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.

No comments: