Sunday, August 29, 2004

Quaver vs Quaver

Daniel Barenboim is a fine conductor. The fact that he was the first to conduct Wagner in Israel probably says as much about his passion for his music as it does about his empathy for his fellow Jews. The man has done some admirable things in bringing musicians from all races and creeds to play music together. And indeed it was the man who caught my attention, not the musician. In an extensive interview on BBC TV’s HardTalk or similar program, he was asked about all facets of his life. His answers were measured and intelligent and he came across as a thinker, a liberal man, idealistic, maybe to the point of naiveté. It was only right at the end of the interview that he was asked the inevitable question ‘What do you think about the separation wall?’ that he lost my sympathy.

In the fashion I have come to recognize among the many Jews I know who spend much of their time with goyim (especially the intellectual left-leaning types), he was quick to distance himself from the entire controversy and to condemn it as illegal. He has his right to this opinion and for all I know he might be right. My irritation started when he expounded on his theme as he seemed to bask in the unspoken approval of the interviewer. He went on to explain, in a particularly condescending way, that the wall does not bring security, does not save lives and on the contrary will only bring more grief and more death to the country. Listening to him you could be forgiven for thinking this was the defence-secretary or the army chief-of-staff.

I don’t know in what capacity he answered the last question. I certainly don’t understand in what capacity he was asked it and I resent the implication that by being Jewish and active on the political-left’s propaganda machine, his opinion on the security impact of the wall, matters. What is certain to me is that the people on that side politically, tend to use every opportunity to plug their sound bites for maximum effect and are shameless in their promotion of their ideology.

Borat, or Sasha Cohen, formerly best known for his Ali-G character has shown me the best of genuine Jewish politics-in-art, with his latest shenanigans in a town called Tuscon in the USA. In his own inimitable style he gets on the stage in a little town tavern and starts picking out a song, rather shakily, on his guitar as he sings about the problems of transport in his native Khazakstan. The crowd, about a dozen locals, look bemused and not especially interested, but sportingly claps along a little to “Throw transport down the well”. In the next verse the problem is the Jews -taking all the money and never giving it back- who need to be thrown down the well, and the enthusiasm in the crowd visibly grows. (See clip here)

By the time he repeats the refrain the third time the whole audience seems to be singing along and one woman is even putting her fingers up as horns. A disturbing scene that is telling and revealing yet still entertaining and hysterically funny when you realise who the joke is on in the end.

Sasha Cohen (who incidentally describes himself as an orthodox Jew) knows that he cannot say there is a problem of anti-Semitism even in the United States of America because nobody will believe him. Instead he uses his medium as a TV comedian to prove the point itself. Of course we can argue as to whether his point is a good one, or a valid one but at least it is well made, relevant and in keeping with his profession.

Let Barenboim show me a message with his music as powerful as that and I will respect his music and his opinion more.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Peyos and Queus (part 2)

Most Chassidim do not look down on Goyim. The reason Goyim get the impression that we do, is because they misinterpret our lack of common courtesy and consideration, as a sign of disrespect. In fact this is our normal behaviour and we dole it out fairly and in equal measure to Jew and Goy alike.

One could argue that informality in religion is the hallmark of Chassidus. The Shtiebel differs from a Shul (Synagogue) in precisely that. Where the Shul is supposed to be strictly a place of worship, the Shtiebel was created to be a kind of clubhouse for hanging out with God. Thus standing around and chatting it is allowed in a Shtiebel but not in a Shul. In addition to prayer the Shtiebel is used for feasting and study, research and learning, chatting and singing and communal gathering, while none of the latter is allowed in a Shul.

The Chassidic culture too is one of informality and within the confines of our bubble it works remarkably well. It is this familiarity and lack of ceremony which allows the rich and the poor, the old and the young to be part of the same social group. The successful lawyer, the physician and the (literally) great unwashed can mingle together and fuse into the single group. All strengths complement all weaknesses and few communities can claim to be as classless as ours. It is important to remember though, that informality is a concession that has to be granted. It is all well and good between consenting adults but hardly appropriate with strangers outside.

Chassidim are not taught to hold the door open for another to pass nor do they beg their excuses before pushing past. They think nothing of interrupting two people talking and are not averse to taking the last piece of schmaltz herring - even after six of them when others have had none. Chassidim among themselves are used to this and indeed expect nothing else. Just as between siblings it is neither unusual nor sinister to hear “Shut up moron.”, but on the street it is both, much of our casual behaviour in Shtiebel is inappropriate outside. Indeed I have heard from many who came to Chassidus later in life that that this is one of the hardest adjustments they have to make.

Unfortunately as we Chassidim become ever more insular and isolated so we are losing touch with the impression we make on those outside. What to us seems like friendly informality often comes across as arrogance and callousness and disrespect. So next time a chassid pushes you out of the way as you read the notice board, or a child allows a door to swing closed in your face, try telling them that what they just did is called rude. He will probably snigger and question your lineage but at least it’s occuring inside and, frankly, who