Tuesday, December 13, 2005

War Crimes

The western news media, having been made to realise that their anti-Israeli slant in the last years has led to a raised anti-Semitism, are suddenly carefully ensuring that their pro-Jewish content quota are filled. The BBC, in a clumsy though welcome change, again aired an extremely good Auschwitz TV series which sensitively but factually takes the viewer through the rise and fall of the Nazi regime and shows, in simple words and images, more of the horror than the all grandiose cinematic understatement of Schindler’s List ever could. In the last film in the series I saw some very real and serious issues raised and was made aware of some very disturbing truths about injustices to some victims and the privileges of some perpetrators that are still currently being tolerated or ignored by all - including us.

I chose the word clumsy before some of the other words that jostled to fill that space because I am giving the Beeb the benefit of my doubt. I feel they are impetuously rushing in, with knee-jerk, quick fix solutions to a perceived negative image of Jews in Britain, caused partly by their anti-Israeli propaganda, to play their trump, the Holocaust card, with the stated aim to show the youth how dangerous racism and anti-Semitism can be. The intended mechanism is to try and rekindle some of the sympathy the world used to have for the Jews as they watched them recovering from the horrors of WWII.

It might be partly our own fault that the goyim feel the need to dance around us as if on eggshells. Our brethren across the pond seem to have managed to find a equal, even proud, place in what is fast becoming the new Terra Sancta. Meanwhile we, the Jews of Western Europe have for so long milked the holocaust for all it is worth that it is small wonder that in the eyes of the gentile, victimhood has become our defining characteristic. The British are so afraid of offending our touchy community that even a hard-hitting and in-your-face, obnoxious comedy show like Little Britain, famous for its outrageously offensive caricatures, declines to poke fun at Jews. A glaring omission when you remember that one of the writers of the show and main actors is Jewish.

The problem is two-fold and we ourselves are partly to blame for both. The first is our insistence that being anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish are the same. In a special BBC program from a mosque in London a certain Sheikh Mansour, asked whether Jews and Muslims can get on, is quoted as answering: "I believe that the two can live in peace - but at present not in a natural state. If the weak people, the Palestinians, are forced to do something they oppose, it may work, but it cannot last if it is unnatural." An outrageous answer coming from the Sheik of a mosque in London talking about London’s Jews, yet the editor, tellingly, saw no reason not to choose that particular quote to publish.

The second is the fault of all the Jewish personalities and celebrities who hide or downplay their Jewishness in a tacit acceptance that a foreshortened member is not something one makes a big song and dance about. I cannot think of many current Jewish personalities or stars in Gt. Britain who do not either negate their roots or bend-over backwards to prove how Goyish they can be, only to spring up when the holocaust is mentioned to claim their part of that sympathy vote.

We British Jews are citizens of the UK, conceived and born here. We have our businesses, our jobs, our families and homes here. We should not have our positions or our fate automatically determined by either a state run by people who happen to be of the same race as us or an event in not too distant past - whatever its magnitude. While we might fervently support the State of Israel (or not) that too is but a mere opinion and the right to the holding of these is today the inalienable right of every man (or woman), is it not?

If the state-sponsored broadcaster wanted to create a more positive image of the practicing Jews in London they could be coming to ask us what we think we would like to show. Maybe a film showing how scared a 13 year chassid can be to ride the tube alone or walk home from school in his distinctive garb might be more to the point? Maybe a program showing something of the contribution made to Britain over the last few decades by Jews despite their mistaken wish to downplay their Semitism?

In any event forcing me to buy my equal and fully deserved rights with guilt makes me a lesser human being and that is the true anti-Semitism.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Iron, Lion, Zion: Black Hatted Rebbegae



Reggae is not the music of choice for the standard orthofunction, or, it wasn't...
In my father’s eyes it is not music at all. When he found a Bob Marley cassette in the music stash hidden in my sock drawer my old man, before throwing it out, asked me with tears in his eyes how his own son could listen to a shvartze making animal noises. A rhetorical question I had no inclination to explore at that time and he patently expected no answer to as he proceeded to dispose of my albums of grunt.

As I proceeded to replace them, I am sure I pondered, as I often do today, how comes I am indeed so comfortable in my own little place right on the edge of the gefilte-fish cradle. With the shimmering jellified comfort of soulless shtetility just within reach and the soothing, pounding reggae sound beating its own version of sanity in through the background. In an ironic twist, now it is my own daughter who wants me to order her a Reggae album from the Sonymusic website. To further the irony it is a religious young man’s sweet sound and cherubic good looks that have taken her. The rebberap sound we already have gotten used to from
Lipa Shmelzer is now being surpassed in the adoration of a budding generation of orthofannettes by Matisyahu’s rebbegae.

This young man, religious enough to go onstage without his glasses because he does not want to see the girls, should pose no harm to my daughter, though pose he certainly does. Yet as I indulge her unconscious pheremonal desires I am aware, as he is probably not, that I am observing a very slippery slope. His being featured on MTV helps him to overcome the very real hurdle in these girl’s eyes, of being a Lubavitcher and provide a legitimate, fully kosher menu of gyrating, middle-clutching, shadow playing, finger pointing, hip hopping, back bopping, black sounding music. No wonder they love him and I am convinced the happily married young man who has just had a baby hopes they will all learn from him to love his religion and his God.

Alex Strom, with whom I do not always agree, rues in his column this week the lack of entertainment opportunities for the Haredi young male. He makes a valid point, if we overlook the fact that he seems consider the excruciatingly infantile entertainment, that The Aguda he used to lead produced, worthy of promotion. However unlike the weddingsinger stars and very amateur dramatics, the Cheapendale Chevres' overdubbed electronopop to illfitting lyrics and the soulless choirs of overproduced yingelech that we excused as Heimishe entertainment, finally God seems to have blessed us with a Matisyahu.

Matisyahu could be the answer to my dreams. A role model to the artists within the haredi community who have until now felt you have to either suppress it or chase it outside. He can, if he plays his hands right (pun intended), prove to us that it is indeed possible to serve God in many ways and that Lubavitch might in fact have gotten that right.

And wat could be more ironical den dat man?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Adressing Hair



Non-Chassidim tend to be miserably misinformed as to what actually goes on inside our community yet for some reason many seem fascinated by our lifestyle and customs. With my perspective clouded by my own hang-ups I tend to cover up much of what would seem interesting or special to the outsider for fear of having it, and by extension me, labeled quaint. So when Terence, one of my goyishe colleagues, asked to see a bar mitzvah I waited until one of my more secularised friends made one and wrangled him an invite to that.

It was a fairly nice affair and the food was about as good as can be expected with a Kedassia Hechsher (certificate of extreme kosherity). The men, of course, sat separately from the women but the potted separation wall was not watertight so the newly liberated Chassidim could join the closet and repressed homosexuals in discreetly proving their manhood by determinedly peering through the palm fronds at the fairer sex in mastication.

There are very few modern-chassidic families on the Hill. It tends to be individuals who have personally chosen to relax the arbitrary rules somewhat who form the bulk of this grouping. The ultra-traditional uncles, aunts, grandparents and siblings of this proud father were thus decidedly less so although they clumsily hid it behind loud, jovial Mazeltovs and convivial expressions of satisfaction that everybody could make it. The speeches pointedly ignored his parents and determinedly impressed upon the child how important tradition is, what wonderful and holy people his great-grandparents had been and how much he too can achieve if he only opens his heart to experience the sweetness of the true Torah way.

The patronising undercurrents were indetectable to non-yiddish-speaking Terry and he and his friend came away full of how nice and close everybody is, what interesting customs and food we have and what fun it must be to be a Chassid and have parties like this all the time. Terence presented his ‘fail-proof’ gift of a CD voucher from HMV and I chose not to mention that it would most likely be rescued from oblivion by the father of the Bar Mitzva; the boy himself in all probability never having stepped inside a ‘goyishe music shop’.

His companion, a clinical psychologist, who I later learned had been miffed when the waiter informed her that wine was available only for the men, declined to be drawn on her impressions of the gaggle of yachnes who shared her table and her only remark, as my wife and I walked them to the tube, was that the ladies there all seemed to have the same hairdresser. The discussion about Chassidic women and wigs that ensued put paid to talk of any other subject. She, it transpired, had never realised that my wife wears one although she has met her often enough.

“So why does she wear a wig then?” she asked.
I explained that, as her hair is one of the sensual and most beautiful features of a woman, a married one does not flaunt it in public but reserves it for her husband. I added, as we are trained to do, that to the uninitiated it might seem that wearing a wig defeats that objective by giving her a head of even nicer hair but that as psychologist she of all people must understand that paste jewellery might look real but does not straighten the spine and bring a gleam into the eye the way 15 carats of polished diamonds would. Terry, who has dealings with other Chassidim too, was not that easily convinced. He observed that many Chassidic women take their wig off when they come home and replace it with a cloth head cover or snood that is similar to the one Muslim women wear and far from attractive. "Indeed", he pointed out, "I find they are far more attractive when they come to see me than when they are home." My wife then continued to scupper my entire argument by adding that many Chassidic women shaved their heads altogether and the snood must be a far sight prettier than a bald pate even to the most forgiving of husbands.

I could see this discussion going everywhere I did not want it to and hastily nudged my dear wife to inform her of that. With the panache I have come to expect as much as respect she immediately put paid to it by launching into the telling of an old English joke of two women on a bus.
One leans over to the other and says, “I hope you don’t mind my asking but is that a wig you are wearing?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Oh. Are you sure? I won’t tell anyone.”
“Well it is not!”
“Are you absolutely positive, because..?”
“Oh, Ok then. Yes it is.” She snaps angrily.
After a slight pause the other one murmurs, “Really? It does not look it!”

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Hi Jinx



One of the Jewish buildings I visit on occasion is is by unfortunate necessity fairly heavily fortified.
This yomtov I was practically unmasked by a security officer, warned to look out for a misfit, who almost took me out. I had to pick up something from inside and, passing by in the evening, decided to make an unscheduled stop to get it. As I approached the door a guard stepped out of the shadows and stood looking at me. I greeted him with a ‘Hi’ and walked on. He followed me up the path and stood a few steps before the door slightly hesitantly, then, as I fumbled with the number lock in the dark, he called me over.
“Good evening Sir. Where are you going?”
“In.”
“Do you belong here?”

In any other circumstances his question could have been the subject of an entire blog. I was more concentrated on the message though than his poor choice of words and I did not take him up on it. And by the way I do strongly suggest the local constabulary have a brainstorm one evening on what the appropriate terminology is in establishing how any particular Chassid fits into the kinetic kaleidoscope of black they happen to be monitoring because the way they put their questions can sometimes be cringeworthy.

Yes. Why?”
“Do you know the number for the door?”
“Yes.”
“Can you open it for me please?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“Because I do not have the authority to let you in.”
“I just want to see if you know it.”
“If you would have just stayed where you were you would have seen if I got in?”
My glib logicism did not impress him and he insisted on being shown that I knew the number. I did that and went inside.

He was still there when I came back out, chatting to a colleague on the street who was sitting in a car. He got out as I approached and more or less accosted me, in a friendly sort of way, as I made to pass him.
“Hi.” I said.
“Good evening Sir. Can I speak with you a moment?”
My supper was going to be of the late variety I could see and resigned myself. After the preliminary few minutes of giving my name and address and speaking Hebrew, to show I could, and silently thanking whoever convinced the Muslims to circumcise their males and thus spare me the ignominy of having to differentiate myself, we established that I was not an Arab terrorist dressed up as a Chassid but a bona fide, true-blue man-in-black.

In return for my teaching him a few insider ways of recognising one of us I got me some information of my own. It turns out the guard had had his alarm bells switched on by my atypical behaviour.
“Chassidim,” he told me “do not look strangers in the eye, they avoid eye contact with me. They also don’t greet me like an equal but like a child greets a policeman. Your laid-back ‘Hi’ does not fit the profile.”

I had a very long talk with him and I do not know at what stage it stopped being his interrogation of me (if it ever did) and became my interrogation of his of me. I learned a lot from it though and I now know why I always get such special treatment in the airport and why the Israelis take so long in letting me through. I don’t fit the accepted profile for a Hiller and I now know why.

Good Bye.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Chewing the Cud with Cloven Tongues



A guy whom I knew well when he was younger
has developed into something of a personality. If I am not always proud of him I try at least to be proud for him because he did once really mean well. Now of course he has power and that does corrupt a man hard and fast. He has many powers vested in his hands, a heavy burden indeed for one who has little experience in the dealings with other men. He must make decisions on the spot, I reason, and sometimes overlooks the potential pitfalls of any seemingly minor mistake. If it is true that there is divine guidance, I ask him in my thoughts, and our Rabbi's decisions are therefore infallible that should make it even easier to have an appeals system because then what can there be to hide?

I believe that honesty and openness are the foundation and the cornerstones of justice and that no truly God fearing society can operate in secret and maintain its honour. In Stamford Hill there is a tendency towards ayatollaism that has to be stopped. None of us want Iran-style councils of bearded religiousists arbitrarily dictating standards by the reactions of their netherregional antennae.

In a modern society and having absorbed all the good of the culture surrounding us, we know we cannot have women persecuted and their children ejected from our school system just for having appealing shapes. We have watched our middle-eastern cousins as they chased each other to see who can glorify God the best. If we don’t want to wake up one morning and found ourselves the proud parents of our own criers ‘havoc’ we have to act now to maintain the balance.

Extremism is dangerous in all its forms and while everybody is free to be as holy as they wish it is incumbent upon a society to maintain the centre ground. Public funds that were not earmarked for special groups should be spent on the moderate and time-honoured true traditionalists and all groups should be encouraged to acknowledge that the centre ground is a legitimate Jewish area. All forms of segregation are dangerous and the tendency of individual groups to draw within and close ranks is unhealthy at best.

Stamford Hill does not need the imported boerism and insularism that that is becoming popular. Responsible leadership must encourage a healthy worldview and a positive attitude towards other religious streams. The positive parts of the Stamford Hill of yore were manifest. We spoke English and we got on with our neighbours. Some were more religious than us and some were far less but we still treated them as neighbours. In the YHS we had children of all different types; Gerrers Yekkes and Belzers and Sephardis and we got on with all of them too. We went to camp and we went to siyums and we met the other kids and we came out enrichened by the experience.

The climate being what it is I think anybody with half a brain must realise that the authorities will not tolerate religious councils of any sort that are completely outside their control. If we are to survive we will have to do what we Jews have been so adept at for so many generations and adapt. I don't beileve anybody is against having a responsible rabbinic council working in a transparent and justified manner. I think most of us would be happy having certain rules and regulations built in to the sytem. Nobody wants to see Stamford Hill losing what makes it special. I am however soundly against a system of trials-and-errors leadership where only the frummest one wins and where individuals are arbitrarily imposing their own irrational standards upon an unwilling public.

Now here is the odd part: He has agreed with me on every single one of these points when speaking to me (if maybe not in these specific words) yet I don't believe I have ever heard such sentiments uttered by any of our personalities. What am I to think?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Us Limeys

We did what was expected, we smiled and begged forgiveness. Of course none of us asked for forgiveness from our enemies; what could be more crass than putting someone on the spot like that? But we did politely beg all our best friends’ pardon and added at least one ‘surprising’ choice just to prove how very good we're being. So when we stepped up to Kol Nidre, feeling almost proud of our humility, we shed our genuine tears with saintly servility.

No matter that some family of sods sitting further back near the door happen to be watching their lives go down the toilet. “Who knew better than me how they had it coming to them? After all if they had listened to me in the first place they would never have been in this ‘shtuch’. If they would have asked my advice they would have done the right thing in the beginning and none of all this would have happened. But they had to be clever. They have to do things their own way. Nu! They did it their own way, so now we ordinary folks can shrug our shoulder and say “Sorry Mate, yer own bleedin fault!” and then turn back to our humble haughteur.

“Oh and just look at those Plimsolls on that child. If my children went out in shoes like that I’d… Something really should be done about that father. He seems to have a child every year and he doesn’t earn enough to buy shoes for them. Actually I should speak to Whatshisname about that. We should be thinking about paying him more. He will leave him Ch”V and it will cost us a whole lot more. Anyway, the kids need to have shoes.

Hey, what am I doing? Thinking business again, I am supposed to be thinking of tshuve”. The mind shifts back into its puritan pride.

It’s true that we don’t all have management positions or the power enough to hurt others directly. Those of us who don’t, often don’t have the ability to help those who got hurt either. But we, all of us, know we are ignoring something. We all know there is a little something that really should be done… Kol Nidre does not absolve us of that. You cannot be sitting in the same building as another whom you know to be crying out for help and ignore their call while you beg for yourself.
“Still, I do believe I did rather a lot of good this year and though I will, of course, show just the right amount of genuine remorse over the course of the coming day I don’t really feel He has any reason to show anything more than a token resistance before awarding me the full set of social benefits as befits a person of my rank.” You consider to yourself in your reasonable righteousness.

“Anyway, it’s good that that I managed to avoid ‘him there’ when he was doing the rounds of his forgiveness. Imagine if we had suddenly met face to face? Actually I am a bit surprised he feels happy going to Kol Nidre without having my forgiveness. Some people have a nerve! In his place I would never contemplate going towards Yom Kippur without having even tried to get my forgiveness. I wouldn’t give it of course. How could I? It would be like saying he was right all along. I couldn’t even! It would be like stabbing my own family in the back. I don’t even think He would want such forgiveness. But he should have asked. Shoyn, we can’t all be menschen. I have to continue with my complacent complaint."

And to think they say we have to learn to integrate!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

No More Mr Nice Guy



So British academia has decided to try again to arrange a boycott of Israeli universities. Tony Blair is being advised to scrap Holocaust day and Red Ken gets away with comparing the Israeli army to Hamas. Meanwhile the government is advised that their foreign policy is to blame for the ‘growing resentment and rising radicalism within the Muslim community. You might quite fairly ask how these affect a Chassid living on the Hill, our yeshivas are not recognised anyway, we do not rely on the holocaust to define our Jewishness and Ken has never been our favourite politician anyway? The combination of all these is however sending a very clear message to British Jewry despite the fact that in their typically ingratiating manner Established British Jewry refuses to enunciate it in public.

The reason our wishes, feelings and sensibilities are being ignored is because everybody, from the Foreign Minister down to the mugger on the street, knows that the Jews will not fight back but bend over backwards to prove what model citizens they can be even as the BBC regularly slams our country as some bastard-state. Even as the British government sends officers to the airport to arrest the generals who risked their lives protecting us from the terrorists who have sworn to annihilate us, while terrorist clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi are invited to London and given the red-carpet treatment. Like our parents and grandparents in Europe we will determinedly remain silent and good while our rights and lives are stripped away, salami-style, slice by slice. Meanwhile the Muslim community, with none of our snivelling desire to please, will soundly prove that if they do not get their way they will bomb us, together with our hosts the crusaders (the new muslim in-word for Christians or westerners), to hades.

We will stand around smiling as the BBC invites 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, of the Al Quds newspaper based in London, onto Dateline London, a weekly talkshow, to explain that Hamas is entitled to bomb civilians in Israel because it is called resistance. I actually did write to complain, seeing as Tony Blair had announced that all calls to terrorism anywhere were illegal and would be punished. It seems however that I had misunderstood; it was calls to kill WASPs that are illegal. Jews have to understand that they are different. A glib reply from the BBC informed me that they do not take responsibility for what interviewees say.

I am not sure what it will take for the EBJ organisations to actually realise that the water landing on their faces really is gooey spittle and admit it. How long it will take before they realise that all the years of ‘contributing to the community’ and proving to all sundry how ‘normal’ we are were a waste of time. That if we had had been a little more strident and unapologetic we might not have been such a walkover. What they can do about it now is another question. It would be illegal and foolish to argue for a more violent approach for our cause, just as foolish indeed as not to acknowledge it would help. What is realistic however is to take a page out of the American book and stop being so nice.

The real reason I say this is because I am watching the same thing happening in a microcosm called Stamford Hill. Some machers with more power than sense have started a campaign of denying admittance to the religious schools of girls whose mothers commit cardinal sins like wearing denim or looking too pretty. Sadly, because the very act of fighting back is likely to result in permanent pariah status for their entire family, nobody is prepared to fight back openly and the result is that a group of sad innocent little girls cry themselves to sleep each night dreaming of the dubious honour of going to the YHS or Beis Yaakov. The Rabbinate claims it is powerless to help although face to face they admit they disagree with this policy. How more British could they get?

Next week is Rosh Hashana. As we go to shul and contemplate the past year and the possibilities for the coming one I hope we all take a moment to consider what the result of our silence and inaction is and resolve to use the power we do have, whether it is persuasion or influence or just the power of the formerly silent masses, to help us all. British Jewry and Stamford Hill deserves better.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Sixth Sense

As an exercise in objectivity I was once given a newspaper report to read about the political situation in the UK. Its headline read “41% of Britons express confidence in the government’s handling of negotiation with Sinn Fein” (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army), or words to that effect. We were asked to write alternative headlines with the same information. Surprisingly enough, in our group of five only one came up with the obvious variation the coach was looking for. “59% of Britains express no confidence in the government’s handling of negotiations with Sinn Fein.”

A na├»vely provocative email I received through the kosher grapevine gloatingly declares: “On August 15, 10,000 patriotic Jews were expelled from their homes and made refugees in their own country to fulfil the dictates of the US sponsored Road Map to Peace. There are approximately 6 million people in Israel .10,000 divided by 6,000,000 equals 0.00167.

“Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the southern U.S. and laid waste and complete desolation to the City with a population of 500,000. US News agencies are openly calling those displaced by the hurricane "refugees. There are approximately 300 million people in the United States. 500,000 divided by 300,000,000 equals 0.00167!

“Coincidence?
"Fire and hail, snow and vapour, stormy wind, fulfil His word!" -Psalms 148:8”


It does not take a rocket scientist to pick holes in the mathematics. There were no 10.000 evacuations nor were the evacuees made refugees. The disengagement was as much a surprise to the Americans as it was to us and the entire population of New Orleans was not made homeless just for starters. Still devotees of the gematria (kabbalistic numerology) in Chassidistan willingly accept such drivel as the gospel’s word and divine proof of the ‘rightness’ of their cause.

Unfortunately we the ultra-orthodox, for all the time we spend studying those, often mind-numbing tracts and developing our ability to rebuild the complicated, logical reasonings of the Talmud, have no real training in demolishing an argument or picking it apart. Doing that to Talmudic logic is a one-way ticket to purgatory. Which is why I have to say, with all due respect of course, that to manipulate the learned elders of our community and get them to accept anything you like is child’s play, providing you choose your words right. Believe me, I have done it!

I was therefore only mildly surprised when the supreme leader for life of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth (a.k.a. the local Chassidic Rav) issued a decree a week before the disengagement forbidding the tying of orange ribbons to car aerials in Stamford Hill. Did our own street-savvy Rabbis feel it was too provocative for Londoners to see such open displays of disobedience to the democratically elected Sharon? Unlikely.

The four books of the Shulchan Aruch that function as the basis for all Halachik law are famously joined by the fifth: Common sense! Mine tells me that this was either an ingratiating sop to themselves to the marginal anti-zionists or a pathetic misjudgement of the sentiment on the street, that would prefer to see real issues addressed instead of children’s horseplay with ribbons. Still there is hope. Recent unofficial polls show a strong 20%* of members has faith in the Rabbinate and their ability to effectively manage and represent our community.

*Poll carried out on 5 subjects. Please take a possible sampling error of around
3% into account

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Disenchantment


As a vocal supporter of the disengagement the first pictures coming out of there have moved me more than I would have imagined. Contrary to many of my Chassidic friends, though by all means not all, I have always felt the presence of settlers in Gaza to be a mistake. It has been the death of far too many Jews, both the settlers themselves with their innocent little children who could not choose to be there and the soldiers forced to protect them. It was thus faintly disturbing to me, struggling to maintain the objectivity I yearn to properly develop and is vital to my survival among my British friends, to find myself intensely moved by the sight of those deeply religious people so desperately and earnestly clinging to the hope that God will come to their rescue in the last minute. My heart goes out even more to those who resigned themselves early and left, crushed. I have felt their pain.

I have to express my admiration for the devotion and the true commitment to an ideal that many of these religious settlers have displayed, although my innate scepticism does make me wonder how much of it is an American characteristic in its Jewish manifestation. It is hard to escape the fact that most of them seem to speak English better than Hebrew. Still they have put their lives on the line for something they passionately believed in and it heartbreaking to see them contemplating the notion that God really is not going to give them what they so believe He wants. The fact that they are so impervious to the plight of their neighbours living in squalor nearby is explained away by many of us as being a result of the atrocities carried out by the Intifadists. Maybe true, but explanations are no solution to the dehumanisation in our society this occupation must take the blame for. This is also sad testimony to the fact that religion can be a dangerous tool in irresponsible hands.

The world tends to see Chassidim (except for the Satmarers who claim to be anti-Zionist yet this evident only when things go sour) as radically right wing. The truth is a bit more complicated than that. While practically all Chassidim will probably agree with Satmar that the Zionist State is not a God-given present signifying a Historic return or Redemption, most, including much of Satmar, will admit to feeling an extremely close and deep-rooted connection to their historic homeland. It is not the soil-based farmer's love of land that the Pioneers developed and the Jewish Agency has nurtured though. We are not exposed to that in our schools so I doubt one will see the grief here on the hill that is surely being experienced by Jews all over the world. We also tend to see things more from the Halachic perspective and home in on the requirement to sacrifice all to protect lives. The disengagement when it argues ‘more security’ has a willing audience among us that was not apparent in the devious games the representatives we elected played with our voice.

For us the question boils down to whether the dismantlement of the settlements and withdrawal from those territories, originally designed as a punishment measure when Arafat was alive and what now looks suspiciously like a reward for terror, will actually bring about an end to the tragic loss of life that we were almost getting used to. I know that the promise of a return to violence announced by Hamas today is given in true faith, literally and figuratively, and the question really is will they be allowed to. I have to note that the grudging, petulant reaction of all the Palestinian spokesmen today does not bode well. I have not been blessed with the blind faith the settlers seem to have in abundance so I can only hope and pray that this is one of the times He chooses to listen to us and gives us all a little break.

Talking of which I am now signing out for a few weeks.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Dress Code


The holidays are once again approaching. The one time of the year when it is acceptable to throw off the stifling yoke of our Chassidus delectus and officially put time and effort into having a good time. A holiday village is chosen from the list of places where it is known a minyan (ten men who get together for prayers) will be available locally. Ostensibly this is because one is supposed to pray with the required forum every morning and evening but my suspicious mind keeps noticing that the ones so extremely careful to have a minyan nearby are often the same ones who, when in town, prefer to chat with their friends outside while the ten get their job done inside.

The next thing to arrange is the wardrobe. Those who know Chassidim well will know that sartorially we are still somewhere in the darkest regions of sub-civilised Europe; our trademark long, dark suits now, ironically, being produced by the Hungarians as they break all records in dragging themselves forcefully into the very centre of the developed world. Those who know Chassidim intimately will know that our fashion statement carries on through all the way to the North Pole, by way of knee length white knickerbockers. Still, come August, and with the fumes of the Hill replaced by the bracing sea air, they put their hair up under a baseball cap, remove their topcoats and tread out incognito in their baggy suit pants, white shirts, pale yellow tzitzis and tailored waistcoats, often with a pair of clip-on sunglasses to make them look real cool.

