since. The newer generation of melamdim did not suffer in the nazi concentration camps and so they are probably mellower and friendlier than the ones we had. The curriculum has not changed though. The long and repetitive hours have not changed and modern teaching methods have not dared to even peak through the door of most Chassidic boys schools.

Change will come. I am sure of it. The question is only how many more inner lights will have been extinguished by the time it does, and how will today’s melamdim excuse themselves to their grandchildren for not allowing it in earlier.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Rags and Bones (on the Chassidic press) - Change of a fashion (on our dress code) - The Ketchup Song (on video and computers) - Karma Sutra Acher (on computers and hypocrisy) - Exit Mr Pink (on Kehilla politics) - Shit’s Greek (on sports and Hellinism) - Clothes Maikel man (on cross-dressing and Lo Silbash) - Together we are wrong (on Kehilla vs the individual) archived - Of Dogs and Men (sex abuse of minors) archived - Shmekkediks (drug use) archived - Mine is bigger than yours (on large families) archived
Rags and bones

I have never been an avid reader of the censored press. Nevertheless, on the behest of my good wife, I do bring home the Hamodia each week. After the compote Friday-night, just as the effects of a heavy meal and half a bottle of wine begin to kick in, I am regaled with bits of news that happened a couple of weeks back, followed by all that is new on the hatches, matches and dispatches front. Being the good guy I am, I convincingly add all the oohs and ahs in the right places and so perform my most important husbandly duty. (Well, nearly most important.)

I must admit that the quality of the Religious press (a term very loosely used in this context) has improved vastly in recent years. When I was a child the only orthodox paper in English you could get was the London Jewish Tribune. Under its title was the caption ‘Organ of Anglo Jewry’. Some organs should only be exposed in public when they are having a bit chopped off.

The Jewish Tribune was to newspapers what Ronald Reagan was to presidents. Jacky Mason says that Ronald Reagan was the happiest president America ever had. He wafted along merrily, blissfully unfettered by any disturbing knowledge of world affairs and largely unhampered by worries of anything smaller than local primaries. Likewise, there was never a bit of negative news about the community in that paper. The only bits of dirt ever found in there were the plate scrapings I would wrap in it, so as to stop my dustbin smelling.

The Homodia, Yid, Machne Haredi, Yated etc. that vie for market-share today are all a little better. By that I mean that they will all mention the main points in the news and add in anything negative about the ‘other’ parts of the community that they feel they can get away with. It still does not deserve to be called journalism and its integrity cannot be questioned, barely mentioned in fact. What we are fed with is rehash of lasts week’s news messily offered up on bed of self-righteous comment.

I was therefore not surprised to notice that the Hamodia this week chose to side with their arch-rivals in objective journalism, the BBC. A rather flamboyant Springer-style show host named Kilroy was reported by the BBC as having called all Arabs "suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors" and asked what they had given to the world other than oil. ( . The BBC immediately suspended him and will keep him off the air pending an investigation into his potentially racist comments.
Strangely enough, what the Hamodia fails to point out is that the very same BBC also has on its books an extremely savoury character called Tom Paulin. In April 2002, Paulin wrote in Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram that "Brooklyn-born" settlers in the occupied territories "should be shot dead… I think they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them… I never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all."

Despite numerous and well publicized complaints from the Jewish community about these statements and Paulin's other comparisons of Israelis to Nazis, the BBC has continued to allow Paulin to be a regular contributor to the BBC Newsnight Review arts program. I do not believe that the Hamodia did not notice the hullabaloo surrounding this fine specimen of a poet. Yet it has chosen this week to report the suspension of Kilroy but not the double standard in the BBC. Is there some link here that I am missing?

Friday, January 16, 2004

Change of a fashion

Is it normal that I feel embarrassed sometimes when I am seen with my friends? Not because of who they are, its rather because of the way that they dress. And I don’t mean the hats and the penguin suits. What embarrasses me is that they’re, how shall I say…? Scruffy! That’s a nice word for slightly dirty and grubby.

