Friday, May 28, 2004

BT fatique

I have been keeping statistics in my (snail)mailbox recently. I received in the last three months exactly 332 letters at my home address. Living in Stamford Hill as I do it is obvious that two thirds of these are invitations to weddings and Barmitzvahs, the vast majority of which I have no intention of attending or even acknowledging, in line with the wishes of those who sent them. Like much in our community the tradition of inviting everybody on the shul list to every wedding reception is one nobody knows the origin of and nobody has yet had the courage to abolish. So like everybody else I open the invitations and scan the names quickly. If they look familiar I say “Mazel tov! so Mendel is marrying Mindel” and if not they fly into my big bag of IFUs (Invitations to Families Unknown).

The next most popular form of letter is from some institution or other. It begs me to support their wonderful and inspirational task and showers my family and me with blessings and best wishes. Only good fortune and happiness should befall us in the zchus of this great and holy mitzvah I am being given an opportunity to perform. The language they use is sometimes remarkably similar to English.

The institutions asking for money are as often as not involved in the business of kiruv (returning lost souls). I have lately decided that I am no longer supporting the kiruv cause. I am all for people returning to their faith. I feel that there is much that we, who have been frum all our lives, can learn from those that chose to become frum. In fact I regularly have BTs (Baalei Tshuva or the newly religious) at my table. I like to talk to them about their reasons for becoming frum and I like my children hearing their perspective. On the other hand I do not know why the disaffected unwashed are more worthy of my hard-earned money than those who have suffered all their lives for the cause.

When I was 18 years old and contemplating leaving the fold for good, the one thing that held me back was the fact that I would have to break with my family, friends and entire society. While I felt intellectually unfulfilled I did not hate myself, or everybody around me, enough to justify such a drastic step. I believe becoming a BT is a similar experience and requites similar impetus.

It seems to me that as long as we have inside our own community people who are unhappy or disaffected enough to leave, and looking around it is obvious that the list is growing rather than shrinking, it is the height of irresponsibility to be investing money in importing the disaffected from outside. The amounts of money we send each year to support those institutions in arranging seminars in luxury hotels to proselyte the lank-haired youth should instead be spent improving the lot of those who feel trapped and lonely inside our own homes and shuls. Otherwise there will come a time when we all will dread the arrival of the next invitation and the horrors of the latest unsuitable match.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Hats off to the Shaitel Doffers

While shopping in my local delicatessen store I was listening to group of frum women chatting, all obviously self-conscious of the new sheitels they were wearing. One of them announced that she could not take much more of the uncertainty. The group unanimously agreed with her that it was impossible, with Yomtov coming up and every day new stories of this or that Beth Din deciding that all or some wigs have to be burnt

I personally am obliged to say that I am full of admiration for those women who had the courage of their convictions and got rid of their sheitels the moment they heard there might be a problem. I take my hat off to those ladies. I take my hat off to the ladies who proudly and defiantly walked the streets in snoods or swim caps the morning after the whole issue came out.

One customer of mine came in to keep an appointment with me wearing what looked like a wig borrowed from a participant at the Notting Hill Carnival. Always immaculately turned out, her head looked, to put it mildly, like something the cat had brought in. I cannot imagine what she must have thought when she looked into her mirror prior to leaving the house. I would argue that the sacrifice of giving up what is effectively your hair, from one moment to the other, is probably no smaller than that of the women in India who shave their hair off for their deity.

Yet as I write this I feel some ambivalence. They are calling the Shaitel issue a crisis. Phone calls to and fro between friends, frantic searches on the Internet for anything with the words Tirupati or hair, pages upon pages of responsa and frenzied queues at the sheitel-machers (wig dressers). These are the crisis of the well fed.

Meanwhile in our own country thousands of young men are risking their lives to protect their very homes and families' lives. I think we should all take a moment off to reflect on the fact that we can afford the luxury of allowing a head covering to disrupt ours. The soldiers who have been ordered in to Gaza contemplate seeing their comrades dying. The moral dilemmas they face must be horrific. I cannot even imagine what goes through the mind of a 19 year old reservist who last week was helping his 15 year old brother with his homework and now sees a boy of the same age in his cross hairs with a Kalashnikov in his hands. Meanwhile their families sitting at home hear the phone ring and a cold shadow flits across their brains.

