Monday, December 11, 2006

My Clothes and I

Writing this blog has made feel much more comfortable in my skin as a Chassid. It has helped clarify to me what is positive within and about our community and lifestyle, at the same time as making me realise that I need not always feel responsible for the collective. Just as they should not for me.

Through the discussions I have had with some powerful people, strangely prepared, even eager, to reason with The Shaigetz, I have learned to temper some criticisms which were based on faulty assumptions. That they treat my alter ego as an equal despite resolutely ignoring me, tells me to stop seeing myself thorough the other’s perspective and get on with my own life. To one brought up in the understanding that everything the individual does reflects upon 'the community' and God, and under the menacing shadow of Chillul-Hashem (desecration of His name), and the causing of any negative portrayal of Him or them, this was a big lesson.

Today I can prepare to for an important meeting without checking in the mirror to see if my peyos aren't showing from behind my ears, where I carefully used to tuck them away, almost invisibly, when I wanted to make a good impression. I also no longer worry about where I will leave my hat when I go somewhere where no Chassid has ever trodden. I bear it with me, only respectfully removing it when I enter a room.

Despite looking more the Chassid than ever, I no longer avoid contact with my fellow man and even fraternise with the locals shamelessly. I have discovered that most are, at best, mildly intrigued by the reason for my ‘funny’ attire while many of the rest are convinced that the Chassidic garb is our equivalent of the Catholic vestments. Very few realise that somebody like me was never given the choice to wear anything else and could only do so by tearing himself away completely from family and friends. Nor could they possibly imagine how embarrassing it is, how uncomfortable it feels, to have someone look at you and smile to themself when you are wearing funny clothes you don’t want to be seen wearing at all.

Once past the initial surprise, I find most British people to be remarkably apathetic about my appearance and if I have found people disturbed by it, it was either Muslims who use us as easy targets for venting their hatred of Israel and the Israelites, or fellow Jews embarrassed by my ‘spectacle’.

So when I strolled through my supermarket pushing my trolley I was relaxed and enjoying myself. Before me, blocking the gangway, was a store packer pushing a pallet of goods on a forklift. I was in no special hurry so I waited a few minutes until she had ended. After she had turned the corner and cleared the path I moved forward pushing aside a wooden pallet that had been left lying, so my wagon could pass. The employee who was now returning to collect the pallet started hurling personal insults at me adding that I, one of ‘those what does’nt has to work’ had disturbed her in doing hers. It seems from her ranting that ‘they’ do that.

I must admit to being more disturbed than I would have expected. After all I was no stranger to such incidences in my youth and to be honest it is only in the recent few years that we have come to expect it in a different accent only.

I have no doubt that if I call the store I will learn that she had had a hard day and was going through a difficult period. I will be assured that the company takes such incidences very seriously (it will be made clear that this applies not only for anti-Semitism but for racism of any sort – just in case we get cocky about our special privileges) and that the culprit will be duly disciplined. I will furthermore be urged to remember that the manager of the branch has always had a very good relationship with my people. That the list of kosher products on offer has indeed been steadily rising in recent years testifies to the value they place on that custom.

I didn’t contact the management. Not because, from long experience, I already know the contents of that letter but because of the reactions of the people around me when it happened. I was shocked that nobody reacted as an employee shouted remarks denigrating an entire community at a customer, regardless of whether or not he had disturbed her work. I was more shocked that some other customers banded around her as I wandered off, listening to her story and agreeing with her, unified in their condemnation. But for the first time in a long time I realised that my dress really does set me apart. Not because it actually disturbs anyone but because it is so easy to identify the culprit when one party looks different. And the saddest truth of all is, I am not sure I would be any different.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Society Of Members

Few of my Chassidic friends approve when I am seen socializing with friends who are not religious. The goyim I am seen with pose fewer problems because the possibility of considering one a friend is so remote to a Chassidic Hiller. Eric is a very non-observant Jew. A highly extrovert and deliberately provocative man, he is the one that challenged me most on my journey to here. More than the philosophers and the Rabbis, the societies of thinkers and the earnest helpers, he is the one who asked the awkward questions that I always avoided asking myself. Would you? Why wouldn’t you? Do you? How do you know you do? Strangely enough his skepticism has reinforced my beliefs more than much earnest discourse.

His lifestyle was much more shocking to me than I ever admitted. I have had my morals doing flip-flops in their bathrobes as I, for instance, debated behind a fascinated gaze whether to soon to say ‘bon appetite’ to a yid I was watching frying his treife quail thighs in butter? I have learned along the way that there are rules that have to be adhered to in society and when religion is taken out of the equation what we are left with is respect. I do not have to approve of what he eats and I may believe he will suffer eternal damnation for doing it but I do not actively stop him from doing as he pleases. That is his right I have to respect just as he must understand that I won’t taste. I further believe that once my disapproval has been noted it is neither polite nor helpful to keep mentioning it again.

So when he dropped into my kitchen on barbecue-night with a bundle wrapped in newspaper I was faintly amused and expected some large salmon he would propose we bung on the barbeque or a dead snake for me to use as a doorstop. Instead the damp paper proved to contain a raspy mound of fresh whelks. Eric knows I don’t eat seafood and a colony of live sea snails in my kitchen really was not welcome. Of course I enjoy a joke as much as the next man and I am well aware that my irreligious friends do eat all the creepy crawlies they can lay their hands on. But I have to draw the line somewhere and with fruits-de-mer in my sink you needed a binoculars to look back for it, despite assurances as to how delicious they taste in garlic butter and his gleeful anticipation of what some of the more religious guests might say when they were produced.

To be fair, as soon as he realised that I really was bothered by his gastropod snack surprise he beat a hasty retreat with them and apologised profusely. After my wife had stopped hyperventilating (and poured a few gallons of bleach down the plughole) normality returned and this little episode was duly forgotten until this week’s hullabaloo in Jerusalem with the Pride Parade reminded me of it. I was trying to explain to a colleague that although I do believe the act is a sin, I am not anti-gay. Still, I do not feel that a Pride Parade should be held in Jerusalem. As I had said to Eric, “What you do in your own space is your business but it is disrespectful to me when you wave your perwinkle around in my kitchen.”

I have never quite figured out why a group of people who complain they are discriminated against find it helpful in gaining respect to flaunt their sexuality around in public. Indeed if the gay community wanted to prove they are just another part of society they would do better to march neatly attired through the town and let everybody see how normal they are. Instead they prance along semi-naked, flashing references to every kind of depravity they can think of in a demonstration that tries to force their hedonistic lifestyle down the throats of everybody watching, only to go all bitchy when the Rabbis don’t get aroused. Or are they hoping that seeing them semi-naked all oiled up in black leather thongs we will be reminded of our tefillin and take a sudden liking to them?

The Pride Parade is not about gaining acceptance for homosexuals to live their lives as they see fit. It is a celebration of homosexuality and as such its place is not in Jerusalem. The promoters would know that if they weren’t so intent on becoming identified with their organs. Indeed I suppose they can hardly disagree with me when I suggest that instead of getting themselves accepted as members of society they have turned themselves into a society of members; what you’d call in simpler English a bunch of pricks!