You see, the ‘goyim’ - they wear sweaters and jeans. You wash them in the machine and you have a cupboard full of them. We wear suits and white shirts. Suits that have to be dry-cleaned and cost a couple of hundred dollars, so some of us wait a little too long before cleaning them and replacing them. White shirts that have to be laundered well to look good, so many do not.

Some people out there, in their infinite wisdom, decided to trap us in some fashion time warp, and chose of all period, the least practical one they possibly could. So I do understand why it happens that some of us go scruffy, but I still am embarrassed and slightly revolted. I don’t know if there is anyone out there reading this, who knows how to influence a fashion change for the Chassidim. Something that will involve getting us coloured shirts and a grungier long reckel. So we could just drop our suits into the machine at night and put them back on in the morning. It’s a lovely thought but I won’t hold my breath.

So until then I am begging, you mothers and fathers, spare a thought to the fact that were actually living in the twenty-first century, and let’s at least teach our kids to be civilized and clean. And you melamdim out there please can you teach the children the importance of good manners and hygiene. Maybe then we would together be able to hold our heads high.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The ketchup song

One of the best cinema ads I have ever seen was for Heinz tomato ketchup. All you saw was this upturned ketchup bottle extremely close up for about ten seconds and then a voice-over with distinct gravitas informs the audience solemnly that some ketchup never comes out of the bottle. This ketchup has issues.

Some people in our community will never see that ad. They too have issues. Indeed in many ways the issues are the same. Unless if we take the idea of Hasgocho prutis (divine intervention) to absurd lengths we have to suppose that the determination as to which specific atoms of ketchup remain in the bottle is entirely random. Whether a specific Jewish child will be brought up to believe that it is ossur (halachically forbidden) to go to the cinema is almost as random.

I personally do not understand why the Charedi Rabbis (in their infinite wisdom of course) decided that the cinema is mother of all uncleanliness. And to all you out there who don’t know, trust me, it is considered so. There are countless young people out there who have been ostracized by the Haredi community when it was discovered that they went to watch a movie. When I was a child I was no better. I remember having a friend in Yeshiva who came from a slightly less fanatic family than all the rest of us. His mother came to take him out one Sunday afternoon and took him to see a film. That night in the dormitory he swore us to secrecy and told us what he had seen. I was shocked of course, and the thrilling desire to see such a movie too was duly suppressed (along with all the other things that had to be at that time). When I returned home for yomtov I told my parents about ‘someone’ and his trip and asked why it was so wrong. I did not get a clear answer but I did notice an odd look between my parents.

I never returned to that Yeshiva. My parents did not think it was appropriate that their son should be sleeping in one room with ‘a boy that goes to the pictures’.

What a farce! We all know that there is almost no home left in Stamford Hill that does not have, either their own stack of DVD’s and CD’s with movies downloaded from Kazaa, or a good friend from whom they can borrow the same. So whom are we kidding exactly? Chassidim are some of the most avid movie-watchers.

Before the computer became commonplace it was very difficult for a Chassid to watch a movie. We do not allow TV, so there is no screen in the house. The only way we could get to see something was to hire what was called a video-box and a screen. The video library that was not quite local (so nobody would see you going in) had bought a few of these units especially for his sidelocked customers. When an opportunity arose it was like a yomtov and groups of two or three young men were known to take three or even four movies to watch in a single night!

We do not go to the cinema because that is traife. The Belzers do not watch videos, even of their own weddings, because their Rebbe says that video is traife. I once had a friend a Belzer who wanted to come to my place to watch something on TV. I couldn’t be there for the event so I offered to tape it for him and he could watch it later. He refused “the Rebbe does not allow video”.

To watch CD’s is all right because they have not yet been forbidden. To go to the cinema is very bad, to watch TV is a little bad, to watch a video is ok for some but not for all. In short we have become a little like that ketchup. There is no logic involved. We just don’t go.

A point of note: in an IQ test I administered a little while ago one question asked “What does 57HV stand for. There was no way in the world that kid could know the answer. Put that lost mark down to whoever it was that decided to deprive a generation of a part of their education and make them just like that most famous of Heinses 57 varieties.

