Sunday, February 29, 2004

Tomorrow we Lie

Purim is a funny time - funny peculiar that is, not funny ha-ha. Purim is one of the only times that Chassidim really let their hair down. Metaphorically speaking of course because Chassidim shave their hair off actually.

It is a time when heavy drinking is not only sanctioned but positively encouraged. Unaccustomed to this state, Purim is the day when you can meet the real men behind their everyday masks. So the kids are wearing masks and their dads have taken off theirs - venahapoch hu in the finest tradition.

It is one of the only times that you can sit down with a group of the finest Chassidim simply to have fun. With no feeling of guilt for not being busy learning now, they can rib and jostle with everyone. As the drinking starts taking effect the teasing becomes more witty and catty. We discover that Yankel doesn’t think Shmeel takes him seriously enough. That Shimeon is Kvetching stam and Mottel is a Yenne Ying. But Mottel has got a Rabunishe gang and Shmeel digs that but Yankel doesn’t. The Shgatzim are also allowed to join in on Purim. As long as there is no foul language of course. So we can hear that the only one who never came late to davening this year was Motty who never came at all.

In the one day in the year when the iron wall of ‘being good’ is not there, everybody feels like a Shaigetz in a way. To paraphrase the real apikorsim 'we eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we lie'. How hard it must be for some of those boys to continually pretend to be God's little warriors, when they know in their hearts of hearts that they were not created to be like that. Not because they deny how wonderful it is, just because they don’t want to be there.

On this day we connect the Chassidim and the Shagatzim. Maybe this year one of them will look me in the eye and tell me “Yeedel you might be right. It is possible to be Shaigetz and still to be a Yeed.”

Thursday, February 26, 2004

For Bidden Fruits

I write this piece as a eulogy to a friend of mine who has left the fold. He left because he knew he could never fit in. And the reason he knew that is because in his very own way he replicated the first sin of all. He tasted the forbidden fruit. Now you are all thinking horrible thoughts and images of sex and lust are springing up, but I do not mean that metaphor so. What I mean is that he fed himself from the tree of knowledge.

Along with all the things he learned in his passionate quest to become a true Shaigetz he discovered he was gay and all that implies. He came to the conclusion that there was no way he could find acceptance for that in our community. I do not know where he is today. Neither do his parents. Completely alone in this big bad world, a young boy not trained to fend for himself is probably in some gutter and that’s if he’s lucky.

Mendy is gay too. He does not know it but I do. Statisticians maintain that 5% of people are gay, and a further 10-20% bisexual in varying degrees. Ask any Chassid and he will steadfastly maintain that there are no gay Chassidim. He will not be lying.

As long as it was believed that homosexuality is the result of indulgence in decadence and a condition that one could choose to rid oneself of, I suppose one could excuse those who shunned anyone displaying such tendencies. Especially if it was on religious grounds, with the Bible clearly lending support to such a view. But medical science has firmly put paid to the idea that anyone can choose his or her sexual orientation. It has been shown by doctors that x-ray pictures of one particular area of the brain in gay men look significantly different to those of straight men. Our religious authorities do not see articles discussing this so they are probably not even aware of this fact.

Being gay, as opposed to being attracted to members of the same sex, is a relatively new phenomenon. In what I see as a politicization of a fact, gays have formed themselves into a group with an identity rather than just people who share an inclination. To someone like Mendy this has not yet happened. He is probably aware that the Gay movement exists, however he does not identify with them because he is not aware that his feelings are any different to those of all his friends. He supposes that all men are attracted to men but they marry women. Perverts and shgatzim have sex with men but he is not like that because he is a nice religious boy. He is not aware that his unfulfilling sexual relationship with his wife is not the norm, and to a certain extent I think he is lucky. In the absence of the knowledge of what he is missing he does not miss it. I choose not to tell him because I cannot see how letting him know will make him happier. It certainly will not help his wife, who probably likewise thinks she lives in bliss, or the three children who really do.