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Package Deal

The sukkah is intended to remind us of when we were taken out of Egypt. The children of Israel were grandiosely rescued from a despotic, tyrannical Pharaoh who had greedily enslaved them for generations before finally, in fits of paranoid fear, murdering all their male offspring. Chased by the Pahaoh's troops they were led triumphantly from the country through a path in a sea miraculously split before them. Once they had passed, the waters tumbled back in over the Egyptian army, eliminating it in its entirety in one glorious, fell swoop. The soldier's spoils, financed entirely by the labours of those they had been chasing, moreover, did not sink into the deep with them but were washed up on the shores for the refugees to gather.

To celebrate these awe-inspiring miracles we gather once a year in a temporary structure, symbolic of the supernatural protection and care we received then and over the years following that awesome rescue and a testament to the pillars of cloud and fire that surrounded the Israelites as they trod the desert toward their Promised Land. That the Israelites, even despite these obvious displays of raw, divine might, hardly behaved like the best of Catholics and His eternal patience with them, must be an integral part of that story.

There is nothing glorious about the sukkahs I saw this year on the Hill and nothing that even remotely evokes the dazzling magnificence of that divine deliverance. A ‘temporary structure’ as basically defined by the law has ‘to have three or more walls and get protective shading from an unconverted vegetable source. We have laws stating how high or law the walls must be but only the roof of the structure has to be temporary. A kosher sukkah must be under the open sky and then be covered by raw vegetable matter.

Like much in our society, Sukkot has become an occasion that has little to do with its original purpose. Proud sukkah owners today proudly show off how discreetly their sukkah blends in to the house as their comfortably centrally heated and air-conditioned sukkah-cum-morning room’s glass dome slides noiselessly away to reveal the open sky masked by the commercially available, perfectly stitched bamboo mat that once a year is rolled over the waiting beams to fulfil the letter, if not the spirit, of the laws.

In a grotesque parade of bad taste, most sukkot are furthermore decorated with gaudy and tacky christmas decorations, from paper apples, shiny stars and baubles to paper chains, tinsel and flashing fairy lights. Like the society around us, we seem to be intent on proving that we too can sell the soul of our traditions to Hong Kong.

The Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur period is designed to be a time for stocktaking, learning the lessons from the year past and accepting resolutions for the one upcoming. Over Sukkot we are reminded that though we can be a stiff-necked people God still loves us and He is capable of protecting us from any threat. We learn that although we as a people can be prone to bouts of self-assured rightness these can also be suspect. We learn that we have a tendency to be argumentative and sometimes just plain obnoxious and that we have to learn to fight these urges. In short we have to remember that being religious is about more than the external trappings.

When the length of someone’s beard or his wife’s skirt becomes more important than his piety or deeds, when the shape of a Chassid's hat becomes more important than his upbringing and knowledge, when in shul you can be witness to infantile jealous bickering for the privilege of shushing people during the davening and those whose job it is to represent us seem to be more intent on furthering their own agenda, when eating kosher becomes about whose supervision you support rather than what's inside the package (or should be) one starts to wonder how much more of our religion has become just a tackily decorated temporary structure.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Stand Up or Shut Up

Heaven, the saying goes, helps the man who helps himself. The Yiddish equivalent translates as ‘Blessed are the hands that do it alone’. Despite the giggles I could raise just by pausing for a moment here with the appropriate expression on my face, I do accept the validity of the sentiment expressed.

In Yeshiva one of the things that was drummed into us was the issue of Emuna and Bitochon. Literally translated the first is faith and the latter trust and that is how they are used in our school of thought. We are taught that it is incumbent upon us to believe He makes everything happen according to a very tightly controlled plan in which every single thought, every single heartbeat from the king’s down to that of the louse on his head is divinely controlled and meshes into its very specific place in the universal tapestry. The obvious question that arises as to how free will can exist within a framework of preordination is generally considered to be out of bounds for our puny little brains. Likewise, how it is possible that anything has been around forever?

Naturally these are questions you cannot shake off once they have arisen. My Rebbes were not prepared to discuss them with me; telling me instead that I am a Shaigetz for thinking about them. I did of course and in developing my own answers to the theological dilemmas I also came to the realisation that I am proud to be a Shaigetz.

The question of divine intervention and how it works is not only an abstract one. There are two well-documented schools of thought within Judaism, the one Chassidim subscribe to maintains that even inanimates have their lifespan and every movement within it planned from the outset and the other believes that the laws of nature are only interfered with for humans who deserve it. Neither gives very clear instructions on how to decide when it is acceptable to sit back and let Him be in control and when it is necessary to make an effort yourself although all agree that sometimes one must.

Chassidim take Emuna to stand for unwavering faith in the Lord and the knowledge that He is in control over everything. Bitachon is translated into the assurance that ultimately whatever happens to you is for the good. If you have enough Emuna and Bitachon life can only be plain sailing. The alarming rise of social anti-Semitism in Britain, the tough economic situation of the illiterate school-leavers, the growing worldwide threat of Muslim terrorism and Great Britain’s increasing kowtowing to a growingly sophisticated Muslim PR machine that must be gleefully penning Tony Blair’s name to a growing list of European leaders they have helped topple, all this does not keep you awake at night if you have enough faith in He who sees the big picture.

I once asked my mentor whether having Emuna and Bitachon allows me to sit back and observe life. More specifically whether a sum of money I had lying around should be invested for the future or could be used to make my life more comfortable now. I feared that investing in the future displayed a lack of faith in His ability to supply me with all I need at any given time. His reply was that I can only sit doing nothing allowing God to run my life if I honestly and truly rely on Him alone. To use the cyclists Prayer formula and ask for help only when the hill is steep while relying on gravity to take me back down does not go down well in the heavenly applications department apparently.

Many Chassidim might therefore be forgiven for watching passively from the sidelines as what I believe is a growing threat to our security and wellbeing on this continent develops. They have their Emuna and Bitachon that will get them through with smiling faces to whatever awaits them and thus need and ask for nobody’s help. Those however who have built their entire Jewish identity, not to mention their positions of importance and comfort in this land on the promise of ‘never again’ will probably be punished for lying as well as their lack of Emuna not to mention Bitachon.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


My people are at war with an enemy who proudly boasts of killing civilians yet screams blue murder when the innocent Lebanese civilians they cowardly hide behind are, tragically, caught in the retaliatory fire. An enemy whose brave heroes shamelessly cheer on the street, fire weapons in the air and gleefully share out sweets when our babies are butchered. An enemy whose barbaric civilians dance for the local TV cameras holding aloft the limbs of our fallen. I do not therefore think now is the time for me to lob my peculiar brand of critique at the petty foibles of my own community. Instead I will take a departure from form and direct my ire at my other family and the democratic society that claims to represent my interests because I am part of it.

