Sunday, January 30, 2005

Him, Me and I

The Tish is for me an opportunity to surreptitiously observe my fellow Chassidim with their guard down. Designed as a confirmation of the Chassidic dogma that God can be served in the mundane and minutiae of everyday life, the Tish is essentially when a crowd of people stand around and watch their Rebbe eat. The meal, it seems, was deemed to be the one Friday-night activity where the individual was most likely to get so carried away by the earthly sensations that he could forget that he was really doing it for God. Watching the Rebbe glide through the process so effortlessly would no doubt inspire our divine souls to convince our debased bodies to follow suit, so we watch him eat. Times were different then I suppose and we should be grateful for that.

I used to think I suffered from a split personality because, in some way, I was able to switch off from being part of the Tish and become an outside observer. I used to refer to it in my head as looking in from inside. It worried me until, in a chat with a fellow shaigetz, I discovered this feeling is not unique to me.

There is a kind of bonding that usually occurs when you are packed into the bleachers at a Tish. It is a feeling very difficult to describe to one who has never felt it. I am told it is similar to the feeling you could have when, say, Spurs play the Gunners and the supporters get really fired up. In fact, I don’t think the feeling can be quite the same because sports is about winning and losing whereas the Tish is just a joining of hearts and minds. Whatever the psychology, I well remember the sensation of losing my individuality and becoming one with the crowd.

Leaning forward to stare rapturously at the Rebbe as he swallowed a morsel of fish. Hardly breathing as he mouthed off his lechaim blessings. Though I was far too far away down the hall to possibly hear a word he was saying, still I leaned forward every week to better hear every holy word not feeling even a tad ridiculous. I sang my heart out lustily and jumped when the Rebbe looked lebbedik, and went all intense and emotional whenever he did too.

Today I no longer get that feeling.
Today after slipping into that place I find myself a tourist looking on in fascination. I notice the one behind me who is flying away, completely oblivious to all around him. The one across from me with the shifty concentration is worried about coming home late but cannot drag himself away. The one over on the right is, like me, looking around and taking-in the scene. I might wink to him, either get a wink back or his face will redden and he will shift position and I will know I have found one still in denial.

I can tell the different personalities within this state. The good-hearted ones who want to share what they are feeling. They look around for someone to give a thumbs-up to when there is a great ‘vort’ in the Torah. They want the stranger, there for the first time, to see all the great bits and feel the sweetness. They will move over and help someone new find a good place to see from before beamingly arranging for a scrap of much fingered gefilte-fish to head his way.

Then you have the exclusionists who have a one to one relationship at the Tish. They are always saying shshhhh, because their transmission with the Rebbe is interrupted. They consider all other people at the tish as superfluous anyway so they are certainly not going to find a place for someone who shaves his beard. As far as they are concerned the beardless should don tichelech (snoods) and toddle off to the Vaibershul!

I miss in some way the feeling I used to have of being totally in the warm embrace of something good. But the thinking part of my personality is in charge today, my emotional still at the Tish and I do not think I am willing to allow them to change roles. I believe I understand in a certain way what the problem was in eating from the tree of knowledge. To be a true Chassid, and enjoy the real benefits of a Chassid, you have to suspend free thought and allow him to think for you.

People like me could be dangerous to the force because looking in from inside you see with more clarity. But we can also be used to provide information they could never get otherwise. I believe the Shgatzim and the Chassidim are using each other blatantly. The Chassidim use the shgatzim as a buffer zone between the world outside, with its vital information, and the rose-coloured world inside the bubble where the truth is what the Rebbe says it is and tomorrow Mashich will come - hopefully before the bailiffs. The Shgatzim meanwhile from inside propogate their agenda of education and cultural awareness.
Who will win? I don’t know. But if the Chassidim do we will all die happily and if the Shgatzim do we will all live and worry so I am not sure yet myself which I prefer.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Jewish Guilthall

In February of 1984 the Jewish Welfare Board welcomed HRH Prince Charles and his then wife Diana as guests of honour at their annual fundraising gala-dinner in Guildhall. Diana was at that time pregnant with her second son Prince Henry Charles Albert David, currently better known in our tabloid press as Dirty Harry. I believe Charles, never a big fan of our race, accepted this dubious honour as a sop to the establishment irritated by his refusal to invite the Chief Rabbi to his wedding. I was a young boy at the time and I remember finding it hilariously funny when it was reported in the press that, of the almost two thousand guests attendant at this Jewish Banquet only one wore a kappel; none other than Charles himself.