If anybody would like to comment I have just opened a room on hydepark called the mens mikve. It should be operational today or tomorrow. I would very much like for it to become a place where english speakers can let their peyos down and say whatever they like. I know you have lots to say because I am getting your mails but there are valuable insights among them that should be said to the world not me.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Karma Sutra Acher

A rabbi I once knew once said. “Our last great battle was with technology, and technology won.”

It is certainly true that try as they might the tzaddikate is having a serious problem with their issur on the computer. It simply does not seem to be working out. Not that I disagree that there are certain problems associated with the computer that were easier to manage before the PC had a pride of place in every home.

When I was a young bochur anybody who wanted to see some ‘chazzerishe bilder’ had to go down to the local newsagent. The less brave ones would buy something, preferably from far away enough that the shopkeeper had to leave his place to go and get it, and quickly take a peek at what was under the newspapers.
As far as entertainment goes the system left much to be desired. The glazed-eyed literary Don Juan almost invariably found himself, at the end of a very short adventure, the proud owner of something he did not want and very possibly could not afford.

The braver hearts would actually buy the book. Then the real problems would begin. Where to read it was the first. Where to put it next was the next. But the worst was the risk of getting caught with it. You must understand that the majority, who were good boys and did not indulge their raging, hormone driven curiosity would gladly take out all their frustrations on the hapless moron who did and got caught.

The upshot of it was that there was a very small minority of boys in our yeshiva who had actually seen any real porn by the time they left yeshiva. The Internet has put paid to all that. With every computer today potentially making the Kama Sutra look like a Ladybird book and Kazaa making available the most bestial of stuff to anyone with a mouse, it is no wonder that many of our young men are becoming familiar with perversions we didn’t dare to fantasize existed.

Pandora’s box cannot be resealed. The computer is here to stay and if we want to save our children from sinking into depravity we will have to make changes. Not to the computer, that’s the cop out that has been tried and failed, but to our own attitudes and behaviour. Instead of banning the computer we have to learn to embrace it while banning what is wrong with it. Instead of saying all videos are traif we have to learn to say it is ossur to watch traife videos. The gdarim (voluntary limits) should be on the people not the tools. And maybe then we will also be able to stop having to explain to our kids how comes, if computers are so traif, all the Rabbis have them.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Exit Mr Pink

For Chassidim in the USA and Israel the concept of the Kehilla* has long been dead. That is not the case in Europe. Here from the little quaint little baby kehillas like Manchester where the addition of poppy seeds to the baby Challas one week will get the whole MH abuzz, to the behemoth (literally sometimes) like London and Antwerp, the concept of the Kehilla lives.

(A kehilla is literally a community. In this case it represents a grouping under a single rabbinate where membership is paid and the rabbinate and committee will (should) provide all necessary religious services.)

Antwerp this week sees the end of a long tenure by what some might see as the last of the greats. Being a Tarantino fan, I am going to refer to him as Mr Pink. He has for years been the driving force behind the Chassidic Kehilla. Under his leadership people in Antwerp could rely on getting fresh meat with an outstanding hechsher at equally outrageous prices. The price of a pound of kosher steak in Antwerp is roughly double what it is in London, Paris or Strasbourg, and four and a half times the price of non-kosher, while the quality is rarely above mediocre. The Mikve, on the other hand is well above mediocre, at least where creature comforts are concerned. The fact that the only Rabbis available to the mikve personell happen not to be on the kehillas team is considered irrelevant.

Never one to get flustered under pressure, when stores in London started delivering fresh meat to ANtwerp at local prices, Mr Pink arranged for an ancient Issur to be invoked that forbids the importing of meat with any other hechsher. The fact that many very religious families can rarely afford to buy fresh meat is a small sacrifice for Mr Pink to pay – so long the ‘Kehilla stays strong’.

Last week Mr Pink was confronted by a new phenomenon. Some of the new frummers in town decided to set up a Beis Hoiroh. Reminiscent of ‘Bashevis Singer’s In My Father’s Court, The Beis would be an office where a Rabbi is always available to paskin any questions that might arise. Naturally Mr Pink objected to an idea that was not his and an institution that might very well undermine his authority. So he resigned in a move that probably spells the end of the Kehilla’s viability as a going concern.