It was Israel’s best friend, the USA, along with best friend Britain that pressured her, against her much better judgement, to allow Hamas, who they themselves branded a terrorist group, to run in the Palestinian democratic election. Once the people had spoken and the duly elected government of our partners-in-peace had shown its true face (albeit behind a balaclava mask) our good friends suddenly recalled pressing engagements elsewhere and we were left to deal with repressing the rewards for our disengagement, alone.

In Lebanon the democratic parliament, enjoying the full support of all Israel’s best friends in red white and blue, has a minister and almost a third of its body coming from Hezbolla, for whom (Jewish) infanticide is part of the manifesto. Just so as to keep this farce fresh and exciting Israel is urged by the colourful black and white coalition of the Talking Heads Club to spare this ‘legitimate’ government, even as it may (grudgingly) wage a defensive war on its proxy who enjoys full control over Lebanon's border with the only real democracy in that part of the world.

Democracy, the doctrine that claims to allow the masses to determine the general direction of their governance, has replaced religion for many as the panacea for all the world’s ills. A peek at the Middle East today should be enough to shake even the dimmest of brains out of that reverie. Maybe an intrinsically good people would automatically fare better under democratic rule than the yoke of selfish and cruel opportunists but a democratic election alone will not serve to turn swordsmen into ploughhands. Clearly not all peoples are ready for rule by whatever majority, as much of the population in Gaza would admit if they dared.

Democracy, like socialism and theocracy, is an ideal that only works if those wielding it are responsible and worthy. A group of bloodthirsty savages, believers in the Ashariyya doctrine - that because all that happens is caused by God anyway it is legitimate to kill innocents, will not suddenly turn into cuddly lambs just because they were empowered through a ballot box. To think they might is as naïve as to believe that the US and its cohorts have suddenly seen the justness of Israel’s cause.

The sad truth is that the democratic experiment in the Middle East has failed miserably. The undemocratic governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are unusually mute in their criticism of Israel’s legitimate self defence this time because they themselves fear the democratic ambitions of these Islamist groups. Parties that have the support of the streets in their countries. Meanwhile the true democracies of the US and the UK, whose own forces are now within plucking distance of these same terrorists, are cynically pleased to have Israel act as their virtual warning bell.

Still, I am a Jew and I was taught that God rebuked the Israelites for celebrating when the Egyptians, who had enslaved and massacred them for centuries, were drowned in the Red Sea. I therefore feel the pain of the innocent in Lebanon, now cowering in their shattered cities praying that the next explosion does not finally, if accidentally, put them out of their misery. This despite the arguments I hear from those in my community who correctly remind me Hezbolla is an integral part of their freely and democratically elected government and it is only right that the entire people should enjoy the fruits of their chosen leaders' purposeful actions against their equally innocent neighbours across the border.

Democracy does not work any more than socialism or theocracy did. Thirty years of Israeli experience in the hallowed halls of the that uber-democracy the UN and hundreds of blatantly biased resolutions against her, can testify to that. So sometimes it is necessary for the David to resort to force to dictate justice and if the oppressed in other places learn from that to rise up against their repressors... we will just have to put it down as collateral damage.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Another Chip In The Wall

II must admit to being disappointed when Roger Waters, waxer lyrical in masterpieces of the rock symphony like The Wall, and the exquisite sarcasm in Amused to Death, whipped out his paint canister and celebrated his historic visit to Israel’s Separation Wall by spraying on in bright red capital letters the legend: WE DON’T NEED NO THOUGHT CONTROL.

We all know he can do better than that. Quoting the lines of one of his only songs recognisable to the great unwashed diluted the occasion and did much more to reclaim authorship to the lyrics than anything to influence (without control) the minds of all those who admire him so. With all the subtlety of an elephant with a sprained ankle he makes a crude associational reference to tearing down a walls by shrieking a criticism of postwar educational methods on the very wall portrayed as blocking children’s access to their school.

He did gain my avid approval though for his answer to the Press when asked whether that was his message to the Israeli people. (The reporter obviously had gotten that elusive message.) “No, Of course not.” He simply explained to the camera. “It’s got nothing to do with them. It’s a message to the Israeli government.”

Not many care enough to bother to make that distinction and I am glad but not surprised he did. It is a sad truth though that rock and film stars have more influence on the public than any leaders do and sadder still that most have hardly an opinion worth sharing between them. Without minimising the wonderful examples stars like Geldof, Bono and indeed Waters do set, they are in such a pitifully small minority that I think they must be what they are in spite of their fame not because of it.

It would be nice if I could go on and remind everyone how at least our Chassidic youth can look to their spiritual guides and teachers for instruction but that is unfortunately not true. Instead I believe most of us are still looking for their spiritual guides and teachers. Which is why Mobile phones are not allowed but everybody has them, the Internet is banned and Hyde Park’s Charedi Forums are the busiest in Israel. Our leaders, the cream of our society and the infallible who uniquely can transmit the word of God, find themselves stuck in the traffic behind the great technology juggernaught that is redefining our lives far quicker than they seem to be able to react and divine has become an adjective to describe that latest mobile phone.

For our leadership and community ever to amount to anything they are going to have to become relevant and learn to act instead of reacting. Learn to actually keep a finger on the pulse of both the Shtetl and the street. To stick their stiff necks out and earn their stripes, not to mention their keep. Because for the moment, in the stride between technology and Torah, the chip is in the lead, unlike within the leadership where it sits firmly on the shoulder.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Left, Right, Wrong

Comedian Jackie Mason once said he has no problem laughing at Jews to either a Jewish or a gentile audience . It is the mixed ones that are problematic because the Gentiles are uncomfortable sitting next to Jews while laughing at them. I feel a similar constraint in my colleagues at work when the Arab Israeli conflict comes up. An uncomfortable silence usually ensues when I drop in on such a discussion. I therefore tend to keep my opinions largely to myself on this issue, at work at least.

The recent demise of the Satmar Rebbe and a newspaper article about it in which the Satmar viewpoint was described as anti-Zionist caught the eye of a co-worker of mine who had the bright idea of producing the clipping during a lunch break. She unfolded it with a shy flourish and proceeded to explain that she wished to publicly apologise for supposing that all Jews were Zionists.

Caught unawares and unprepared I had no ready answer and explained simply that Satmar’s is just one of the myriad positions that Jews hold and reminded everyone of the age old saying ‘Two Jews, three opinions’. Everyone dutifully smiled and returned to their spam and sports pages. The episode got me thinking however. On the one hand I am an avid proponent of clearly making the distinction between being Israeli and being Jewish. In that respect I believe Satmar has got it right. On the other hand I am squeamish about getting into bed with a group that is happy to curry favour at the expense of their own brethren.

The Satmar viewpoint, developed by the first Rebbe and uncle to the one that just recently passed away, was uncompromisingly anti-Zionist. He was a pragmatist however and it has been suggested by many that his message was designed to temper the euphoria within the decimated religious community that the birth of the State and the emergence of a Nation of Jews created at the time. To him and his Eastern European colleagues it was obvious that Zionism and religious Judaism did not mix, this despite the fact that a few of them were personally saved from the Nazis by the Zionist organisations active at the time. His message that the Zionist State was no God given birthright was accepted by the mainstream in ultra-O-Jism until fairly recently. It is the media and their insistence that religious settlers and Chassidim are the same, that taught younger Chassidim to identify with the State. Made it for us more than a Jew- (but not always charedi) friendly place that has falafel balls on sale everywhere and Hebrew writing - for us previously reserved for school, synagogue or dreary kosher shops - on provocative billboards and vending machines too.

