Thursday, July 29, 2004

Choices, Choices.
I have failed my parents they tell me. Yes, they can tolerate the lifestyle I have chosen but they still feel that by lowering my standards of chassidicity I have essentially let them down. I hope they really mean I have let God down, because if they mean them, that has to be one of the most egotistical things a parent can say.

I am a chassid because I was born one. If I had the choice to undo my first twenty years and be brought up as an MO I certainly would. I find the MO approach to be both more humane and more Godly and I have great respect for some of them. After all, the average Chassid can hardly accept credit for not eating treifa when they feel guilty for buying a slice of Pizza. And that is no exaggeration! In Stamford Hill there are no proper kosher restaurants because most Chassidim are brought up understanding it is vulgar to be seen eating out. The MO, on the other hand, has to regularly make real sacrifices to keep kosher. Our system of denial and disparagement of anything that might lead to a temptation has also managed to almost obliterate any possibility of resisting it. I wonder therefore, whether for God’s sake I should be bringing my kids up that way?

The question is a complicated one. There seems to me to be no doubt, the choices I make will affect my children’s lives irrevocably, and I fear I might be selfishly doing exactly what my parents did. I am utterly convinced that for my children to be able to choose whether to be a Chassid or not they have to be brought up as Chassidim. There is no way effectively that someone brought up any other way will ever fit in really comfortably in a Chassidic community. To become MO, on the other hand, would be relatively easy, were it not for the pressure put on by the community with the threats of banishment and the ever present guilt.

I have been living the lifestyle I chose for twenty years now. I have seen my difficult times behind me and can claim to be settled now. Yet for my children exactly the same story might be about to begin. Having gone to Chassidic high school I now offer them the choice of yeshiva or study. In all honesty these are empty words though, because without a GCSE degree how will they go to study? And then there’s the peer pressure from their friends, all Chassidim and all they have.

The reason I chose to bring them up this way is because I thought my support would be enough to help them overcome all those, if that was what they wanted to do. Yet today I realise I paid a heavy price and maybe it is more humane to deny them some choices…

I am off for my annual holiday. As my wife has no idea I write this blog, although I know she is an avid reader, I can hardly justify needing an Internet connection in the place I will be. So I will sign out now for three weeks and ponder what I just wrote.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Cleanliness next to Bognor Regis
I used to have a poster on the wall of my office that read, “When all is said and done there’s been far more said than done”. There is that wonderful bit in Pulp Fiction with the Assassin who quotes from the Bible before shooting, because that sounded real cold-blooded, but he never actually thought about what it meant. I always loved the wittiness of the poster but never really thought about what it meant. As I listened to the umpteenth story of someone being told by the landlady of a holiday house that Jews leave the place dirty, I suddenly understood that poster.
The community has been divided, for as long as I can remember, into two camps. The Holiday Schmitzers and the Pitzers. The Schmitzers are slobs, famous for koshering their holiday kitchens as if it were for Pesach. They furiously scrub the whole place down then pour scalding water over everything they can. Then, armed with paper and tape, they proceed to gift wrap the counters and cookers and fridges and all in a frenzy of paper and foil. Anyone looking on from outside could be impressed by the obsessive cleanliness these slobs adhere to. A visit a week later will usually reveal the original paper all still there but now looking slightly more lived in. Meaty stains on one side only and cereal remains on the other stand testament to the strict adherence to some laws, if not those of hygiene, while a heap of black plastic bags is stuffed with enough paper and plastic-ware to clear a hectare of rain forest. The general level of tidiness completes the picture of laidback bliss. They will usually leave the apartment far tidier than it was most of the time they were there just by clearing up most of the trash to take back home with them. So they just don’t get what the landlord is in such a twist about - and he gets labeled an anti-Semite.
The Pitzers on the other hand have heard all these stories and they are paranoid about being bundled in with them. So they become obsessive cleaners and they won’t leave the house after breakfast till all the plates are dried and back in the cupboard and the back steps have been scrubbed. They leave flowers behind in a vase when they leave, having waxed the kitchen floor and bought a special product to polish the taps.
Although both are wrong I much prefer the latter, of course. Unfortunately they are the minority, as we all know. An old Yiddish joke is doing the rounds again now that I have to repeat for those who do not go regularly to shul on our Hill. When God made the Passover miracle and killed all the Egyptian first-born, He instructed the Jews to make a sign in blood on their doorposts so that it should be obvious which is a Jewish house. “Why”, asked some Jewish scholar, “did God need to have a sign made on the door when anybody can recognize a Jewish house just by the state it’s in?” His Rebbe sagely replied, “That happened before the Jews left Egypt, the Torah had not yet been given then”.
It is certainly true that it is harder to keep a place tidy when you have had to bring a mountain of food with you that is unavailable there. Having to bring all your kitchen utensils doesn’t help either and the endless changes of clothing that seem necessary even on holiday compounds all that. I therefore disagree with those who strive for perfection just to deflect any possible and unjustified criticism almost as much as I resent the Schmitzers.
My severe criticism I reserve for the Rabbanim. The few hard-core schmitzers have been doing their dirty job for years. The issue, like the joke, has been around for years, yet no Rabbi has roundly condemned this behaviour and punished a perpetrator. The reason they don’t might have to do with the fact that number of their own could be among the culprits, or it could just be that the whole subject is just not sexy enough to bother about. We the people however do think it is, we have been saying it and hearing it for years and we are still waiting for action. The honest truth is there is nothing they can do. The Rabbi’s are powerless because they have lost our respect. And that is what counts when all is said and done.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Charge of the right brigade

In Antwerp a 15-year-old yeshiva boy is stabbed by one of a group of Arab boys out patrolling the streets armed with clubs and knives. In London unknown arsonists burn a couple of shuls. In Paris a young mother riding the train with her baby is accosted by a group of youths, mostly Arab, who take her purse. When they see her address is in one the Jewish neighbourhoods they cut off her hair and her clothes and draw swastikas on her belly. For good measure they then overturn the buggy with her baby in it.

