Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The World According to Carp

The morning dip in the mikve symbolises the washing away of impurities and a fresh start with a clean slate for the new day and although I have lapsed in the last few years and rarely still indulge, with the season of goodwill and cheer upon us and work on hold I thought what better time than now…

Like most mens mikves it is below ground and has a pretentious, six foot high turnstile gate to stop unwelcome guests from entering. I descend the stairs and the once familiar smell of shampoo, bleach and sweat assaults my nostrils. I take a neatly folded towel from the pile on a chair and push the changing room door open. I am hit by a blast of Vosene scented steam, the noise of running showers and the carefree chatter Chassidim only seem capable of in the mikve. My glasses cloud up immediately and I have to remove them to see where I am.

Astonishingly, nothing seems to have changed in the years since I last visited. The banal sickly green coloured floor to ceiling ceramic wall tiles that must have fallen off a local council building-site lorry, still lend an air of the public lavatory to the place. The rough wooden benches round the communal changing room and the metal hooks for the clothes above them are standard fixtures in every mikve. I used to be rather self conscious about this set up when I compared it to the luxury of the swimming baths where we all get our own cubicle. Seeing it now I realise it is no different to most sport club facilities I have visited. I smile to myself at one more indication we are not as different as we like to suppose.

The condensation was plainly not enough to cover my condescension and I am greeted with a gruff “Vus lachst di?” from a middle-aged heavyweight struggling to reach past his ample girth and pull his stretchy, off-white long-johns over his whiter shade of pale legs. “I am not laughing,” I reply as soon as I have collected myself but he is already busy untangling his trouser legs and ignores me.

I observe that the massive plastic bin for used towels is overflowing, evidence that a growing number of people take their ablutions here. With a dozen or more places like this in Stamford Hill alone, daily purity seems to be an in thing in chassidistan. I look around for a free spot to undress in and park myself next to a man I recognise. He considerately moves his shoes and clears a wider spot on the bench. He too can see I am no regular. As I fold my clothes and prepare my toiletries I listen to the men opposite discussing the new chastity laws.

I gather from their conversation that the Kedassia 9 have found a new way of marking their territory and are insisting that women buy only clothes that have been okayed by a group of checkers. I am encouraged to hear that the black-bearded guy with a very hairy chest and enormous pectorals does not like the idea of the hounds sniffing around his wife’s clothing and told his wife to ‘buy votever de hel she vonts’. Only one of the two others in the conversation thought maybe those exposed flesh seekers mean well, but even he did not sound too convinced.

As I head for the shower room armed only with a flannel and soap, Mr T. is expounding on how tzniusdik (chastely) yet beautifully his lovely wife dresses, to the delight of a young boy listening in with a voyeur’s intensity. The shower room contains five showers in a row, four of them in working order, making this one of the better maintained mikves in town. With the impressive row of shower gels and shampoos on display the old canard about Chassidim using only (kosher) margarine won’t wash anymore.

The hot water flows for about a minute each time you press the shower tap. With a good ten men in the room, each time a shower stops its inhabitant makes way for the next one to enter, in a bizarre sudsy musical showers. Our Chief Rabbi is getting a real washdown – That is a metaphor of course, I don’t mean the popular intellectual who wants to curb multiculturalism and has much to learn about the dignity of deference to traditional Torah values, but our own ineffectual scholarly leader who commands all the dignitaries who do defer, and is against any kinds of cultural awareness.

The issue is the latest fad for investment in Eastern European property. Apparently it has become popular in our circles to buy properties in these emerging economies, and a whole new class of bankrupts have lined the pockets of these emerging capitalists with the last of the savings of many a sorry opportunist. All the soapy limbed oracles are in agreement that for many of the uneducated newly weds we so avidly breed, such deals are their only chance of actually feeding their families.

A man with a face shaped like a ponderous fish with a very big mouth, sinewy thin limbs and a long pink loofah is adamant that the problem is that Chassidim do not want to work. If they did the goyim would employ them. "After all we are cleverer than them and better in every way."
"This is reeeely the truth." another one pipes up helpfully. Big mouth waves him dismissively down with his loofah.

“The real truth is we are too clever to work a whole day in an office for a measly paycheck. Ven you vont to live kosher you need real money and dis you don’t make by vorking vid your hands.” At this I notice a few irritated expressions from the other shower users and I realise that this orifice has spoken before.