If, God forbid, he does find out one day, what I will tell him is this; “You have an inclination and that cannot be changed. Unfortunately our religion does not allow you to have such a relationship. I feel your pain and understand your problem. Ideally you should be able to rely on the support and understanding of all your friends and family but that is not the case. Now if you will go home and keep quiet forever you can remain a fine true chassid and I am sure God will reward you. If you will not however, then you’d sure as hell better make a lot of money, because this community will not allow you to remain here otherwise.”

And then I’ll go home and shed my tears for whatever option he takes.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Mordche Matjas, a man I admired, liked and respected, passed away unexpectedly yesterday aged 52. A gentle, soft-spoken and intelligent man, he was at home with both a gemara and a calculator. He was a friend, and an example to me of tolerance and peace. He will be sorely missed by his fine family of course but also by the whole kehilla – Talmidei Chachamim and business men, yireim and laidigayers, frummers and shgatzim. To me that is the mark of the true chassid. BeGan Eiden tehei menichusoy! May he rest in peace.


Headline Nos

The French have passed a law forbidding the wear of the Muslim headscarves in schools and for holders of public office. Included in the ban are also large Christian crosses and yarmulkes. The Germans too have forbidden the headscarf but not the cross or the kappel. The Belgians are considering following the French example and now the British are considering it too.

While the Jewish community is watching the story closely nobody seems to believe that it is likely to affect us very much. The sentiment most prevalent is that the ban is directed at the Muslims, who have in recent years proven to be our avowed enemies, and it is hardly in our interest to go and stand up for them on an issue that does not involve us anyway. Very few religious Jews go to state funded schools in London and public office for Chassidim is even rarer. Still I fear that the real implications of such a ban are being ignored.

Great Britain proudly declares itself to be a multicultural society. Different customs and cultures are not only tolerated but even celebrated. It is therefore considered quite acceptable to dress differently from the norm and still not be made to feel unwelcome in the wider community. I have no doubt that there are those who do not feel that way. To be perfectly frank I do not feel that way. While I am certainly not racist in the usual sense of the word I do not feel comfortable walking down Tottenham High Road or streets like that, where the majority of females wear long shapeless robes and have their heads and often faces covered. The prevailing atmosphere of tolerance and the image of multiculturalism as something honourable and desirable makes anybody who expresses this sentiment sound like a racist and a bigot.

To have a law forbidding a form of dress simply because it does not fit in would put paid to that. The ones saying "I don’t like it" will have been granted respectability and that would be the beginning of the end of diversity. The Kappel might not offend as much as a headscarf does but it does defiantly declare difference and already the French have included it in their ban. Between you, me and the lamppost a black hat, dark coat and curly peyos are no less an eyesore to someone harking back to waspish Great Britain. And that is before they see the wife in her snood and modelcoat.

The moment society declares ostentatious proclamations of faith as undesirable it becomes legitimate to criticize those that display them. Painful as it might be to us to admit it, seeing a street full of Chassidim walking home from shul on shabbos, the men in fur hats, shiny black coats and (incredibly sexy) white or black breeches can be rather intimidating if you are a goy out walking the dog. The fact that the vast majority have taken it in their stride and learned to live with it says more for their tolerance than our natural reticence and discretion.

The movement towards the banning of the headscarf is designed to clip the wings of a rapidly expanding Muslim community. I too would like to see the influence of that community held in check, especially since radical Islam seems to be using these communities as a base for undermining the very democracy and tolerance that has allowed them to flourish. However if the price for that is to open the doors to the curtailment of the rights of the individual, we must be aware that it is likely that we will be the next ones to get the bill.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

I got an email today from someone asking why I am out to dirty the name of Chassidim. The letter was signed A. Chassid. It was not a remarkable one at all, and its tone was decidedly tame compared to many of the others I have received since starting this blog. He did not threaten me with anything, not even eternal damnation!

However it did catch me in a pensive mood so I left it open on the screen as I sat there thinking whether I am indeed baschmutzing the name of chassidim everywhere. This is the result. So I dedicate this posting to you, Big Chassid.