Naturally everybody in the kehilla is heartbroken. Naturally, this will not be the last that we hear from Mr Pink.

Enter Mr Pink

Over in London meanwhile another difference between the USA and Europe is fast becoming an issue. Those who do not themselves wear long-coat suits and bekishes, might not realize that these things are not readily available in Marks and Sparks.

Fifteen, twenty years ago, whoever needed such a suit could go into a local store in London and buy a drab, ugly, badly cut long suit and pay a fortune for it. Alternatively you could get one from New York, either by going there yourself or by asking someone you know to send you one. Enter one enterprising young man and a dry cleaning store with more space than things to clean and soon one of the top USA brands was being retailed in London for only about twenty or thirty percent more than the USA price.

London is still a relatively small community compared to New York. Here up until now a certain gentlemen’s code existed whereby wherever possible people did not directly try to push their competitors out of business. Rather compromises were sought, alternatives were tried and on some occasion even some elbows were gently twisted so as to keep a certain balance and equilibrium within the kehilla.

For the sake of clarity we are going to need some names here. Mr Pink is already with us from before (and I still am a Tarantino fan) let us keep him. We will throw in a Harry and a Johnny.

Johnny has a cleaners/suit store and he sells enough suits to plod along and keep his family fed. The Americans however are unhappy. They believe that if were to sell the goods for thirty percent cheaper he would be selling more. They suggest that Johnny finds himself half a million of their fine American dollars and builds a franchised superstore just like in the States. Then he will be able to sell their suits at the same price that the American buy theirs. Of course, everybody will then immediately start buying more suits. Within no time at all the half million will be repaid and he, and London, will be much the richer.

Johnny did not agree. The Americans, not about to be deterred from exporting the great American dream, offered the same deal to a consortium of Harry and Mr Pink. They jumped at the idea. So now a massive superstore is being built. Johnny is exploring contacts with other American stores and a Turkish/Israeli connection and all of a sudden the old fogey suit shop, who no self respecting well-dressed guy would walk into, has suddenly started importing his own smart line from Hungary.

The consumer has probably gained and in fact I wish all of them well, but still I think in the coming years we will look back on this affair as the time when we lost our virginity, being raped by the Americans- Again!

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Shit's Greek

My daughter is 13 and she no longer plays tennis. Wimbledon will recover but I am fuming. The reason she will not play is because her teacher informed her class that Tennis an organized sport and as such, is part of the Hellenistic culture that we (or the Maccabeans at least) were fighting against when the Hanukka miracle occurred.

Now I am not a cruel person by nature yet I have to say this. I spent the last summer holidays in a holiday town on the coast that is popular with the chasidish crowd. I have masochistic streak that allows me to even enjoy this in some perverted way. We went down to the beach one afternoon and a group of young charedi men (Sorry Y.M. but this is stronger than me) were playing football on the broadwalk in their swimshorts. The sight did invoke some kind of ancient abomination but I am pretty certain it was not Hellenism.

There are two major dynamics that keep sports popular. The first is fitness and physical and mental health. We in the western world, have developed our environment and tools to such an extent that we can survive with minimal physical activity. To keep our bodies healthy as we grow older, it is vital that we do a certain amount of physical exercise, preferably of the aerobic type that encourages the blood flow and exercises the heart. That however is not the real motivator for most people who do regular sport. The reason that is most likely to get a person into that sorts shop and trying on a pair of sneakers or swinging a squash racquet in front of the store mirror, is the because regular sport activities improve muscle tone and develop the physique.

The second reason that many people play sport is because we humans were designed to be territorial. We have an innate need to fight and to protect ourselves and our own. Competitive sports can help fulfill such a need.

Hellenistic sport falls somewhere in between all those. The sports that were such a major part of the culture were by and large competitive and were, in simplistic terms, a celebration of the human physique and power. The nudity while probably titillating to those with homosexual tendencies bothered no one else because, as the gay movement did not exist nor did homophobia. So everybody went and wowed those beautifully sculpted young men doing whatever it was they did and then went home assured that a species capable of achieving such perfection could certainly master a small thing like a universe.

