Sunday, February 01, 2004

Mad Hatters & Men In Black

I read in the Haaretz last week that a cooking school has been opened in Israel for religious adults who wish to learn to become haute cuisine chefs. I am happy, because the way to my heart really is through my stomach. I really like having good food and the opportunities for buying it in London, Kosher, are extremely limited. Admittedly in Golders Green there are a couple of restaurants that are better then the ones that came before them. Isola Bella is one that springs to mind. Yet in all honesty, while their food is of a much higher standard than the bignose ‘pastrami sandwich and chicken soup with noodles’ at Blooms it is still not haute cuisine. Stamford Hill, with our 15.000 Men In Black, does not have a single restaurant unless you want to mention that dog-food place on the Hill itself and the solitary pizza joint sadly wilting away on the Parade. Having read that 3 of the 38 first year students at that cook school are from the UK I am dreaming that on our 15th wedding anniversary my wife and I will be able to celebrate with a kosher Chateaubriand.

Naturally the question of hechsher (kosher certification) remains important to many. Yet I must say that I am noticing a distinct cooling of attitudes among the younger members of the community where it comes to hechshers in restaurants. It is not unusual to see Chassidim sitting at the White House, Isola Bella or Cassit. Indeed it less usual to see Chassidim in Tasti Pizza or Uncle Moishe’s, presumably because even to them it has filtered through that baked-from-frozen pizza and chips and slowly decomposing turkey shoarma are not the food of kings. Now many will argue that the young Charlies sitting in Cassit and Isola Bella are not the typical Chassid and that is what I am actually getting at.

I have had a theory for a long time that what is actually lacking in Chassidic society is eccentricity. It is a well-known fact that change is often wrought by eccentrics. After all where would the art world be without Picasso and Goch. Eccentrics are those that that are prepared to defy the cultural norms and do what they want. They tend to be oblivious to the effect their actions have rather than to insist on upon making a scene. The ones who like making scenes are the angry ones and they are less likely to affect changes on society because anger almost invariably generates counter-force.

Eccentricity is essentially harmless but it is utterly and soundly frowned upon in Chassidic society. Ours is a society based on conformity, and ‘difference is to be killed at birth’ is the message from our leadership loud and clear. Their reasoning is correct. The only ones who can break the grip that the old-timers have on our society are the eccentrics. When they do their meshugasim they create ripples that are ignored by the establishment and that is their power.

Take Mark McGowan In October, 2003 - shortly after rolling a peanut seven miles through London with his nose - he announced his plans for another stunt: he would sit in a South London art gallery window eight hours each day for twelve days, in a bath filled with baked beans, with two chips (ie. french fries) up his nose and 48 sausages wrapped around his head.
An Italian friend, McGowan explained, had prompted this latest project,: "I took him to a traditional English pub but he started to complain when he saw the menu. It got me thinking about how much some people criticise our food - even blaming a good old fry-up for obesity. We don't support our culture enough, so I though I would celebrate a part of it by turning myself into a full English breakfast."

I do not expect exquisite eccentricity of that level to pop up in our society overnight even though our food really is worse. Yet those young men who defy tradition and choose to go out at night to one of the better restaurants or to take something in with their wives in the West End are in their own way paving the way to progress.

Dr David Weeks, is a clinical neuro-psychologist. He co-authored a book called Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness. He writes that [eccentrics are] "essential for the health of the social organism, for they provide the variety of ideas and behaviour that permits the group to adapt successfully to changing conditions. All intellectual evolution depends on new ideas; they are the essence of science, of exciting new art, indeed of all intellectual progress."

The young chassidim that are studying to become chefs in Israel will hopefully come back to the UK and open a couple of chic restaurants. Hopefully others will learn from them and some more boys who do not want to go the Yeshiva route all the way to the altar will go out and learn something else. With Gods help, and a bit of ours, maybe our community will start producing a few productive young breadwinners and a basis for a vibrant community that pays its way instead of waiving its pay.

What is certain to me is that the urge to earn ones living, doing what one actually wants to do, is one eccentricity we simply can no longer afford to squash.

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