Sunday, 20 July 2008

Springfield Park

Like every blogger I too promised to myself when opening the blog that I would keep it regularly updated but now notice that it is over a month since I last wrote. And it's not as if not much has happened in that time. So I shall try and keep up the momentum.
 
I was struck by a piece in the latest issue of Hackney Today titled 'Park that nearly wasn't' about the history of the opening of Springfield Park. The entire area of Springfield Park had been put up for sale for development (plus ca change...)

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Religious Logic

Thursday night, the one before last, I was putting my little one to bed and I said, 'Tomorrow, we can listen to music with our breakfast'. The reason why tomorrow and not today or yesterday is that we were just coming out of the mourning period of the 'Sefirah', meaning the counting days. Counting what? you may want to ask. To which the reply is, 'counting the sheaf', which is not a Jewish version of counting sheep though the rules and regulations governing the Sefirah are of no less a soporific effect.

The period of counting starts on the 2nd day of Passover despite that what is actually written in Leviticus is 'from the morrow of the Sabbath'. This being Judaism an argument broke out and Sabbath was taken to mean the 1st day of Passover though not without some dissenters. Anyhow, the counting culminates on day 49 which was last Sunday, a day before the festival of Shevuos (aka Pentecost). Shevuos translates as 'weeks' which kind of makes sense since the count of 49 days equals 7 weeks.

The actual counting takes place every evening after the evening prayers when a blessing is recited praising God for sanctifying us with the commandment of counting the sheaf, and what a benevolent God he must indeed be if for nothing else. Following the blessing amid much fervour, swaying, flailing of arms, waving of clenched fists, eyes screwed up tightly, we count, 'Today is 27 day[s] which are 3 weeks and 6 days to the sheaf', or whatever the number for that day is. The sheaf is a reference to a sacrifice of a sheep and a sheaf that was brought in the temple to celebrate the first harvest.

And now to the soporific bits. Should you forget to count one night you may continue counting but without the blessing since you're missing a number in the middle. According to some opinions on the matter 7 'complete' weeks are required and nothing less will do. You can’t dial your friend with a digit missing from their phone number so why on earth should God defy nature and lift up his receiver if you’re missing a number to Him? Therefore, the proper obligation is not being fulfilled so you can count but not praise God as praising God for sanctifying you with a commandment you are not technically obliged to carry out may be uttering God's name in vain and that is just not on. Sorry mate, wrong number.

I hope drowsiness is not setting in because we haven't yet reached the mourning bit. The Sefirah is also when according to legend the disciples of Rabbi Akiva died en masse some time around the turn of the 2nd century AD. No less than 24,000 of them. Legend is never satisfied with the incident itself and must ascribe causes and effects. So in accordance with legend’s own legendary logical system the cause of the plague was that Rabbi Akiva's disciples didn't treat each other respectfully. Since one of Rabbi Akiva's teachings is the maxim that the biblical prescription to love thy neighbour as thyself is 'a great principle in the Torah' one must conclude that either he wasn't the best of teachers or they weren’t the best of disciples. But let's pass on that one for now.

What I'm getting to is that during the counting period there is nested within it a mourning period for the 24,000. There is plenty of disagreement on when the mourning is to take place but it is generally agreed that it is to last for a period of 33 days within the 49 days. The form of mourning is not to shave or have a haircut, not to hold weddings and not to listen to music.

My little boy had had a haircut on the Thursday prior to the festival when according to some the mourning had come to an end but according to others it hadn't. It was therefore the perfect opportunity to avoid the queues, queues being an essential part of the haircutting experience when three quarters of Stamford Hill descend upon the barbers, pere et fils, to have their hair seen to. And why all at once? Aren't there enough barbers to service the large number of heads? Surely it calls for an indignant editorial in the Hamodia, a front page leader in the Tribune, Buffoon Yitzchok spitting blood and Alex Strom making a feeble attempt at reason that the askonim must get together and arrange for more hair salons in Stamford Hill. We call on the gevirim to line the pockets of the barbers to provide priority to Yidn. Planning laws must be shaken up so that every vacant shop is turned into a barber on erev Shevuos. What is required is an urgent call from the Rabbinate for a team of voluntary hairdressers accompanied by a press release from Rabbi Pinter.