Actually, although I do scoff a little, I do owe much to my garb. The Chassidic dress code by being so distinctive and quaint does look, to the lay person, like it conceals a Rabbi within. In the years that I was studying outside London I used to ride the train a lot. On the long inter-city rides I used to enjoy striking up conversation with fellow passengers. The atmosphere and the very fact that we knew we would never see or hear from one another again was conducive to some very frank and open conversations with people who must have felt they were talking to a Rabbi.

I spent hours counseling people for a multitude of sins I know nothing about. I once spoke to an Irish man who wanted me to agree with him that even when he used contraceptives against the wishes of his ‘Holy Father’ it was not wrong if he did not feel it was wrong. He called them French letters and I of course had no idea what he was on about. I agreed with him wholeheartedly that God would not mind him using his letters at all as long as he felt it was right - although as a Brit I secretly felt He would much prefer a letter from any other nation!

I was also recently surprised to learn that because we are seen as gentlemen of the cloth we are also privileged to be treated as such by many goyim. Just as it is not cricket to hit a woman but it is cricket to hit on her the same is true for a Rabbi. Indeed I must now begin to suppose that it is not only due to my winning ways that I have managed to sail unscathed through the storms my reckless tongue has sometimes unleashed.

I hope that my fellow Chassidim, as they hit the coast this year, will have the good sense to realize the impression they are making and appreciate and return any favour wherever they meet it. I pray even more fervently that they don’t abuse it, Heaven forbid, in a time when in the eyes of many the difference between one religious fanatic and another is only kappel-thin. My final prayer is that whatever they do they should please, please do it in a different village to the one I’ll be in.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Purple Hearts


Watching the meeting between the Muslim leaders and Tony Blair with the other government leaders really got me thinking. I was imagining in my minds eye how it would have looked had their current problem been ours. Suppose, instead of just producing the occasional isolated nut like Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, the settlers had started an organized campaign of killing or suicide bombing. We would all, naturally, be quick to point out that there is no justification in the Torah for this and indeed the Torah categorically forbids it! I suspect after the tenth incident nobody would believe us and all our protestations would fall on dead ears, just as the statements coming from the Muslim Leadership do now.

Of course the Chief Rabbi and his board would be joined by some others like, maybe Rabbi Gloria Nuerberger and the Editor of the JC, in a BBC studio to explain in our name that we profoundly abhor what was happening in the name of our religion. Then the Chief Rabbi would explain learnedly why it could not possibly be the Torah that was justifying such acts. Meanwhile in our home we would be laughing up our sleeves (ever so discreetly while the cleaning lady is around) at how all of a sudden he represents our religion for us while we do not consider the foods he eats to be kosher and we would not allow him to officiate at one of our weddings.

Let us get real. The people we saw nervously avoiding looking at the multitude of international TV cameras as they rang the bell at Number Ten do not represent the religious Muslim youth either. Whom they might represent, however, are the normal people of Arab origin who live in the capital and I believe it is important that we do extend our hand in friendship to them. Nobody knows better than we do what it feels like to be in a country where you don’t feel welcome. Furthermore our interests and theirs are much closer to each other than most people would imagine.

It is true they have duly earned our skepticism. The fact that their condemnation, of all the atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam up till now, had to be drawn from them like pulling teeth speaks for itself. Still I believe that many if not most UK Arabs (it is impossible for me sitting next to one on the train to know if he is a Muslim or not) are against suicide bombings in principle. I was indeed very gratified to hear the one woman delegate at that meeting declare to the cameras that she roundly condems any suicide killing whether they occur in Iraq, Palestine or London. I dare say they don’t actually lose much sleep over what they might see as the occasional suicide bomb in Israel, but then, how many of us lie awake at night for the innocent citizens of Bagdhad? The fact does remain that the Muslim population of London is here to stay and so are we. We could bear a grudge and live under increased pressure for the next few years or we could extend a hand in friendship to those that are brave enough to take it.

The anti pullout movement in Israel came up with a scheme, actually borrowed from the architects of the Orange Revolution, for using the colour orange to symbolise their resistance to the disengagement plan. Far too late, supporters of the plan replied with blue ribbons to publicly counterbalance the enormous mass of orange-everything that seemed to spread like fire across the land. Indeed fashion outlets are complaining that it is becoming difficult to sell any orange clothes as people see the wearing of it as a political statement. What a delicious irony that the ones standing for withdrawal are the ones using zionist blue. I am a staunch supporter of such symbols because they tell me where I stand. When I am next to a group of teenagers wearing orange headbands I would of course not mention my personal opinion that disengaging is probably the smartest thing Israel has done since engaging, while I would be happy to say it to someone with a blue ribbon on his car aerial.

It is a shame that Londoners have not come up with a symbol to signify friendship. Something like an Our Nation England campaign, dedicated to creating better understanding between all the different ethnic groups in London. Their logo could be a purple smiley face to show that sex, colour and religion don’t matter. Anybody wearing that symbol would have singled him/herself out as someone who was willing to be friendly to anybody else who was interested too while the monies collected by selling the articles could be used to further the cause by organizing events where getting to know the other could happen. I believe giving people the opportunity to break out of the mold and come forward as a moderate might bring surprising results. It would certainly be more helpful for London and Londoners than all those inflammatory and divisive statements our Mayor Ken Livingstone is so intent on making
.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Divided we Stand


Yes there are times when I am proud to be a Londoner! I proudly express my admiration for the London emergency and security services for their low-key but highly efficient major-crisis plan that swung into action following the atrocities on our underground and bus network. Of course London has had the benefit of time, since watching 9/11, Madrid and all the other terrorism it has been our misfortune to have to learn to deal with. Still the plan was innovative, radical and obviously well thought out and I raise my black hat to whoever devised it.

Requisitioning all the buses from the area and turning them into makeshift ambulances for the walking wounded freed up the paramedics and the specialised teams to deal with more of the critically injured on the spot and must be recognized as a stroke of genius. Careful control of how and when the bad news leaked out spared the mass panic that the other cities had to contend with and probably helped the intelligence services monitor the terrorist’s reaction to the lack of one. Londoners showed their typical grit by displaying their stoicism to the world’s cameras instead of the cowed and hysterical pictures we had gotten used to after New York, Bali and Madrid. Maybe the difference was only in which pictures were chosen for broadcast but the calm and restrained image that was created did much to save the capital from potential chaos.

I think Tony Blair deserves our praise. He managed well in a time of extreme difficulty and his quiet determination probably helped set the tone that did London so proud. Once the sheer horror of what has happened passes on into history I am sure he will learn to derive some comfort from video reruns of his G8 statement and the glower on French President Chirac’s face as he was forced to stand aside to allow Blair, the upstart who had just swept the Olympic rug from under his feet, to again address the world while his gallic hands clutched his crown jewels for comfort. I wonder whether one could not detect just a tad of jealousy that once again Paris had been passed over in favour of another in the Pax Americana.

The BBC did itself proud too. After years of struggling with the English language and devising a whole lexicon of new words for describing people who kill civilians for political ends without taking sides they have found a new one for the London bombing. They are called terrorists! A polite letter I posted on their website asking for clarification of the difference was removed “because it contains content that other readers may find offensive.”

The Haaretz newspaper reported that Ariel Sharon had asked ministers not to equate the bombing in London with those in Israel. Of course, not everybody listened to him but at least we were spared the gloating of Raanan Gissim that so jarred after September 11. And if the Sun newspaper decides to mention all the cities that were hit by terror and did not see fit to mention Jerusalem we are not really surprised even though covering up titillating details is not what that particular paper is famous for.

Cherie Blair, her friends in the left-wing establishment and their newspapers I would not allow off so lightly. The PM’s wife opened her big mouth a couple of years back to say about Israel, "As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up you are never going to make progress." She was implying that it was Israeli policies that encouraged and nurtured the hopelessness that allowed suicide bombings to occur. While she apologised for her remarks (or for the fact they were published), they and her cause were taken up by papers like the Guardian and others who considered she had fallen foul of the Jewish American lobby but what she had said was in fact common knowledge and the opinion of most British people. Her words also did profound damage to Israel’s image even in the eyes of some British Jews. I do not know whether it actually was suicide bombers that caused the carnage here last week but I certainly did not see Jack Straw stand up and say it cannot have been because the Arab youth in the UK enjoy freedom and good living conditions. As Rowan Atkinson says, in his part as the devil welcoming a group of atheists to Hell, "You must be feeling a right bunch of wallies now."

Terrorism, activism, militantism, call it what you like, it is a scourge and it is here to stay. We can probably contain it, we can certainly learn to live with it but we will not eradicate it. The clash of civilisations will not be ended by the arrest of some sorry-arsed residents of Bradford or even the elusive and charismatic arch-activist. When we all realize that it is a common problem to all non-muslims; French, British, Israeli, German and American, and that truths like this may be said whether they are considered PC by today's standards or not, then we will have started to win the war.

Monday, July 04, 2005

My True Love


Love is not a word I can comfortably and unselfconciously use . In the school I went to it was a kind of swear-word that you scratched into the horrid pale brown wall of the freezing cold toilet cubicle in the playground. This does not make it easier for me now, married for well over a decade and having to weigh the options in so stark a fashion, but there it is. I am in a predicament. I need help and the only one I have to turn to expects from me in return something I am not sure I can give.