There are two kinds of rebels who buck the mould. You have what are known in Yiddish as the ‘laidigayers’, literally empty-heads. An unfortunate result of the over intellectualised culture we have created and which Chassidism was designed to overcome, these are (usually) young men who do not have the ability or desire to spend their lives studying. At best marginalised often shunned they have no choice but to create lives for themselves on the margins of our society. As our educational system does not provide education in any technical fields, these lives are often destined not to amount to very much. When they reach the obligatory yeshiva years the lucky few will be allowed to occupy themselves with the menial jobs like working in the kitchen or arranging the yearly Purim play. The rest will vegetate for a few years until they reach a marriageable age and someone ‘suitable’ can be found to take them. Artists, musicians and holders of other natural talents are often to be found in this category and in any other system they could develop into highly successful people. In our community there is no appreciation of such frivolity however, so living as second-class citizens seems to be their lot.

The other kind is the intellectual who either disagrees with the system or does not feel able to restrict his thoughts to those prescribed by the yeshiva curriculum. They are the Shgatzim (plural of Shaigetz). There are fewer of these but they are perceived as a far greater threat to the perpetuation of the Chassidic way of life and thus if they can be identified they will usually be expelled. Girls who do rebel tend to fall into the second category although I have seen some notable exceptions where hormones were the more likely suspects. Strangely enough I do not know of any boys who glitched for that reason.

The funny thing is that Chassidism was designed to be a Judaism for the masses. Before Chassidut Judaism was all about study. Anybody who could not or did not was called an Am haaretz (ignoramus) and was marginalised by the elite. The Baal Shem Tov brought a new vision. It was all about serving God in simple ways. Hence the birth of the Shabbos Tish (literally table).

Everybody was welcome to joyously celebrate the Shabbes meal with the Rebbe. A wee dram and lots of singing and dancing were the only ingredients needed. Through exploring the mystical significance of everyday activities like eating food and making love thousands of simple Jews found themselves involved in a religion they had thought excluded them and Chassidut captured the imagination of the masses.

It seems to me that the laidigayers and the Shgatzim are the real Chassidim of today, and the studious yes-men the usurpers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Big Hats and Bigots

I read the American and Israeli press regularly and from all the reports about the new anti-Semitism in Europe I get the impression of living in a place that is only marginally better for Jews than pre-war Germany. Unlike the less orthodox Jews, we Chassidim are not really obsessed by the holocaust. By that I do not mean that we are ambivalent or feel less touched by it. Just that we don’t need the holocaust to define our lives or our Jewishness. Believe me we have enough laws and traditions, flaws and anomalies, guilt complexes and plain disgruntlement to manage fairly well without it. In any event I do not know what it felt like to be a Jew in Germany then. I do know that the tendency among many at that time was to brush aside the mounting fear and imagine that things will work out eventually. I have to therefore accept the possibility that the situation today might be the same. I doubt it however.

I have been working almost exclusively with non-Jews for many years now and I have not encountered any anti-Semitism at work. On the contrary most people I meet, after the initial surprise at the way I dress, seem to take it in their stride very well and I usually have to answer all those questions they have always wanted to ask, like why we do wear those ringlets next to our ears and about holes in sheets. Incidentally whoever started the rumour that Chassidim have sex through a hole in a sheet has a lot to answer for but he can also take part of the credit for some highly creative use of language. It is not an easy question to ask, especially of a man dressed like a Chassid. You would be surprised how many manage to find a way though.

I do remember one incident of anti-Semitism, as apposed to drunken leers or pubescent boys letting off bursts of testosterone. I was about eighteen years old and riding the train from Gateshead to London. A woman was walking down the carriage with a guy who, when he saw me sitting there, started literally foaming at the mouth and screaming at me “Take your putrefaction back to Jerusalem”. The man must have been emotionally disturbed or else he was in dire need of some anger management training. I was too petrified to move. Nobody said a word and after a few minutes of his repeated shouting of that memorable sentence the woman who was with him pulled him by the arm, onward and out of the carriage. Some minutes later she returned and with teary eyes apologised profusely. She did not try to excuse his behaviour, just said she was sorry over and over again. I, trying to be English, said what is expected. “Its all right. No problem. Ok. Yes I understand.”