The rabbi who had been studiously scrubbing himself departs hastily for the pool, and as that theme is further expounded and blame heaped upon the rabbinate, tzaddikate and sundry, I retire there too. The waters of the mikve itself are warm and murky and I'm grateful for the strong chlorine smell. Two more people are already relaxing in there and had obviously been listening to the speech from the showers. As the Rabbi ritually bobs under the water and comes up each five seconds gasping like a whale, a red bearded head observes that he was right to escape from there before someone asked him what he is doing to remedy the situation.

“Nothing, they do, except find new ways to make our life even more expensive. But it’s no use, nothing will change. Frummer and the Shaigetz have even given up complaining about it.” I leave the mikve into the freezing cold London morning knowing at least one of their problems can be remedied.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Falling Apples of My Eye

Children, even the best brought-up of all, like mine, have a nasty tendency to grow up. I should not have been surprised therefore when my son announced that he is considering going abroad to study next year. As the perspective merits of different yeshivas were bandied around and I glibly and lightly helped them weigh the merits of the brash but proud Jewishness of the American model against the arrogant but more spiritual intensity of the Jerusalem one, inside my heart sank down into my nether regions.

If there is one question that I have always avoided answering readers of this blog with any clarity it is about how I bring up my children, torn as I am between the intellectual freedom I have chosen and the closed insularity of the community I reside within.

The years I spent in yeshiva in Israel were among the most miserable of my life. Separated from my books, radio and indeed any contact with the outside world, I felt lost and trapped. The study of Talmud, although in fact difficult enough to be a satisfying challenge, was carried out under such duress and with such dogmatic simplicity that I spent every waking moment dreaming of what I would do when I was old enough to assert my independence and live in the way I saw fit.

The lack of physical comforts were easier to bear for one like me, brought up in the poverty inherent to families where learning is the only respected profession. As my father tarried in the evening with his true love in the hallowed halls of learning, we regularly sat alone to our meagre supper and my mother would remind us that to those who valued learning above those prized above rubies, greater rewards await in the kingdom come. That argument sometimes lacked conviction for me and I often swore to myself that my children would have a loving and warm family and as many creature comforts as I could possibly provide.

As soon as I was old enough to shake off the heavy hand of parental and rabbinical authority, I left, and celebrated my new-found freedom with gusto. The liberty to do as I pleased was a revelation, and I revelled in it. Yet the happiness and peace of mind I had envisaged and yearned for eluded me, and following each euphoric high I found myself tumbling into the inevitable and interminable nights of gnawing guilt, doubts, and the sure and certain knowledge that His vengeance would be visited upon me unless I repented and returned to the yiddishkeit I was brought up in.

I do not regret either the break with my past that forced me to examine and justify my lifestyle nor the decision to return and marry within the fold. The first, because I can today honestly say that any hardships I endure for my religion are of my own choosing, the latter, for the blessing of a perfect and loving soulmate and equally perfect children.

I know in my heart however, that although I have managed to subject my independence of spirit and effectively hide much of the rebellion that rules within my mind it is only because I went through all I did that I am able to thus straddle the fence. Those born outside our closed world and who chose to enter it, inevitably find themselves either unable to exercise their own freedom of thought or else unable to enjoy the serenity and utter conviction they so sought, and envy in the mindless sheep around them. It is for this reason that if I wish to offer my children a choice of membership or not they have to fully belong first.

And although I could sow the seeds of rebellion, and I dearly am tempted to with the more naturally rebellious of my offspring, I choose not to. Because revolution is painful and its outcome uncertain and the prospect of pain, and risks, should only be taken on by each individual for their self. Because we are all victims of circumstance, and I cannot force these upon them if I am not to be like my father, forcing my own choices upon my children.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Gospel According To Me

Once again Rosh Hashana aproaches. Once again I have to endure the familiar exhortations from the pulpit, for critical self-judgement. So once again I arise from my Shabbos afternoon nap, early, and off to listen to the yearly rant on how I should better myself.