Does anybody out there see where my daughter’s tennis ties in with that? They do not play in the nude. In fact in the religious school that she goes to they do not even shower after PT because the school does not want them exposing themselves to each other. So my daughter comes home from school smelling like Pharaoh’s swamp and solemnly explaining that she cannot play tennis because it is part of the forbidden Greek culture.

The Torah commands us to be very careful of our health (ushmartem meod le’nafshotechem). Many make the pun on ‘nafshotechem’ to include the soul. In our school they have accepted just the pun and dropped the true meaning. I wonder where this will end.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

clothes maikel man

Yeedel (not his real name of course) is a cross-dresser. He gets kicks out of getting dressed up in his wife’s underwear. It turns on Yente his wife too. In the language of the common man they are a happy family. All turned on and tuned in. It’s chassidus for the First Decade (my name for what follows the 90’s), and it rocks!

Does it? Wait a minute, it sucks!
Cross dressing is a clear issur in the Torah. Lo yilbash gever simlas isho (A man shall not wear a woman’s clothing). Yeedel, my man, has a ready answer for that.
“No it’s not really, because I don’t look like a woman in them.”

I have to grant him that. Even in the most delicate of pink negligees and padded bra he doesn’t. The hairy chest, the furry legs, the long beard and peyos sticking out from under the latest style snood all give him away to even the most unseasoned of eyes. In fact the closest he gets is when he stands in shadow silhouette and tries to look pregnant. But that, my dear friends, is not really the point. Anybody who has heard of cross-dressing must understand that it is straightforward honest to whatshisname sexual deviation.

Let us be very clear about this, I am not a prude. I am not standing up in judgment nor do I use the pejorative word perversion. I use a word that literally means different from the norm. What Yeedel gets up to in his spare time is entirely his business and if his maker has issues with what he is doing he has not asked me to intervene for him.

What I do have issues with is the naiveté and lack of basic knowledge that has allowed young Yeedel to have gone through Cheder, Yeshive ketane, a Yeshive, and Kollel followed by countless further hours learning the heilige Torah, he has been aware for thirty-odd years that there is an issur in the Torah for a man to wear women’s clothes yet he does not have a clue as to the purpose of that issur. You see the best is still to come; Yeedel will not comb his beard with a comb because his face appendage is what I would call salt ‘n pepper and by combing he could pull out a white hair and Rashi does say that for a man to pull out the white hairs from his beard is a problem because of Lo Silbash. The mind boggles!

The Catholic Church in earlier days discouraged the learning of letters for the working class. It feared that reading might encourage the spread of ideas that were ‘unhelpful’. We seem to have managed to take it one step further. We teach them to read and forbid questioning. So not only can we block the spread of ‘unhelpful ideas’ but we can meanwhile fill the empty spaces with our very own ‘helpful ideas’.

I am off to get my three-year-old daughter to bed, in her nightie of course, pajama trousers are out for her – Lo Tilbash.

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Monday, January 05, 2004

Together We Are Wrong

"We are a family and the loyalty of the family must come before everything and everybody else. For if we honour that commitment, we will never be vanquished – but if we falter in that loyalty, we will all be condemned.”

My father could have written those words. The kehilla is like a family, and I agree with the notion that loyalty to the group is what makes the group strong. I do not agree with the notion that the kehilla’s good is more important than the good of each individual inside it regardless.

Kennedy, when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” was being more coherent than when he proudly proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner” which in the language of the common English-speaker translates as “I am a donut”. Had he wished to proclaim affinity to the undivided city he would have said “Ich bin Berliner”. However, in saying that for society to be strong we must be prepared for some sacrifice, he was undoubtedly right. If I had written those words though, I would have written “Ask not what my country can do for me, but what I can do for my country.” The difference being that in the singular form I agree entirely.

We do have to suffer sometimes for the good of society but we cannot be forced to. I can decide to forgo the pleasure of revenge upon the man who raped me if I feel that it would be better for my family or the kehilla, but none can tell me that I have to. I can decide to pay a little extra to have glatt meat (a luxury specifically not required by Halacha) or non-shomered butter (no basis in halacha) but nobody can require me to do so.

