Thursday, November 18, 2004

Find me a Catch

Whenever I get into a discussion with a goy about being a Chassid they ask me about our arranged marriages. Years ago the picture they had in their heads was the Fiddler on the Roof style Shadchente, selling her ‘jewels’ over sweet Russian tea, with no consultation with the future bride. Today, with the western media’s obsession with everything Muslim, the image is more of beautiful maidens married off at a young age to a man they do not know, while they are in love with somebody else. Neither could be further from the truth. Our matches are indeed arranged in the sense that we do not choose our own partners off the street. There is a big difference however between a forced marriage and an arranged one.

Our way is certainly no worse than any of the alternatives. I have seen no evidence to suggest that all the effort daters put into finding Miss Right result in happier families than those of who just went with the flow and married the FAV (first available virgin). I will be the first to acknowledge however that our matchmaking system is far from perfect.

There are two things fundamentally wrong with our shidduchim.
The first is the obsession that Chassidim have with gitte informatsiye (positive information)’. Of course everyone expects their best friends to say nice things about them. When it comes to shidduchim this goes much deeper. I feel that there is pressure on people to say what the prospective parent-in-law wants to hear, regardless of whether it is true or not. It ought not even be necessary to explain how damaging this can be, yet it is common knowledge that giving correct information about a prospective match, especially if that results in the shidduch not happening, is not looked upon kindly. The result is that many young people find themselves married to totally unsuitable partners. In our society, where divorce is not really an option, that can mean spending the best (or worst) part of your life married to someone you got under false pretences.

The second is a flaw that runs through most of our institutions; there is no built-in mechanism to protect the week and less privileged. If your parents are divorced, your brother is sick, your grandfather was in prison or your father did not repay a loan - ask not for whom the belle calls; she calls not for you. In any other society, where people are left to choose their own mates, the family and its skeletons are of secondary importance. I will not pretend that the concept of the unsuitable match does not exist outside of Chassidgrad. I do believe it to be true though that a boy or girl of average looks and intellect should not have to worry from the age of fifteen and up whether anybody normal will ever want to marry them. And I cannot believe it is right that a child who has already suffered the trauma of losing a parent should have to agonise over whether that fact also means the loss of any prospect of a good match.

The bloodsuckers at Dor Yesharim are already blocking matches for a growing list of potentially devastating genetic imperfections. A disturbing text I found on a site called ‘How to be fruitful and mulitply’ says An estimated one in seven Jews is a carrier of a genetic disorder prevalent among Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Oriental Jewish populations. In addition to Tay-Sachs, Canavan and Gaucher disease, the trust [Dor Yeshorim] hopes to test for cystic fibrosis, Fanconi anemia, Niemann-Pick disease, familial dysautonomia, mucolipidosis IV, glycogen storage disease and familial hyperinsulinism. The trust is also interested in expanding the test "panel" to include dominant diseases, such as Huntington disease, for which only one copy of a gene can cause the disease to be expressed, (my emphasis).” At the rate they are going there soon won’t be any FAVs left.

The least we can do for those who have not yet been excluded is to ensure they are not punished for the sins of their fathers - or their lack of one. And let us remember the phrase the puritans coined 'There but for the grace of God go I.'

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The no's to the right

There is no tradition of democracy among Chassidim. The idea that a leader should be chosen by the led is alien to us, who have had their leaders chosen by God himself since time immemorial. With a deity on high running the day-to-day show, voting is seen as a time for settling scores and paying debts. The recent presidential election in the states can be better understood with that background. The Jewish community voted largely for Kerry in the belief that their future would be rosier under the Democrats and that Israel would not unduly suffer from an embrace somewhat less close. The Chassidic community, their future safe in competent hands, voted for Bush in gratitude for what he did for Israel in the last term.

In Israel itself last week a similar attitude could be observed. The Charedi block in the Knesset, the only constituency that consistently refuses to shoulder any responsibility for the engagement in Gaza, voted unanimously against the disengagement. This despite it being common knowledge that at least one of the leaders has been vocal in his opposition to the continued occupation where lives are put at risk. Rumour has it that on the eve of the vote one of the older Rabbis called and cajoled or coerced him into line. I do not dare to presume what was promised or threatened in that phone-call but I do know that any last vestige of integrity the Charedi block had was scuppered by that vote despite a two page spread in a newspaper explaining why the no really meant yes.

How the Tzaddikate decided that it was in the interest of Charedism that the troops remain in Gaza is beyond me. The only excuse that I can get from anybody is that it was a punishment for Sharon for allowing the family allowance to large families to be cut (a reduction that was especially painful to the large charedi family). Like many over the hill personalities, the block try with grand gestures, to make up for their total lack of influence where it really matters. As it happens the vote was won by a wide enough margin to make the Charedi ‘no’ a minor irritation. Nobody who knows anything about Charedi politics doubts for one moment however, that if the vote had been close and the God-fearing vote had counted, it would not have been ageing rabbis threatening and cajoling but ageing politicians with even bigger budgets and even bigger sticks.

The result would have been the same because the actual issue of whether the Torah would be for or against staying in Gaza has never been discussed. The question discussed was, do we punish Sharon by abstaining or by voting no? The fact that one of the team actually had an opinion on the core question was not allowed to interfere with the real issues at hand.

Charedim do not participate in the running of the state. Or so we are told. There are no right and left wing charedi parties because we are supposed to be voting for single-issue parties. The mandate these parties have is to ensure that our rights are vigorously defended in the face of a society that sees us as parasites and leeches. The latter proves that they have not done their job at all well, at least from a PR point of view, while the mandate does not cover voting on issues as fundamental as the disengagement plan at all, much less doing so with the cavalier disrespect of a students union on pot.

These people are supposed to be representing Charedi Judaism, which includes me. I have no option of voting them out of office any more than I have an option of changing the American president. But I can make my voice heard and that I am doing.