Diana, for her part, took her sister-in-law-to-be Fergie, a week before her ill-fated wedding, to Annabel’s where they had some champers while disguised as policewomen. The royal family does seem to have a knack for getting it wrong when they dress up and Harry’s nazi costume is not for me any more sinister. The Board of Deputies disagrees. In fact it seems every organisation in the country with Jewish in its title has had something to say.

I do not think a twenty year old prince, basically a student with a lot of money and a life to enjoy, should have to carry the cross for a group of old men in privileged positions who feel obliged to affirm their Jewishness somehow. As I have said before, the Nazis were but one chapter in a long and bloody history, and it is perfectly acceptable to dress up as Pharaoh, Haman or a Greek soldier. True the Nazis were particularly bad and particularly recent which makes dressing up as them count as pretty bad taste but that is about it as far as I’m concerned.

For British Jewry, that relies on perpetual victimhood for their unifying feature, that worries that people’s involvement in the community will drop off as the security situation in Israel improves, the royal gaffe is indeed a BFD. This is the occasion they have all been put here for. As a man they all stood up and affirmed their Jewishness. From the secretary of the Jewish Ealing-North Triathlon Elites to the Honourary vice-president of the Jewish Elementary Rowing and Kayaking School, all proved their commitment to the World Jewish Community by suggesting appropriate punishments for the offending prince. The national gutter press stood up for the memory of the six million and before long, around the world, the pictures were being displayed alongside the equally tragic pictures from Indonesia and Thailand. I do not think I would let my son dress up as Nazi but I doubt I would have thrown a fit if he had, before this story broke.

I know we should feel really proud the leader of the opposition is Jewish, that so many lords and MPs are. In fact however I also know that the BOD does not really represent me at all, any more than the Jewish Welfare Board does or the leader of the opposition. Now, before the whole establishment jumps down my throat, I am not saying OJs do not get their fair share of help from the Jewish Welfare Board. Nor am I claiming that Michael Howard is not Jewish. What I am saying is there is more than one type of Jew in Great Britain. And those with a whole pile of Mitzvas to keep, find they live in world with completely different set of problems than those faced by Jews with a more liberal interpretation of “thou shalt not…”. I don’t know if Mr Howard suffers for being Jewish but even if he does I’ll bet its nothing to do with having the dustmen take away his chametz before 10:27 erev Pesach.

In the JWB’s world education comes free, matzas come from the 'specials' aisle at Sainbury’s and Yomtov comes round twice a year; Yom Kippur and Tu Bishvat. We, on the other hand, have to pay for our own schooling and bake our own matzes, and our fundraising dinners are not held anywhere near the Guildhall. Also unlike them our lives do not come with a sticker that says Holocaust Survivor Inside.

On the other hand, only last week we were hearing complaints that 70% of people in England had not heard of Auschwitz. The younger Prince, God bless him, has done more to correct that among young people than anybody since the black rap group from Staten Island - the Wu Tang Clan. A conspiracy theorist could easily make the case that the Prince in fact was carrying out a publicity stunt designed to correct that. I think the Collective of All Charitable Kehillas of England should put a statue up to him, with their acronym on the plinth.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Silent Nights

Chaim Potok, in The Chosen, describes the child of a Rebbe being brought up in silence.The boy suffers for years as he grows up with the only words exchanged between father and son concerning their learning. A very beautiful and poignant story that is, to best of my knowledge, pure claptrap. I am sorry Mr Potok, if you ever come across this, but I have never met anybody who has ever heard of this method. There is however a certain distance that is normal within the real Chassidic family (and here I mean the real true blue ones) that I suppose is where the idea comes from. You will never see a true Chassid embracing, even his teenage son. You will never see them playing together except maybe chess on nittel.

Nittel is what we call Christmas Eve. The night when it was normal for the villagers of the Shtetl to go for midnight mass and on return to get drunk in the inn, was no time for us to be on the streets. A law was decreed that, on that night, the learning of torah was forbidden. What do good yeshiva boys do on a night when Torah is forbidden? They go to sleep. Problem solved.

