Monday, March 29, 2004

It's a man's world

My sister called me quite distraught. She caught her husband with a packet of pretzels in the sitting room, which was already cleaned for Pesach. While I patiently explained to her that it was not a personal attack on her nor did it mean that he does not take her, or her cleaning seriously, I was battling with my innate sense of honesty that wanted me to admit that I used to do it too.

I really do admire the vigour that women display in getting all traces of anything to do with wheat out of the house. True the extremes are sometimes funny. I have never actually seen any of the kids swinging from the curtains or chandelier holding a sandwich, but if the women feel the need to remove all traces of bread from there too I am happy to be supportive and even take the curtains down without a murmer.

I am perfectly happy to see a five pound box of washing powder thrown out because it wasn’t on the pesach list and the washing room is already cleaned. I don’t mention that the clothes going into the room to be cleaned are far more likely to have actual chometz on them, because then I might find no more fresh clothes in my cupboard.

For some reason I find it hard to accept that when G-d commanded us not to eat bread for eight days, he really meant us to be driven into smaller and smaller spaces with our food until we climax a couple of days before pesach furtively eating day old sandwiches on the porch. Yet I hold my tongue because I have come to the conclusion that what we men do is incredibly patronising.

Most men you will ask will tell you that, as a general rule, our women today are stricter than the men. Most women will be more forceful and declare that if their husbands had their way their kitchens would be totally treife (unkosher). The reason for this is that the men are the ones that spend their time studying so they know all the loopholes and reasonings. The Women learn in a much more practical way so they get only the do’s and don’ts. That is understandable. What is not is the prevalent attitude of ‘let her do her thing and I will do mine. I find it is demeaning to suggest that they do the work and we condescendingly tell them ‘it’s ok dear you don’t understand’ and then go off and do our thing, to their genuine horror.

I therefore freely admit that I do go along with all the things she makes me do and if I am less of a man for it I think at least I have earned her respect – even if she does not know it.

For the same reason dear readers I will be taking a Pesach break and probably will not be posting till after Pesach.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

A story secretly doing the rounds in Stamford Hill alleges that a certain Chassidic young man was being threatened that unless he paid a large sum of money he would be exposed for having had sex with a minor years earlier. When he refused the blackmailer went to the police and denounced him as a child molester, claiming that he and a friend had had underage sex with him when he had been of age.

The police did their duty and arrested the alleged paedophile. You can see more details about the allegations in the comments to the last post.

I have no idea whether the story is true or false and have no wish to try and judge it from behind my curtain of anonymity. Some of the comments I heard people in the community make over the weekend are very disturbing though.

The sad truth is, that such a story, whether it eventually turns out to be true or false, will anyway have permanently stained the good name of the accused. The common reaction of the holimen is to avidly garner every detail and then say “a shmiutziger maase (a filthy story)” before running off gleefully to tell it to all his other friends. In Tzaddikville Technicolor has not yet arrived and everything gets painted in black and white. Shmutzig equals bad and anybody involved with shmutz is shmutzig.

Child molestation, in my humble opinion, is when an older person uses his or her authority to coerce someone underage to do something unwillingly. While the legal definition has to have distinct borders, it cannot be reasonable to automatically assume that if one party is sixteen and the other fifteen, that the older partner initiated the contact or that the younger partner was unwilling. I have no wish to condone such behaviour but I do not condemn one any more than the other. It must also be remembered that in a society as closed as ours, where the very mention of any sex is strictly frowned upon; it is difficult to expect our teenagers to respect a set of rules they have never heard.

On the other hand it is a well-known fact that the powers that be in our community have for years been protecting child molesters and blocking any effective investigation into allegations of it. This should really be an occasion for us to explore this difficult issue and see whether there is anything we should be doing to avoid these problems. True, it is difficult to give our children sex education in school if we prefer they did not know such a thing exists. There must however be some way of ensuring that if youngsters are going to mess around and experiment (and we might as well accept they are), at least they must know what they are doing and the potential dangers. Even more important if they do feel they are being abused there should be somewhere where they could gain help and sympathy without judgment. The only practical way that I can see is through an anonymous hotline where students can call and discuss their problems openly with those who are in a position to advise them sensibly. There are Rabbis and lay leaders out there who understand this although I admit that they are few and far between.

I can only urge any child who is being abused or anyone who has been abused in the past and feels that the abuser might still be active to send me a mail and I will try and put them in touch with someone who can help.