Still today the concept of the powerful vanquishing Jewish soldier is an image that many Charedim identify with uneasily. The twisted blend of religious fanaticism and right-wing extremism the media paints us with is in fact no more accurate than that which the rabidly anti-Israeli and pro-palestinian Neturei Karta, often misrepresented as Satmar, tries to portray. Indeed it is only the repulsiveness of NK’s uncle-tomesque parades of blind pro-Arabism that stops me agreeing with their posters proclaiming ‘Zionism is not Judaism’. It is the images like those on worldwide TV of their heroes in shining bekishes and shabby shtreimels wearing Kaffiyes like bastardised prayer-shawls while praying for the good health of the dying Yassir Arafat that prove to me they are no more honest to true Judaism than those that proclaim the greatness of Israel from behind the barbed wire of their fortified camps where once stood a proud Palestinian’s olive grove and livelihood.

The religious Zionist settler movement espoused the belief that the land was returned to the children of Israel by God. That was the justification in their eyes for the moral wrongs that were committed, for the hardships that the locals had to endure to make way for their rebuilding of the Land of Israel. Whenever a twinge of conscience did break through there was always the steadfast security argument to paper over the gaps. And to be fair the Palestinians have done their best throughout the last decades since the creation of the State to justify these arguments. Indeed I am probably not the only one who for whom it is more the need for us to stop occupying them that needles my conscience than their need for independence.

True Religious Zionism died the day the Israel disengaged from Gaza. On that day it became clear that what the Satmar and the thinking Haredim (ultra-orthodox) had been saying from the sound ‘go’ was true. The current State of Israel is not the historic redemption we have spent two thousand years praying for. “If Jesus was the Messiah we should be living in a messianic time.” we used to glibly point out to the Christians. It is by the same token that I refuse to accept that widespread poverty, strife and discrimination coupled with a dehumanizing occupation and perpetual bloodshed are our national destiny. God, when He allowed Sharon to return Gaza to the Palestinians, was officially informing His people that the State of Israel is not The Promised Land although it certainly is on it. It therefore becomes a political entity conceived by the League of Nations and one that needs the legitimacy of the family of nations to hope to survive. This brings the real Charedi viewpoint more in line with the extreme-left in Israel and firmly back towards Satmar.

Where I have to disagree with Satmar is with their insistence on delegitimising the State altogether by insisting it is a sin to vote or take active interest in the politics of the land. Jews living in a sovereign country should be entitled to participate in the running of it, just as Satmar so blatantly and shoddily tries to in New York. The sordid money-politics of the orthodox political parties in Israel and their blatant flirtation with the right-wing might be justifiable for them, as the legitimate struggle of a minority living in a country, to create a better life for themselves. The fact that it creates the illusion abroad that all religious Jews are right-wing fanatics is unfortunate but our fault not theirs.

Yet I am glad I did not say all this to my masticating colleagues. A friend of mine told his granddad that the goyim hate us because of what happens in Israel. The old man who had spent time in Bergen Belsen shook his head. “Forty years ago when I came to this country the yobs on the street used to shout out to me that I should go back to Palestine. Now they shout we should get out of Palestine. Nothing changes.”

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Feh Tish

There is no word for Fetishism in the Yiddish we Chassidim use. The Yiddish of Sholom Aleichem and Singer might, nay must have had a word for it but it does not seem to have survived the move to America and Western Europe and in our climate of puritan coyness there is no need to create one. Not really surprising then that there is no word for lipstick or bra either. These are all concepts or objects that young men will never come across in their lessons in school or their study afterwards and the newspapers cannot use them anyway so there is no need for a word.

I did need it though this week when my toddler brought home a picture book from cheder. The book is a poorly executed knock-off of the picture comic book format that was popular for a while. An excruciatingly staged family home is pictured with a smarmily smiling pigtailed (not to mention faced) infant girl solemnly announcing in a stilted Yiddish that she is doing a mitzvah by helping her mummy as she clumsily holds a too large and brand-new broom in an artfully contrived tableau of Chassidic domestic bliss.

Less than inspired design coupled with poorly conceived visuals is not the exclusive domain of our community to be fair. Hello magazine is printed every week. Yet, still this still life is so eerily true to life of so many Chassidic homes that I had to comment on it. The table is laid for the Shabbes meal. The inevitable blindingly white tablecloth covers a large table which dominaties the room. The heavy formal carved and upholstered chairs look like something stolen from a French museum and the table groans with ostentatious silverware and a garish dinner service that would look comfortably at home at a Liberace concert.

The tablecloth is covered with the de rigueur transparent, disposable, plastic cover that most frum dining tables feature. The room in this picture takes the absurdity of covering tasteful fabric with disgusting plastic to new heights. Here the brocade chairs too have tailored see-through plastic coverings, turning an expensive if flamboyant piece of furniture into a farcical monstrosity of slippery PVC. On the table itself an embroidered velvet Challa cover is contained within another plastic casing. Over in the background and under a mediocre picture that looks suspiciously like a framed 3000 piece jigsaw puzzle the padded sofa too has been given the same treatment.

In the commenting on my last piece one commenter noted that the danger of blogs like mine is that they establish norms that eventually influence the reader subconsciously to take on their point of view (though he did not put it quite like that). I must admit that I take his point on the mechanism although not that it is a problem. The passion for plastic is universal to Chassidim. The front cover of the Hella Winston’s remarkably perceptive and charming book The Unchosen features a Chassid on the front cover typically carrying his possessions, not in sports bag or a suitcase but in a black plastic refuse bag - a peculiarity nobody who has ever travelled with Chassidim could have failed to notice.

The passion for plastic coverings on all and sundry that can be touched in the home is thus far, thankfully, still unique to the United States where the picture comes from. Their regrettable penchant for eating on disposable tableware has already taken the pleasure out of most parties and simchas in Stamford Hill not to mention far too many family meals, as the steadily rising sales of these disgusting articles on the Hill can testify. I can only hope our children are not detrimentally influenced by these squalid examples of the American Chassidic home pride too.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Unreasonabled Out

I was not a model child. My parents claim that of all my siblings I was the one that caused the most trouble. My father used to pull the ends of his long grey beard forward and examine them minutely as I watched. Unspoken condemnation of the errant son who had caused the pigmentation to abandon his follicles and leave him middle-aged. It was years before I discovered that greying is genetic and even longer before I came to terms with the fact that my life’s choices were not really his business and that it was unfair and cruel of him to suggest otherwise.

It is not as if I spent my evenings joyriding in stolen cars
and mugging elderly ladies for their loose change and Polo mints. My misdemeanors were more of the nature of forgoing to learn a few mishnas by heart for the Annual Siyum, going out in the afternoon with no hat on or, horror of horrors, watching some TV at my great-aunt’s house.

