Wednesday, September 29, 2004

One Set to Love

It is not quite true to say Chassidim do not engage in sports. It is true that the nature of the sports differs somewhat to that of the wider world and that contributes much towards the confusion surrounding this issue.

There are two sports popular with Chassidim. While the older generation tends to disapprove, many of the younger chassidim go swimming on a fairly regular basis. I have often observed a childish playfulness, in and around the swimming pool, that is usually so lacking in Chassidic males past the age of thirteen - when we become grown-up and all frivolity becomes a contemptible waste of time better spent learning. It seems that the repressed human behind the fa├žade does dare to show its face when the body transient is almost naked and bareheaded. I am not going to elaborate on this, lest some bright spark on the Hill takes me up on it and starts campaigning to ban swimming altogether.

The other sport that is popular has just past its zenith for this year. It is in fact the only popular sport played by both Chassidim and Litvaks (OJ’s following the puritan form of Judaism originating in Lithuania). Its growing popularity as a spectator sport can be evidenced by the huge amount of photographic documentation in the press as well as in fan posters hanging in Sukkahs at this time of the year.

I am talking of course about Esrog and Lulav searching. Every year as we, the proletariat, go out to spend some of our hard earned cash on a lulav and esrog, the dream team kicks into action. In their established uniform of sagging, baggy black trousers with big billowing tzitzis and armed with magnifying glasses, toothpicks and Q-Tips, they set to work probing and looking for errant black dots on esrogim and split middle leaves on lulavs. As with any sport, proponents of the game actually believe that it has some value and watching them play you could almost imagine that it was being done for God’s sake.

To see a match all you have to do is go to your local esrog seller. Of course the top stars have their own surgery where eager fans will bring what they think is a great esrog and then queue for hours sometimes to play with the star. Most will have theirs disdainfully dismissed or cavalierly okayed as the case might be. It is all worth it however because once or twice a day the player will peer over his glasses at some lucky groupie and say “A Hiddur” (a beauty) allowing him to go home on cloud nine and remain there until the last person in shul has heard of it. In every esrog store however there will always be a couple of minor starlets in action, earnestly battling over the virtues of ones’ sexy shape against the flawless skin of the other.

Of course none of the star players will ever admit openly they can hardly wait for Yom Kippur to end just so that the championships can begin. Nor will they acknowledge that the real quest for the perfect esrog is not played out on the field of citrus peel but in the hearts and minds of those that buy them. For esroletes the sport is all about black dots vs. brown crusts and in the league table for the highest paid Esrog, like the Olympics, it is all about winning, effort or means do not count.

So let the sports fans wax lyrical about their campaign to find the immaculate exception while I go about my work - to help finance their hobby.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Begging My Pardon

I nurse a very special bit of my disdain for my whoever came up with the idea of buying an Aliya for someone you want to appease. I can think of no more cynical a way of mending bridges with someone than buying something for them, in public, that they then have to come over to thank you for.

A Jew and a goy were once walking down a dark alley at night when they saw an evil looking character coming towards them.
Petrified and convinced they were about to be mugged the Jew turned to his friend and said ‘let me give you that ten quid I owe you.’

Yom Kippur is the traditional time for begging forgiveness from all those you might have offended through the year.
In this period we are reminded, by all and sundry, to get the forgiveness of our friends before we ask that of God. I must say though that God, in his infinite mercy and his well documented wish to spread forgiveness far wide, might be happy to hand it out at the drop of a hat. I am no God. My mercies are spread somewhat thinner and I do not feel inclined to be forgiving to the scroungers who wait until my moment of weakness, just before Kol Nidre, to come to ask for it.

It is not that I am not inclined to forgive anybody who might have slighted me. I do however expect those who want my forgiveness to really want it. Leaving it to the very last moment causes me at best to question the asker’s sincerity. I do admit that I too have on occasion felt pangs of remorse over some vestiges of bitterness that have accumulated over the year and have even at times had the inclination to go over to some in an attempt to pave the way to a better understanding for the future. I then have to weigh the advantages of getting my quick fix of sanctimonious glow versus the knowledge that whoever is on the receiving end of my magnanimity is probably feeling a lot like the goy in the alley.

So you guys out there who think you know who I am, learn this; If you do feel like appeasing me don’t come crawling before Kol Nidre because I will not reply. Just so that you don’t think I’m being unreasonable however, I will accept an Aliya on Yom Kippur as the best alternative in the circumstances.

Wishing you all a Gmar Tov and a very happy new year.