And to anyone who thinks he is being blackmailed my advice is this: if you are innocent sit tight and ignore it or contact the police. If you might not be; get in touch with a lawyer or someone in authority and discuss it, but under no circumstances should you ever hand over any money. Paying a blackmailer does not end the story. The blackmailer will never be satisfied with a one off payment. The moment he needs or wants as sum of money again he is bound to consider making a new withdrawal. Sooner or later the defining moment will arrive and one of the two will blink. Paying up is a sure-fire way of having the shit hit the fan only when you are broke.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Freedom of Choice

I can’t say I have respect for all the Rabbis I know. There is one though whom I met on the Internet. A highly unconventional man in a suave and sophisticated way he is a kind of Rabbi 007, of the Scottish variety (of coursh).

He is the man who decided my fate some years ago, though I doubt he knows it. I met him when we both contributed to some forum or other and he disagreed with a viewpoint of mine. In an acrimonious exchange of e-mails we discovered that we lived close to each other and arranged to meet. He did not expect to see a Chassid any more than I expected a stubbly shaven Gentleman Rabbi who could tell dirty jokes, and name-drop royalty between his quotes of Gemarra and Kabbalistic monologues.

We became pretty friendly and he introduced me into his group of intellectual friends. It was from his, mostly irreligious, friends that I learned to love philosophy and good music. And to appreciate the beauty in the knowledge I had accrued that had lost its sparkle. Not to mention the delights of the amber gold single-malt he taught me to drink. I was thus lucky enough to find a mentor who could show me a quality life outside of Chassidimgrad. I had stopped believing in much when I was 18 and had for a couple of years tried the bohemian life as I saw it then.

Looking, looking at Goylife through the Yeshiva windows, it seems a pretty simple affair. Wake up in the morning, send home whoever you were with and promise to call. Then slip on a pair of Jeans and a t-shirt and off you go for a new day of hunting. It took me a couple of years to discover that dreams are Universal and that’s just what Universal Studios sells. I’d never stopped wearing the chassididc garb so it was relatively easy to return when I realised I was not really equipped to make a better life out there.

I met Rabbi James Years later when I was already married and back in London. I was going through a rough patch and was really fed up. He advised me to take off my Kappel if that’s what I wanted. And he said that that was what God wanted if I did. That was when I decided I did not want to. It seems that all I had ever wanted was the right to choose.

You can all thank him that this blog is not fan site for the Grateful Dead.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Hats hats hats

Of all the Chassididshe clothes I have to wear the one that bothers me most is the hat. People living outside Chassidusville can have no idea how expressive our hats can be. Like mushrooms to a professional picker each one speaks an entire story.

Real Chassidim don’t have dents on the side of their hats. Only Lubavitchers do, so anybody with a dented hat is already one below par.

There is also texture to consider, Rebbishe Chassiduses go for furry felt while balabatishe (civilian) types favour regular felt. For anyone unaccustomed to our hats a simple finger-test will suffice to ascertain this. A 2mm pelt will indicate it belongs to someone from Bobov, Belz or Viznitz. Smooth is probably a Satmarrer or a Gurrer unless if it’s one of those frummer-do-gooders who wear a round hat with a groove in the top. They refuse to belong anywhere and think that just because they happen to believe in God they can be above all that. Wankers!

A word of advice here if you do happen to touch a laidigayer’s hat and rub the flock the wrong way, make you sure you brush it back before he notices. It is the mark of a true liadigayer to have a flawlessly flocked hat so a single brush the wrong way could ruin some poor guy’s credentials.

Of course you have styles within each style too. A low furry hat that looks like a flying saucer is either a Satmar bochur or one of those Neturei Karta who demonstrate against Israel whenever they can get the world's television cameras to train on them. A straight squarish furry hat worn back-to-front is generally a Viznitzer though it could always be a Belzer or Bobover up to no good who prefers that whoever sees him should think it is a Viznitzer doing it. Bobover hats are identical to the Belzer ones but usually cleaner so an expert can tell. A smooth Felt hat with a round dent in the top is always a Satmarrer while a bowler with a longish groove is a just a Shainer Yid (Jewish toff or nob).

Shabbes is a day of rest. Then everybody but the Gerrers (who always have to be different) wears the same Shtreimel. Again the real expert can tell the difference but you do have to have lots of experience for that.

I hate the hat because it is such a difficult thing to look after. Apart from having to protect it from the rain, which is difficult enough, I hate seeing people wearing the bloody thing with a dustbin-liner on it even more. I hate having to find somewhere in the car to put it, where it won’t get squashed. I hate having to find a place for it on the plane. I hate having to hold it when the wind blows or risk feeling like a clown as I chase after it on the street if I don’t. I hate having to wear it indoors when I am the only one wearing one and I hate being caught out at some Chassidishe gathering where I am the only one without one. I hate seeing tiny little Barmitzva boys floating along under huge hats where from my angle you can see no face at all and I hate it even more when I come to a park or the beach and see people dragging their hats along there too.

