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.