I could cope with the mute rebuke and the silent reproach. What angered me and still gets my goat even today were the discussions about me I could overhear as my parents had their last coffee before turning in at night. From downstairs I could hear my mother voicing her concerns about what would become of me and how my sorry behaviour would adversely affect the futures of the rest of the family. She would make it sound like my leaving the house to go shopping hatless was a deliberate act of defiance designed to sabotage any chance of my brothers and sisters ever making a decent match.

Upstairs I was exploding in anger at the injustice of her remarks. How did she know what I was doing and thinking? Why did she not ask me why I did whatever it was? My father would murmur his running agreement and only interrupt her little monologue every few minutes to reinforce one of her rabid remarks with a juicy observation of his own. “It is our fault. We are too soft on him. That is the trouble. What he really needs is two gitte petch (Hard slaps).”

This mounting frustration and the helplessness that so infuriated me then sometimes comes back to me as I listen in on conversations in Shul. The intolerance and even prejudice that I come across is in essence no more widespread or pervasive than that which I encounter in other communities I socialise with. It is the utter self-righteousness and ignorant assurance that makes it so annoying. Like the cretin at my table who knows for a fact Goyim don’t have a family life and therefore they cannot appreciate what we go through bringing up ours. That babies can’t get infected from a Bris even if the mohel does not take all the necessary precautions because it’s a Mitzva and that the lack of basic hygiene in the mikve is still no more likely to spread disease than the swimming pool where people with aids are having sex all the time.

Bigotism, prejudice and idiocy are not exclusive to Chassidism. We have our fair share of raving lunatics too but probably no more than that. That they sometimes manage to be promoted to exalted positions in the community is just another sign that we, who do know the difference between opinions and facts, should be standing up and making our voices heard. Even if it won’t make any difference to those chattering in the kitchen, it might calm down the boiling anger in those who find themselves trapped within. Listening on in justified horror but not daring to make a sound. Those who might already be anticipating letting the fat lady sing for them instead.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Call Me Cassandra

Last week an elderly Jewish man was pulled over by the police in New York. I am not entirely clear exactly what happened but it seems clear he had committed some minor misdemeanor. Enraged Chassidim claim he is deaf and could not follow police instructions so the police beat him before arresting him. More reliable sources are less dramatic and say he might have been treated a little forcefully as he was cuffed and led to the patrol car after belligerently refusing to hand over his papers. I know very few actual details and those come from notoriously biased and unreliable sources so I am not going to offer my opinion on the rights or wrongs of the police action.

What followed however was a scandalously irresponsible riot by the Torah warriors of Borough Park. Fires were lit on the streets and police cars were attacked. At least one police car is said to have had a Molotov cocktail thrown through its window. It took riot police hours to quiet the streets according to press reports. Local Chassidim while worried about the Chillul Hashem (desecration of His name) the riot caused are adamant that the police had it coming to them because of their aggressive enforcement of traffic laws in their area.

Last week a twenty-year-old ultra-orthodox man admitted his three-month old baby boy to hospital with internal bleeding in the head and bite marks on the neck. The baby subsequently died and the father has been charged with manslaughter after allegedly admitting beating it. Apparently the infant, who the father suspected was malformed, had not allowed him to sleep and had had his head bashed against a wall. Again I do not know any facts other than those the media is releasing and thus I have no opinion on the rights or wrongs of the case. Not surprisingly though, the Rabbinate in Jerusalem do know for certain he is completely innocent and have threatened riots if he is not released immediately. The police have taken the threat seriously and are bracing to contain them.

I know the Rabbi of Jerusalem and he is a well-meaning man. That however does not excuse such abhorrent naïveté. It is unpardonable that a community should try and use its brute force to squash vital investigations into reprehensible crimes. I believe most just people would agree to be locked up for a few days, even when innocent, if that would help keep actual child killers behind bars.

To offer a blanket amnesty to anyone wearing the garb is racist for implying that non-frum people kill babies and Chassidim don’t. Worse than that it is shortsighted because it is very likely that the father will eventually be found to be guilty and we will have shot ourselves in the leg again. It also proves that, on our list of priorities, protecting the good name of the community comes before protection of the members of the community and that is even worse.

On the other hand the very language of riot and Molotov cocktails used to be alien to the Chassidic movement and it is worrying that in the space of a week it has flared up in two completely isolated incidents. The causes are different it is true. The debacle in Jerusalem is a testament to our system of appointing leaders on the basis of their scholarly achievements while little to no attention is given to their actual leadership qualities and sound judgment. It is patently obvious that both are sadly lacking in this case.

The American riots stem more from a lack of any sort of leadership and are for me far more worrying. There is no doubt in my mind that a generation of Chassidim is growing up and learning to flex its muscles. It is a tight-knit and homogenous group with a very fast if less than reliable grapevine. The youth feels alienated from a society that thinks the official Jewish groups who claim to speak for all Jewry represent them too, while their real voices are in reality seldom even noticed. Needless to say it would be wise to bend an ear.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Oh My Goy

The word goy, in our community, has none of the connotations some of my readers suppose it to have. For the native Yiddish speakers on our Hill the word masks none of the hidden longing and jealous admiration that the secular Jews are accused of. The definition of goy, for us, is non-Jewish. The definition of Jewish is less simply defined on the other hand. Far too many Hillers define Jewish as anybody with a level of judaic religious observance above whatever standard they arbitrarily decide, but that is another matter.

Goy means gentile like boy means male human child. So when someone says to you “Listen here boy,” it means, listen to me male infant. If you happen to be overweight, fifty-seven years old, black and lesbian you might take umbrage but that does not make boy a rude word.

When a Chassidic property dealer with a messy beard and an accent thicker than his waist says, “My goy vill deal viz it.” with utter finality he is not denigrating his ‘man’ rather he is asserting his manhood. His ‘having manhood’ that is. You see everybody on the Hill can deal a few properties here and there but it is having your own goy that really makes you the man. ‘I’ll tell my goy to take care of it’ is a sentence you practice before the mirror before skipping to brush your teeth.

Each industry has it own set of goyim. When I was younger each of the property-dealing families used to have an Irish man. A Paddy or an O’Riley they could call upon any time of the night or day to deal with whatever needed to be dealt with, from a dripping tap in a bathroom, to a front room to chassidified with three fluorescent tubes or a grandmother that has to be picked up from the airport. It was an Afro-Caribbean in the eighties and Columbian in the nineties. Today it is most often a Polish guy with lots of drive, a big toolbox (with tools in) and the mistaken idea that hitching his star to a Jew will shoot him off into the stratosphere- moneywise.

