Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Kafka and the Belzer Rebbe: “It lures me”

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LuckBatPoet (H/T Ze Hayom)

“Not only Sultan but also father, grammar-school teacher, gymnasium professor etc.”

The above photo is of Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach (1851-1926), the third Belzer Rebbe, taking a stroll in Marienbad, now known as Mariánské Lázně in the Czech Republic. A spa town in the historic region of Bohemia, it was popular in the 19th century with ‘many celebrities and top European rulers’ visiting to enjoy the curative springs. Chasidic ‘royalty’ who know a good thing or two about material comforts were not far behind and many Chasidic, and non-Chasidic, rabbis frequented the spas during the summer months in the 1920s and ‘30s.

LuckyBatPoet has a set of photographs, Marienbad People, which includes barons and grafs and gives a flavour of the high society that descended upon the town in its golden era. Included in the set is a number of photos of rabbis, amongst them the Gerer Rebbe, Reb Elchonon Wasserman, Rav Dushinsky, the Viznitzer Rebbe and others. What however is striking about the photo above is because in another photo of the Rebbe the accompanying text reads:

Czech-German-Prague jewish writer Franz Kafka met 17.7.1916 this "miracle rabbi" from Belz in Marienbad and accompanied him and his followers in a long walk, he described this unusually, noteworthy and surprised meeting in a detailed letter to his friend Max Brod on 18.7.1916.

The above letter appears in the collection of Kafka’s Letters to Friends, Family and Editors and the photograph above almost complements the letter. There’s the chair carrier in the left forefront, the cane carrier to the right, the Rebbe with his ‘tall fur hat’, ‘long white beard’, ‘his hand resting on his waist’, the ‘silk [k]aftan which is open in front’, the ‘broad belt about his waist’, ‘the white stockings’ and a ‘demeanour marked by admiration and curiosity’. He could almost be writing about contemporary chasidim observing road excavations or gathering at a street commotion when he mentions ‘that characteristic Eastern European Jewish wonderment’.

Kafka had joined the Rebbe’s retinue at least twice and his report seems to possess all the naivety of an Alice in Wonderland. The similarities don’t end there. Like Alice he hangs about at the start doing nothing until there appears a bustling chasid, bearing a strong similarity to the White Rabbit, whom Kafka, like Alice, follows. The Chasid reappears though instead of searching for the Duchess's gloves he’s after spa waters for the Rebbe. While Alice observed a queen yelling ‘off with his head’ in this version it’s the Rebbe yelling ‘you are murderers.’

Kafka is drawn into a world he barely understands and is fascinated by everything he sees. When he observes the Rebbe’s comments to be ‘childish and joyous’ and that the thinking on the part of the escort is reduced to the same level he surely must be including himself. For he too stands accused of a childlike wonderment believing what he sees to be ‘truth’ which ‘an ordinary head cannot sustain.’ Alice morphs throughout her tale and it appears the Rebbe has brought about a metamorphosis of the author of the famous work of that name.

And as to the question, Who stole the tarts? I’ve scoured the photograph in vain for the ‘exceptional rogue’ with ‘the huge belly’, ‘smugness’ and ‘shifty eyes’.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Freilichn Chanukah

Mr Coffee: Good for the Jews?

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Stamford Hill is notorious for its lack of kosher eateries and has probably the fewest kosher restaurants or coffee shops per capita anywhere in the Semitic world. The first complaint you hear from visitors from abroad is that there is nowhere to sit down and eat. Don't start naming some greasy spoons which serve up a fare compared to which conventional junk food looks like a gourmet feast . Never mind too the several decent and half-decent bakeries (Indigs in Oldhill Street being the king by far) which don't offer any seating. If you wish to rest your tired limbs round here you can, if you belong to the male species, pop into any number of shuls where free or vended coffee is available all day, but forget about a bite in pleasant surrounding, with pleasant food and, dare I say, pleasant waiting staff.