I do not like listening to my Rabbi speak. Having gotten used to listening to speeches with a recognisable structure, a beginning a middle and an end, I find myself irritatedly editing what he is saying in my head, and deleting segments, at the same time as arguing with the points he is making. I wish I had a Rabbi who actually bothered enough to make it interesting for me and my kind.

Boredom begins to set in after a while and I start observing the shabby shul I daven in. Despite its recent makeover, it has the air of a dilapidated refugee camp. The walls are painted in the cheapest shade of brilliant white. The windows, curtainless and finger marked, have an opaque film on the inside, whether to stop people looking in or out I am never quite sure. Beyond them, metal grills protect us from the vandalism and terrorism we have been raised to expect.

The furniture, unlike in the formal churchstyle shuls, is light in colour and weight. The tables are Formica topped, metal framed and past their prime, The almost matching benches, with flip-up seats that can cause a painful pinch if a stray bit of flesh gets caught between them, are uncomfortable and remind me of those the litigants sit on while waiting to be called to the real bench. Up front the ambo faces the wall. Beneath four sorry looking candlesticks, the traditional Shivisi drawing, drawn by a 'local artist', and designed to inspire loftiness into him leading the prayer, has some of the naivete of Haitian art when observed from afar. Close up it is hideous! Another example of how, in our desire for insularity, we have deluded ourselves into ridiculous grandeur.

Happily, the room has nothing else that could be termed decoration, unless you count the various plaques at a million strategic spots commemorating all those acts of (often forced) kindness that made everything possible. Nothing that is, except for all the kinky, plastic covered velvetwork cloths on the bima (dais) and Amud (lectern). The plastic, of course only there to protect the exquisite needlework embroidery that commemorates yet another donation. The lighting, from bare flourescent tubes, is harsh and bright and a faint whiff of sweat and garlic bears testimony to the heavy, customary shabbos meal and many an afternoon nap.

The speech has come to the part where we all must remember to take a good look at how we behave. I wonder whether he does? I mean, I know he does look at how we behave. But does he look at how he does? Does he ever wonder if he might not be driving his big bus, with darkened windows and no stops, straight towards an abyss? Does he ever wonder whether his credentials as a Torah scholar qualify him to lead a generation of kids often dealing with challenges he cannot even fathom? Does he ever wonder whether he is preaching a gospel that cannot be for everyone?

Then again, do I? I too stand on on pulpit and rant but have I changed anything for the better? The obvious difference is that I have only a pulpit whereas the Rabbinic one stands for so much more. They claim to have the right to rule our lives, so they should have to prove they are doing it, well. If most people are happy and well adjusted. If the community is providing for itself, fiscally and emotionally, if the prospects are good and the future is looking rosy, then they obviously know what they are doing and we can all sleep tight. If not it might be time to look for a new bus driver in the new year.

Wishing all my fair readers a Shana Tova!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Studied Indifference

I haven't written anything on the blog for a few weeks and it is high time I did. I take an evening off to sit on a deckchair over the sea and decide what to say. As always, I have a list of the subjects that have caught my attention and could possibly be used. I scan it to see if anything has developed more body since being cryptically jotted down in my little notebook.

An article in the Jewish Chronicle recently, suggests that within a few years the majority of Jews in Britain will be Ultra Orthodox. Proof, yet again, that the most important and vibrant part of the Jewish community in the UK is systematically ignored by the bodies who claim to represent Judaism and Jews. Even more so by the government agencies who ought to be registering our needs and concerns, if only to avoid clashes down the line with a group of highly intelligent and motivated malcontents railing against a society they believe hates them.

People in the community I talk to about this don't seem to grasp my argument, that more people from within should be opening channels of communication with the UK leadership. We need our voice to be heard, and needs considered, unhampered by the opposing (if no less legitimate) desires and concerns of the culturally-Jewish network who see us as embarrassing, antiquated relics of the shtetl they are trying to escape from.

I have been accused of unfairly 'having it in' for the Board of Deputies, and it is true that our own Union of Orthodox Hebrews is often no more interested in being represented by them, than they are in doing it. The Jewry that dominated the United Synagogue, and is led by the honourable Chief Rabbi, has as its goal, to become an accepted and integral part of British society. They do their utmost to emphasise that 'normalcy'. We, consider ourselves a sub-culture and...
No good. I have been through all this before.