Well, the problem is that apart from a select number of barbers in the Stamford Hill vicinity few barbers know how to cut a Jewish head. I mean rid it of hair of course. Not that Jewish hair grows in a certain way or that the hair has to be circumcised. It is just that like all else we do, we do like to fuss.

Leave the sidelocks, all 10 inches of them; trim the beard but leave it natural at the side; cut the moustache but don't dare touch the beard; zero from forehead to nape of the neck but not a strand of hair off the sidelocks; cut the head on no. 4 but no straight line at the back; straight line but not with a razor; and so on. As any of the Jewish barbers will tell you, whether they be Greek Cypriot, Bangladeshi or Mohican, there is a Jewish way for cutting hair. Get it right and you'll have Stamford Hill on your doorstep 5 times a year negotiating a discount because they keep you in business. Mess up and you'll be decried from Manor House to Seven Sisters.

I might as well let you into a bit of a secret, while I'm at it. If you are minded to go for a Jewish cut, no one, but really no one, knows the rules like George at the Cypriot barbers of Hair by George on Amhurst Park. He will berate you like a rabbi if you want to touch your beard, ask 'what's wrong?' if you want to leave your hair long and beard short, warn you of the consequences of appearing in shul with a straight line under your chin or above your collar, advise on the fine line between thinning your sidelocks and doing away with them altogether. To top it all his chair doubles as a confessional while tending to your instructions. I suppose that should really be called an ecumenical cut.

So there I was with my little one in a ‘Jewish’ barber less than a week before Shevuos but sans the queues. And all thanks to a good Jewish argument. 2 Jews, 3 opinions (and 5 cheesy jokes), as they say. Thursday was still a day early according to the prevailing opinion so the most rigid opinion holders stayed away. Remember this is Stamford Hill where unless it is planning or parking rigidity always wins the day and beats the hell out of the rest. According to this opinion the mourning ends on the first of the 3 days of 'restrictions' which was a day later. The 'restrictions' being not the cutting of hair or the listening of music but not ascending to Mount Sinai or 'approaching' a woman, nudge nudge.

The connection to Mount Sinai is this. According to rabbinical exegesis Shavuot is also the day that God chose his chosen people and handed them the Torah on the Mount. The story is recounted in Exodus where we are told that 3 days prior to the big day, God commanded the Hebrews to restrain themselves from intercourse and not to ascend the mountain. This being the introduction to the festival of Shevuos it was decided that this is where the mourning must end. So although approaching a woman or ascending the mountain is no longer considered prohibited during these days the band can finally strike up and the hair can be shed according to all opinions.

And so I arrive at the point of this post. My boy wanted to know why is it that he could have a haircut on that Thursday but not listen to music until Friday. I shrugged as I felt a bit guilty for his early haircut. I probably also wasn't bothered trying to explain to him all the above especially before bedtime. The kid is only 4.

I am not about to tell you his witty reply to his own question as I am not my sister-in-law and definitely not my neighbour. Their children are just phenomenal. Not that you would suspect anything amiss if you met them, but just listen to their mums whose credibility we have no reason to doubt and you realise that what we are witnessing are an entire bevy of future Groucho Marxs and Albert Einsteins merged into one. Besides, his self reply was not witty at all. All he said was, 'oh, because we may cut our hair today but we may only listen to music tomorrow'. 'Exactly!' I replied marvelling at his precocious grasp of rabbinical epistemology.

He did however get me thinking. I was wondering is it he who has grasped the logic of religion at a tender young age or is the logic of religion such that it makes perfect sense to the mind of a 4 year old as well as to those who retain that mindset into adulthood?

Answers on a postcard please.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Paradise Gained

To the newly refurbished Stamford Hill library. First impressions are good: airy, light, spacious, new wooden shelving, increase of computer terminals and fresh carpet. The new bank of computer terminals is away from the prying windows of the Portland Avenue side of the library as are the poetry, history and other non-fiction collections. In their place is the children's section which appeared, from a distance, to be much more colourful and playful.

