Monday, December 27, 2004

Manning the Tables

I once read somewhere that George Orwell’s Animal Farm (a parable belittling communism, in case you have never read it) was smuggled into the Soviet Union under the heading Agricultural Manuals. To paraphrase him; All Chassidim are equal but the boys are more equal than the girls. Let us leave aside for a moment the questions of a Bar Mitzva that boys do have and girls don’t. I suppose one could argue that not only Chassidim discriminate there. I do find it ironic that the likelihood for a girl to have a Bat Mitzva party is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of her keeping any mitzvoth.

Chassidim do not usually invite each other for meals unless it can be considered a Chessed (good deed). It simply is not done to unnecessarily put yourself into the position of sharing the table with a strange woman. My personal problem is slightly more immediate. I just don’t like the food.

Chassidim always eat the same foods Shabbos and Yomtov. On the Hill every lunch will start with salmon. I do like poached salmon. I do not like the overcooked cardboard variety in heavy syrup Chassidim inevitably cook. The gefilte fish that usually accompanies it has become far more edible since the young generation made it acceptable to buy the mixture done. I just wish they would add a line to the cooking instructions saying “If you are going to cook salmon in the same liquor add it for the last ten minutes only.”

Ei mit Zwiebel invariably follows the fish and is one of the most horrible tasting Jewish traditions ever.
In essence it is an egg salad with onion. The onion in remembrance of the Manna that fell in the desert and for some inexplicable reason, we are told, could taste like anything in the whole wide world except onion. (Someone has a sense of humour.) Because we are not allowed to eat an onion that was left tailed overnight, the onion cannot be kept chopped in the fridge but has to be hand-chopped shabbos morning. This, coupled with the idea that fat in enormous quantities makes it better, does not usually for a refined salad make.

The next round is cholent. I am a cholent eater. I eat it Friday afternoon to check it is good. I try it before going to bed to check it is still good and then just a sniff before davening in the morning to numb the olfactory nerves before the mikve. One has to be a seriously bad cook to completely ruin a cholent. Unfortunately Cholent happens to be the nutritional equivalent of an atom bomb.

It is in the meat course however where the real pitfalls lie. This is the course where the rules are less fast. Some go for cold cuts and salads in the summer. Some plump for cold roasted chicken with kugel and some eat decomposed meat from the cholent. The worst of all are the ones that try out something new especially for the guests. For some reason the Chassidic cooks I have met all seem to think adding sugar to food makes it gourmet. I have had to stoically eat chicken boiled in pineapple syrup, lettuce salad with strawberries and cranberries and countless other failed experiments, never forgetting to compliment the blushing Chef

Food at the Chassidic table is rarely put on serving plates and handed round. In our households Mummy puts food on your plate and you eat it. I was a little surprised, last time I ate out, to notice that the boys were served first and only then the girls - including my wife. As I am polite I waited for my wife to get her portion before I started to eat. I then noticed that my daughters were given children portions while the boys had had the same plates as I. This was too much for me. I took my plate and deliberately gave half my portion to my biggest daughter. The looks that passed between the host and his wife were a picture. I will probably never be invited again. Who cares?

I am considering publishing a manual on table etiquette, maybe called the Shulchan Aruch.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Strangers in our Midst

As Chassidim we have for years looked upon our Sephardim as second-class citizens. We don’t admit it of course, even to ourselves. We patronize them to their faces and pat ourselves on the backs in smug satisfaction every time we throw an expansive Shabbat Shalom at anyone looking suspiciously brown. Us racist? Some of our favourite mashgichim are brown.

Forget Dor Yesharim, the real skeletons in any real chassidish family line have wog written on them. Because that is where it really shows. As any BT will tell you, it is easy to gain acceptance into the Chassidishe crowd. To be invited to the weddings and danced with in Shul. To be learned with and shnorrered from and have kids in our schools. But to take part in a wedding is a different story. It’s OK if they marry each other but we prefer not to have them in our own family. It has nothing to do with colour of course; we hardly notice such things. It’s all to do with minhagim and dinim of course. The fact that the hapless individual has obviously been totally stripped of his culture and immersed himself in ours seems to count for little. Maybe, like cultivated roses, they have a habit of reverting after time.

This week Shas did the Sephardi community proud! They voted against the withdrawal and stayed true to their opinion, (mistaken as it is IMHO). By declining to join the coalition they forgo what must have been a lucrative bribe. Let UTJ and the other Frummer parties please take note. After thirty years of Haredi politics someone voted for their conscience not their pocket. Maybe one day we will be able to do that too.

The other thing Chassidim have a tendency towards is overprotection of our own. It is admirable that we do stick together and help each other out. There are times however when this can be taken too far. I am against protecting sex offenders from the arm of the law. I am against shielding any perpetrators of violent crime be it an abusive husband or angry landlord.

In Antwerp resides a Rebbe whom I happen to admire. He has been careful not to offend anybody since he came upon his throne. In the Chassidic world that is not easy and his position was not made easier by having a part of the town hostile to him from the start. He therefore pleasantly surprised me this Shabbes by ejecting a known Chassidic Arafat apologist from his Shul. Most Chassidim were angered by the pictures of those miserable idiots in their shtreimels and kaffiyes outside the high court in the Hague or singing tehillim outside the French hospital. None did anything about it though and my Rebbe did.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Ode to the Shaigetz

I call myself The Shaigetz because that is what they would call me if they knew who I am. I wear the name with pride because I would hate to be anything else.