He is prepared to give me everything I want. He promises me material wealth and comfort with everything I need to ensure my success and wants only one thing in return; my love. He will not tolerate that anyone else should come first in my attentions, not even my wife. To be perfectly frank, that kind of love is not only something I cannot imagine experiencing, I have to wonder whether I would be comfortable feeling it, let alone displaying it publicly. His implied threat, of course, is that I will lose it all if I cannot convincingly demonstrate that I can. Tempted as I am by the offer of all the luxury and the promise of a quiet worry-free life I am not sure I can in good faith promise to deliver the goods.

Childhood memory does not start abruptly. Most people cannot put a date on their first memory but there are things that you remember you always knew. He was like that for me. He has always been there in the background, the benevolent uncle and bringer of gifts, for as long as I can remember. He pissed me off enough in my childhood, mostly for not always giving me everything I wanted, but then again I was not always the easiest of children. He has always been close to me though and held in a measure of esteem and warm friendship. Still it is difficult for me to change the perceptions that have built up in my mind over time. He was always a kind of symbol for me, of the world that existed before me, the elders and Rebbes, parents, grandparents and uncles. His transformation into the object of my affections was never going to be a breeze anyway.

I have to be honest with myself too. I can do it and I can do it convincingly enough. My real concern would be then living with the people around me. I have only to imagine walking down the street, once word has gotten out about my new lifestyle choices, and I feel my cheeks start to warm already. It just isn’t me. I can’t imagine being the person people whisper about furtively. I cringe even more in anticipation of those who will be effusively supportive and broad-minded. So I think I will politely and regretfully decline the kind offer and blame my continued lack of fulfillment and tranquility on those who taught to me allow all these obstacles to get in the way of me doing as I see fit

If only I had been more at ease with the concept of love and had been trained to recognise it when it is offered and to accept it graciously, I might now feel more comfortable accepting the deal being offered to me. I was not. I was taught to fear Him and anticipate His anger rather than to bask in His warmth. So, together with all my friends I will continue to pray by rote and ignore the true meaning of the words of the Krias Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Why do I blog?



I do not expect ever to make any money from this blog nor can I realistically expect any recognition without disclosing my identity. Much as I love my readers I do not crave their admiration enough to risk hurting my wife and children nor even my own precious hide. I am not under any illusions that a massive tide swell of positive and long overdue change will come about as a result of my writing. So why, you ask, do I blog?

In every community or group of people you have the natural born leaders. They are the ones that seem to become the center of every conversation they join, spontaneously consulted by everybody whenever changes are to be made. They will be stuck up for when they get into trouble and they will win most of their arguments. Some people hate them for this but in fact they cannot help being leaders any more than their followers can help following. They tend to come in various flavours and there can be no doubt that, just as a charismatic Rebbe guides an entire flock of lambs, a leader who harbours laidigayer tendencies is very likely to spawn a slew of laidicrawlers behind him or her. This is why the teachers who argue for the expelling of such laidigayers from our institutions always seem to bristle with such righteous indignation.

The followers are the great mass of mindless sheep who obey orders instinctively. Whose life’s goal, it seems, is to fit into any society they happened to fall in. They can often be recognized by their beatific expressions and manifestations of religious devotion to their Rebbe’s God if their Rebbe happens to be their own leader or their leader’s. Of course you will also have those who will blindly and religiously follow a nutcase or persuasive laidigayer with strong leadership qualities. The followers too can only partly be blamed for the wrongs (and rights) they do in this context. Indeed I believe some zealot rams are going to be sorely disappointed by the meagerness of their reward in the kingdom come.

These two groups account for most people in our society. Within a community like Chassidus which frowns deeply upon any form of non-conformism and roundly condemns eccentricity and self-expression there is little room for leaders except those that want to act as shepherds for the gentleman farmers who prefer to sit on their thrones and keep their hands clean. The few who cannot contain their burning desire to lead and are unimpressed by the promised sojourn in the warm embrace of hell do indeed surround themselves by the pathetic cohorts who either are similarly unimpressed by punishment to come or find they prefer a bird on their hand and two in the bush.

The Shaigetz does not belong in either. He is a real individualist. He is too clever to be a sheep and much too clever to be shepherd. He skirts the field, sticking close to the fence. He knows there are wolves outside and possibly has met them and reached a personal understanding with them. The members of his family are sheep though and he prefers to keep them safe among the flock. He has to keep his knowledge to himself because the shepherds know he could run rings round them if he wanted to. So he is a lonely creature at times. With his wide-angle lens he sees truths others cannot see and his dedication to the religion is no less than that of the sheep. Indeed it is stronger, because instead of being led by the love for his shepherd or the farmer he swears allegiance to the King Himself.

So next time you come across someone who is little different than the others; One who occasionally lets slip an idea that might not mesh completely with the accepted viewpoint, listen and take note. He is a Shaigetz and his knowledge carries weight. Indeed he might be me.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Fighting Spirits



I got into a fight with a goy on the underground last week. He was a shortish, white, cockney guy and his head was shaven clean; an adjective that could not be said to apply to his language. He was standing in the doorway of the fairly crowded train and reading his paper. Whenever anyone tried to pass or disturbed him in any way, a stream of highly colourful invective would flow under his breath. I was standing right next to him and the top corner of his paper kept on brushing against my face.

As I am not confrontational by nature I ignored it the first few times. It was at the end of a long day however and I was tired and hungry. At a certain point it became too much for even mine, so sweet a disposition. With all my bottled up irritation I pushed the paper away angrily. The guy looked round his paper equally angrily to see who had done it and said something inexcusable about my lineage. I took umbrage and suggested he do something anatomically impossible. The slanging match that ensued taxed my vocabulary to it very limits and continued for a few minutes, much the amusement, I suspect, of the prim crowd filling the carriage.

It ended when the train pulled into the station and he got off, whether because he was going to anyway, or to escape a volatile situation, I do not know. I was relieved of course and very gratified for the sympathetic glances bestowed upon me by my fellow travellers who were probably almost as relieved as I was. My Jewishness, when he mentioned it to describe me, was preceded by the usual participle verb. That was the only reference to it, despite my Chassidic dress making it an obvious fact.


When my heartbeat returned to normal and the adrenalin left my system I suddenly realised that what had just occurred was simply a clash of personalities. I had taken a dislike to a person standing next to me, for reasons known best to me, and he had responded in kind. More importantly, I realised that he had called me the procreating Jew because that is what he saw, not because he harbours any specific hatred towards Jews and I am almost embarrassed to admit that I went home feeling slightly elated and calmer than I have in a long time.

If we Chassidim are to be believed the world is headed for imminent disaster. Unlike us, the goyim in whose midst we live, have no family life. They throw out of the house, the measly one-point-five kids they do have, as soon as they are sixteen or pregnant. They have no real interests or responsibilities, a fact that can be proved by the fact they go on holidays for a week taking only a small bag of underwear and some jeans and t-shirts (apart from all those little goyishe things like toothbrushes and condoms, of course). They eat whatever they want whenever they want and sleep with whomever they want whenever they want. In short, their lives are sheer hell, and probably just as well, as that is where they are all headed, fast.

Ours, on the other hand, is a richly rewarding and perpetually buoyant travail twixt birth and earth. We have the privilege of being brought up by the wisdom, and within the stifling embrace, of not only our immediate and intermediate families, but also anybody else in the community who has an opinion. We are free to pursue our pastime of perusing the holy word whenever we like, unlike the goyim who have to keep breaking off what they are doing to drink beer, play football or watch TV.

Before spending the whole shabbes morning in shul we can soak in the warm, soapy (I hope that’s what it is) waters of the mikve, while the poor goyim, if they do decide to wash at all, have to do it all alone in their sterile home showers. We have lives full of purpose and meaning, so we can spend a whole week discussing what colour Bekishe our Rebbe wore to melave malka and what significance that has, while they have their heads and wardrobes filled with stupid fashions decided by some drunk goy in Paris (the capital city of fornication). We have a direct line to God, which is why when someone does us a favour we don’t have to stoop to the base “I owe you one” as the goyim do but offer a resolute Got zol dich batzulen (God will repay you) instead.

Biggest of all is the truism that they hate us for no reason. All these facts are relentlessly driven into us by those for whom doctors, taxi drivers and plumbers (in that order) are the only goyish contact. I am sure they would be shocked to learn that happy, fulfilled and worthy lives are not the strictest purview of Haredism, just as I am sure there would be hundred different interpretations for 'Halacha esav soneh leyaakov' (it is a law Esau hates Yaakov) if there were any Torranic desire for an alternative.

My goy and I could not click. We argued, just as I might have with some Bok in shul. He said whatever his hyped up brain suggested and I replied in kind. Two humans blowing steam. If the Halacha suggests he ought to hate me for being Jewish he seemed as impervious to it as I was, and that is the way it has to be.


Sunday, May 29, 2005

Feather Light



The Torah tells us to do many things that may seem illogical to us. The Mitzva of Shiluch Hakan (Dueteronomy 22:6.7.) could be a prime example. If you come across a nest containing fledglings or eggs, don’t take them while the mother is there, the Torah says, scare the mother off and then take them. The promised reward of longevity that finishes it off seems to indicate that this whole is a commandment rather than the first being a prohibition and the second a suggestion. It is a great reward though and it is easy to see why our warriors can be so eager to fulfil this divine exhortation.