I have never forgiven myself for that. It was certainly not all right or Ok. It Was a problem and I did Not understand. I cannot understand how a train full of people could stand by and watch a young man, obviously scared out of his wits, being verbally attacked for no reason other than his race? In the weeks after the incident, as I lay in bed at night and thought about it, I came to the conclusion that I was a coward. I should have stood up and socked him one on the hooter. It would not have changed his opinion but it would have made me feel better about myself. In a small and insignificant way the same feeling that must have driven us after the war to set up our own country and stand on our own feet. Isn’t it ironic then that the only place that I do encounter bigotry on a regular basis is in Israel? There it has become acceptable today to display anti-religious sentiment in public to the extent of shouted abuse in the streets, even in Jerusalem.

In the UK when I go to the cinema or a bar I will dress up. I will take off what the Israelis call my penguin suit and hat, and dress down in a casual jacket and pants. Unlike most of the Chassidic plain-clothes operatives, I have also learned that white shirts and black dress shoes give the game away immediately so I really do know how to become incognito. I do it, not because I am ashamed of the way I usually dress but because my peers feel that I shame them by displaying in public their failure to convince me not to indulge in such decadence. I must admit that it is also refreshing on occasion to be able to blend into the crowd rather than sticking out like a wart on a nose. In Israel however I will not. Until they learn to respect my right to display my conviction in public I will continue to shove it down their noses.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

school of thought

I must pick up on something that seems to be coming through to me, both in the emails that I get and also to a lesser extent in the commenting. I always assume that when I talk about Chassidim and kollel-learners everybody knows what I mean. In fact that is obviously not true. In different communities around the world different people are using the same words Chassidim and Kollel to mean different things. Let me therefore describe what I know and see.

Chassidic school life in London, for boys, starts at two and a half to three years of age. The staff are, to a man, untrained teachers straight out of kollel. Kids of three will spend their days being baby-sat, often while their ‘Rebbe’ is on his mobile phone, for most of the day. The modern day urge to push a child’s outer limits and stimulate his development has not yet reached our shores. At best the kids can expect to be taught some aleph bet for a couple of hours a week and to get a couple of photocopied papers to colour. “the mothers like them to bring something home’. For the rest of the week they will spend most of their time riding around indoors on plastic bikes or endlessly building houses and planes from basic Lego blocks.

This happy-go-lucky attitude will continue for throughout the boy’s school life. As he gets older his teachers will become greater and greater Torah scholars but their competence to teach remains constant and that is the only positive thing I can think of to say about it. For the few really bright children this is no problem. On the contrary, many children are studying complicated logic and memorizing entire tracts of Gemara at the age that most tender minds are bending themselves round Star Trek and the jokes printed inside their bubble-gum papers. The less bright are usually ignored or they learn to get through life by looking interested do they don’t get punished. The rest will manage to get a rudimentary competence in studying Talmud which they will be expected to use until the day they die.

The day for toddlers is usually from 9-4. However as they reach the ages of 9 or 10 they can expect a day starting with davening (prayer) at 7.30 and ending with a final lesson at 8 pm. They will still be expected to have a shiur (study period) in the evening as well. As the ministry of education demands a basic secular education for all, our private schools have secular classes too. The law demands a ‘reasonable’ education. Our interpretation of that is to have one hour towards the end of the day dedicated to secular learning. Naturally the kind of teachers who apply for jobs like that are somewhat below par anyway. As most parents never had a secular education either they tend not to attach much importance to what they learn there. The children pick up this attitude and consequently regard the lessons as a necessary evil and a bit of a joke.

At 13 years of age the boys have barmitzva. They become men and from then on there is no secular education. They will be sent off to yeshiva. Often locally, sometimes abroad, and will immerse themselves in study until they get married. Happily they will not have to waste time choosing a bride. That will be done for them.

