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!

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