Where this ugly notion of forced self-sacrifice (a notion similar to coerced suicide) raises its head most often in our society is when those magic words Chilul-hashem pop up. For some reason the powers that be in the Chassidishe world have concluded that if the goyim will see that we are not perfect a chilul will ensue. If they will find out that we are human and fallible we, and all our values, will have been diminished in the esteem of the gentile world. So we farcically hide our faults and hope thereby to have protected our heritage from the critical eyes of “The Goyim”.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. By and large the Chassidish community is both G-d fearing and law-abiding. We are a compassionate bunch and we try and live our lives in the manner we call ‘tzu G-t und tzu lait’ For G-d and for man’. Where we have faltered is by protecting and shielding the minority who are neither, in the mistaken belief that doing so will enhance our image. It does not! Not only does hiding a criminal, a sex offender, a thief, a wife-basher or even someone who does not want to give a get make those hiding him/her an accessory to the wrong, but it exacerbates the negative impression that outsiders have of us.

I was told by a police constable who was investigating a particularly horrible wife-beating incident in a haimishe family “I know that you people will all gather round and I won’t get anything from you but I have to do my job and ask anyway. I only hope that you will be just as firm in helping this poor lady out.” Suffice it to say I hoped that too. The Beth-Din, in their infinite wisdom were adamant in proving him right on the first half but have not yet got round to the second part.

Oh, and by the way those inspiring words from the top of this post were written by Mario Puzo to be spoken by the very fruitful Pope in The Family.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Of dogs and men

Anybody who has never seen a big chassid (and we can be big can’t we?) crossing the road in total terror from a tiny little toy dog has never seen the real face of modern day chassidus. I am sure there must be a good explanation for the reason that Chassidim are scared of dogs, but I have never found it.

I know that dogs are a tumene chaya (unclean beasts) and that is the justification that many will give, however I know many equally tumene chayas that not only are not run away from but are actually given places oiven uhn (at the head table). This leads me to conclude that the dogs tume qualities are not the only reason we run away from them. Indeed some might argue that tumekeit is positively a requisite for a place oiven uhn. I know that this is nothing new to anyone reading this blog so let us share some information that might doch make reading this one worthwhile.

Let’s talk about sex! We all know that some things go on that have to be swept under the carpet. It is said that Chanina Shiff once announced to a rapt Gurrer audience that it is indeed true that the (now late) Rebbe goes early to bed and he does spend most his time alone. But, he assured his hushed crowd “er vaist vus tit zich bai yedem einem inter der dochene! (he knows what happens under every eiderdown)” . I wonder if that meant that he was also aware of all those yingerleit who cheppe (abuse) young boys in the mikve?

I have never figured out why in our community we prefer to hush this subject up rather than speak about it. And let me be clear about it, I am not talking about all those 15 year old bucherim who help masturbate their yungerleit friends out of their sexual boredom. That, while possibly wrong from a religious point of view, is in my opinion something that should be between those two and their maker. Providing of course that it is entirely consensual. Of course if anybody were to ask me my opinion I would tell him (or her) don’t do it! The reason is because the most likely outcome of such a relationship is misery for the older partner as if it is ever revealed the blame will always fall on the elder baal avaire even if the impetus did come from the hormone driven youngster. I am not going to sermon here about young peoples possible sexual confusion as I believe that at fifteen yjey will find someone to do it with and if it is not an older guy that happens to grab the opportunity (and more besides) it will be someone else.

What I am talking about is non-consensual sex with minors, and believe you me it is happening! I don’t want to go into specifics but I think we have all heard the stories. A girl raped in a taxi on her way home from a chassene. A boy abused by the babysitter. A young girl forced to perform fellatio for her father, known pedophiles that have been haunting the local mikves for decades… All these stories and many more have had their police investigations blocked by the Ra Bonim.

Those who deal with these things have assured me that the authorities that be, prefer that these cases not be mentioned. I have been assured by some of the victims that they will never forgive the authorities that be for that.