The last time I saw this mitzvah actually carried out was when I was in Yeshiva. An excited young man came rushing down from the dorms where he had been observing a pair of pigeons who had planted their nest on a drainpipe right next to his second-floor window. He had eagerly kept his secret until the hen had laid her eggs and now he was beamingly inviting the Rosh Yeshiva to take the mitzvah. A noble deed on his part indeed, if he truly believed he was giving the old sod long life.

The circus that followed was priceless. The whole Yeshiva was mobilized and a ladder appeared from nowhere. The, suddenly sprightly, old man climbed bravely up the ladder, wobblingly stabilized by a hundred shoving hands. From every window in the place shouting, black-hatted and bepeyosed heads screamed excited instructions interspersed with louder shouts of “Be quiet, you’ll scare them!!”

The pigeon, with all the commotion, flew off as soon as the Rabbi was half way up the ladder and took up a perch on a tree a few yards on. All this information was relayed to everybody within a square mile by the mass of, by now, hysterical youth hanging out of every aperture. A crowd had also begun to gather on the street below and a team of shgatzim was immediately dispatched to act as spokesmen.

The red-faced elder, within plucking position of the nest, was hanging on to his quivering ladder for dear life and wondering how on earth he could scare the mother away from the nest if she wasn’t on it. A long shouted debate ensued between those parties who could hear each other and a consensus was reached that what was now needed was silence. If everybody would be quiet for five minutes the bird would return and the procedure could commence. You might as well have ordered them to stop breathing. The cacophony of silence that ensued could have put a frozen chicken to flight. A million shushes and screams of “Be quiet you!” kept on for a good ten minutes while another few helpful sparks went off on their own initiative to chase the mother off her tree and so drive her back to the nest. For good measure meanwhile, some others brought breadcrumbs and crisps and started throwing them into the nest to entice the mother back.

The poor creature was never seen to return to her nest although it was closely watched for days after that. I was not privileged to see my spiritual leader grope his way haltingly back down the ladder, his adrenaline spent and his instinct of self-preservation kicking back in, just in time to save his sorry arse but too late to save his ever reddening face, and I regret that.

There are many that would understand exactly what the motivation is to focus on this particular Mitzvah. The Torah does command us (Duet. 4:15) to take good care of our bodies. This is read, by the same who consider it God’s will that the eggs should be taken away from any bird unlucky enough to build a nest next to some frummers, to mean that we are obliged to look after our health. I agree that to ensure one’s demise at a ripe old age amounts almost to that. Still I believe that if we were to be really honest with ourselves we would have to admit that to that particular end it might be advisable to also lose some weight, brush our teeth regularly and partake of aerobic sports at least once a week. Anyone who has studied the Chassidic physique for more than 3 nanoseconds will testify that there is little evidence of good health practices in the Chassidic male community and in the female only marginally more.

Ironically it is the hyperreligious who have forbidden sports. They teach us it is goyish to watch our weight and indeed insist it is God’s very will that we eat all those foods the doctor begs us not to. They stroke their fat bellies lovingly as they solemnly invoke the holy spirit to forbid the very things God himself so blatantly begs and then they call us shgatzim for not being convinced that what He really wants is for us to chase His birds.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Two Birds



When the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel returns home from his spread-the-friendliness-to-Tsunami-victims trip to Thailand he will face questioning by the police about the physical abuse (read torture) of a Bnei Berak teenager who was becoming too friendly with his unmarried daughter. The attack was allegedly carried out in the Rabbi’s house with the help of a couple of Palestinians, friends of the Rabbi’s older son Meir who apparently has something of a reputation for being somewhat different, and with the full knowledge of the rest of the family. The Rabbi, who is supposed to have been at home while the incident occurred, of course heard or saw nothing. Indeed he was said to be surprised to hear the story and ‘very disturbed’ that it happened (although not disturbed enough to break off his vital business in Thailand).

We Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not go for blood the way our Muslim counterparts do. For that I am thankful. You can be sure this blog, like those of my fellow anonoshgatzim, would probably never have been created if being found out had equaled being found dead. The Palestinian chief-prosecutor for Gaza once said that up to 70% of all murders in Gaza are honour killings. Yet while we are all prepared to dutifully tut-tut that, we are all at the same time aware that the knocking around of those who do not toe the line in our society is relatively frequent and not only acceptable but even seen as appropriate by most of us.

It is called a ‘mashkante’ and it amounts to people’s justice. I personally came across it first in Yeshiva (college) when a friend of mine was given a message that he should report to the library. He was met there by three masked students. They threw a pillowcase over his head and then proceeded to soundly beat the shit out of him. Although no one actually said it aloud it was clear to all that this attack had been sanctioned by, if not actually coordinated with, at least some of the Yeshiva staff. His sin, I later discovered, had been to go to the cinema with a friend. He is no longer religious today although he still wears all the costume and his children go to the same yeshiva he did, and none of this surprises me. I am sure the family of the Chief Rabbi’s young friend agree that he deserved it, just as the Palestinians who meted it out do.

It is not the gravity of the sin that makes its perpetrator eligible for a Mashkante, it is the style. The Mashkante is used for punishing crimes that society does not recognize. I believe that most Chassidim reading this would agree that I would be a perfect candidate for this treatment if my real name were ever to leak out. But it is boys who date girls against their parent’s wishes who are the classic recipients. In Israel it has been organized by one of the local Tzaddikate into an organization called Mishmeret Hatzniut (Modesty Patrols). They will Mashkant people up, for anything from going into bars to pre-marital sex, at nobody-knows-whose behest. I personally have heard it called for on more than one occasion and I am actually grateful that I never had prior knowledge of such a crime because I don’t know how my conscience would deal with it.

I am fully aware that democratic justice has its limitations. I know that there are many to whom, I too passionately believe, it should be done. Pederasts who prey on mikvegoers spring to mind, men who refuse to give their unloved a divorce until they receive large sums of money and Tzaddikim who utilise their piety to achieve material comfort for themselves.

The first two are crimes that all agree are wrong, with the question only whether it actually was committed, the last is not punishable because touching a hair on these untouchables’ heads, their colleagues assure us, could lead to eternal damnation. I also know, however, that there is a slippery slope between honour bashing for the community and bashing for the honour of the community leaders and history has already shown where it could go from there.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A time to play



I love my car. It has become for me the equivalent of what the loo used to be in Yeshiva (college). The one place I can really be alone and think undisturbed. True the mobile phone has disturbed the peace in both these recluse spots, but still the car is where I can listen to my CDs and even sing along if I want. My daily drive to work is the time when I simply let my mind go and see where it takes me. Some of my best ideas were beamed in to me, in my car, in between Tears for Fears and Nick Ferrari.

I really enjoyed washing it a few weeks ago. Soapy bucket of water. Lather it up well rubbing all over the entire surface gently, with a soft fresh cloth change every few minutes to stop the built-up grime scratching the polish. I go in with a brush around the wheels and a strong spray across the grills and lights. I hose down with warm water and then dry off with more fresh cloths, paying special attention to those intimate places inside the fold of the door and around the air vents. Next comes a thorough vacuuming of the carpets, the mats and all the ashtrays and such. Upholstery cleaner on the seats (leather feels horrible in a car) furniture polish on the dashboard, Windowlene on all the windows and chrome polish on all the chrome. A nice, creamy, wax coating is polished off the entire bodywork with a special cotton-wool-like cloth and, in a spot-test, a single globule of H2O literally rolls across the entire bonnet like water off a duck’s back. Finally, I change the air-freshener to a kosher for Pesach one and we are done for this year.

I would love to do it every week, foolish romantic that I am, but I know that cannot be and bitterness is a sin of course. I am allowed to wash my car for Pesach because that is a mitzvah. My wife can thus happily tell her parents, “Sorry Shaig’s mobile is in here, he is outside washing the car.” Washing your car in the middle of the year, however, is to our community what dancing, when you are only one on the dance floor, would be everywhere else; Allowed, but oh my Rebbe! So the same rule that decides that if I play football with my son on holidays I am a good father but if I do on Sunday in the park I am a failure to the community, applies here too.

What we have forgotten, in our rush to circle the wagons, is that enjoyment is not really a waste of time better spent learning, as we incorrectly try to impress upon our school kids, but an integral part of the human life experience. When we were told as kids to enjoy ourselves less it was because our enjoyment and playtime were already programmed into our day and what was required was concentration during the lessons. What our current beards seem to have done is to take those instructions literally and build a lifestyle round it.

The Jews in the desert were blessed for having the doors of their individual tents strategically placed so as to allow no peeping in. The same wise men that are careful to remind us this wonderful aversion to gossip the Midbarians displayed are those that have allowed our society to be ruled by a system of punishment-by-gossip for anything that does not seem holy enough. As Brian’s mum would say, ‘They don’t seem very wise to me’.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

God For Bid



Roger Waters introduced me to sarcasm as an art form. A fellow Shaigetz was arguing that we Chassidim, masters of the catty sarcasm that comes with the territory through the speaking of Yiddish, are unable to appreciate the angry variety as a valid form of expression. He advised listening to a CD called Amused to Death. An entire album that for me is summed up by one single phrase; “What God wants God gets, God help us all.”

Rashian in its scope, this sentence is the perfect expression of all that is wrong in our society. It is God that wants families torn apart over who is Rebbe, it is saying.
God who wants kids on the street rather that wearing a different style hat.
It is He wants opinions squashed.
He wants the couple not to meet till the wedding.
He wants the water to need a ‘Kosher for Pesach’.
He wants no ‘love’.
He wants my love.