The tide is in and the beach is deserted. Down on the waterfront two young Chassidim in their flowing yellow tztitzis and city shoes are strolling along the shore and skimming stones across the water. Seeing them reminds me I had the germ of something profound to say about the new generation of proud peyos wearers. Nu? I was thinking about it yesterday over the barbecue? Oh yes, I suddenly remember. That young man I saw yesterday.

He was in a deckchair on the promenade, happily oiling his hairy torso. Then, he put on his Ray-Bans (why are the shgatzim and laidigayers so brand obsessive?) and carefully recurled his long peyos before reaching down under his chair, taking out a Woman's Own magazine and settling down to read. I was, funnily enough, quite proud that what I had predicted was coming to pass. That the Peyos and coat are becoming a uniform, worn as self-identification rather than necessarily for religious conviction, much like the Muslim headscarf.

Incidentally, the goyim I speak to have never been able to understand what I mean when I say that our youth does not perceive our distinctive attire as a cultural or religious statement. We are taught it is a religious requirement. There is no doubt in most chassisim's minds that they (we all, actually) will eventually be punished for violating the dress code.

That the poor young man has not yet developed beyond reading his wife's vapid lifestyle magazines, is the fault of the parents who never prepared him for life beyond yeshiva... bla bla bla.

...I had a nice sentence that came to me during the davening on shabbes;
“Bright young minds, honed to perfection on complicated logic and convoluted reasoning are shlepping boxes in supermarkets, driving school buses, or skirting that shady area between dealing in properties and dealing on properties.”
...Nice, but I have said this all before.

I could talk about the new Rap song that the kids are gleefully telling each other is 'pinkt vi Fifty Cents' . It comes off an album called Rap In Yiddish which is basically cover versions of popular pop songs to yiddish words. It has been banned by the Rabbis in Israel and so is selling like hot cakes in the underground there. It puts me in mind me of the book reviewer who wrote “This book is both original and good, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good.

You need to admire the balls of any bloke brave enough to sing a yiddish cover of Maddonna's La Isla Bonita. Unfortunately, that is about all one can admire him for. From an album called Rap In Yiddish I was hoping for some anger and derision. A little bit of attitude at least. Instead this is a shoddy collection of boring pastiches and self-righteous lyrics, clumsily latched onto popular elecronic karoake tracks with some 'yiddish verds' to make it haimish.

I have an idea. Maybe i could combine the music and the peyos? Emphasise how my reaction to each is the opposite of what one might expect. Start with the peyos story;

Once such a blatant display would irritate me, today I view it as a sign of progress. The radical Chassidic ethos of worldly disconnect and 'All work and we'll pray', slowly and inexorably being replaced by a proud, pragmatic and sustainable Torah im Derech Eretz approach. The rap, which I would be expected to embrace as a symbol of revolution, I see instead as yet another example of chassidic mediocrity hailed as a heroic just for being banned.

Possible titles? Banned Band and the Way of the Land - Hairspray and RapEmpty Vassals

I could use some of the Chronicle piece to flesh out the peyos part and there is a link someone posted in the last post to an
article about OJ's in London and their work ethic...
I still need to find some interesting high note to end on...

On second thoughts, I'm lazy, and there is nothing here really worth saying, so lets just leave it it at that. I'm off for a cold beer.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Yellow Brick Road

Car pooling might be gaining ground for the wider community, but for Chassidim, giving lifts is so widespread that I have seen people angry for being passed by drivers they barely know, who did not offer a ride. Rabbis and Tzaddikim (holymen) rarely drive cars in our community, nor can they afford their own driver. Thus it came about that, as a twelve year old boy returning home from a funeral in Enfield, I found myself crammed in the back of a Volvo with half the local rabbinate.

Being men who do not waste time, business was being discussed. A call had come through from Hackney council’s planning department seeking clarification for the Jewish God’s preference for yellow clay. It transpired that an application had been handed in for a private, Jewish girl’s school building, in yellow brick. The council had turned the application down because the rest of the street was entirely in red brick. The application was re-submitted with the explanation that it had to be yellow, for religious reasons.

To broad smiles and indulgent grunts, we then learned that a well known and heeled family had agreed to donate the building. This was not the first school they had built for the community, and the other was in yellow brick. Humbly wishing to maximise the bang for their cash, the benefactors insisted on matching facades. I don’t remember exactly what they discussed further but the structure stands there today, in all its jaundiced glory.

