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.