What I remember most about school is incredible boredom. The system of learning was not really intellectually challenging. How could it be when half the class was struggling even to read the words in Aramaic. Our logic at the school level is mostly a process of memorising other peoples thought processes. Lessons are typically two hours long and the monotony is only broken when someone misbehaves.

The language spoken in these schools is Yiddish. In fact it must be seen as a standing testimony to the incredible drive, the finely honed brains and plain yiddishe kep that the vast majority of our children CAN read a newspaper and even fill in a government form when they have to. I defy anybody to bring to my attention any community that has so sparse a formal education and yet has managed to produce so decidedly a middle-class population. That however is changing.

The world has become more and more reliant on the written word as the computer and the Internet, for better or worse, force themselvs into more and more aspects of our daily lives. The classic father son businesses are fast disappearing and few young men can rely on a guaranteed income when they leave kollel. Yet in a sad confirmation of Pink Floyd’s Wall our educationary conveyer belt is still belching out starry-eyed ignorami nose to tail.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Critical Mass

It is claimed by Chassidim that every soul is linked to a soul center. Some kind of powerful higher soul that smaller souls can hang on to and it will guide them closer to the core being. The Rebbes are supposed to be these higher souls. There are a few major Rebbes around and most often they have their own group Chassidim (followers) who believe that he is their chosen one. Many Chassidim have total faith in their Rebbe and they are the lucky ones. For them life is an uncomplicated business. True they all have their own little problems but a quick word with the Rebbe and they know all will be well. These lucky devils sleep soundly at night.

You could compare the world of Chassidim to that of bees. You have these groups of Cs who congregate round their Rebbe, or the queen C. Each of these groups or hives developed independently to have their own culture and identity, more similar to nationalities than to football supporter groups. The rivalry between these groups is what keeps the masses involved and thus committed and steadfast. More malicious tongues than mine have hinted that maybe the rivalries are actually created or at least nurtured by the queens themselves to keep the drones buzzing, but I would not go so far online.

The royal occasions where the queen addresses the hive are called a Tish. It is when the Rebbe partakes of a meal alone in front of the adoring masses. There the Rebbe sits at his table and masses stand packed around watching him eat and singing the party songs lustily in unison.

Anybody who has ever been part of a crowd at a great football match, a really good rock concert or even (unfortunately) at some royal events will recognize the feeling of becoming one with the crowd. That moment when your regular inhibitions disappear and you suddenly find yourself able to cheer or to shout without wondering if those next to you think you are mad. It is a form of mass hysteria which, though usually benign, is probably the same thing that allows groups to commit the most awful atrocities which the individuals alone would never dream of committing.

This feeling can be addictive. Indeed I still look back nostalgically to times when I could slip into the crowd at a Tish and become one with it. Unfortunately I have a notion that in the great dispatching room on high someone (or some thing) must have got some packages mixed up. Because at a certain age I discovered that my plug did not fit this particular socket. I suspect that somewhere over in the far end of London some poor goyische bloke is in therapy, for his curious longing for men in beards.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

(post) Nuptial Bread

By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread. Mmmm Do they overheat the Kollels?

I married on a sweltering hot day far away from home. The custom to get married and then to live in the place where the bride comes from is just one of the odd quirks of our match-making system. It makes the question as to whether you want to marry that stranger sitting awkwardly across the table from you so much more immediate. I mean getting married and growing old together seem such abstract concepts to a yeshiva boy or a sem.-girl meeting someone of the opposite sex for the first time, but going to live in Monsey or Zurich, that is so urgent and immediate…

Apart from the helpless feeling of being swept along, not against my will but certainly ignoring it, the thing I remember most distinctly about the day I got married was a prickly kiss from my grandfather whom I disliked intensely. I suppose he thought that on a day that the groom is forgiven all his sins he would be magnanimous enough to do likewise to all others. As it happens I might have if he hadn’t ruined my day by presuming to kiss me.

