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’.