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.

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.

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

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.”