As a chassid, anti-Semitic attacks, ranging from verbal abuse to physical attack, albeit usually not really dangerous, are nothing new to me. I have been used to it for as long as I remember. When I was very young it was the teddy boys, then it was the punks and later it was the blacks that scared the shit out of us as we walked the streets. I have grown older and wiser since then and have learned to make the distinction between a few kids out for some fun who find someone weaker than them, and serious, potentially dangerous, hate.

With hindsight it easy to see that the punks and teds were wearing their threatening exteriors as a uniform or a front. I actually work today with a former punk who used to frighten the life out of me when I was a kid. He is a lawyer today and good friend. As he puts it ‘a thirteen year old boy wearing a big black hat, a long coat and a terrified expression is an obvious target for anyone out for a laugh and nursing an impaired self-esteem’. The blacks in Stamford Hill actually get on with the Chassidim probably better than the whites do, maybe because we have both known discrimination and have moved on.

The new threat we are facing today is far more ominous however. This is not mischief by testosterone driven drop-outs. The new threat we face from Muslims on the street is organised and focused. It is driven by a well oiled engine that is teaching hate to their youths on tapes imported from the middle-east and spoken by terrorists and murderers. To a generation of young Muslims, whipped into a frenzy by their Imams and youth club leaders and offered tacit support by the one-sided and sometimes downright provocative and false reports by the media, headed by the BBC and other local news channels, the visible Chassidic Jews on the street have become the target for all their hate.

To make matters worse, the comfortable Jews in Whitehall and in positions of power, hiding behind their goyishe exteriors and knowing no immediate threat to their own precious hides, take every opportunity to further their own particular brand of comfortable Judaism and immediately bring up their trump card; Anti-Semitism and the holocaust.

I, as a chassid, am fed up with that game. I do not need perpetual victimhood to define my Jewishness. The problem I face on the street today has nothing to do with nazis and everything to do with Muslim terrorists and their war against America and Israel. In Antwerp indeed the extreme right are the ones doing more than anyone to protect the Jews, and all the traditionally anti-immigrant movements in Europe are today much more bothered by Muslims than by Jews. It is indeed possible that the bare-headed ‘Jewish’ machers (busybodies) are right and as soon as the Muslim ‘problem’ is solved the focus will turn back to us, but in all honesty I don’t see that day coming any time soon and I prefer to live for the future than for the past.

Whatever the machers have on their agenda I will not feel safer because the BBC shows a few more holocaust documentaries on TV nor does it help me if all the children in Europe learn about the evils of anti-semitism at school. If the Board of deputies and their ilk want to help me they should make all their members and maybe the directors of the BBC too, go out on the streets for a few days wearing kappels and then they will see for themselves what recommendations need to be made. From within their ivory towers they are more help for the terrorists than for us on the real frontline.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

See how they run

Twenty years ago the day I went to the cinema for the first time. I think it was Footloose I saw. And to me it seemed like it was talking directly to me. A story of one boy’s fight with all the elders of the town to bring music to the youth. When I look back at me then I see exactly what the young shaigetz of today must be seeing and I understand exactly where they are coming from. But I have to add that there is a difference. The shaigetz of today has no passion for revolution, no urge to tear down walls. The shaigetz of today is wallowing in self-pity and indulging in self-destruction.

We have in our zeal created a monster called Heimishkeit. An all-encompassing mind control that freezes individuality, stifles creativity and strangles independence. We taught an entire generation that we the Heimishe know everything best and have therefore negated all knowledge from outside. We ourselves therefore know best how children should be educated and if modern psychology suggests different ‘we know who knows best’. We also know that people are incapable of self-control and therefore anything that might tempt them must be banned altogether. That is why universities are treif and learning of any kind other than holy are out.

Although I would not be classed a real shaigetz by most people who know me today I was at one time. Although that has all but been forgotten by most I flatter myself that I came out better for the fight. I know I could never have achieved what I have if I had always been a good little boy and I feel a good Jew inside. True there is a tinge of guilt that lurks around inside, occasionally sending little twinges out to remind me it’s there. But that is a small price to pay for what I do have.

Unfortunately the system that backfired so spectacularly with guys my age, has worked perfectly with the victims of today. They have come off the conveyor belt disillusioned, hopeless, helpless and lost. They will not become the leaders of tomorrow because they have neither the wisdom of the Tzaddikim nor the knowledge and experience of the Shgatzim. So they effectively self-destruct, either literally or by leaving the community altogether.

So this is a call to you youngsters hanging around trying to look cool. Don’t believe those Rebbes who taught you that they know best what Yiddishkeit is all about. If you think you know what is best for you and you feel God’s ok with it, then go ahead and do it and settle the bill with him. But do it inside and let the naysayers be damned. One day there will be a day of reckoning and my bets are firmly on one side.

This is also your answer you of those recent mails.