Sunday, February 13, 2005

Tops and Tales

Motty had his first sexual experience at the age of nine. A boy from a higher class took him on the back of his bike to a secluded spot where he proceeded to “show him the ropes.” By Motty’s account he actually only showed him one rope because, as Motty declares in a delicious mix of metaphors “I refused to play ball.”

This was recounted to me by Motty (not his real name of course) in a mail following a post I wrote a while back. Other members of his class, all currently approaching middle age, confirm that this was by no means an isolated incident. To be perfectly frank, my own experiences would certainly support that. The fact that it happened comes therefore as no surprise to me. What does surprise me is the fact that so many years later he still feels the need to insist that he did not willingly participate.

In the course of writing this piece I spoke to almost a dozen Chassidic men who all claim to have been victims in their very early teens. One had a teacher who forced himself upon him and another had ongoing relationships with some young newlyweds since the age of thirteen. All were initially unwilling to discuss details and all once they started could not tell me enough. I am not prepared to publish all the actual events that occurred. In a small incestuous community like ours it would not take long before victims were identified and that is not my purpose. What I do want to talk about is the worrying lack of awareness within our community.

The first thing that struck me was that most had not seen themselves as victims at all. They spoke of guilt and remorse or else they regarded it as an unfortunate result of childish immaturity. At the time I spoke to them not one was concerned that the perpetrator, mostly adults at the time of their crime, had re-offended or would. Furthermore, while a third of the incidents I heard happened in or around the mikve, only one of the fathers had insisted on having his own sons supervised when going. Not one of them was angry.

I vividly remember going to my Rosh Yeshiva (principle) when I was around sixteen to discuss with him a problem I was having with someone who was too attentive and who seemed to be always accidentally brushing against my nether regions. It is not an easy discussion to have with anybody. With a perpetually angry white-bearded maniac who considers you a pain in a similar area it is even harder. He masterfully got rid of my embarrassment by suggesting that I should explore within myself what I was doing wrong to encourage such behaviour. The anger at that injustice was probably one of the triggers that made me leave the Yeshiva and the community for a long while.

I have never regained my faith in the learning-class. It is this lack of sensitivity to anything but what says in the Heilige Torah that causes me to question the validity of not only their teaching but even their piety. When Rabbis cover for child molesters, because they don’t want to cause a Chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), they are committing the ultimate injustice and the ultimate Chillul Hashem.

In all fairness it has to be said that they do not realise they are useless. In a system where Rabbanim are appointed by other Rabbanim, where there is no test for competence and no lessons in practice, it is hardly surprising that we are blessed with Rabbis who cannot speak in public and cannot stop speaking in private. Rabbis who were appointed for their political affiliation (or lack of one) rather than their prowess in rabbinity and who are far more interested in ensuring our teachers do not get the wrong training than in ensuring our kids do not.

Child molestation is not a problem unique to little boys or our community. The fact it occurs should not be cause for embarrassment; it happens everywhere. We should be hanging our heads in shame however for so adamantly refusing to deal with the perpetrators or the victims.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Shiva in My Bones

I remember a cartoon I once saw of a posh French restaurant. The Maitre d’ was saying to a haughty waiter, on his way to serve a family that had obviously saved-up to come there, “Give them a couple of tries at pronouncing it and then tell them it’s not on today.”

You are not supposed to enjoy a shiva.
At least as a visitor you shouldn’t. I don’t remember having sat it myself so I cannot say this for certain but I have a suspicion that some families are only waiting for all us spot-grievers to go, before lolling back to gleefully relive in minute detail each and every uncomfortable moment they watched us endure. I am nothing if not a learner though and, as I have no choice but to attend my share of these flaggellatory-bonding sessions, I have developed a system of watching the other visitors and entertaining myself.

Frum shivas can be excruciatingly funny. Just as most people have a special low and grave voice they use for their doctor, even if they are only discussing a mole on their arm, most people seem to think shivas are the intensive-care unit or the library. As they enter the hall and pass the first shrouded mirror you notice them begin a Pink-Panther-like tiptoe routine. This exaggerated quietness remains on for the duration of the visit and manifests itself in a thousand shifting chairs and cleared throats. In fact a casual passer-by could often be forgiven for thinking he was looking at a doctor’s waiting room.

The guests can be split into two groups: the pushers and the flitters. The pushers scan the room and immediately identify the line of vision of the most important sitters. That is where they will soon be seated, sagely commiserating with the bereaved repeatedly as each painful detail of the deceased’s final hours is expertly extracted and dissected like a nerve during a root canal treatment. In fact the gleam in my dentist’s eye, while sadistic enough, pales into insignificance next to the relish some of these professional shiva visitors have to conceal. Meanwhile the nebbechs (nerds) look for a place on the periphery which they will try to flit into and blend into the surroundings. I have never figured out why the hell these people bother to come if they don’t consider themselves close enough to the bereaved to want to catch their eye.