The car salesmen all have a mechanic they like to call My Goy and even my washing machine repairman proudly proclaims his goy’s virtues above rubies. These batmen are invariably very well treated by their Chassidic benefactors who are more often than not completely baffled by the mentality of the gentiles they are dealing with. It is these goyim whose task it is to serve as interpreter and cultural attaché, translating English for their bosses and their bosses to the English. They understand fully well that while their bosses might dress like the Jewish version of a priest that is a sartorial mirage and in fact, behind the exotic exterior often lies a Londoner (pun intended). Forewarned and forearmed by the information provided by his goy the Chassidic businessmen’s associates can come to table with no unreasonable expectations and thus can business commence.

Come Pesach, the Rabbis too have to produce their very own uncircumcised member. Like the businessmen whose lives they covet all year and who lead and advise them in all matters, when it comes to Pesach each Rabbi worth his salt has to have his own goy. Originally the idea of selling Chametz (leavened foods forbidden over Passover) was instituted to allow businesses, that would suffer financial hardship if they had to liquidate all their stock every year, to circumvent this law. The ceremony involves a symbolic selling of the goods, which are stored in a carefully marked place, to a certified goy for the duration of the week after which the goods are returned to their original owners automatically.

Today in our ever growing frummity we all dutifully traipse down to our local Rav and sell him a whole pile of stuff that is not chometz anyway, like headache pills and washing-up liquid, but which we earnestly put aside as questionable because they don’t have the kosher stamp. The Rav does so out of genuine concern and also because each of us leaves him a generous gratuity. The Rabbi then performs the same transaction with the goy in a ceremony I am dying to see; Especially the part where the Rabbi verifies the credentials of the goy.

Happily, the goy is an awfully understanding and generous chap so he does not mind at all that half the town borrows from his stuff without asking, like when suddenly someone falls ill and remembers the Aspirin are in his box. As I said we might look like Rabbis but that is a deception and far from being goy haters, this particular Yomtov we positively love ‘em.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Protocols of the Meeting

I am sure many of my reader have suspected for a while that there is more to this blog than meets the eye. That there is a calculated mission hidden inside the innocuous ramblings of "an anonymous, thirty-something Stamford Hiller claiming to be a Chassid and regularly churning out his personal take on whatever he likes." That it has become so widely read despite the many who do not like positions taken serves only to reinforce that suspicion.

My use of the word elders to describe my leaders should have been a clue and They are right that it was careless of me but, as we have been taught all the time, most people are like sheep and created to have wool over their eyes. Did nobody ever wonder how comes a blog from nowhere gets so many visitors? Did they not wonder how comes someone sitting on the Hill and spouting what he sees for the entire world to see, has managed to stay anonymous? Did nobody notice that all those displaying too much interest were eliminated?

On the other hand the Elders are losing Their touch too. As a group who have managed to remain hidden for so long despite Their manifesto having been published over a hundred years ago and still available on sale in the few countries where Their control is not yet absolute, They were surprisingly negligent in allowing me to have this amount exposure without a minder. Did They not suspect that I would squeal if they tried to clip my wings?

It is not only my carelessness They are unhappy with either. It seems I have overstepped the line too. I have been using sarcasm, my Board of Control unanimously agreed, and that is against the rules. They make a valid point. It is difficult to pin down exactly what is being said in satire and the Elders, like most of our Rabbis, don’t really go for the whole humour thing. The position I was supposed to hold on the cartoons for instance was one of moral outrage followed by smug self-righteousness. When I asked for practical guidance I was told to watch the Board of Deputies and how they handled the Ken Livingstone story.

In truth I had been watching that and the Prince Harry one. I had questioned to myself whether it really was in our best interest to react like stuck pigs whenever anyone mentions the holocaust and our constituents don’t get a cashback. I had been asking myself for while if my mission of bringing the Hillers firmly into the hold of the Elders, like all the other Jews of Britain, was as good a deed as I had been led to believe. I had also, as the Control Board speaker pointed out, mocked the appointed religious leader’s style and that when They had worked so hard to get one of Their choosing after the previous one had turned out to have something of a mind of his own. The Michael Howard remark I was duly absolved of after I pointed out that I wasn’t to know he was Theirs.

But it was exactly the Red Ken story that caused me to rebel. I cannot for the life of me see why it is in the Elder’s interest to antagonize the man for a silly remark he made that is not even offensive. I pointed out to the Board that with the growing antisemtism in London (the Elders had promised it would be eliminated worldwide by 1950 - antisemitsm not London), not to mention the regrettable incident in France They forgot to promote in this country till a week after the event, it might be wise to at least attack him for his views we actually oppose rather than this pathetic media circus act. After all he is known to be a fair man alongside his odious anti-Israelism. They reminded me that I had been developed to write their opinions not to develop my own. They further reminded me that criticizing Them was forbidden and I was lucky not be severely disciplined.

I was ordered to stop writing but I shall continue as independent and if I am doomed I am doomed. By doing so I will prove that the Elders are not as powerful as some people think. Of course I will take extra precautions and if anybody pricks me with an umbrella I will have it checked immediately but I doubt They will feel forced to eliminate me. Most people will put this down as some Purim joke after all. Isn’t it wonderful to be Jewish?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

I Wore New

This has been niggling in the back of my mind for a while already and I have alluded to the thought before here. Aren't we Jews just too nice to be taken seriously? The Muslims stridently screech for what they want, as unreasonable as it might look. By none too subtly, regularly reminding us of what they are prepared to do if they don’t get their way, they are shamelessly pandered to by, frankly, everybody with a healthy respect for their own hide, not least Jack Straw.

We Chassidim do not follow the Olympics closely. Most, I dare say, are not aware the winter games are in full swing. Certainly there is little enthusiasm for the Hellenistic ideal. There is indeed little trace of the Adonis in the fellow who shared the showers with me this weekend in my local mikve. As he massaged soap over his generous limbs he wondered aloud to the equally gross Neanderthal studiously shampooing his forehairs in the next shower what the point of the Olympic games is. There was a kind of triumphant superiority to his repeated mantra; “What difference does it make to mankind that some skier from Austria can go faster than anybody else down a mountain?”

“Yes. Does he deliver emergency medicines at the bottom of a mountain?” That spark from chimp number two proved he had understood the profundity of the argument.

It was a scrawny little Gollum who earned my respect though. He had been washing himself quietly and doing his best to melt into the background as some people do when those with more lung than processing power take the floor. I couldn’t help noticing wryly that only in a Chassidic mikve could a forty year old man wash his hair with Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and leave with his manhood intact.

“It is not about winning” he said and I smugly awaited the old canard about taking part. “It’s about losing.” He had everyone’s attention.
“Think about it. Let’s say each sport has a hundred competitors and you have fifty sports, that means by the end of the games you have fifty winners and four-thousand-nine-hundred-and-fifty losers. And look how well behaved and civilized that whole thing is.”

I think even the moulting bears understood. As I looked at that man his gnome’s forehead had turned into the dome of a learned man and his nondescript face had taken on the allure of a diminutive scholar.

There is, it is true, a certain dignity to being sporting and I do not feel our situation is dire enough here to warrant actively promoting a more active and forceful method of getting noticed. I am however worriedly watching the situation in Israel now with the new Hamas government being sworn in. Regardless of my positions on specific governments or policies in Israel I will not be able stand by and be silent as I see governments, who refuse to deal with terrorist organisations in their own countries, open negotiations with and support for a group who openly refers to the Protocols in its constitution.