The anomaly here has tradition to blame. We, the archconservatives, are not going to allow a mere local church to reorganize ours. In Eastern Europe, where our dynasties were founded, the land lay in the grip of the Orthodox Church. They never recognized the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on the 6th of January. Chassidim originating in regions under that Church do learn on Christmas Eve bit don’t in January… Except we are not quite sure ourselves whether it is the fifth or the sixth, so some keep one and some the other.

The irony is that, since we have left the Sthtetl and landed in the western world, Nittel has also become the night when the Chassidishe Bucherim, the good boys, rent videos. There are many young men I know who would only ever admit to having seen a video if it was secretly watched on nittel. So the dark forces have their revenge.

Chess and videos diametrically oppose each other as forms of entertainment. One exercises the mind the other numbs it. What they have in common is they do not require any overt dedication. You don’t have to change your clothes or really prepare to play chess. It can almost seem as if you just passed by and stopped. That nonchalance proves you are really a learner at heart. The same goes for watching a video. You sit in a couch with your friends to watch for three hours and then go home. A great guys night out! The one day in the year you don’t have to feel guilty for not learning!

If you ever watch a Chassidic singer you will observe that they are careful not to move too much nor show too much facial expression. I don’t know if it is just shyness or repression or they are afraid lest they be accused of enjoying it too much. There are no real Chassidic entertainers because our overriding sense of propriety makes us watch, bemused, the few fools who actually ever drop their front for a moment. Any guy who dances too enthusiastically at a wedding will be surrounded by a two deep ring of fascinated observers who will forever smile at him indulgently whenever they meet. It is this reserve too that dictates I may pass a plate to my sister or even bandage her finger but I won’t shake her hand, heaven forbid, or even my mother’s.

I admit I have no wish to hug my brothers or sisters anyway. Or my parents for that matter. But I sometimes wonder, if things had been different when we were young, whether I then would have.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Current Affairs

Father L. Lovasic, a catholic priest, is immortalized through his legacy of brightly coloured books for children, selling the catholic message to them by way of simple language and imagery. There was a series of Jewish inspirational stories that also did some pretty impressive work for a time. I vividly remember one called Yossef Moker Shabbos that was published about twenty years ago. A beautifully illustrated ten-paged book with shiny faced, starry-eyed tzaddikim and pot-bellied, ruddy-cheeked villains. Today of course we chassidim have the privilege of some sem-girl who knocks out badly proportioned pictures with no perspective points that are even more kosher. My baby brings home these excruciating images on scribbled-on photocopy paper, to prove his Rebbe has tuned in to the twenty-first century and is big on arts and crafts.

Lovasik is eminently quotable. ‘Only the ignorant and narrow-minded gossip, for they speak of people instead of things.’ After this last week on the Hill that is what should be hanging on the notice boards, before all those badly written admonishments to buy Heimish. One ‘thing’ we should be discussing is how comes we expect God to be so forgiving yet we are so unforgiving ourselves.

We all know that there is a large group of disenfranchised youth that is kicking and screaming for some attention. We gleefully recount the stories of ‘his daughter’ and whathisname’s son. Of meetings in the park and in the parking during the meet. Of divorces that will happen and should happen and must happen and why. We all know exactly what the problem is in everybody’s family and exactly where they went wrong to place them in their current predicament.

The closed community we have, admirable as some of its advantages are, shares a fault with our educational system and chassidic underwear. It only comes in a medium. If you do not fit into the average measurements you are either painfully squeezed somewhere intimate or swimming around helplessly.

Our most efficient organ (or second most) is our rumour mill. Every day someone or other is taken under the loupe and painstakingly dissected. The laidigayers, with their superior knowledge of these things, will be intensely interrogated for all the sordid details of an alleged crime. The Frummers will then gleefully pass the information round, accompanying each titbit with the appropriate shake of the head to indicate it is purely for educational purposes that it is being discussed. The poor individual under discussion will never get the chance to make his or her case because the truth is irrelevant to the moral of the story. Another one bites the dust.

There is no appeal and no retrial. No mitigating circumstances and no temporary insanity. No name has ever been removed from the list of offenders. Because these cautionary tales were never officially told, they can never be retracted. This, in a kehilla called Chassidim, based on a concept designed to allow that simple souls become closer to God.

So when you gossipers gather round the coffee dispensers in shul to tell those who have no internet access that ‘der Shaigetz hot gequoted a gallech’ remember this one from him too, "Only a kind person is able to judge another justly and to make allowances for his weaknesses. A kind eye, while recognizing defects, sees beyond them."