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.