The reasons are manifold. We are a conservative community and the vast majority especially of the middle aged to older generation prefer nothing better than their wife's schnitzel and roast potatoes consumed at the head of the kitchen table. If they must eat out, a plate of tsholent and kugel at a reception or kiddush will do nicely. With the latest fad for serving tsholent and kugel to the dancing guests at weddings many of those invited for the dinner sneak off for the grub in the foyer rather than bother with the schnitzel/roast chicken which is so tricky to handle and especially in public.

A greater proportion of the younger generation do like their food and wine. Grapevine is popular and a new wine shop on the Hill has now joined the fray. Yet they will drive to North West to spend their dining pounds. There is a degree of snobbishness as sitting down in Stamford Hill means sitting down with our own which is ok if you must but not for a quiet evening out with the Mrs. There is a also a fair number of foreign emissaries (to put it politely) with whom one doesn't exactly cherish sharing a romantic evening with the better half.

And then there is the prowling wolf of Kedassia. A local eatery would have to carry a local hechsher with some bearded mashgiach sniffing you out before you've even considered the menu. Even that is jumping the gun and I'm not sure how glad Kedassia would be to grant a hechsher to a fashionable place where young couples turn out, he hatless and jacketless and she dressed to the nines with a hat perched precariously on the latest word in wigs. There is also the occupational hazard of being spotted in that company and jeopardising in the process a cherished place for your kids you know where.

So the local connoisseurs make off to NW where they can indulge themselves with any company and any hechsher so long that there are some Hebrew letters in the window. The North Westerners are happy to take our dough, the local hotheads are spared having to print anonymous bans and threats and the most recent local restaurant is an elegant Brazilian/Italian establishment next door to Tasti Pizza. Rumour has it that Grodzinsky will shortly be opening a coffee shop at the former gaming place on Clapton Common. In the meantime however halachic innovation and ingenuity have given us a new bread freshly baked on Shabbos with virtual supervision from Australia but as far as a decent meal is concerned round here by Kedassia bread alone must man liveth.

Which is where we come to Mr Coffee. Two doors away from Grodz on Clapton Common an enterprising Jewish chap has opened a tiny coffee bar just besides the bus stop selling sandwiches, steaming hot coffee for £1 a shot, a couple of attractive baristas and cakes brought in from Tesco. Yes, you read that correctly, non-kosher cakes and for all I know he may even be using that milk, Go- forbid. Because rather than wait for Kedassia to impose their conditions he went it alone. Drawing a pound of flesh in a milky establishment may also have posed a kashrus problem.

True you can't sit down there and he's unlikely to attract a Jewish clientele at so central a location but, still, it's a start and unfortunately the only way forward. If you can't beat 'em, trash 'em seems to be the message and we at Tickle wish him much hatzloche. They even managed to sneak in some publicity for Mr Coffee in the most holiest of ad-only publications which carries not chas vecholilo a single opinion. Watch this space however because probably as I write a notice is being drafted beginning 'It has come to our attention…' or something to that effect informing the world that the establishment is not kosher. As if anyone ever asked.

In the meantime, Thank You Kedassia for yet another service, in addition to the eiruv, to the community.

Monday, 19 December 2011

London Beth Din ruling on Springfield Synagogue

See also

Occupied territory at Springfield Synagogue

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Occupied Territory at Springfield Synagogue

Springfield2

I was going to write with a background to this but time’s in short supply. Battle has however been joined in the other post so I’ll move the messages over here and let them continue but please folk keep it civil.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Outside the Tent p****ing in

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For translation see below

If you like following Anglo-Jewish politics, and no one will blame you if you don’t, you will know the politics of making a big tent for anything. A bit like I’m a Celebrity except that it goes, I’m a Reform Get Me Into There. The right wing of the US responds, We’re (pseudo) Charedim and get ya the hell outa here because you’re as welcome as Berlusconi at a Bat Mitzvah party. At this point the Jewish miLlionares Club (aka JLC) will see it as their duty to intervene with their own version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire or, rather, who wants a share of our millions. No 50/50 lifelines but an edict to phone-a-‘friend’ or else. Naturally, the Board of Deputies follows suit and, and, come on, wake up there at the back.

