Thursday, April 15, 2004

the Evils of Knowing Better

Grove Lane shul was a beautiful example of Jewish architecture and probably the last of its kind in Stamford Hill. When I was a child I remember going in there of a Shabbes morning just to see it in use. Its solemn presence moved me while its grandiose domed ceiling decorated with stunning murals and delicate carvings, gave it a presence that was so lacking in the dingy converted two roomed town house where we davened.

Grove Lane Shul is sadly no more. Having been bought by Visnits, in a move that at the time had me hoping that a new renaissance in Chassidic appreciation of architecture was finally underway; it is now a shabby and crumbling empty hall, standing limp testimony to our strident insistence that we ‘know’ everything better.

It is not only on the sad and amateurish decoration of our shteebles that this attitude is manifests itself. In education we have today a generation of teachers and principles who need no guidance from the professionals. So, while advances in educational methods are allowing dyslexic children all over the world to benefit from the advances in the understanding of what causes this condition and how to overcome it, our dyslexics are still being labeled underachievers by our expert educationalists. A recent survey of the Chassidic schools found one school with almost four hundred pupils that had not one single child diagnosed as dyslexic!

The medicine-doctor has returned in Chassidic society too, with young men like a certain ‘Rabbi’ in Israel who, with no formal medical training at all, advises patients from all over the world on matters of the utmost delicacy. Ostensibly he just tells people which doctor to go to but most who I hear from tell me that he also decides whether medical attention is necessary or not and shares his experiences with patients. London too has its own ‘medical practitioners’ who, with their ‘vast’ knowledge gained from their work in the Hatzole (a voluntary first-aid team) or by merit of their being on first-name terms with some Harley Street specialist, feel themselves qualified to advise patients on whether or not they need medical attention and where to seek it. In fact it is rare today for Chassidim with life-threatening diseases not to go and seek the advice of such quacks, to soon find themselves flying half round the world to ‘the only specialist who can help’.

The fact that the outcome is rarely different than what the first doctor suggested does not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the poor patients or their families, who in their distress feel like they are doing less than they could if they do not seek such advice. Many a family I know have in the end found they have wasted vast sums of money, not to mention the final years with their loved one chasing the fools gold of the miracle cure on such advice.

Self –proclaimed shulem-bayis-machers (marriage guidance counselors) fly around the world offering their expensive and often useless advice to gullible couples that think that only a yid can appreciate their problems.

Meanwhile all over town shteeble after shteeble is springing up where the unifying force is the lack of any rules in design or behaviour. From Italy ugly cast copper church-chandeliers and wall light fittings, that for years lay gathering dust, are being gleefully bought up by eager young sidelocked young men each trying to prove that their shteeble is the fairest in the land. All over the Chassidic world from New York to Jerusalem monstrously ugly monuments are being built for obscene amounts of money that, to any eye not blinded by the elephantine glittering chandeliers, the garish marble stonework and primitively carved woodwork, look like the were designed by cutting and pasting bits from a picture book called Architectural Styles of the Last Millennium.

The same arrogance and over-developed self-assurance that has allowed individual Chassidim overcome their handicaps and allowed them to achieve a measure of success in their chosen field with little to no formal training, is now beginning to grow out of hand. We have come to believe that we can do anything we set out minds to, regardless of what the experts say. In the decoration of shteeebles it is ugly but will probably cause little lasting damage, except to the aesthetic sense of those growing up in them. In other fields however it can be, and in some cases is, reckless, dangerous and worryingly prevalent.

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