The wedding itself was stupendous. I know, I have watched the video so many times its almost as if I remember being there. It was expensive and extravagant and that massive big challa, that no wedding can be without, was a wondrous affair. The fact that to my critical eyes today the flowers arrangements are too loud, the music is too and the same could be said of many of the guests, did not seem to matter then. Although to be honest, when the sure and certain hope of losing your virginity looms only hours away, to a woman you have met only for a couple hours, many things fade into the background.

Seven days I got up early, to show my new family what a catch I am. Spending the day chatting up the woman I’ve just married and trying to figure out if I actually like her. All between heavy feasts with people I mostly don’t know and visits to the aunts whom I mostly don’t want to. I didn’t have the time to bring things into focus. On the eighth day however I awoke with a jolt. My parents gave me an envelope with a wad of money and assured me that I could rely on their support if I needed it but surely I wouldn’t. And then they left. And I was alone in a brand new city, with a brand new wife, a brand new life and enrolled in a kollel.

I don’t know if there is a goyish equivelant to a kollel. On paper they are called ‘institutions of higher learning.’What can be higher about a learning where the entrance exam is having sex? It’s not that I did not want to be there. I had nowhere else to go. In a country where I did not speak the language well enough to listen to the radio, there was little else I could do for a living.

The good thing about it was that it did not really matter what I did there. I knew the stuff well enough to get by with minimal study and thankfully my marriage was working out well. It was only a year and a miscarriage later and with buns in the oven that I suddenly realized that I was living in a fools paradise. That I was frittering away the prime of my life and that the child that would soon be eating away at my beauty sleep would also want feeding on some things more substantial.

I left back to London shortly after. Against my parents wishes I went to study some lower learning and have managed to make it, thank God. I have a 'fundraising' letter in my hand from one of the guys who sat next to me in Kollel after I got married. He was bright, and we spent some pretty intense hours discussing the finer points of the laws of Moses together. He should know most of them by now and we all know that the purpose of learning is to put the knowledge to action. So lets start at the beginning. Rirst is “be fruitful and multiply”. He has done that one proud. Lets see how many…. Yes 13, that’s good.

Now comes that other one “by the sweat of thy brow…”

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Hand Jobs and Chassidim

Working in a business environment dressed as a chassid is not always equally easy. It is not that everybody gangs up on me to make my life miserable, although many Chassidim today do claim that the easy relationship that was possible before this last intifada is no longer possible. Personally I have never really experienced this. My problem is with female customers.

I am no sexist. I fervently believe that women in market place have managed to make it a friendlier, not to mention more colourful, environment. I also believe that the female intuition, that we males so enjoy belittling, is a major asset in business negotiation. And there can be no denying that where compassion and order are the names of the game the women simply leave us men standing at the start line. My problem is that there can be no doubt that in Halachic law, men and women unmarried to each other do not touch each other and in shaking hands it is customary to touch. It is a thorny issue that has hounded Chassidim and other orthodox Jews for as long as women have been considered as equals in the market place (which is not long actually).

To be perfectly frank the whole issue does not bother me personally. I had to make my peace years ago with the fact that I am not strong enough to take on the entire country’s 1000 years of tradition. Since I got my current job and my current vice-president who, in her own words ‘happens to be a woman’, I have taken the cowards exit and I do not make a fuss about shaking hands with women.

This issue is not one that is never discussed. I have had many a discussion with friends, talmidei chahchamim (torah scholars) and others who live in the public arena. The disturbing truth is that, with the arrogance common to many Chassidim who have never really peaked out from under the quilt, they are fully convinced that their Rabbinic bearing and fortitude under fire are recognized by the hapless females who are denied their hand, and that they are thus revered and admired for their courage.

The truth is that almost all the women I have ever spoken to about this ARE offended. It is possibly true that if the young abstainer would have the time, the energy and the opportunity to clearly explain that the reason he is not shaking hands with her are not intended to undermine her position as a woman, the act of refusing to shake would be less inflammatory. It is however not easy to explain the whole concept of the segregation of the sexes the way we see it to a modern, liberated and successful woman. Far less to a woman who had to fight tooth-and-nail against candidates much weaker than her just to reach her current position, and who knows that in fact if she were male she would have had the top job by now.