I believe our determination and single-mindedness is what has kept us alive as a nation. The determination that lets a soldier put his life on the line to defend his country, his people and his way of life and, in a smaller but still significant measure, that allows a woman to walk the streets looking like a clown because, for her, disregarding an issur (halachic ban) is not an option.

Sometimes I am proud to be Jewish!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Hairy Krishnas

Anybody who has ever spent any time socialising with the Chassidic shgatzim in mixed company will know that when the schmooze turns to sheitels (wigs) it is time to head home. Not that I have anything against sheitels, on the contrary I find most sheitels far more attractive than what lurks underneath. I cannot however find it in me to be honestly interested in if the ends turn inward or out, or whether it was ordered from the new Russian star in Antwerp or that ‘cute’ gay hairdresser in Golders Green.

When the women started off about sheitels last night I automatically headed off for a heart-to-heart with an old friend from the Glenmorangie distillery. This was a miscalculation on my part because for a change this was no fluff; apparently the Rabbanim have discovered that the human hair that all wigmakers use comes from a Hindu temple in India where the people offer up their hair to an idol. This makes the hair Takroives Avoide zore (an offering to an idol) and it is forbidden to derive any use from it.

In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh there is town called Tirupati. Central to this town of about 100,000 residents, is the Sri Venkateswara Temple. With an average of 50.000 visitors each day this is certainly India’s most visited shrine. Indeed it records more visitors than either Mecca or St. Peter’s Basilica. It is dedicated to the four-armed Hindu God Venkateswara, who is supposed to be a reincarnation of the similarly quadribrac Lord Vishnu, the consort of Goddess Lakshmi. It reigns undisputed as the richest temple in India due to its export of one commodity: human hair. Every day a percentage of the pilgrims who visit the site offer what the people there call “the most beautiful part of the human body” as a sacrifice to God. The temples leader calls it “a surrendering of ego to God”.

Most of the hair that is shorn is gathered up and sold by the temple to companies who will do all manner of things with it including extracting amino acids that could end up in our food or shampoos. The very long hair, shorn from a woman who has never cut it before - as is often the custom there, will be carefully tied together before removal and will eventually be sold as human hair. Tirupati hair is highly valued by African-American women, who use it to make hair extensions, because the Hindu women who donate it have often never washed it with shampoo nor worn it loose. It is most often worn braided at all times and lovingly massaged with coconut oil to keep it shiny.

The Temple is said to earn between $2 and $4 million a year from the proceeds of the 25.000 heads that are shaved every day and the 450 tons of hair sold each year.

I am no less Shaigetz for Hinduism than I am for Judaism so I am not really qualified to judge whether the Rabbi’s take on this whole affair is correct. Fortunately the problem does not affect me as my wife has hers custom made with European hair. Many women are not so lucky and unless the Rabbis will take action to ensure that the wig makers do not take advantage of the situation and go up with the prices of the out-of-the-box wigs it will be hard to suppress the feeling that this is just another scam to fill the synagogues coffers at expense of that Temple. In the meantime euphoria and self-satisfied gloating from those sticks-in-the-mud who have been trying to ban sheitels since they first appeared.

I personally am a bit sceptical as to what percentage of hair used in Jewish sheitels actually is from there. Those in the business had always told me that it is bought from Sikhs, not allowed to cut their hair as long as they live. I am furthermore not entirely convinced that Hindus do actually worship Idols. Take this statement “Hindus with a proper understanding of their religion do not think that the idol alone is God. The idol is meant for the worshipper to offer one-pointed devotion and he adores it with the conviction that the Lord who is present everywhere is present in it also.” ( )

I am most certainly highly suspicious of a trip that the illustrious Dayan Dunner made to Tirupati to ascertain that it is indeed idolatry. I hear that on his return he huddled up with a leading Israeli Rabbi behind closed doors and emerged beamingly to announce that henceforth all sheitels of Indian origin have to be burned.

I had to suppress a grin when I learned that none other than our very own Posh Spice brought the whole story to light. Apparently on some TV interview Victoria Beckham was asked if she felt no guilt wearing a wig that was probably shorn off some prisoner in a Russian jail. She replied that she did not care, but her publicists later revealed that in fact the hair might have come from Tirupati starting this whole furore.