If you’ve followed this far you’ll have heard of the Big Tent events which basically gather together similarly minded pro-Israelis who spend a Sunday bemoaning boycotts and deligtimisation of which we are supposedly the hub. After a few cockle-warming speeches and feeling awfully sorry for Israel and disgusted by its detractors everybody goes home feeling they’ve done a good deed and gone out of their way to do their bit for Israel. Of course, the Israelis themselves couldn’t give a monkeys and they happen to think that we’re more into Christmas than Chanukah. The biggest elephant nowhere near the tent remains Israel’s inexorable slide towards a racist theocracy which continues unabated but trust these guys to see the enemies anywhere but staring in their face.

Anyhow, if pro Israelis unite on anything the nay-sayers of Stamford Hill must have a contrary position and so they have. A bit late but this is Stamford Hill after all. In the notice above we are exhorted to stay away from such events, which may only be referred to by its acronym, and told that anyone who has ‘a brain in his coconut’ will know that they bring no good to the Jews. Not, surprise, on tznius grounds, but apparently because this non-event of an event of which other than some bickering machers few have heard of could jeopardise and endanger our very existence in this country. (As for wholesale reliance on state handouts, I’m afraid the notice is silent on that point.) And if not for the notice we would of course have been flocking to it in droves.

The signatories are mostly Satmar affiliated though for reasons known only to themselves Padwa and Halpern Snr added their names. Belz and Ger steered clear as did Dayan Dunner despite his anti-Zionist streak. Also absent are Halpern’s sons and in fact there are no Golders Green rabbis at all who generally lead a more nationalistic flock. This is the second time Padwa has alligned himself with the loonies on Israel; last year he signed for a demo at the embassy on grave digging. Rabbi Schneebalg of Manchester has more sense and knowing that he serves a wider community, abstained. Shame Padwa didn’t inherit those aspects from his father who would have no truck with any of this.

Perhaps the most surprising signatory is Dayan Gukovitsky of Springfield Shul which is affiliated to the Federation. It may have something to do with his territorial battle over his shul and wanting to gain some right-wing allies which he is sorely in need of, but more on that another time.

Translation

A Call from the Rabonim

In light of reports of various meetings (BTFI) across England (currently in Manchester), it is obvious to anyone sensible that such activities and their like are of no benefit to Jews, God forbid.

It is unnecessary to dwell on their inherent dangers and it is incumbent on everyone to avoid attending them and to do everything to publicise and announce that these meetings do not speak on behalf of Jews who believe in God and His Torah. God forbid to allow this destruction to enter England where thank God we dwell under the protection of the state, may its grace be exalted*, which is a benign realm.

We are obligated to pray for the well being of the realm and not to become involved with various people [groups] the majority of whom have cast off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos entirely or in various degrees, and their habit is to maraud and cause destruction.

In the merit of undertaking upon ourselves the yoke of our exile and behaving with humility in this country as we have in each and every generation throughout the thousands of years of our exile may we merit to be saved from all forms of peril and to the arrival of the Messiah speedily in our days, Amen.

London [27 November 2011]**

Signatories

* An expression used for the Tsar and Kaiser and is not used very often nowadays.

** The date of the Manchester Big Tent event though the notice was publicised only last week.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Yesodey Hatorah Senior School: holding its figures to account – Part II

See Part I below

Rather than quibble with Ofsted's grading I have run a simple comparison exercise on the Department of Education website comparing YHS to other Hackney secondary schools for which figures are available. The results, which are for 2009-2010, are produced below.

I will let the figures speak for themselves and merely say that either the individuals/family/board or whoever runs the school has developed a miraculous formula by which they can achieve an 'Outstanding' grade yet spend overall only 86% of their allocated budget, and less than 50% of it on actual teaching, employ less than a handful of FTE (full time equivalent) qualified teachers, maintain a teacher to pupil ratio that would barely fit the school hall though with a back office budget that exceeds each of the other schools.

