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!”