The new generation of shgatzim is going to go places. There can be no doubt in my mind that Chassidism in its current state will implode. A generation of young people, brought up in third world conditions in the middle of an urban jungle, is going to need the tools to survive. When they realise the establishment has denied them these they will learn to question. Sadly it is only the more intelligent or the lucky that will still learn to adapt. I don’t want to think what will come of the rest but I believe the shgatzim will survive.

A true shaigetz is, in my definition, a believer in God and His mitzvos, who also sports a healthy dose of cynicism towards those who use Him for their business objectives. For me the appeal of the shaigetz is that he has been brought up in the repressive society of the Men in Black and yet has persevered. The true shaigetz is pragmatic enough to accept that he can never leave but astute enough to realize their way, in its current form, can never be his or His.

It encourages me when I notice there is a burgeoning community of shgatzim out there. It is impossible for me to get the details of all visitors to the blog but I know the vast majority comes from within the Chassidic communities of New York, London and Antwerp. I am not under the illusion that all that visit are shgatzim but I have no doubt many are and in any event, the fact that they visit and are interested to hear puts them in class above the mindless zombies who make and enforce the rules.

So welcome to The Shaigetzphere. Here few of us care (or is that dare?) to use our names yet somehow that just makes it truer. Here you either accept my opinion or reject it on its own merits. Would you be able to do that if I signed my name and you had to?

Here we are happy to read
The Hassid and even get into a discussion with him about his butter sandwich with chicken soup. We might secretly be glad he ain’t our son but we nonetheless see no reason to deny him the opportunity to make his point, and take the time to politely disagree.

Here too we can meet Dasi, sadly, as yet without a blog of her own, yet her wisdom sparkles here and there on other comments rooms in the shaigetzphere. Would we guys be able to appreciate her exquisite wit and wisdom in some front-room in Heimishtown? Would I dare to give her this compliment in public if we knew each other’s name? Same goes for Hoezentragerin who obviously sees herself as the power holding up the throne in her household.

Tamara lives in the capital of the shaigetzphere where the digit system starts at 4. She was the first to welcome me when I dropped in. She has a slightly different idea as to what a shaigetz is. But she’ll learn. I could go on forever listing the interesting personalities I have come across here from the kind and learned Yessir (whom I suspect to be part of the establishment) to the knowledgeable Doc who I wish was.

I am proud to have had a hand in forming this space and I hope it will further develop, as the new generation of shgatzim join and become active. I believe the day of reckoning that we all face in the great shteeble in the sky is an awesome occasion for the best of men. I am not among them. Still I suspect, as the Rebbishe prosecutor pompously reads out the long litany of my transgressions against Chassidus and its appointed henchmen, He will covertly lower one deific eyelid at me in conspiratorial wink.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Call Me Stupid

They banned TV and we all understood. They banned video and we went along. They banned the Internet and it is difficult not to accept that they have a point. Now it’s the mobile phone they have in their sights and it is time to say no.

For as long as any of us can remember there was kosher business and the business of kosher. Sadly it has been obvious for almost as long that the latter is no more a part of the first than vice versa. It is no longer even worthy of note in our community when the Rabbinate ‘discovers’ some product we have been using for years is no longer kosher, days before a kosher equivalent emerges. We acquiesce without a murmur as products are pushed in and out of our plates at the whim of the Hechsher givers, blessed be they.

As the store shelves swell with the welcome additions that really do make life easier we tend to keep mum as all our favourite brands are replaced by low quality, higher priced kosher versions. I do not need a hechsher (kosher certificate) on my sweet corn or my candles. I was happy drinking Ribena and using black pepper from goyishe sources.

All these however are relatively minor irritations.
I can still drop into my local supermarket and buy what I want. Provided of course, if I am not bothered by those besnooded, busybody, yachnes who stare at every product I bought as it sails past the checkout and exchange knowing glances with their equally dowdy counterparts further behind in the line.

Bank Leumi in Israel is about to launch a Shomer Shabbes credit card. Two of the eminent Rabbis behind it have already proved their worth – literally – in the kosher market before. Now they have come up with a credit card that only works in the weekdays and can only be used in stores that keep shabbes. The Haredi community in Israel does not use credit cards for whatever reason. The Rabbis are hoping with this new product to introduce the 21st century’s spending models into our community. If this scheme is successful I have no doubt it can be expanded, not only to encompass the Diaspora with its vastly superior spending habits, but also the snooping can be widened to include having spot checks on all our spending to make sure it is in accordance with the latest rules. It is certainly reassuring to know that their concern does not end on our plates.

The Chachamim seem to have discovered their economic muscle and they have to be stopped before it is too late. The mobile phone might have inherent dangers to those who seek to control lives and I did not argue when the school insisted the children were not allowed to use them, even though I would have been happier if my daughter had one when she walks home in the dark. The Israeli Rabbis have recently banned all mobile phone adverts in religious publications. The rumour mill talks of the big companies scrambling to get Rabbinic approval for a phone service with a hechsher. The new service will be stripped of all those filthy pornographic services like text messaging and service info. Wap GPRS and all other services will of course be blocked and –so as not encourage young people to use it too much - it will also be somewhat more expensive that the others. A minor detail really seeing as the bills are to be paid by credit card and Orange is open Shabbes…