Or these figures are crying out for some other explanation.

Attainment

These show YHS to be well above the national average and very high across the board.

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Who is teaching the children?

The number of qualified teachers is astoundingly low and the pupil to teacher ratio relates to qualified teachers only.

Teachers 6 Dec - Copy

How is the budget divided?

Since the income per pupil differs for each school the figures below are based on percentages of the income/spend per pupil. Note the relatively low percentage spent on teaching, the relatively high back office costs and the high unspent budget. It would be interesting to know why these funds aren’t being spent and what happens to this apparent surplus. The amount spent on building and energy is also high especially as it is a relatively new building.

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Free School Meals

This is a particularly curious statistic as the 'principal' appeared on the BBC in relation to proposed housing benefit reforms to complain about the disproportionate effect it will have on this community. Yet here is a benefit administered through the school but the take up is incredibly low.

fsm 6 Dec

Data for individual schools is from the Department of Education's website for comparing schools and the national data is from this DoE page.

(Thanks to those who assisted with the charts)

Yesodey Hatorah Senior School: holding its figures to account – Part I

When criticism of YHS is aired, which is not very often since other than a mikveh or shul chat we don't really have a platform for debating these issues and the school is as likely to provide one as chickens would provide a venue for kapores, but nevertheless on those rare occasions when the matter is discussed the stock in trade defence usually goes something like this:

Firstly, this is the best you'll ever get round here and if this lot is done away with their replacement is likely to be some truly frightening loonies who will destroy all the positive things about the school. And anyway, the argument continues, the school has been rated Outstanding by Ofsted, their grades are well above average and so what is there to complain about. That the rating did not apply to Governance is unlikely to tax many in Stamford Hill where committees, meetings, minutes, resolutions and votes are not something many lose much sleep over.

I do not intend to dwell on these arguments at length because however good a job they may be doing it is still no excuse to monopolise a communal asset . It cannot be right for a school to be run by a small, largely self-appointed and unaccountable clique. Without others having a chance to genuinely participate in the running of the school at all levels we will never truly know how good a job is being carried out and whether it cannot be done better.

That aside, there are serious flaws in both arguments. The charge that we are unlikely to get anything better and will probably end up with something considerably worse is dangerously defeatist. Essentially it says that we are inherently incapable of running anything in an organised manner and so we must fall back on entrenched powers whatever the allegations of cronyism, nepotism and worse.

This is a gross insult to the many intelligent and perfectly capable men and women in Stamford Hill who can and do run public bodies in a fairer and more open manner. One would have to ignore the achievements of Agudas Yisroel Housing Association, Hatzole, Chaveirim, Bikur Cholim and many other communal bodies that do valuable work and yet are not run by a single strong man and his immediate and extended family.

This extends to schools too. Beis Chinuch is run by a committee and while it may be to the right of YHS it has also been rated 'Outstanding' in many areas. In addition, the recently opened Beis Yakov primary school only came to life as a result of YHS's invidious and arbitrary admission procedures, if they can be called such. It was set up and is run by a committee of volunteers, it is to the left of YHS and is now operating in its second year.

The main argument however remains that the school has been graded 'outstanding' and so if it ain't broke why fix it?

Continued in Part II

Monday, 28 November 2011

Words words (kosher) words

Letters (not) published in The Write Lines, the famous letters page that arrives from parts other publications won't acknowledge to exist

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Dear Editor

Like all heimishe yieden everywhere I was overwhelmed by hakoras hatov for the dedicated chosheve askonim who have made available the kosher dictionary. I immediately went out to the Hill to get one so that my children ke"h should no longer cholilo come across posule words when doing their homework. (Mentioning homework reminds me of the letter I wrote last year about the geferleche load of homework the girls are given so that they can't help their mothers in the evening, but now I am writing about something else.)

