Wednesday, November 16, 2005
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
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?”
“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.
“Do you know the number for the door?”
“Can you open it for me please?”
“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.