Ben Locker is a writer and blogger living in Stamford Hill. He, more recently, attended a meeting of the Hackney Planning Watch in Stamford Hill library. In discussion was the proposal by the council, due to the high concentration in Stamford hill of Orthodox Jews with large families, to allow certain home-extensions that would probably not pass muster in surrounding areas. He reports that many of the local residents are angered by the perception that the Chassidim are being given preferential treatment.

Some have more personal grievances, like the fact that the light to their property is being blocked by an enormous loft conversion or an 18 foot long kitchen extension that towers over their garden fence. To be fair, these are legitimate complaints and it is obviously up to the council to make the final decision, taking the interests of all parties and the wider community into account.

In his blog he writes: ‘… I was astonished by the argument one [orthodox] person put forward that Stamford Hill has a miniscule crime rate, thanks to the Orthodox Jewish community: even going so far as to say,“when did you last hear of someone mugged by an Orthodox Jew?”

I, sadly, am less astonished. I have been hearing that justification, in its various forms, since I was twelve. Our superior children do not take drugs, wear ripped jeans or sport nose piercings, therefore we should be allowed to …[fill in the blank].

The late Gerrer rebbe once advised one of his newly proselytised disciples to adopt the knickerbocker style of short trousers with long socks. The youngster expressed his doubts about his father allowing it and mentioned the biblical commandment to honour his parents. The Rebbe dismissed the argument, saying, “It is a Mitzva to honour him, not to give him what he thinks he wants.”

A Democratic society has no problem when those with a different set of priorities express their opinions. The shtetl mentality, that teaches being noticed is bad, is wrong. Not because we have inherent rightness on our side, as some of our fundamentalists will have us believe, but because diversity is enshrined in British law. Thus if a brand new home in which to propagate God’s word to the fairer sex is more important to you than the colour coordination of the street it stands upon, you may say so unabashedly. Why, if your house's style and its aesthetic value are less important to you than the number of rooms and its real value, you have the right to express that opinion - even to lobby to have the council approve your monstrous extensions. But it is deceitful, mean and immoral to deny the same right to those that disagree with you. Yes, even if that means you will be overruled.

Unless you are the late Gerrer Rebbe talking to a bochur, it is not enough to know you are fundamentally right, you also need to have the right to impose your will by whatever means necessary. For the rest of us, rights and rightness form a very slippery slope; if only because the Mullahs are of the same opinion and mindset and far more determined.

May I wish all my readers a good holiday and may I take the liberty of reminding all, as we sally forth for our annual exposure to the outside world, that the hardships we choose to suffer for our beliefs must not be passed on to those whose lot it is to cross our path.

Friday, June 01, 2007

British Jew Bugs

Although I do not have any official figures, it is common knowledge that the divorce rate in the Chassidic community is relatively low but rising slowly as individuals living in this country are exposed to more and more of the local colour and culture. A young Chassidic woman today is quite comfortable complaining to her Rav that her man does not give her enough attention or spend quality time with her and the family.

Twenty years ago she would have been laughed out of the Rabbi’s office. With an admonition on the way out, to stop reading the goyish literature that is introducing such notions, to one whose proudest achievement should be a row of smiling babies and crusty, golden-brown Challas every Friday.

Today she is more likely to be directed to one of the semi-official counsellors who will have had some rudimentary training in a sort of marriage guidance counselling, with an emphasis on avoiding divorce at all cost. I must admit to usually being quite dismissive of these do-gooders, generally proofs of the adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing, precisely because I don’t believe relationship counsellors should have their own agenda.

The overwhelming, pious drive
to avoid divorce at all cost, sometimes leads to counsellors actively assisting the stronger partner in cowing the weaker one. It is easy to fall into the trap of putting pressure on the party most likely to bend, rather than the one who has the most changing to do.

In a fair society the stronger protect the weak. To sacrifice the weak for the smooth running of the machine, is too horrible a notion to entertain, although we all know it happens.

Of course our Universities and College Union, the UCU, voted overwhelmingly in favour of seeking “a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli institutions”. They represent the students, the loony left, the ones who are going to right the world's wrongs – with, of course, special focus on those perpetrated by societies or groups perceived to be more consistently successful than their own.