I visited the library at lunch time and it was awash with young chasidic men surfing the web. Allow me a digression. If you are a regular reader of frum newspapers you will know that frum men don't exist. They are yungeleit (their italics) in the Tribune, Avereichim in the Hamodia, Bochurim if they are single and always have been, and balei batim if they are married and holding down a job or running a business. Anything else these days, if it dresses in black and white and wears two covers for its head is a rabbi. Teachers are rabbis, slaughterers are rabbis, kosher supervisors are rabbis, journalists are rabbis, nasty landlords are rabbis, and, at least in Israel, even politicians are rabbis. And then rabbis, of course, are rabbis. To the above add anyone with a hint of rabbinical DNA who, naturally, must be a rabbi from birth.

So, one might ask, how does one distinguish the real rabbis from the riffraff rabbis? Well it is a problem troubling some of our finest minds. The United Synagogue has a Chief Rabbi to tackle the above conundrum and chasidim have Grand Rabbis to iron out the misnomer. As for the rest, they are just rabbis, poor them. Do spare them a coin or rather a note or two next time they pop round. Mind you, it's fortunate that chasidic vets are an unknown species as you may have had a rabbi holding his etrog magnifying glass and staring up the backside of a guinea pig to determine whether it's a pig or not. Anyhow, we do wish to keep this a family site especially when we're so close to the children's section of the Stamford Hill library so we shall leave it at that.

I'm here to tell you about my lunchtime sojourn to the library. No big deal except that my book fellows were the young men who finish kolel at about 1pm for a 1.5 hour break and have nowhere to go other than to the library. Do spare them a thought too. Their wives are busy teaching and schools unfortunately are not as generous with their lunch breaks so there is no one home to deliver up lunch, well deserved even if their beds may occasionally be left unmade when they finally vacate them in the morning.

You see, although kollelim are notionally academic institutions the students are made to exercise their minds as otherwise they wouldn’t be paid a stipend. It does however mean that you get all the good things of work, wages and lunch breaks, but without the work bit. Not a bad deal, it seems. If I were a chareidi spokesman or columnist I would have explained it as our investment in the future and added a few italicised Hebrew words for those notions that would make them blush if translated. However, since many of these guys have a very bleak future other than on the fertility front my preferred explanation is that they are paid to stay indoors so as to keep them out of sight. Mind you my theory is somewhat shaken by their exemplary behaviour during lunchtime in the library.

Into the library they march, cute baby faces with barely a trace of their chin's capillary potential clutching their embroidered tallit bags in still glossy plastic covers, kolel veterans with beards begging for a trim or at least a brush holding their shulchan aruchs tight under their arms, sophisticates who take their hats off as if they're walking into a church, and not to forget the fundamentalists who order their computer with a fervour as if surfing is the 11th commandment and with an urgency as if shabbos is but a 90-degree-turn-of-the-minute-hand away. But I cannot say that any of this surprised me, not even the congregating round a single screen with further unseen participants on the other side of the mobiles.

What however did make me gasp almost audibly was to see one of them seated near a girl. Yes, ladies and gentleman, a real girl, the type you (since you're reading this) and I, but not them, just occasionally like to give a look over. Not with any impure thoughts, G-d forbid, but simply to marvel at the L-rd blessed be He's handiwork. And this girl was not of the short sleeved, mid-riff-revealing variety but, to the contrary, a nice heimish, calf-length skirt, tights legged, baggy- t-shirt chested, pony-tailed Stamford Hill girl. The type your brother or son might have done well with. Now to see that juxtapositioning in of all places the heart of Stamford Hill, you must admit, is something.

As we all know there are many things we may do with the fairer sex if they are not descended from us chosen lot. Such as smile, look them in the eye and even where appropriate flirt. Whereas if it's a local girl, frowning is de rigueur and eye contact is verboten. So there they were the holy ones chair by chair near her holiness and in full view of the general public. Had this been an El Al plane the plane may have been brought down or at least diverted to sort out this seating arrangement. Had this been a wedding the wine and the meat would have been in the bin and the bride and groom may have had to retake their vows. Yet here for the sake of a cheap ticket for the pilgrimage to Miron for Lag Bo'Omer or some other bargain, or perhaps to catch up with the latest gossip or, and this G-d truly forbid, to research Darwinism, it being the one subject the Kollelim syllabus doesn't allow for. Whatever the nature of the emergency, it was such as to allow boys and girls to be seated as if in Eden before the fall, though with considerably more on than some strategically placed fig leaves.