Ok I will admit there are times when it does come in handy. It is a perfect fan when the air-conditioning is down and it certainly does a fine job as a fly swatter.

James Monroe The 5th US President is famous for having said, “Religion is not so much believing as belonging.” (I suppose it is no accident that a famous Chassidic town is named after him.) He was incidentally nicknamed ‘the last cocked hat’.

There are many cocked hats in Monro today with each angle having its own special meaning. Wear it back with some hair showing in the front and you are a Shvitzer, wear it forward and you are being studious. Too big and you are a Frummer, too small and you are a shaigetz. Too wide you are a Rebbe too narrow a laidigayer.

Oh yes, and somewhere or other there is a God involved here too, I just can’t seem to put a finger on where.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Excluding Service

It is a sad fact that Purim is the time when corruptions reigns free in our schools. It has become a tradition for our parents to give their boys’ Rebbes an envelope with the Mishloach Manot. We all understood why the council forbade giving the dustmen a tip round Christmas time yet the only ones who seem to understand why this is wrong is those with a different excuse for each collection plate.

The moment the handing of a gratuity stops being a voluntary mark of appreciation and becomes a prerequisite for continued good service it loses all legitimacy. It cannot be acceptable that a child should be discriminated against because his father could not afford to compete in the tipping stakes with the highest flyer in his class. The teacher’s attention should not be for sale and our overly expensive education must not become concentrated upon the highest bidder.

One school did for a while insist that all parents put the money they want to give into one envelope so the Rebbe need not know what each individual had given. This was eventually scrapped, according to the headmaster because “The Rebbes complained that they were getting much less.” Oh really, is that so? You would think the most studious one percentile of the cleverest race would be able to figure out why that proves the problem.

I must admit that I don’t always have the courage of my convictions. Like everybody else I too duly handed in my protection money. I cannot subject my children to the risk of being ignored by their teacher but I shudder to think what it teaches them about values.
Truth, Lies in the B. tales

Since I was a child each time I hear Haman’s name mentioned the first time I wonder why whoever the hell wrote the Megilla tells us all of went on in his mind. When I asked my Rebbe in school that, I was told that we musn’t try to be cleverer than the Megilla. I now know that he was only self-righteously hiding his ignorance, the way so many Rebbes do. Against his advice I have been thinking about it and reached exactly the conclusion he would not have wanted me to reach.

If I had given been given the job of writing the Book of Esther from the point of view of Jewish Nationalism, I am sure my editor would have stripped the entire middle bit out. As indeed was done with all the detail in Esther’s part of the story.

Nobody knows what exactly went on at that first party Esther called. I suspect that when the Queen invites her husband to a surprise, intimate drinking party with a only one favourite Minister and he drops all he is doing and insists on attending immediately, that it was not simply a wine tasting. The Midrash offers one indication of some kinky goings by saying that Esther, by calling these parties, forfeited her right to become Mordechai’s wife at some later stage. Until then it seems she could be considered a captive of the King but now she had ‘gone’ to him voluntarily.

The Megilla omits all these details because, while they might hold voyeuristic interest for us, they add nothing of interest to the story of the miraculous way we were saved by the belle. At first sight you could argue that the same for many more bits. I am sure that if the story had jumped straight from when Esther becomes queen to the moment when she calls the last party, it would still have been a pretty acceptable miracle story. I can only suppose that the reason we get to read so much of what Haman thought and did is because there is a message for us in there.

Part of the problem with Haman according to the Megilla is that seeing Mordechai and his blatant disrespect, albeit well deserved, angered him. The Megilla says that when Haman saw Mordechai sitting at the Palace gates he was “filled with rage”. Well it’s hard not to wonder how I would feel in his place. The Jew not only being there and visible but refusing to bow to boot.

In my opinion the megilla is giving us a very fundamental piece of advice. There are only so many Esthers. It is not practical to always rely on the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Lobby. Hamans abound and the first line of defense has to be being inconspicuous. If that cannot be done at least we should learn not to annoy the bastards. Some of the arguments Haman specified to the king against the Jews were that their customs are different and it is not worthwhile to the king to keep them. My understanding therefore is that in absence of any miracle makers the advice is clear.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

A purim Shpiel

Rebbe Melech was the biggest Rebbe in the world. His Chassidim were to be found from New York to Tel Aviv, in a total of 127 kehillas. One day he decided to make a Tish where all were invited. It was the greatest Tish ever. Great big banners decorated the hall and there was shirayim for whoever asked for it- on brand new paper plates straight from the packet.