We do not shake hands because we believe that sexual tension is created every time males and females interact. Whether that tension is overt and recognized or repressed and fleeting it is usually, or at least often, there. Men and women in Chassidic society never shake hands with each other. That is not a reflection of the woman’s role in society any more than it suggests that all Chassidim are sex maniacs, both of which could be implicit in the ban.

I have in any event never felt even a slight flutter of titillation when shaking hand with a woman although I do not use that excuse as a justification. I did get my come-uppance a couple of weeks back when I walked into a room to meet a couple of new clients. I saw immediately that they were religious Jews, They were wearing kappels on their heads however I entered the room and shook hands with the president and then the vice and as I waited to be introduced to the clients my vice whispered in my ear “you just let the side down”. It seems that these clients had simply refused to shake hands with her and had explained that it was not an insult to her because they did not even shake hands with the women in their own families.

For some strange reason she was not offended. The clients were very gallant and made no mention of the fact to me but I have to admit that it rattled me. I don’t know what will happen next time I am faced with an outstretched hand with polished nails. I somehow doubt that I will run the risk of offending an innocent woman for a reason I cannot fully comprehend myself. However I can tell all you women out there that if you want to make a chassid uncomfortable say it with a twinkle “Letting the side down I see”.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Pandoras Box

When I was a kid TV obsessed me. I would watch anything that was on TV whether the subject matter interested me or not, because it was on TV. As any Chassidic kid will know getting to watch TV in the Chassidic community is no simple task. For a start there aren’t all that many. The overwhelming majority of households do not have a set at all. The few TV sets that do make their home with a Chassidic family can expect to spend most of their existence behind a cupboard door in the master bedroom at best, to be revered and worshipped in stealth with the volume real low, so the kids don’t hear.

Like the few other inquisitive and curious boys in my class, I had a regular place where I could go and visit and spend an hour glued to a screen. How in the wide world my parents did not wonder where I was I cannot imagine. Nor can I imagine that any of my children would go into a stranger’s house without anybody knowing they were there. Such however, was the lure of goggle-box, that we did take risks. If my parents had found out that I was going to visit some old folk and watching TV in their homes they would have blown a major fuse each. Happily they did not, and no major calamities occurred to any of us as far as I know.

I have a theory that the Rabbis were not stupid. They were fully aware when they wrote the rules that there were those, in the thinking part of the population, who could not possibly live under these rules. Any rules! That did not stop them making the rules because the rule is that you don’t change rules for rule breakers who don’t follow rules anyway. In other words the rule makers were fully aware that there is a portion of the population who would not listen to them, and would do things the way they themselves understood. Rather than water down the rules and lose some of the potential benefits on the sheep, they allowed for the fact that some would break away.

What they did not arrange for, was a mechanism whereby the rule-breakers and the eccentrics should be able to remain within the fold and not be ostracized by the yes-men. The result is that there is a thriving underground of intellectual thought but it is often hostile to the community that holds it in chains.

There is a disturbing lack of new intellectual growth in the community. It is all very well that we have finally discovered the 197th solid reason why the matza we eat is a remembrance to the exodus from Egypt while the instructions to eat it were given before the exodus, but that is not going to feed a family of seven whose husband and father is still struggling to come up with the 198th.

What we really need is a Rabbi with the courage and the daring to stand up and say “Rabosai our community is consuming more than it can produce. The mitzvah to learn Torah is great but the mitzvah to provide for our family is a great one too. The Talmud says that a father who does not teach his son a trade can be compared to a father who teaches his son to steal, for he surely will.” Removing the stigma from the rule breakers for breaking the rules will firstly mean that they will not be forced to drop out and leave the community for good just because they were not born with the capacity to live by rules. Secondly it will allow us all to reap the benefits of the trials they endured in bucking the system.

I have to be totally honest and admit though, that my theory does not always check out. When I was a kid, TV obsessed me. I used to think that if I had my own I would watch the thing all day… now I have two and here I am sitting at the computer typing a bloody blog!