What really bugs me is the muted reaction by everybody else. Is it just because we don’t blow up trains that nobody cares very much that blatant anti-Semitism has become the hallmark of the British left? Is it just because nobody is scared of us that nobody minds that British academia has been turned into a hostile environment for anyone Jewish? Not for being Jewish, of course. But, because as Jews, they represent the State of Israel.

In an ironic twist of fate the wandering people now carry a state as their cross as they traverse Europe.

I am a British Jew and I am not prepared to carry the torch for anyone. But neither am I prepared to use a different yardstick for my people than for anybody else. I therefore never ask brown people for their views on Africa, slant-eyed ones about Tiananmen Square or short, fat, white ones with loud shirts their position on the war in Iraq. I likewise do not wish to express my views on the occupation except to declare, that if I were to feel under siege, unwelcome and unwanted in the UK, I could hardly be blamed if I recalled the justifications for fighting occupation, I heard on the BBC.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mendy in Ich

Just before Yomtov I got my hands onto a DVD of a film called Mendy; the story of the eponymous Chassidic orphan who is caught messing with a girl in the community and is thrown out. He moves in with a friend, Yanky, who had left years before and is now a tattooed, occasional tefillin wearing, whoring, drug pusher. The film follows Mendy through the first few weeks of his life with Yanky and his attractive, black, Brazilian roommate, and watches him painfully adjust to a world where morals and ethics must be decided for one’s self and where solutions as well as love can be just as hard to find as within the gefilte-fish cradle.

The film is surprisingly authentic. It is let down, for me, only by the appallingly poorly articulated Yiddish, which half the film is spoken in. For me it would have been far more genuine, not to mention comfortable to watch, had it been played entirely in English, with the classic yiddishisms left in. To me, a native speaker, the stilted Yiddish was a major irritation although those relying on the subtitling might see in it a charm of its own.

With at least one Satmar dropout on the credits the film is sometimes refreshingly and hauntingly real. When Shabbes arrives a group of ex-orthos, some bare-headed and holding cigarettes and others still wearing the traditional garb, pool together the kugel, gefilte fish and cholent they received from their families - ever hopeful of their return – then join hands to lustily welcome the Shabbes Queen, in song, to their mixed and half drunk gathering. So eerily authentic that it brought a lump to my throat.

I cannot recommend this charming film to the religiously faint of heart. There is occasional nudity and Yanky puts his tefillin on his shikse while making love to her as he whispers the brocho (blessing) into her ear, in a shockingly provocative scene that left even me unsure if I could continue to watch. I sincerely hope they were props and not the real thing! Still, I do believe that the film does tell the story rather well from the point of view of the tortured soul who leaves, and anybody who has dealings with youngsters who have left, or might, can learn much from seeing it.

For me it awakened memories that had been pushed back into the far recesses of my skeleton cabinet. In the years since I took a conscious decision to return to the fold and traded in my rebellion and individuality for a Solzhenitsyn style compromise, I have slowly grown accustomed to the comfort and security that being a paid up member affords. This film jolted me back to the time when I would have given anything ‘just to be accepted for what I am’.

Now, sitting in shul on Yomtov, I look around me at what I traded that in for. I observe the man across the table, his eyes tightly shut in concentration, his roughly woven, yellowing tallis pulled tightly round his torso and head. In his loud raspy voice the, essentially upbeat, Hallel texts he moans sound more like an audition for King Lear.

The teenager next to him is also chanting lustily, anticipating the Chazzan (cantor) in a reedy solo. Unmarried, he cannot cover his face with the Tallis so he self-consciously looks around every few minutes to see if anyone is watching him. Every so often, when his neighbour’s cacophony becomes too loud, he stops his lone performance to glare balefully at the shrouded figure’s formless back and then resolutely returns to his singular devotion. I wonder to myself whether he considers the fact that they are both ostensibly talking to the same being and if so why he thinks his own libretto is more worthy than his neighbour’s? Maybe he is really just having his personal cantorial rehearsal interrupted by the git, and the issue is more about personal space than religious fervour?