I had barely sat down to browse the new dictionary when I landed on my behind after noticing the word 'bum'. I didn't chas v'sholem go looking for such words but it literally stuck itself in my face. Luckily my children were not yet home so I could stick the pages together because oi lorosho v'oi lishcheino and I can't bear my children knowing other words that are tome from sitting so close to that disgusting word. But it made me realise that, like lettuce, how important it is to check even something with a hechsher. If rachmone litzlon that word crept in who knows what else might chas v'cholilo have been overlooked.

I am mamesh trembling with shock after searching a bit deeper at some of the words the Rabbonim didn't get to notice. I know I must be careful at the words I use in your publication which spreads yiros shomayim and ruchniyes to our kehille but it is equally important that parents are not chas vesholem nichshel. I ask those with heilige oigen to please look away but how can we tolerate our teiere neshomelech looking up words like 'butt', 'buttock', 'bottom' and 'breast'? I am ashamed to say this but even the word 's-x' was not taken out. What kind of chinuch are we giving to our precious kinderlech by including such miese verter? My father olev hasholem would wash our mouths with soap if we mentioned much more eidele words and here we have the worst possible words noch with a hechsher!

I immediately called my husband who told me not to do anything until he comes home from koilel because it's a sha'le if you must put it in sheimos as it has a hechsher or whether you are allowed to burn it because of those words. He agreed absolutely that such a book has no place in a yiddishe shtib and we must be so careful not to fall into the hechsher trap. I can now understand how meat from the same hechsher came to be transported with dovor acher after seeing those chazerishe words in a book certified by a lemehadrin authority.

What I think is even more shameful is that I saw in the Tribune by my friend's house (we don't buy beshite any papers) that Rabbonim who are fluent in English went over this dictionary before giving it a hechsher. First of all are such Rabbonim really suitable for us erliche yieden? And second of all how can we now trust a rov if we know he has sifted through all this shmutz? Maybe that's why there is no haskome because even the Rabbonim were ashamed that they had to read such treifene books. And third of all maybe that’s why they left in all those words and it's a simen they can't even talk such good English. They for sure can't talk French because they left 'lingerie' lying about in full view of the boys and rachmone litzlon even 'thong' was stuck in. Do they know the achrayus of publishing such a book? No wonder so many children are going off the derech if their precious neshomolech get to see such tomene words.

But I don't want to be nichshel with loshen hore and rechilus and also we must be dan lekaf zechus. The Rabbonim did include ‘spank’, beat', 'pinch', 'smack' and 'hit'. Boruch Hashem the Scrooges shlito also remembered to leave out 'Christmas' and even had the seichel to cut out 'fossil'. But couldn't they also remove 'evolution'? Isn't there enough kfiro that we need some more with the best hechsher in the world?

I also hoped at least they would include some heimishe English words like cheder, yeshive and shiduch. No wonder those chachomim from Oxford were so nispoel of the request for such a dictionary (besides that they required the cost of 2000 copies to be underwritten). The Rabbonim allowed them to teach our children narishe words like 'lugubrious' and 'rumbustious' which no one will anyway ever use but were ashamed to allow Hashem and mezuze? The Tribune thinks it was a kidush Hashem but it's really a huge chilul Hashem if you can't include 'God' and not even 'G-d'!

May we be zoiche to kedushe and to be nitzel from all the nisyoines that today's dor produces even with a hechsher.

A Dedicated Yiddishe Mame

***

Dear Editor

I heard rachmone litzlon that some children have developed a new game where they have to guess words and then look it up in the kosher dictionary. If the word’s in they lose a point and if it's out they gain a point. My eyes are filled with tears writing this that such a michshoil could come out from a koshere dictionary and the musar haskeil is to avoid using Rabbonim who can speak English which boruch hashem is not so bad by us.

An Experienced Mechanech

Monday, 14 November 2011

Know not the Tribune their Scriptures?

