Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Big Hats and Bigots

I read the American and Israeli press regularly and from all the reports about the new anti-Semitism in Europe I get the impression of living in a place that is only marginally better for Jews than pre-war Germany. Unlike the less orthodox Jews, we Chassidim are not really obsessed by the holocaust. By that I do not mean that we are ambivalent or feel less touched by it. Just that we don’t need the holocaust to define our lives or our Jewishness. Believe me we have enough laws and traditions, flaws and anomalies, guilt complexes and plain disgruntlement to manage fairly well without it. In any event I do not know what it felt like to be a Jew in Germany then. I do know that the tendency among many at that time was to brush aside the mounting fear and imagine that things will work out eventually. I have to therefore accept the possibility that the situation today might be the same. I doubt it however.

I have been working almost exclusively with non-Jews for many years now and I have not encountered any anti-Semitism at work. On the contrary most people I meet, after the initial surprise at the way I dress, seem to take it in their stride very well and I usually have to answer all those questions they have always wanted to ask, like why we do wear those ringlets next to our ears and about holes in sheets. Incidentally whoever started the rumour that Chassidim have sex through a hole in a sheet has a lot to answer for but he can also take part of the credit for some highly creative use of language. It is not an easy question to ask, especially of a man dressed like a Chassid. You would be surprised how many manage to find a way though.

I do remember one incident of anti-Semitism, as apposed to drunken leers or pubescent boys letting off bursts of testosterone. I was about eighteen years old and riding the train from Gateshead to London. A woman was walking down the carriage with a guy who, when he saw me sitting there, started literally foaming at the mouth and screaming at me “Take your putrefaction back to Jerusalem”. The man must have been emotionally disturbed or else he was in dire need of some anger management training. I was too petrified to move. Nobody said a word and after a few minutes of his repeated shouting of that memorable sentence the woman who was with him pulled him by the arm, onward and out of the carriage. Some minutes later she returned and with teary eyes apologised profusely. She did not try to excuse his behaviour, just said she was sorry over and over again. I, trying to be English, said what is expected. “Its all right. No problem. Ok. Yes I understand.”

I have never forgiven myself for that. It was certainly not all right or Ok. It Was a problem and I did Not understand. I cannot understand how a train full of people could stand by and watch a young man, obviously scared out of his wits, being verbally attacked for no reason other than his race? In the weeks after the incident, as I lay in bed at night and thought about it, I came to the conclusion that I was a coward. I should have stood up and socked him one on the hooter. It would not have changed his opinion but it would have made me feel better about myself. In a small and insignificant way the same feeling that must have driven us after the war to set up our own country and stand on our own feet. Isn’t it ironic then that the only place that I do encounter bigotry on a regular basis is in Israel? There it has become acceptable today to display anti-religious sentiment in public to the extent of shouted abuse in the streets, even in Jerusalem.

In the UK when I go to the cinema or a bar I will dress up. I will take off what the Israelis call my penguin suit and hat, and dress down in a casual jacket and pants. Unlike most of the Chassidic plain-clothes operatives, I have also learned that white shirts and black dress shoes give the game away immediately so I really do know how to become incognito. I do it, not because I am ashamed of the way I usually dress but because my peers feel that I shame them by displaying in public their failure to convince me not to indulge in such decadence. I must admit that it is also refreshing on occasion to be able to blend into the crowd rather than sticking out like a wart on a nose. In Israel however I will not. Until they learn to respect my right to display my conviction in public I will continue to shove it down their noses.

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