And trust me this chance proximity of the sexes that Stamford Hill, bless the L-rd, has never known generated a heat that one just couldn't ignore. This being Hackney, nuclear free in the 80s and carbon free in the zeros, you can forget about some air conditioning even after a refurbishment. No wonder the security guard leaning against the counter was dozing on his watch and yet another chasid removed his hat. But at least it's all far off from that wretched king size window open to Portland Avenue and in the privacy of the library centre.

In my state of shock I had almost forgotten the purpose of my visit. When I did recover my senses I noticed that in their effort to modernise, the authorities in charge of the library have done away with a good part of their book collection. It may be that in order to save trees what should be a repository of books has been turned into a surfers' paradise. Some people are evidently happy and we old fogies who still expect libraries to provide us with books will just have to trek to Stoke Newington or Clapton for a greater selection of those old fashioned tree-destroying founts of knowledge.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

JC Power List

Spare a thought for the JC in their list of most powerful Jews in the UK. (How best to describe it? Knackers nominating kackers, vice versa or remove the 'n' from the nominators as well as the nominees?) Last year they almost totally ignored the frum community so this year they had to make even greater fools of themselves by going over the top. Please don't patronise us by putting Pinter at 8 and that oaf Lobenstein in the top 30 and in future don't omit us either.

Before getting into the details, what was Michoel Posen doing on the panel with reform and liberal Jews? Did he ask a sha'ale? And may we know whom he asked? Anyhow nice to know that hypocrisy is alive and kicking and while reform is treif in the Ben Yitzchok column, one need only mention power or money (cf. Holocaust restitution committees) and they become bedfellow Jews for even the holiest.

Now to the funny bit which got me tickled. Uncle Joe bless him may be an elder statesman of our community, something of a joke to some, an irritable old aunt to others, but power? You must be kidding. Unless arranging pre-Pesach refuse collections counts as moving and shaking. But then there is 'Rabbi' Pinter, the epithet there simply because he added it to his letterhead and his media friends have blindly reprinted it. His father may have headed a shul which is now led by his brother so they would have deserved the title, but let's pass over that one.

Does he have power? Undoubtedly he does. He spearheaded the magnificent school on Egerton Road and for all the criticism of him, a lot of it legitimate and, dare I say, justified, he nonetheless deserves credit for what he has done. He brought the PM at the time to the opening of the school which was surely his finest moment. So he obviously has a degree of power. But no. 8 in the list? Do me a favour. Unless it was media types nominating those who court them and pander to them or it was act of compensation for last year's omission, the only reason I can think of is that Posen pushed him to the top and the others went along blindly.

And what about the double standards? It's no secret that if anyone tried to act as a 'bridge' between our ivory tower and the rest of mankind he or she can forget about a place for their kids in Pinter's school. This last point may make him something of a local tyrant but if anything enhances his power. So to be generous to the JC this too may have earned him a few brownie points.

He has little grassroot support because despite his good work he is an outsider in the very community he purports to represent. He rarely raises a voice at communal events despite being so ready to lend his voice to almost anyone from the outside. Yes, he is a voice of the community in that he doesn't put the phone down with a 'no comment' as most others do. But his voice includes views on The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which goes to prove that in a community where no one will speak to them, the press will quote anyone who bothers to part his lips. 'Rabbi Pinter: Can we have your views on climate change? the Jewish position on the Olympic Torch? and Rabbi Pinter, I hope you don't mind one final question, off the record of course, but what is the preferred Jewish method of contraception?'

OK, perhaps I'm too harsh on him and after all he didn't nominate himself or at least I hope so. He must be down as his friend Ken, who Pinter must be the only one to consider a friend of the Jews, has been voted out and he has yet to be seen smiling in the company of Boris. But then at number 8 it'll probably be Boris who shall be calling him.