With all I have learned and in all the years that I have been minutely studying texts, it is sadly the words of a rock songwriter and singer that best sum up my current gloom. The two edged sword of a permissive society with next to no religious persecution and bigotry - the luxury of a too easy life - has given our leading classes far too much free time. The intense contemplation of their navels has resulted in a plethora of specious Chumres (over-strict interpretations of the law) and a stiflingly puritan atmosphere.

Because God wills it so, it is fine to allow the new generation to hit the workforce with no qualifications, no ambition and no money. It is better your son should sleep under London Bridge than he should bring his goyishe music in the house...

An incongruous sight indeed greeted me when I came to perform my annual dodge and sell my non-existent chometz to an undefined goy for an imaginary sum and for a strictly limited period, in a deal that is sealed by me picking up a slightly sorry looking black silk gartel and leaving a tip for the earnest agent. The hallway was blocked by the worst end of a lady of Polish origin, in tight blue jeans, who was polishing the floor. The label above her back pocket read ‘Superior Posterior’.

I do not begrudge the Rabbi’s lady help with her work in the house. I do wonder what the reaction would have been had it been the Rabbi's lot for his glance to happen upon an, even inferior, posterior in my humble hallway. The leadership class however, lives in a world its own. A world of speedy divorces and leisurely family planning, all God’s will of course.

There is still that bitchiness that comes with the territory, similar to the one that comes with Yiddish only much more vicious and deadly. The one that has every new acquisition of a Rabbi or Rav in the Chassidic world (and even beyond sometimes) witness to the dirtiest, smelliest, most treacherous battle it is our misfortune to know. So while we have to allow them to meddle clumsily in our problems, Rabbis go to the courts to settle their own petty differences, and those we are taught to respect either stoop so low that we gasp or get treated so shabbily it leaves one wondering whether they are fit lead at all. God help us all!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Ring of Truth



The Charles and Camilla wedding was postponed by a day, ostensibly to allow Charlie attend the Pope's funeral but in fact because it was clear that nobody would even have noticed his sordid ceremony had the two collided. It was celebrated therefor upon the Shabbes day and the poor C.R. was forced to give it a miss.

Ingratiation has always been percieved as one of the Chassidic leadership’s specialties. I have, truth be known, on occasion been irritated by the way they go all smiley and friendly whenever there are outsiders looking and we do all know they will sign anything if there is but a chance to earn a buck. It was therefore for me bittersweet vindication to see the Chief Rabbi, representing objective moral guidance from a Torah perspective I thought, so cavalierly betray everything he purports to believe in and bless the Royal adulterer’s union. I wonder indeed what possessed him to rush forward, unbidden, to bless a marriage he would not allow in his own congregation. There is after all no way in Jewish law that a man can wed a woman he bagged while she was married to another... Or is there?

We do find in Talmudic law the concept of marriage dissolvment. The way it works is dead simple. The Beth Din (Rabbinic court) decrees the woman’s wedding ring to be worthless with retroactive effect. As in Jewish law the ring has to have a specific value for the ceremony to be valid this marriage becomes effectively annulled. Not much help in this case; Camilla did not marry her first man under Jewish law, but it’s still a thought for some others maybe.


Ironically the Pope, whose expiry was timed so inconveniently for Charles, could have annulled Camilla's first wedding to the cuckold, had the Prince’s great-grandfather Henry VIII not founded the Anglican Church, with the king as its supreme leader, to save himself having to kill another one of his wives after the pope of the day refused to do just that. Meanwhile, in a triumph for love over adversity, the two sinners have been joined in unholy matrimony with a blessing from someone purporting to represent us who never even got the chance in the end to don that smart top hat. All to the good I say, now lets move on and forget their whole regrettable existence.

The idea of annulment holds its attraction for me for a different reason altogether. I don’t know for how long this has been going on (I hear stories going back to shtetl times at least) but a divorce has become an expensive luxury. I cannot remember hearing about a single instance where the stronger party (i.e. the one with the least to lose) did not force a monetary concession out of the other. And this in a community in which the marriages of children are arranged in fifteen-minute meetings in stuffy front rooms with only the suspicious courtesy among the adults outside any indication that something momentous is afoot.

I propose a prenup. agreement that should be made mandatory for all couples. It should contain a clause stating that should any party receive monetary gain for giving or taking a divorce the marriage is annulled retroactively. Breaking such a clause (if it’s well written) would throw the couple into such a legal quagmire that they will have the scholars quivering in their peyos and I guarantee neither will ever marry in a Beth Din again.

Unlike the Prince we cannot all afford fifteen million pounds in a divorce settlement, even if we know we are wrong, and I bet there are many who will wish they had a safeguard like that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I swear




For a community that prides itself on being accepting, classless and purely achievement driven there is a surprising amount of prejudice in Chassidusville. In addition to the obvious and well-documented division between the Sephardim (Jews of oriental origin) and the Ashkenazim (Europeans), Chassidim, who belong to the latter, have been divided within by their origins too.


In former times it was those of Polish and Russian descent who despised the Hungarians who in turn turned their big noses down on the Rumanian ganuvim (crooks) who joined them all in agreeing that the yekkes (of German stock) were the pits. As the Germans considered themselves superior to anything emanating from any of those cultural black holes and the Hungarians considered their superior cooking to be more than adequate to cover for any gaps in their culture or learning they all took a fair share of the biscuit.

These distinctions are diminishing now. Most Chassidim today are of mixed blood and even the Rebbes of some of the Chassidic Houses are of alien bloodlines. New divisions are emerging, however. Thus we, the Chassidim of fair England, look down on our American counterparts as shallow and conceited. We are honestly are not interested in their crummy ‘danishes’ that we keep on having to hear are so much better than anything available in the UK and, having seen what balabustes they are, we are not surprised they have breakfast in Pizza stores. We do not especially like the Chassidic clothes they so insist on flooding our market with or their uncanny knack for making them to look like they don’t fit properly. We are not impressed by their inability to learn to speak either English or Yiddish properly and to be honest we are not always sure which one it is they are speaking.

It is not an anti-American thing though. We also see the Israelis as callous, opinionated and uncouth. From Dibs (Dear Israeli Brothers) when I was a kid through Dibs (Damn Israeli Bastards) when I was a teenager we have now progressed to Fish, an acronym you can figure out for yourselves. We don’t expect them to have any manners or to return anything they borrow. We know they are going to drop into our mikves without showering first and theirs are the fingers perpetually in our serving plates.

The Antwerpians are the Nouveau Yekkes of the Chassidic world. Pompous and arrogant with no saving graces. The one country that exports nothing to the Jewish marketplace or culture bar some second rate chocolate and watery yoghurt is also the home to the most critical of all Chassidim. They smugly and incessantly sing their own virtues, often in the same breath as complaining that their lives are the most expensive anywhere, forgetting we are aware that showing-off is not cheap. I don’t know of any other place in the world where Chassidim speak French and clean-shaven specimens can be seen walking home of a shabbes in their bekishes doing it. We don’t like them, although we can tolerate their children marrying ours, at a pinch, if the only alternative is from across the pond (and they promise not to speak frog when our friends can hear).

Everybody knows the Swiss are pedantic fascists by nature and the Canadian Chassidim have taken over the sense and sensibilities of pre-war Hungary to proudly wallow in their backward obscurity.

It is only the shgatzim who do not have these notions. They recognise a kindred spirit as soon as they hear the first expletive and can immediately bond. In their own circle they know no yichus, although their numbers are swelled with many who have it in abundance, and in the universal tongue of the street they are joined as one. Maybe they do utter a profanity here and there but at least they are united in their common language.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Dis' Guys

It is a well-known fact among Chassidim that a person only dresses up as something that he has a desire to be. I don’t know where this truism comes from but I do know for sure it is so. I know because my teacher told me about it when, as a nine year old boy, I told him I was going to dress up as Mordechai the Tzaddik. I suppose the bumbling fool could not have known I would spend the rest of the week trying to remember who had suggested I dress up as Queen Esther the year before.

An emerging chassidishe adolescent, I already knew that girls are talked about, not to, and a girl is a terrible thing to want to be. In fact even girls should not really want to be girls, hence their gracious Sheasani Kirzono (He fashioned us at his whim) as opposed to the proud Shelo Asani Isha (He did not make us a woman) that men say every morning in their prayers.

At that tender age I was naturally unaware of how soundly my sexuality had just been questioned but it did set me wondering. How was it possible that a year earlier I had wanted to be a queen and now a tzaddik? The solution I came up with (at that young age!) was that if you have a few things you want to dress-up as, it is a combination of them all that you want to be. In the years since, I have worked upon and developed this theory and now have what could possibly be classified as some of the very best, and is certainly the most extensive, knowledge and understanding on this critical subject.

It is impractical to list all the possible costumes and disguises and analyse each one for a final diagnosis in this blog. However, as a service to the community, I will excerpt a few entries from my, soon to be published book, Faeces Unmasked. The book contains all the popular disguises and their interpretations as well as a long chapter disclosing what all our favourite leaders dressed up as when they were small and how their choices can be linked to their current flaws.