The congregation is settling down now, each having finished gurgling, whispering, singing, shouting, moaning, snarling or, like me, grudgingly and mechanically reciting the passage of Hallel. Next the Chazzan will try to wow us with his pretentious operatic variation on the traditional holiday melody. My mind drifts nostalgically back to a time years ago when I too could sway in delicious ecstasy to these primeval texts even as Supertramp’s Breakfast in America blared in the background of the squat we were hanging out in.

Although my reasons for choosing a lifestyle markedly different from the one I was brought up in, are ideological, they were not the ones that made me leave nor what brought me back, on my own terms, a couple of years later. Unlike Mendy and Yanky it was not lust and sex that drove me into the arms of the Shgatzim; only too happy to hurt my family by encouraging me. Consciously, it was my love of music and, subliminally I now believe, the search for unconditional love that were stronger than the threat of eternal damnation.

In the Shaigetz milieu I experienced genuine love. Not necessarily of a physical kind but the love that arises out of the bond between people sharing pain, adversity and the hope for a better future. A future I could not then envisage as it now is but which I would not today trade in for the happy-go-lucky existence the others in our group still alive today determinedly cling to. But I was privileged and lucky. Not everybody is, as the film Mendy eloquently shows.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

We didn't Fight the Liars

This should be read with the original by Billy Joel keeping the rythm true.

Occupation, He hurt me,
Reasons of security,
Disengagement, Disappointment,
Dis is unity.

Kosher meat, Mobile phones,
Hats, snoods and no-fly zones,
Knickerbockers, White sockers,
Frummers follow me.

Chassidic Tish, Funny food,
Beisdin with the fangs removed,
Contraception, contradiction,
Twice a week is still a lot.

The Tzaddik’s son, The other one,
Courts deciding which one won,
The Besht is dead, The Rebbe’s not,
How much longer have we got?

We didn’t fight the liars
We saw them praise each other
As they destroyed our brothers

We didn’t fight the liars
as the fat cats bought them
We just helped support them

Na nach nachman nuts,
Separate seating on the bus
Chauvinism, Feminism,
Cheque Agunot cry.

Denier numbers, Thigh high seams,
Pederast protection schemes,
Orange ribbons, Gay parades,
Good boys don’t ask why.

Sadya Grama’s Romemut,
Slifkin’s book is staying put.
Artscroll, Steinzalz,
Kahati’s work in Russia banned

Viznitz, Satmar, Bobov twice,
Holy city, Rabbi Veiss,
Shtreimels with kaffiyeh shawls,
Carers of our promised land.

We didn’t fight the liars
We saw them praise each other
As they destroyed our brothers

We didn’t fight the liars
As the fat cats bought them
We just helped support them

Hip Hop, Chassidic bands,
Holies eating with their hands,
Manichewitz, Tam Tams,
Gatchkes in the pool

Tzedaka scams, family trees,
Dor yesharim booking fees,
Blood-sucking with a tube,
TV kids expelled from school.

Nasty rabbis in Iran,
Contact with the Taliban
Kehilla grants, not a chance,
Though the numbers seem so clear

All in all it’s pretty sad
but let me tell you something glad,
Many more will learn to fear,
the Shgatzim on the blogosphere.

We didn’t fight the liars
We saw them praise each other
while they destroyed our brothers

We didn’t fight the liars
as the fat cats bought them
We just helped support them

on and on and on and on...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Oyvey Office

Most who leave the Chassidic fold, fail miserably in their new lives. Aliens from a parallel universe, they are poorly equipped to deal with the harsh realities of western culture; the shallowness and the self-preservation. Coming from a world where a familiar face is a trusted friend, they confuse flirtation with sincere friendship and think ‘How do you do?’ is a question. Divided from their newfound family by a common language, they are not attuned to what is being clearly stated between the lines, even when it looks like they understand. While their companions happily watch their project tentatively taste his new freedom, they naively mistake their amiability for true concern. Sooner or later they end up, scared, lonely, let down and depressed, with no one left to turn to and nowhere to go.