As the atmosphere thickened the Rebbe wanted to show off his team and he let his Gabbai be called to sing a zemer. The Gabbai had a sore throat and declined the honour. The Rebbe was very angry and he consulted with his confidantes as to what should be done with a Gabbia who displayed such arrogant Chutzpah. They were adamant, such insolence could not be tolerated and the Gabbai was relieved of his duties with immediate effect and forever branded a Schwanz. Some naysayers thought that a little petty, but the confidantes were very convincing in their arguments. It would be seen as a sign of weakness for the Rebbe to have anyone disobey a direct order.

The Rebbe however was now Gabbeless and that was unacceptable too. So the order was spread all over town that the activists were to start recruiting young men. In the school-yards and shuls, in playgrounds and streets all young boys that did not belong to any chassidus were invited to join Shabbes tehillim groups and chevras hamismidim (evening school). The objective; to get them hooked up before any other chassidus got there, and to start grooming them so one could become the new Gabbai. He would have to be meek and respectful too but above all he had to be taught how to keep a secret because that is what keeps the kingdom intact.

Years they spent next to the Rebbishe Tish and much they did learn, of polishing silver and serving the fish. Also polishing off bottles of wine and some members of ‘another Rebbes’ team.

Among these fine young lads was a sensitive orphan called Chesksel. He was known to be under the protective wing of one of the Rebbes sons (I forget now which) so he could get away with being a bit a shaigetz. One day he heard some misnagdim (the Rebbes dissidents inside) plotting to shame the Rebbe by hiding the silver wine bottle that was used at the Tish. This would have made the Chassidus ridiculous, as then some other Rebbe would have a finer display on his Tish than ours. He immediately informed his foster parent who had them both reported to the IRS. Heskel became the new Gabbai and peace reigned on in the happy fiefdom for a while.

The Rabbis sons were getting older as was the Rebbe himself and, in anticipation of the unspoken event, they started each one to cultivate their own movements among the young men. This was done surreptitiously of course because everyone knows - Rebbes never tolerate unilateral withdrawals and illegal settlements are never allowed. The older one as crown prince was stronger of course but he was unpopular so things balanced out.

Meanwhile another son of the Rebbe was becoming a little a jealous of the attention his brother was getting and decided to put a spoke his wheel. He decided to go over and have the whole issue out with his dad the Rebbe. Ideally his brother would be excommunicated but if that were not possible how about a little shul on the 50th floor of some skyscraper far away.

It was a Lail Shishi (Thursday night when Chassidim traditionally stay up late to study) and the Rebbe was beginning to nod off. A chassid told the tale of the shameful time when a major calamity was avoided by a whisker. The Rebbe, wide-awake now, asked whether this person was ever rewarded for his good deed. Just as he heard that not, a knock on the door announced the arrival of Reb Jealous son.

“What would you do in my place my son, if you wanted to show favour to a certain child?”
Reb Jealous said to himself “He must mean me so now’s my chance.”

“I think” he said with a secret smirk “he should be allowed to have his very own Tish. He should be allowed to wear Rebbishe Bekishe and the Rebbes own silverware should adorn the table.”
“You are right my son and I like your idea. Go and tell Heskel the Gabbai to arrange exactly that for your brother whom I owe a favour. Reb Jealous felt his face go white and a sense of defeat swept all over him but he did as he was bidden. What else could he do? He walked home in the pouring rain dreaming of that shul on the fiftieth floor and ruing the fact that it stood so empty. His wife was not very sympathetic either when he got home.
“Yes my dear that’s the way these things go. When you win you get it all and when you lose he does.”

In his rage Reb Jealous decided there and then to kick out all of his brother’s crowd in one fell swoop. He went over to his father and explained the situation as he saw it. You have a group of Chasssidim who are all laidigayers and shgatzim and they are ganging up together and causing trouble. “They make a bad name for us,” he explained plaintively “and they are so strong and burly that they are always the first in by catching Shirayim” (bits of food shared out at the Tish). “I think we should get rid of all of them.”
“How do you propose to do it?” the Rebbe asked.
“I will send around Pashkevillen (pamphlets) in all the town and we will inform everybody that on a certain day it is OK to bash up all the Laidigayers and Shgatzim and kick them out.”
The Rebbe found this a fine idea and very soon the literature was making its way to all four corners of the Rebbe’s parish. When the other son Reb Nebich saw this paper it was his turn to turn a whiter shade of pale. He knew exactly what was going on. That what this paper really meant was the end of his campaign hopes.

With his advisors he made a cunning plan to use the new Gabbai Cheskele to foil the wicked plans.

What happened next is not really known except to the exclusive few. It is clear that the Gabbai had his way and now it is his group that is standing proud. Reb Jealous is now the one thinking of having his Shul on the Fiftieth floor of a Skyscraping building and Chassidusville will carry on with its intriguing infighting.

disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely intentional.