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Mad Hatters & Men In Black

I read in the Haaretz last week that a cooking school has been opened in Israel for religious adults who wish to learn to become haute cuisine chefs. I am happy, because the way to my heart really is through my stomach. I really like having good food and the opportunities for buying it in London, Kosher, are extremely limited. Admittedly in Golders Green there are a couple of restaurants that are better then the ones that came before them. Isola Bella is one that springs to mind. Yet in all honesty, while their food is of a much higher standard than the bignose ‘pastrami sandwich and chicken soup with noodles’ at Blooms it is still not haute cuisine. Stamford Hill, with our 15.000 Men In Black, does not have a single restaurant unless you want to mention that dog-food place on the Hill itself and the solitary pizza joint sadly wilting away on the Parade. Having read that 3 of the 38 first year students at that cook school are from the UK I am dreaming that on our 15th wedding anniversary my wife and I will be able to celebrate with a kosher Chateaubriand.

Naturally the question of hechsher (kosher certification) remains important to many. Yet I must say that I am noticing a distinct cooling of attitudes among the younger members of the community where it comes to hechshers in restaurants. It is not unusual to see Chassidim sitting at the White House, Isola Bella or Cassit. Indeed it less usual to see Chassidim in Tasti Pizza or Uncle Moishe’s, presumably because even to them it has filtered through that baked-from-frozen pizza and chips and slowly decomposing turkey shoarma are not the food of kings. Now many will argue that the young Charlies sitting in Cassit and Isola Bella are not the typical Chassid and that is what I am actually getting at.

I have had a theory for a long time that what is actually lacking in Chassidic society is eccentricity. It is a well-known fact that change is often wrought by eccentrics. After all where would the art world be without Picasso and Goch. Eccentrics are those that that are prepared to defy the cultural norms and do what they want. They tend to be oblivious to the effect their actions have rather than to insist on upon making a scene. The ones who like making scenes are the angry ones and they are less likely to affect changes on society because anger almost invariably generates counter-force.

Eccentricity is essentially harmless but it is utterly and soundly frowned upon in Chassidic society. Ours is a society based on conformity, and ‘difference is to be killed at birth’ is the message from our leadership loud and clear. Their reasoning is correct. The only ones who can break the grip that the old-timers have on our society are the eccentrics. When they do their meshugasim they create ripples that are ignored by the establishment and that is their power.

Take Mark McGowan In October, 2003 - shortly after rolling a peanut seven miles through London with his nose - he announced his plans for another stunt: he would sit in a South London art gallery window eight hours each day for twelve days, in a bath filled with baked beans, with two chips (ie. french fries) up his nose and 48 sausages wrapped around his head.
An Italian friend, McGowan explained, had prompted this latest project,: "I took him to a traditional English pub but he started to complain when he saw the menu. It got me thinking about how much some people criticise our food - even blaming a good old fry-up for obesity. We don't support our culture enough, so I though I would celebrate a part of it by turning myself into a full English breakfast."

I do not expect exquisite eccentricity of that level to pop up in our society overnight even though our food really is worse. Yet those young men who defy tradition and choose to go out at night to one of the better restaurants or to take something in with their wives in the West End are in their own way paving the way to progress.

Dr David Weeks, is a clinical neuro-psychologist. He co-authored a book called Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness. He writes that [eccentrics are] "essential for the health of the social organism, for they provide the variety of ideas and behaviour that permits the group to adapt successfully to changing conditions. All intellectual evolution depends on new ideas; they are the essence of science, of exciting new art, indeed of all intellectual progress."

The young chassidim that are studying to become chefs in Israel will hopefully come back to the UK and open a couple of chic restaurants. Hopefully others will learn from them and some more boys who do not want to go the Yeshiva route all the way to the altar will go out and learn something else. With Gods help, and a bit of ours, maybe our community will start producing a few productive young breadwinners and a basis for a vibrant community that pays its way instead of waiving its pay.

What is certain to me is that the urge to earn ones living, doing what one actually wants to do, is one eccentricity we simply can no longer afford to squash.