Menachem Lang of Bne Beraq did not fall by the wayside completely. He was a budding cantor when he left at twenty and he is putting his experiences to good use in his new acting job in a theatre in Herzeliya, playing a part based on his own life. One part of him that does not come out in the show is the bit where he was sexually abused by some young adults in the community. Armed with the indignation that exposure to western culture accords such deeds, and a hidden camera crew from Israel’s Channel 10 he set out to confront his molesters. (
Text video -Hebrew)

Menachem comes across to me as a walking advert for staying put. He obviously does not realise how shallow he comes across, his outbursts sometimes seem rehearsed and when he adlibs, his positions become closer to his accused. He even seems a little unsure at times what is actually bothering him. All these are classic to victims of abuse and I am sure he needs help but my feeling is that he needs someone to advise him to return to a culture he knows and understands.

The three bearded men he identifies and interviews in the TV documentary were never charged although they all seem to admit the basic facts on camera. The reason, in a nutshell, is because "in the Charedi community such issues are dealt with internally" says the narrator.

I am aware that the situation in Israel is different than here. The Batei Din in Israel (rabbinical courts) are quasi legal bodies and in cities like Bne Beraq they represent a real force on the ground and enjoy widespread approval ratings despite the scepticism of those like me who prefer transparency and structure. Yet even there some prominent Rabbis have recently started advising people to report all forms of sexual abuse directly to the police.

It is laughable to expect our local Batei Din in London or Manchester to take on the function of society’s policemen. They simply lack the power or the influence, not to mention the expertise. Yet our Rabbis, in their infinite wisdom, insist on sticking to the rules and principles they were taught in a different age. Still dutifully fulfilling, to the letter, the orders they were given by their long dead generals in a battle that moved on decades ago. Still industriously firing their salvos at targets that have long ceased to exist, while the enemy has moved on and is busy pillaging the villages.

On the other side of the spectrum sit a group of Jews who also live somewhere in cloudcuckooland.
The Neturei Karta movement has never been a savoury one although I have no argument with their founding principle, that the Zionists have no monopoly over the Jewish people. But my initial unease at posters on the lampposts on the Hill in the 80s stating “The Zionist state is a misfortune for the Jewish people”, has steadily developed into alarm and disgust as their disassociation turned to denouncement and blind hatred of all Jews but themselves. Indeed their actions illustrate better than any of their arguments the one undeniable truth; No one has the right to speak for a people without a clear mandate.

The pitiful morons’ latest escapade, strutting their stuff for all the world in Iran at a holocaust deniers conference was condemned by virtually all religious bodies in Israel, the US and the UK (except those deeper in bed with them than we all had suspected), albeit often in terms sometimes ambiguous at best. It is patently obvious that this rush of virtuous indignation and horror, that even a prayer vigil under the window of the dying Arch-terrorist Arafat in Paris and numerous highly publicised appearances in Shabbes clothes, black-silk-and-beaver-fur-fig-leaves for murderers and terrorists, failed to provoke, was not spontaneous. Rather, it was only the insistent prodding of secular Jewry, livid that their sacred cow, the holocaust, had been touched, that decided our seers that now it was important to make it known to the world that the NK do not speak for all Jews.

Our religious leadership has at last done the right thing, and expressed their disgust that a few individuals should try to hijack the garb we wear and the way we look to express views that are abhorrent, not only to practically all Jews but possibly almost everybody bar the Iranians and a few of their loony supporters. Still it is a scandal that even with an issue as clear to everybody as this, it is only when the wider world gets involved that suddenly (most of) our leadership springs valiantly into action. Our leaders are being led by circumstance, sometimes reacting, acting all the time but never taking a positive step to tackle problems from the core.

I believe that a good percentage of our leaders are good men. They are learned and pious and often well-meaning. They can not however, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as streetwise. They often do not know the distinction between opinion and fact, politics and law, wants and needs. They are out of touch with their communities and trying to apply rules and methods that might have been effective once but do not apply to the world I grew up in, far less the one my kids did. Worse, lacking any form of central leadership and hopelessly divided by personal interests, they and the orthodox media are forcing the mindset and rulings coming out from Bne Beraq and Jerusalem upon us, for lack of any original solutions to problems unique to us here in the UK and Europe.

There needs to be a central Orthodox Rabbinical Council for Europe, to deal with European problems from a European perspective. This council has to contain members from all orthodox groupings and must be professionally advised on law, health and politics, just as any governing body must. Until then in my opinion many of our learned Rabbis must be considered as sweet and wholesome but not much more. As innocent as smoothies and just as relevant.