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We’ve always known the Jewish Tribune to fill its pages with buffoonery, fundamentalism, propaganda, selective facts, myopia, amnesia and even to suffer from the occasional bout of racism if Geoffrey Alderman is to be believed. But at least we read it secure in the knowledge that whatever else they may be, heathens who know not their Scriptures they are not and from the Tribune shall go forth the Torah.

Until last week that is when under the photo of the visit of some C-class celebrity to the tomb of the matriarch Rachel the Tribune placed the tomb in Shchem. Although there is some debate over the correct location no one but the Tribune has to date placed it in Shchem.

I find it most humbling that it has come to this but let me teach the Tribune a posuk in the chumesh that many a child has shed many a tear over for not knowing anything from the context of the posuk in the chapter to the context of the tomb on the way to Bethlehem and not to mention Rashi’s multiple translations of kivrath eretz.

וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּעוֹד כִּבְרַת-אֶרֶץ לָבֹא אֶפְרָתָה וָאֶקְבְּרֶהָ שָּׁם בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָת הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם

And as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died unto me in the land of Canaan in the way, when there was still some way to come unto Ephrath; and I buried her there in the way to Ephrath--the same is Beth-lehem. (From the JPS 1917 edition)

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Remaking of a Godol

As you read in the weekend press the inevitable hyperbole on the passing of Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel with tales of him knowing shas by the age of 5 and his teachers being unable to teach him shortly after, consider his school card where in his teens his ambition was still ‘Undecided’. Is this ‘child father of the man’? Born and raised in the USA will unfortunately make it slightly more difficult to deal with that nuisance called history but trust our papers to find a way round it.

Nosson Tzvi Finkel

Here though is an inspiring piece concerning Reb Nosson Tzvi by Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks.

(Credit: On The Main Line)

Friday, 4 November 2011

In The Beginning…

We may well be reading the third portion of the Torah this coming Shabbos but since it's the third out of 50 odd sidros it's fair to say we've barely started. We Jews are fortunate for many reasons. Like Paddington Bear we get two birthdays and even two new years: one for getting blasted, the other for getting plastered. In fact it often feels as if we get a third new year when after the celebrations of the first weeks of the new year we roll back the Torah to the beginning at the opening chapter of Genesis and start again In The Beginning…

That was two weeks ago yet in that time a world's been created and destroyed, humans have come and gone with alarming frequency, man got his woman and together they sinned (what else?), were cursed and expelled. Naturally enough man 'knew' his woman, for if you're not in the Eden you were given you might as well create one for yourself, and they begot offspring. And this is basically what has been happening ever since.

There's also been fratricide, a deluge, inebriation followed by indecent exposure (some things never change), attempts at building a skyscraper, attempted rape, a battle, abductions, celestial visions, bitching wives, men falling out over money and yet we're only up to the 3rd portion. Some book Bereishis is and though unfortunately I'm not always the most decorously behaved in shul when it comes to the reading during these weeks I sit enraptured and devour every word.

We wouldn't be Jews if we weren't always seeking the 'deeper meaning' and God knows how the verses of His books often pass through so many hoops that I'm sure there are times He blushes when He sees the meanings attributed to His words. And yet it is difficult to read these chapters without seeing in them a universal message. Both Darwin and the Bible agree that we began in complete ignorance and without clothes on and the argument appears to be whether we evolved to Gucci via Primark or whether it was a fig leaf from Victoria's Secrets at the outset and we've been going downhill ever since.

Moving on to tomorrow's portion which begins Lech Lecho, meaning 'Go for your sake' (Rashi), or, 'Get thee out' (JPS following KJV), when God told Avram to leave his 'land, birthplace and father's home to the land I will show you.' There is a mystery at the heart of it as to why God chose this particular chap and told him to abandon everything in return for untold richness and greatness. The rabbis came up with tales of how Avram came to know his creator, his zealotry, what we now call 'outreach' and attempted martyrdom. They all seek to answer the central question, why him?, and by extension, why us?