Monday, September 13, 2004

From the mouths of babes

I was brought up as a Chassid, in a home where contact with anyone less than ultra-orthodox was well nigh limited to decorators and storekeepers. Until my barmitzva I believed that anyone who shaved their beard or wore fashionable clothes was destined eventually to spend eternity in hell, unless they could be gotten off in the heavenly court with the Tinuk shenisba excuse (our equivalent of ‘They know not what they do’).

Since I rebelled at a certain age I have changed my own opinion somewhat and my perception of both Chassidim and the more liberal-minded has gone through several metamorphoses. I have discovered that many a deeply religious fervour can lie hidden behind a highly assimilated exterior and, as those many less religious people at work who used to call me Rabbi have learned, there can lurk a disturbing void behind the beard, big hat and dark coat too.

This week the Slichot dragged me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning at the annual start of a calculated and highly effective routine of ever more intense traditions and symbolic ceremonies designed to set the stage for my ultimate showdown in Shul Rosh-Hashana. The accumulated guilt of the entire year gradually comes to the fore to climax as I find myself standing before my maker waiting for the shofar to blow, feeling an abject failure unworthy even to ask Him for the things I need.


I was thus pleased to be humbled this weekend by a woman whom I had hitherto regarded as completely devoid of religious sentiment. We were discussing Rosh Hashana and I could not resist asking what she felt coming to Shul for the first of two annual visits and whether she did not feel like an impostor arriving at the party of a host who had been callously ignored all year. “No,” she said “I don’t feel that way at all. I see Rosh Hashana as a celebration of God’s reign. I don’t feel bad celebrating the Royal Birthday just because I haven’t thought about the queen once all year and I don’t think Americans who avoided the draft feel foolish celebrating the fourth of July. God says I belong and if I belong I can celebrate. If God loves me, as everyone assures me He does, then He will be happy to see me at least once.”

In this coming year, that by all indications will be the one when we finally acknowledge that the western world is at war with Muslim fundamentalism, I believe we Jews will once again find ourselves united before a common enemy. There is a belief among some that we the Chassidim have more in common with the fundamentalists than the assimilated Jew. To certain extent this is true were it not for our passionate belief that every one of God’s creations is worthy of his compassion, and certainly ours no less. I am grateful to her for showing me that side of our religion and reviving in me the chutzpah to beg for Him for a peaceful year.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004



Trip Up

Traveling for Yomtov to the Rebbe is another one of those Chassid things I just don’t understand. Did the old tzaddikim never envisage what the effect would be on a girl growing up in a family where the father is never home Yomtov? For those who are not familiar with this concept, let me explain. Genuine Chassidim of former times used to travel over Yomtov to visit their Rebbe in the village he lived. The journeys were often long and rough and much of Chassidic folk tales are of the travelers-tale variety. This probably adds considerably to the mystique of today’s highly popular trips For Yomtov To The Rebbe.

Travel today is less dangerous I suppose. You could still face the ultimate test of your strength, when you arrive last onto a plane, with too much hand-baggage, to find yourself holding the card to the only place left and it’s next to a woman. Naturally as proud bearer of the flag you will explain to the two hapless stewardesses with finality (and your eyes averted of course) that you “cannot possibly sit next to woman. It’s in the religion.” Some have been known to fail this test.

Not every chassidus (Chassidic sect) is equally notorious for being family Yomtov poopers it has to be said. Some chassidi no longer encourage the very long Yomtov trips, invariably undertaken by young heralds on their own. The damsels are left at home to fend for the hearth- and that should be read literally, with the hearth holding a fair few toddlers too. Only one notable exception still has young men coming for three even four weeks to immerse themselves totally in the loving embrace of the group, yet I believe most still encourage their adherents at least to prove it over Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.

I have never been quite sure what the real reason is for these trips. I am sure a lot of it has as much to do with male bonding as the strengthening of those divine bonds. And have oftentimes wondered whether there is not some flaw in the marital ties of those men who prefer a month with their friends and Rebbe to the marital brood.

I have to steel myself not to cringe when I see some of those Rebbe-widows forlornly standing there outside shul after davening, waiting for a nebbich of a thirteen-year-old boy whose job it is to be the Man in the house for Yomtov. As a thirteen-year-old girl once told me “We never have a Yomtov meal except when we are invited out. My mother does not bother when my father is not there.” I have to keep mum when I am earnestly explained that the school fees have to got rise, again, because so many of the younger parents cannot afford to pay at all. I suppose they back-pack to Israel or the States.

I have no problem with my own son going to his Rebbe. As long as he is young and single and his bills are paid let him have his fun. I regularly insist at home that trips to the Rebbe alone are a bacheloric luxury and that they will have to stop when he is married. And I hope he will listen to his dad even though his never did.