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.