The halacha suggests that it is the bereaved who have to start the conversation. It will often happen that a mourner is lost in his thoughts, or has a catch in his throat and does not want to talk. We are supposed to respect that. For some busybodies however this is easier said than done. They are the ones who, having bagged that prime seat in centre stage will, after a minute of silence at most, start hunching their backs and sighing meaningfully, all the time staring the bereaved straight in the eye as if daring him not to say something.

Shivas are designed to allow the mourners to grieve in peace and get the pain out of their system. Not everybody is lucky enough to have one. It is very much in the fashion among my parents’ generation to decide their own parents are not strong enough to handle the news that their loved one has died. It is part of this delicious importance when you can tell all your friends not to talk about it too much “because Mummy does not know yet. We don’t think it is good for her.” It is strange that children who have spent the first fifty years arguing that they are big enough to lead their own lives without their parents’ interference, will jump up to take control of their parents’ lives the moment they are no longer strong enough to fend these meddlers off.

The tactless buffoon, who fervently assures the bereft husband that soon he will find someone new and forget her, is another pitfall the designers of the shiva experience could not factor in. I remember a shiva for a woman who had died from a haemorrhage after discharging herself from hospital following miscarriage. A woman sitting at her shiva was heard to pipe up, “I hate these balabustes who think they can take the whole world upon themselves.”

It is time we started using our brains to figure out the logic of those things we do. Shiva visits are not supposed to enhance the ego of some of these professional sympathisers, who make it their business to stand out at every popular shiva. Not the time for Rabbanim, whose only contact with their flock is when they block any projects that might improve our collective lot (but was not thought of by them), to prove they are involved by arriving in a flurry of activity and stealing the show from the family who just lost their breadwinner. It is the time when the closest friends of those who have suffered a loss come and share their grief with them, sometimes in silence and sometimes with a well-chosen word. And if both these concepts are alien to you, take my advice and join the flitters or take my example and don’t go.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Good Better Bestial

I remember the menu at my wedding was great. I don’t actually remember the menu; just that it was great, and I bet that is the best compliment you could give some ‘wedding planners’. I get sad when I think back to the times when I got married. When a mother was excited for half a year before her child got married, arguing with the caterer about how much paprika she would put in the goulash. When the Town Hall was decorated with flowers, and professional waiters had the glasses gleaming when the first well-dressed guest arrived. When going to a wedding was a treat and much looked-forward-to evening out.

The Chassidim have had their way with our weddings. We, the epitomes of monogamous faithfulness and the only group I know who truly still believe, as they get married, that it is for better or for worse, have certainly brought the latter to the fore for that night.

The last few weddings I went to have broken my heart. I am a true lover of good food. I hope my maker does not judge me too harshly for having chosen that, most earthly of his creations, to become so enamoured with, but I am hopelessly besotted. In a truly well made dish, where all the notes are balanced and texture and flavour are perfectly married, I see divinity. I see none of the above at the weddings I go to lately.

The young Chassidim, who call themselves caterers, are not themselves to blame. They are not the disease, just a symptom. We have become a society that does not appreciate excellence. As we teach our children it is ‘holy’ to eat fish with our hands, show them it is ‘ehrlich’ to have filthy tzitzis, as we teach them by rote to accept without question we also train them to scorn any knowledge that does not come from a handful of sources. It is possible this stems from a sort of warped asceticism but I do know scruffiness and nonchalance do nothing to enhance spirituality.

To see a grown man picking up a piece of overcooked fish in his fingers, dipping it into some mayonnaise then chrayne, then shoving it into his mouth while his other hand prepares the next, can be pretty sickening to the faint of heart. To learn he thinks he is doing it for God makes it all the worse. When waiters holding tureens full of Osem-flavoured dishwater, see the guests they should be serving, behaving like that, you can understand why they no longer bother to polish the glasses but do polish away your plate as soon as you turn your head.

I suppose at the end of the day it is the parents of a bride I should blame for greeting the guests coming for the dancing of the puffa-train, with a bare trestle table piled high with cardboard boxes containing the leftovers of the wedding reception. And if the caterer has so little breeding that he does not realise this look might be right for an avante-garde vernissage but is completely wrong for a wedding, at least we can comfort ourselves the stuff will be excruciatingly kosher. For me it is indicative of all that is wrong with our mindless upward thrusting. We have lost touch with our humanity and the truly spiritual, and the closer we come to perfecting this neo-betterness the more it becomes clear, to all but those already on four, that what we have really done is to get back in touch with the animal.