In one respect the Rabbis did get it right. No good comes from watching TV

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The future is bright – without Orange

I was not invited to the Aguda convention in Bournemouth. An oversight on their part undoubtedly. A delegate who was, told me that one of the main concerns voiced by the fine members of this august group was with the growing number of dropouts that London is spawning.

It is indeed so that when I was a child I do not remember anybody actually leaving the gefilte fish cradle altogether. Yes, of course there were those that were severely orthodoxically challenged but few, if any, had the urge (or is it just the guts) to weigh anchor and sail out into the unchartered waters of goytown. It was said then that in New York there were many upgefurener Chassidim but with a smug smile the Rabbis assured our parents that it could not happen here. Well it seems they got it wrong again and London has become just like New York in one more way.

I do not know what has happened to bring this new phenomenon about. I wish I could say that it is all to do with the staleness of ideas that we present our kids. Then I would have a solution. Unfortunately I do not see much evidence of any intellectual frustration among the gangs of leather-jacketed ex-Chassidim that parade their shiny mini-coopers through Stamford Hill. To be quite honest I do not see much evidence of intellect at all among the laidigayers and dropouts.

This should not be taken to mean that I believe that Chassidism has maintained its firm grip on the hearts of its intellectuals. On the contrary, who would know better than me what goes on behind that fa├žade of propriety among those that have explored and tasted the forbidden fruits of tarbus chitzoines (alien culture)? The Shgatzim do not need empty symbolic gestures to display their frustration, they have another escape route.

For one it is in literature and for the other in yoga, but alien culture is rife in the underground. The fact that is underground means that it cannot be utilized for the growth of the community and some of the keenest minds in our community are being wasted away on trivia while the conformists plod on mechanically toward the abyss.

The Rabbis at the convention however have no idea of this and with fiery earnestness debated what could be done to discourage more children from leaving. With a roomful of sated and rested leaders all concentrated on one major problem you would expect them to come up with a solution. And they did… Almost.

You see, they were able to put a finger on the core of the problem; just they could not quite figure out how to correct it. After much debate and heated exchanges of ideas they announced with great fanfare; “The problem” they said, “is caused by mobile phones”. Where would we be without the Aguda Convention in Europe?

Ok I have to go, my mobile...

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

In the Harem

The Saudi Arabians do not allow women to drive. They believe the emancipation of women is contrary to God’s wishes and somehow they see driving as one of the ways in which this manifests itself. How exactly driving does that eludes me and in fact I find it rather odd that it is less damaging to the collective purity to have women driven around by men drivers than to allow them to do it themselves.

Actually I could ask my local Rabbi to explain it, seeing as the same farcical rule applies to Chassidic women. If my wife wants to go to the West-end, she can hop on a bus or the tube and run the gamut of ogles from half the male population of London (ok yes she is exceptionally fine looking) or she can take a cab and enjoy an hour-long drive with some horny cockney ex-decorator or a Sikh refugee but if she gets behind the wheel then she is a preetze (wanton woman). Not that she complains. Why should she? Just like the pampered Saudi princess she needs just pick up a phone and call a cab and Emess will be only too pleased to oblige. A flourish of her pen and the bill will take care of itself until I cough up at the end of the month.

Allegations doing rounds recently (unsubstantiated for reasons chastity) of sexual impropriety and even rape by drivers for these Jewish owned car services do not seem to be reason enough to change our saintly leader’s minds. Instead the blame is laid squarely in the laps (an unfortunate metaphor in this case) of the ladies themselves. In time-honoured tradition the powers that be accuse the victims of looking too pretty or dressing too well or having a mobile phone. With excuses as good as these it stands to reason that the Rabbinate is pleased to do what they do best, namely nothing at all.

I find it scandalous that we who consider ourselves the hottest part of the words smartest race have not managed to notice that the world has driven forward and we have been left behind. Driving is not a luxury today it is a necessity. It is not viewed as sexy or even worthy of note to see a woman driving and it is high time the Rabbinate recognized that. And as for their antiquated views on feminine responsibility at least they are not alone. There too they have the agreement of all of the Arab World.