When in Jewish-centric mode I see in the story of Avram the story of the Jewish people wandering from pillar to post to a land they have yet to be shown. We left the land and birthplace of the father of our nation to go to a land we were then driven from and we're basically back to where we started. It also makes us somewhat homeless: always on one place looking from and to elsewhere.

However, since I prefer to spend my time in a universal state of mind I like to see the story of Avram as as a metaphor for the human condition. To acquire greatness and riches, be they intellectual, spiritual or material, or to improve the human condition one must shed dogmas and baggage of the past. You must leave your intellectual 'birthplace and father's home' and go to a land that will be shown to you. The journey may start simply by leaving the past behind despite not knowing whence it is heading. For greatness lies not in certainties and absolutes but in the confidence to admit that what has been cannot continue and a burning desire to find something brighter and better.

And now let me bring in the protestors round the world dwelling in tents like Avram and calling for change. Many have criticised them for not having a solution to the problems they complain about. But that appears to say that what is must remain until there is a viable alternative. That may sound practical but is not how real and fundamental change is brought about. The Torah teaches us that one may leave behind a corrupt past even if the route ahead is unmarked and the destiny unknown. In the beginning shed the past for abandoning what has been is the first step of the journey and like all first steps it is often the bravest.

Good Shabbos!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Touchy feely chareidim

Occasionally one comes across a statement so audaciously outrageous, so leap-from-your-seat politically incorrect, so preposterously preposterous that you simply freeze on your first encounter. You then go back to the beginning of the sentence to make sure you actually read those words. Still reeling from incredulity that such sentiments could be uttered in our prejudice-free era you reread the paragraph, restart the article and even check the cover of the book or masthead of the paper to ensure that the context, the tone, key and pitch of the words which so profane all our sancrosanctities are not only there and carry their usual meaning but were actually intended to mean as they do.

Such were the words in Geoffrey Alderman's article in last week's JC which I reproduce here in their full glory.

It is, however, well known that charedi men are notorious harassers of the opposite sex.

And then when you finally thaw and are sitting comfortably again you are at a loss at how to respond? What does one do and say in such instances? Pitch tents outside the JC's offices or Mr Alderman's home with banners reading 'members of the opposite sex welcome?' They'll just use it as further proof of our roving fingers. Initiate a chesed campaign of holding doors open for the fairer sex to show what a gallant and chivalrous lot we are? For goodness sake we don't even look at them so how are to we know when they're coming and going. Perhaps get the Neturei Karta involved to walk to Trafalgar Square on Shabbos with banners pinned to their bekitshes, 'Chareidi and not Harraser'. Or, preferably, 'WE FRESS NOT HARASS'.

Alderman is a man of many talents but impartiality is unfortunately not one of them. Let us not forget that Alderman is also the columnist who publicly rejoiced at the brutal murder of a peace activist because he happened to favour the Palestinian cause. There appears to be nothing the Israeli government can do that will condemn them in Alderman's eyes and nothing chareidim can do to win them his praise. Heaven help us were a similar sweeping statement to have been made against Israelis. You'd have Melanie Phillips squalling in the shrillest tone she has yet to muster and Alderman himself collapsing apoplectically from his perch smothering Jonathan Freedland below him. Yet when it comes to the frummers you can malign, slander and impugn us with impunity and none of the Jewish anti-bigotry campaigners on the left and media obsessives on the right will take up cudgels on our behalf.

But before the unnaturally gifted columnists of the Hamodia and Tribune indignantly dip their quivering quills in their seething inkpots it is worth considering what leads a commentator to make such a sweeping statement. As outrageous as it may be the fact of the matter is that tales of harassment, child abuse, violence, fraud and a whole panoply of crimes are reported against chareidim with increasing frequency such that they are hardly news items any longer. Yet they are met with total silence from chareidi leaders and press.

When a London couple were arrested in Israel last year for allegedly abusing and trying to abduct their daughter, Tehilim was recited for the suspects and the victim was instantly declared mad and wayward. In Israel violent demonstration have been held in defence of murderers and abusers often with the tacit if not express support of some leaders. Yet these leaders are not shy of heaping a curse or two for anything from the misdemeanour of too short a skirt to the cardinal sin of possessing a blackberry.