The danger of not talking about it is that parents are unaware of the dangers that lurk. Has anybody ever told the young girls that when going home with a taxi hired from a local mini-cab service that the driver might very well be the guy who recently raped a girl (He was never fired to the best of my knowledge) Has anybody ever told the mother who pack the little bags with fresh clothes for their sons to take to mikve that they run one chance in twenty of being in murky opaque hot water two meters by two (excluding the steps) with a known pedophile?

Well I suppose I can’t blame you because you did not know (I hope) but how about the Rabonim that I personally have spoken to? They do know…

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Friday, January 02, 2004


Yiddish is not the richest of languages. It has been argued that a language will pilfer or borrow any words that it needs to help its speakers be understood. In other words if a language does not have a word for something then you can assume that that object or concept is not very important to speakers of that language. The fact then, that Yiddish is missing many vital words, is a reflection of an attitude rather than a lack a verbal alacrity. If you need any proof of that, count how many synonyms there are in Yiddish for all those naughty things you mustn’t do.

There is no word for illegal drug use. That is to say there are certain terms that are used to describe drug abuse, ‘nemen smekkediks’ (taking things that smell), ‘reicheren di maases’ (smoking those things), but there is not even a word for drugs, let alone the actions and objects associated with their use.

The lack of knowledge about these matters, once a proud manifestation of the absence of drug abuse in the OJ community, can also become a problem. One that is beginning to raise its head as the loosening of soft-dug use in Europe and the States becomes more and more of a reality. Many of us know that in certain places in Stamford Hill young men with the beginnings of beards are hiding little illicit joints (I would call a joint a mechaber) in that special little pocket in their long coats (like an inside breast pocket but hip height) that were designed for them to hide their cigarettes in. The fact that many of them are American, where soft-drug use among bochurim is much more widespread, just goes to prove that that in this global gefilte-fish village physical borders no longer apply and we can expect more of the same in the future.

Not that I am really bothered by the fact that the occasional young man in our society has the occasional joint. On the contrary in fact. With the amount of pleasures and activities that are deliberately and arbitrarily denied these young oaks, I am glad to see that at least some are taking their puffin’ on the run.

The danger that does apply, and this is serious for a moment, is that because we have no culture of understanding regarding the use of cannabis and THC’s we tend to exacerbate our vocabularian handicap and lump together all users of illegal substances. Therefore a bochur who is caught tokin’ is likely to be ostracized by the entire community as a ‘nemer’, the English equivalent of calling him a junkie. Apart from the fact that some perfectly fine specimens of Satmar, Belz, Viznitz, Bobov etc are being lost to the bums for the lack of some words and a little modern understanding of how the youth thinks, we are also missing out on the medicinal properties that the whole world understands and knows.

I had a small boy whom I treated. He suffered from dystonia, a debilitating disease. When I first met him I knew he was going to die within the next 3 to 4 years. Some of the medication that he was given to stop his muscular spasms (and allow him to sit quietly in his wheelchair) also causes appetite loss. The kid looked like skin and bone and his bones stuck out to be made sore by hours of sitting in his chair. The best hope for restoring his appetite (short term) was for him to smoke or eat cannabis.

As there is as no prescription drug (yet) doctors will often advise patients to buy it illegally and administer it at home. It has become an accepted part of chemotherapy treatment and police officers I have spoken to have assured me that if they found a small amount of grass or hash on a chemo patient they would not even take it away.

This child’s parents however were flabbergasted when I suggested it. “Main kint gait nisht veren kain nemer!” (My child will not become a user). No amount of explaining could clear away the negative image that the word hashish conjured up in their minds. Main kind a Hashishnik? I could not convince them, either that cannabis in not addictive or that the child would not live long enough to suffer even if it were. The child is dead now and there is little I can do to help him. He died weighing 27kg at 14 years old. But he didn’t take drugs. His mother, to help her through the ordeal of watching him waste away, took bottles of valium and the father would smoke 40 cigarettes a day and sink into an alcoholic stupor at any chance, but their son B"H died drug free and emaciated.