In sport there is indeed dignity in losing but in war dignity is in victory or death in its pursuit.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Drawing Muhammad Out

I have a dream. Not quite a nightmare but still one that wakes me and leaves a feeling of angst and unease behind it. I am in a situation of potential danger. Say I’m in the path of a car and unable to move or something like that. The situation is dangerous but not intrinsically critical. As soon as someone sees me a simple action will remove the danger but suddenly I find I have lost my voice. I scream but no sound comes out. My rage and frustration come not from the idea of dying, I think I could cope with that but from the bitterness at being let down by a simple primal act like screaming.

The Internet has made it possible for the quiet voice from the back of the hall to become audible to anybody interested enough to go listening for it. People of a similar mind will soon pick up on it while those who disagree will soon pick on it and before you know it another voice has entered the fray. So where is the Muslim Shaigetz? Where is The Haramzada asking his community where the hell they think they are going with this cartoon business? Is there no dissenting voice, even anonymously? Are red beards better than black and white ones at keeping their subjects in check?

I don’t believe most orthodox Muslims or Jews really understand the concept of freedom of expression and speech at all. The idea you can hate what another says but defend to the death their right to say it does not exist in either of our cultures. There is no doubt in my mind that this crisis (even before it was hijacked by those diligently waiting in the wings for such an opportunity) has little to do with the actual cartoons just as I know that many normal and law-abiding Muslims are genuinely offended by them and that that does not change anything.

It is quite obvious if you hear the Islamic demonstrators speak that they have no idea how unreasonable their arguments come across to a western audience. “One and a half billion Muslims are offended because we do not allow pictures of the prophets already hundreds of years!” is the standard rationale or “How would you like to see baby Jesus with a bomb in his loincloth?” Then there are the others who come back with “Look how offended you are when we make a cartoon of Hitler in bed with Anna Frank.” If our society has not been able to bring home to these people why these arguments are correct but not valid for burnt out buildings and dead bodies then I personally think we should be out there braying for the head of the education minister on a plate.

Our lack of understanding is very possibly part of the reason we are unable to deal with their frustration. I notice that on the talk shows and other places where Muslims are represented the established media tends to choose the unthreatening and ‘normal’ looking spokespeople to represent the Muslim view. As an orthodox Jew I know how ridiculous it must look to the religious Muslim to see a bareheaded, comely woman and a suited, shaved and comfortably sanitised kufr sitting in a studio explaining that the radicals don’t represent the true Islam. So the atheist in a crumpled grey suit, a crew cut and glasses represents Islam by dint of being Arab and having stopped practicing? Gimmeabreak!

It reminds me of how laughable it is to us when our Chief Rabbi in his western suit and carefully nurtured Episcopal appearance goes on the record saying what an inspiration John Lennon was to us all. Not particularly offensive to me personally, I happen to like Lennon, but for many Chassidim “Imagine there’s no heaven …and no religion too” seem to have been far too much of an inspiration to him. So our comfortably assimilated landsmen smile and nod their heads appreciatively of how cultured and normal all we Jews are while my community looks on in bewilderment.

I remember too having my teeth set on edge by President G. W. lecturing the Muslims after 9/11 as to what real Islam is about. With his especially stern but earnest face carefully practiced he patronisingly explained that the fundamentalists do not represent Islam. Who was he trying to convince? Them? Are we westerners so arrogant that we don’t see how ridiculous it looks to a scholar who has been studying his religion for fifteen solid years to have an ex-oil executive who runs a ranch tell him what the nature of Islam is?

To be really honest we should admit that there is no logic to religion, much as the western kufr wishes to convince us there is. To a believer in the absolute truth of his cause the values of free speech and pluralism are pure rubbish and we might as well admit that. Two and two are four and I don’t accommodate the opinion of those who think it might be 177. If there is one God and He said, “See there should be no graven images of me” then what the Danish minister of culture thinks is largely irrelevant and the west would do well to understand that. The only question is how the believer should juggle his conviction with the threat of the legal system’s.

Until the understanding of our western values system and its inherent advantages develops within their community, and it will because it is in human nature to want to be free, western governments should take into account that it is impossible to force-teach abstract concepts and should stick to firm and fair enforcement of the law. Peaceful demonstration is legal so it has to be allowed but calls for violence should be dealt with harshly and decisively. Freedom of speech is not just designed to allow bloggers to cock their hoops at their establishment; it is a cornerstone of the western civilisation that has never before been questioned in the UK in two centuries. I, for one, do not want to go back to thought control under the Imams, the Rabbis, the Archbishop or the Prime Minister and I am utterly convinced Haramzada does not either.

Meanwhile the Danes have promised to print cartoons of the Holocaust that the Iranians are promoting in retaliation. While it kowtows to terrorist pressure it does also fall under the category of freedom of expression and in my opinion prostitutes have to agree to serve any client who wants to come (or doesn’t) and screaming can be part of the show.

And just for the record I personally find four of the cartoons absolutely hilarious.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pavlov’s smile

My hands are freezing in the biting cold and the wind blows sharply and painfully against my ears, so ridiculously exposed beneath my big black hat. My obligatory navy-blue suit trousers do not offer half the protection of thick denim or corduroy so my legs beg for some added padding while my torso, under an overcoat, a long jacket, tsitsit (a fringed woollen shawl worn under the garments), a shirt and a cotton t-shirt vest, simmers gently. A group of my friends, all dressed identically, are walking a little ahead and I watch as they walk four abreast, laughingly oblivious to the other users on the street.

I observe a young lady out walking her dog step off the pavement into the road, all too aware of the startled jumps and scared avoidment she can expect if she tries to pass the group. She is wearing sneakers and pants and a simple winter jacket and she does not look at all cold. My friends say pork keeps you warmer than beef does. I wonder to myself whether they can pick out the vegetarians from the crowd by their shivering but do not bother to make the point. I acknowledge her as she rejoins the footpath and passes me. I smile to her. She looks surprised. She self-consciously shakes the lead of her dog and walks on looking back at least once I suspect although I do not check.

A tall Pole, new to the country judging by his typical haircut and brandless sneakers, warm as toast in his down-filled jacket and long woollen scarf, edges slightly away so as not to pass me too closely. His head and eyes, however, follow the orbit of our arc, watching me as we pass. I wonder to myself what would happen if I were to smile to him but do not bother as his eyes are by now fixed firmly on the retreating figure behind me. Maybe he thinks she is looking back at him?

A young couple walk past holding hands and laughing. I know them. I see him every morning rushing to catch the bus as I make my way to shul. He works for London Transport he told me and she is a trainee nurse. This morning they are walking unhurriedly together as if on cloud nine, completely impervious to the sub-zero temperatures. I smile to them and they smile back.

His nose is reddened by the cold and his big black hat sits high on top of his head leaving his ears exposed to the elements. He rubs them every two minutes in a futile attempt to warm them. I have often wondered why the Jews on the Hill wear their distinctive clothes as if the function of identification with the group were more important than protection from the elements. His long overcoat and dark pants and shoes actually look right for the time of the year if not the century.

