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.