Arab Terrorist:
While the actual disguise might be somewhat tasteless in the current circumstances the sentiment is perfect and that is what this is all about. Utter and selfless determination combined with blind obedience and a tendency to go out with a bang. Way to go.

Haman:
A very worrying disguise. Haman represents all that is evil in the Purim story. He was also made famous in the Book of Esther for having had ten awful children, a shrewish wife and chronic over confidence. You have to be seriously disturbed to want to be all that.
I suggest urgent counselling for the parents and vigorous screening of all the children in the family. If it is your neighbour’s child write his name down and make sure he does not marry any of your friends’ daughters.


King Ahasuarus:
This man is greed personified. After all if we were to go around choosing a bride the way he did…
That said, he certainly came out the big winner in this story. This is an enigmatic choice and can only be classified in combination with a previous or later disguise.


The Rebbe:
This is one of the most popular costumes for boys in the eight-to-eighty age group. In fact it is one of the few disguises that can be quite convincing. It has been whispered by some malicious gossipmongers that there are versions of this disguise that have been around for years with none the wiser. A contention by its very nature difficult to discount. It is relatively harmless to the wearer.

Mordechai:
This is generally a very positive disguise. Mordechai was a powerful leader who got the better of Haman and got to ride around town on a white horse. Very regal and messianic and exactly what we want to see from our youth. The ideal Mordechai will be wearing colourful robes and have a handsome moustache and pointed beard pencilled in.
If combined with a bekishe and long white beard see also Rebbe.


Queen Esther:
Every well brought up chassidishe girl should want to be Queen Esther. She had a crown. She had lots of servants and no children. She had a husband who loved her and another who couldn’t. She saved her entire people and best of all she told Mordechai what to do.
Sounds like the epitome of all we stand for. Be proud!


If your son wants to dress-up as her; we all have our share of troubles. I suggest you will want to ask your GP for referral to someone good and understanding.
It might be worth considering banning those Chevre CDs from the house and to rethink the Friday mikve visits when Zeese Yingele is around
.

Sharon:
Not a very encouraging choice. Not religious and perceived as a
bit of a bully. I would not be surprised to find a Haman in one of the preceding years.
See also washerwoman.


Dressing-up, unlike dressing down, has always been popular with the chassidishe mothers. I love walking the streets of the Hill on purim watching the families pouring out of their mini-cabs in their home-sewn costumes; make-up smeared and sagging packages filled with home-made arbess and oddangular hamantashen, leaving the bemused Iranian driver to find a parking. If only the mothers knew the signs they would not be beaming so proudly as their little time-bombs drop their packages off and stand waiting awkwardly for their purim-gelt.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Runaway Pride



Some years ago a nice Chassidic young man disappeared hours before he was supposed to get married. The frantic parents were convinced the boy was dead or worse. In our society worse than dead is possible. With surprising verve and flair for a Chassid he turned up, alive and well and in fine fettle, in Barcelona, immortalizing that fair city in Chassidim’s eyes as the city of the escapee.

From the lovely proclamations, that were an outsider’s standard fare before the blogosphere, one could be forgiven for wondering what he was escaping from. In fact that incident highlighted a problem that had been festering for a long time, that of parents abusing the arranged shidduch system to arrange for their children to marry partners, often chosen with the family’s standing in mind rather than the child’s horizontal activities.

I say this with conviction. I myself was introduced to and indeed married a young lady who at the time was decidedly not my first choice but simply the closest I could get to different. The fact that it all worked out rather well and the combination of my bad influence and her good sense and looks have allowed her to blossom into someone I love passionately, respect and admire, are beside the point.

Having a young man run away on the day of his wedding suddenly brought to the wider attention of the community what the younger generation had been thinking for a while already. The times when a father announces to his Tzeitel that she is engaged are over. And just like the few individuals who happen to become rich while remaining proud of being unable to sign their own names are no proof that education is unnecessary, the fact that some matches made in heaven work in bed does not mean we can rely on divine inspiration and Rebbishe blessings alone when choosing mates for our kids.

Any avid follower of the gossip doing the rounds on the Hill in the last year will have gathered that the old style of operating (like the old guard of operatives) simply will not wash. Parents can no longer hope that marrying their daughter off quickly to the first available member will make all their problems disappear. The youth of today have either tasted the forbidden fruit or have heard from others who have. In the Garden of Eden it was a bite from an apple now it is a byte on an Apple but knowledge is knowledge and it cannot be unlearned.

If the Rabbinate had any sense they would be working with us the Shgatzim to limit the damage and try and find some way to acknowledge the new reality. Instead they display more dayanism than dynamism and they spend most of their time blocking any progress and ensuring their own immortality as the last of the Moshicans. Indeed, looking around it seems to me that good sense is more of a hindrance than an asset in that industry.

The sounds from the street have permeated through the shtetl’s walls. The youth of today want a partner who will share not only their beds but also their interests and even more importantly their time. The girls, growingly expected to share the burdens of making a living, want more and more to become a part of their husband’s lives. The men, as they move out from behind the jeweller’s benches and the close confines of that industry and real estate, are more and more being confronted with self-assured and poised women who have opinions and viewpoints. Many are encouraging their spouses to join them in their own little bars alona. Many of those who do not care to join can throw some of the blame for their partner’s infidelities (real or quasi) on their parent’s poor choices if that is any comfort to them.


I can say for sure that unless all this is taken into account during the setting up of shidduchim it is hard to blame the couple themselves and harder still not to blame the powers that be, who so stubbornly refuse to see this.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Aptly Said



Sipurei Tzaddikim they are called; Chassidic Tales. During Melave Malka, Saturday-night, a meal Chassidim believe is almost as holy as a Shabbos one, it is customary to tell inspirational tales of past Chassidic Rebbes. Lore has it that the fires of Hell, extinguished during the shabbos, are only rekindled when the last Jew finishes Melave Malka so it is actually a good deed to make it last as long as possible.

To some Chassidim these stories take on the status of Torah almost, while those like me, of a more questioning nature, prefer to take them with a pinch of salt. It is acceptable to doubt the veracity of the actual stories providing you accept that the Rebbe was capable of doing whatever the story says he did. In the language of Chassidim “You don’t have to believe it is true but you do have to believe it could have been true.”

Reb Avraham Yehoshua Hershel was a great tzaddik. He lived in Poland between 1755 and 1825. For a while he was Rabbi in a small town called Apt and has entered the Chassidic annals as the Apter Rav. This story about him, that I recently heard at a Melave Malka, both inspired and disturbed me.

A Chassid once came to him for advice. His daughter needed a dowry to get married and he had no money.
“How much money do you need for a dowry, and how much do you already have?” the Rebbe asked
“A thousand Rubles I need.” He replied. “And I have one!”
“Go out my son,” the Rebbe said, “and accept the first deal you are offered.”
The Chassid left his Rebbe to return home. On the way he stopped off at an inn. (Chassidim in those days were allowed to do that. Indeed it seems almost all Chassidic tales happened in inns. My Rosh Yeshiva wanted to have me expelled from the yeshiva for visiting one, but that is a different story.)

This fine Chassid was drinking his beer and at the next table a group of Jewish merchants were drinking theirs. They had had a few and were looking to have some fun at someone else’s expense. Our Reb Chassid seemed a perfect candidate.
“Nu Reb Yid,” one shouted across at him, “What are you dealing?”
“Anything you want.”
“Azoy, anything?” It was obvious that a fish had dropped into their net. “How much money do you have for this ‘anything’?”
“Eh.. One Ruble.”
The merchant burst into drunken laughter.
“One Ruble eh? For one Ruble, my friend, I will sell you my Olam Haba.” (portion in the Kingdom Come)
The hapless Chassid probably realised they were making fun of him. He had his instructions however and if the Rebbe told him to accept the first gescheft that arose then this was it.
“OK I accept.”

The group of merchants must have been in stitches as the paperwork was drawn up and the Chassid became poorer by his one Ruble and richer by one (hardly used) Olam Haba. They were still laughing drunkenly when the wife of the merchant walked in to fetch her mate. Seeing the merriment all round she asked for the reason and was told her husband had just sold his Olam Haba for a Ruble. She was not at all amused.

“I am not going to be married to a man with no Olam Haba. When you come home it had better be with your Olam Haba because without it you ain’t going to be seeing any Olam Hazeh (pleasure in this life) with me.”

This was a powerful argument to any man, even in his state, and it sobered him up immediately. He went sheepishly over to the Chassid and asked him for the document back.
“One thousand Rubles and you can have it back.”
“A thousand Rubles?” he screamed. “Are you mad?!”
The Chassid remained adamant.
“My Rebbe told me to accept the first deal I was offered and I would make a thousand Rubles, I did and I will.”
He did.

The wife was understandably bitter when her husband told her how much he had paid to get his Olam Haba (and Olam Hazeh) back and, being the powerful woman she obviously was, insisted on going back to the pub, to have this out with the man, herself. He simply referred her to his Rebbe and scarpered off home to marry his daughter off. Mrs Merchant was no quitter and she flounced off to the Rebbe to object the massive injustice that had been done.

The Rebbe listened to her argument and answered her thus.
“You are right. It does seem wrong that something bought for a Ruble should be sold back minutes later for a thousand. However if the truth were known it is fairer than you can imagine. For at the moment your husband sold his Olam Haba it was not even worth the Ruble he got for it. But the moment he paid a thousand to get it back it was worth many times that sum.”