He is walking behind a group of Chassidim who only acknowledge my existence to ensure that Rover does not come close to them. Do they really think I live with a vicious canine threat in the house? I have tried to explain so many times that he won’t hurt them, to no avail. I step off the pavement as I pass them neither expecting nor receiving thanks. He is dawdling slightly behind the other group and leers at me as we pass. I ignore him and continue.

I do sense someone staring at me as I walk on and I am sure he is turning back. Did Rover frighten him? He did not seem scared. Maybe he was interested in me or he wanted something. I turn back and catch the eye of a tall blonde hunk. He smiles to me and I smile back. It feels like a good day. Then a mixed-race teenage couple stroll into view and block him out. Damn them.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Bless His Ass

My youngest brother was born when I was about eight. In a time when mothers were still held in hospital for about a week after they gave birth and a gentleman of the cloth visited every second day. When nurses still called my mother Madam and my father was firmly invited to a compulsory chat with the family-planning advisor. I remember my parents finding that discussion a source of enormous mirth although my own experiences did not cause me to agree that children are the kind of blessing where quantity always counts more than quality and that only a typically delusional goy from a typically dysfunctional family could ever think otherwise. Indeed, if they had invited the blessings already produced by the union instead of my father, my youngest few siblings would most likely not be facing any of their current difficulties (or much else for that matter).

In a large ward, in the next bed to my mother, lay a black woman who had just suffered a miscarriage. Her husband, a big gentle Jamaican of the finest kind was considerately rubbing her back, holding her hand and comforting her in ways I had never seen my parents connect. My surreptitious but enthralled staring must have caught his attention because he interrupted his petting session to call me over and offer me a sweet. My father, ever alert when the possibility of straying arose, hastily jumped up to tell the man I didn’t want what he knew to be a non-kosher candy. The point of coyly hiding the fact that I would not eat it because it was not kosher I still do not know, especially since my peyos and enormous kappel made it quite plain anyway. My children proudly explain they only eat kosher and do not seem to suffer unduly for it.

The man beamingly welcomed us both and in his wonderful islands singsong asked me if I know my Bible. My father’s self-satisfied smile precluded me voicing my well-earned hesitations.

“So tell me dis, boy. Who kill a lion widde jawbone of an ass?”
He could have been speaking Island Arawak for all I understood. I stared at him blankly.
“Go on boy, you tell me. Who was it kill a lion widde jawbone of ass?”
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation ended although I do know that I had the urge to go to the nearest empty bed, climb in and pull the covers over my head.

What stops this story being my party piece is the sobering knowledge that even if I had been able to decipher his question I would have been unable to answer because I no idea what he was on about. In the school I went to and in the family I lived, the Bible was no story. It was most certainly not read for enjoyment. Moreover the story of the Bible is not told in narrative form except to toddlers. Certainly any tales with Dalilahs in are resolutely squashed; as incidentally are any references to pregnancy and intimacy of any sort.

I won’t forget the day a boy in my class asked the Rebbe why we only have to perform a bris on boys and not on girls. This was no call for FGC, rather a proof of biological naïveté. The Rebbe struggled to imply something that would not count as him teaching the boy shmutz but would still serve to jog his memory. He could not because the kid was obviously obviously genitally clueless. The reasonable thing to do would have been for the Rebbe to tell him to wait after the lesson and have a couple of quiet words, but perish the thought. The entire class was a titter and I have no doubt the place behind the toilets in the playground was busy the next playtime.

I know there were boys in my class to whom learning and being good came naturally. For them it was a pleasure to know at what age Yocheved begat Miram and how many times the word 'if' occurs in any given parsha. They were proud to be able to inform Daddy, over the Shabbat dinner table, how the Abrahamic bris was the catalyst for all the holy abstinence of future generations. The fact they had no idea what they were spouting deterred them not an iota. Me? I was staring out of the window dreaming of belonging to a religion where guys killed lions widde jawbone of an ass.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Epicurious

I do sometimes enjoy the holiday season. I find myself swept along by the, acknowledgedly phoney but still comforting, piped cheer that I, as one unfettered by the present-buying mania, can uniquely and wholeheartedly enjoy. Still every now and then I am rudely reminded that, as within our little bubbleworld, I am sometimes more like a tourist than a citizen in this temporarily cheerful landscape.

We orthodox Jews do not celebrate start of the new year in January. There are those that claim that we don’t really celebrate anything at all, in the sense that our friends and neighbours from outside the community do. I think even the most fervent chassid will agree that, spirituality aside, our festivals are marginally less colourful and miles less fun than the secular variety. Although it is true, spirits, albeit of vastly differing sorts, do feature highly in both universes. The other thing the two holidays have in common, in our consumer societies at least, is the obsession with food. Indeed for the New Years lunch I attended with my goyish colleagues I had the specially briefed chef prepare, under the beady eye of a highly unsanitary looking mashgiach (kosher supervisor), the very same festive salad my wife served with the meat on our New Years eve:

In a dry pan over a low flame toast a big handful of pine nuts, shaking continually until they are evenly and lightly browned then stand them aside to cool. Add some light frying oil to the pan and fry off some cubed crusts of bread or challah to get some really crispy croutons. Leave aside to cool as well. Next, deseed half of a large and very red pomegranate into a salad bowl filled with baby spinach leaves - well washed and shaken dry. In a vinaigrette shaker or small container with a lid pour 5 tablespoons each of light cider vinegar and sunflower oil, 1 tablespoon of runny honey, a pinch of mustard powder and some roughly ground black pepper then shake hard. Mix together the croutons, nuts and salad. Pour the vinaigrette over just before serving and you have my wife’s perfect Rosh Hashana salad.

Almost perfect I should say. My younger boy refused to eat any of it because his well-meaning teacher had taught him that if he ate vinegar at all, from Rosh Hashana until after Yom Kippur, he would have a sour year. Cretin! Although I might be tempting fate here, I do have to point out that I did eat it then and it does not seem to have had any adverse effect on my year, although a purist might argue that this might have been the year my star finally shot out into orbit had I only declined those greens. Indeed it would not be the first time my religion crashed with my career and the fact I have managed to carve myself a niche and earn my way only serves to make me wonder sometimes, as I lie in my single bed at night, what I might have become had I gone to university at sixteen as I wanted, instead of the Yeshiva I passionately disliked but my father chose for me.

The mashgiach, sporting his festive melancholy, came over to me as I ate. He must have seen in me a kindred spirit and having finished preparing for me an utterly unappetizing looking plate of cold-cuts he had come to see how his raison d’etre there that night was doing. My company took one look at him and hastily vacated the area leaving me to finish my salad in the company of a fellow heeb.
"Is that all you are eating?" He leered at my plate through smudged spectacles.
"Yes," I replied stoically and prepared to explain why. He did not wait.
"Can I have your meat then?"
"Yes," I replied, "why not? You’ve already got my goat."