Besides, without getting too talmudical about it, Alderman didn't say sexual harassers but merely harassers. In my shul on simchas torah small kids were slamming doors and knotting curtains in front of adult women to block their view of the men's dancing. In other shuls women were yelled at and threatened for not clearing the exit. From young girls to adult women, the opposite sex are constantly made to feel that there isn't a malady in the world that hasn't been caused by their lapses in tznius and which won't be cured by an inch on the skirt and off the sheitel respectively. One would indeed require a heavy dose of talmudic ingenuity to argue that these are not forms of harassment.

So before our apologists and 'spokesmen' get onto their soapboxes and cry wolf yet again they may wish to reflect how their whitewashing over the years has led to criminals feeling safe in the knowledge that they can always rely on support from the home side, while those on the outside will not believe a word uttered in our defence. We revere the leaders who lead us astray and by our reverence and blind obedience we come to be tarred with the crimes they condone by their silence and inaction when not by their express approval and encouragement.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Former Canon of St Paul’s converted. By the Chief Rabbi

This is what the recently retired canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Rev Giles Fraser, had to say in an interview in Friday’s Guardian:

"I used to be a socialist and for a long time I did have the view that there was something intrinsically immoral about capitalism. I changed my mind quite fundamentally about that quite a few years ago. I had a conversion sitting in Notting Hill market, reading the chief rabbi on the subject – an essay called 'the moral case for market economy'.”

Perhaps not quite a road to Damascus moment but then Notting Hill is a lot safer especially these days.

I do however wonder whether the Chief would ever dare tell the world of a conversion of his by a leader of another faith. He got himself into trouble in the past when suggesting that Judaism may have something to learn from others, which he then hastily retracted. Ever since he has steered clear of sensitive issues for fear of getting tangled in the knotty beards or the crocheted yarmulkes.

It is a shame he lacks his predecessor’s forthrightness on anything from Israel to charedim. For while the world benefits greatly from his writing and speeches Judaism sorely lacks someone of his stature and capabilities to give us some straight talking.

Well, a rabbi resigning on point of principle. When was the last time you heard that one?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Cometh the hour, delayeth the chosid

Should you ever have had the good fortune of being invited to a Stamford Hill wedding you will know that of all the songs belted out at these affairs, get me to the church on time is one you will not get to hear. The inoperative word being not so much the church as the ‘on time’ because if anything can be guaranteed it is that the affair will kick off at least an hour late. And that’s early. This is not only a Stamford Hill affliction but one that applies to chasidim in general wherever they happen to dwell. If an explanation were ever needed of this rather unpleasant habit (with which yours truly is equally hampered) the days of selichos which we have just put behind us are as good as any.

During the selichos days men rise earlier for the pre-shachris service which commences at about 6.15-6.30a.m. Not terribly early one would think, and not much earlier than many a working person rises to get to work on time. Not everyone gets up that early as there are later services but most will rise earlier than usual for the additional prayers. And those that don't will be home later than usual having to fit in those extra bits to find favour with the Almighty during the days of judgement.

Nothing terribly unusual as the Jewish calendar constantly calls for changes to schedules. The difference with selichos however is that unlike the Holidays when the world largely comes to a halt as far as we are concerned, the selichos disruption is on regular work days and once prayers are over life continues as usual. The extended prayers are followed by work or kolel, schools teach, shops trade and stuffing our gullets with food is not a religious obligation. Yet, and this is the point I'm getting to, as a result of this minor disruption the boys' schools' entire timetable is rewritten. The poor Hebrew teachers have to get up a few minutes earlier and the school bell ringing in the start of the school day must wait. And this is the first lesson kids get on the malleability of time.

These are of course the same schools that keep their charges indoors in front of desks for most of the day, where sports and exercise classes are largely unknown, half term unheard, holidays kept to a minimum, and the only days off are Fridays, when parents are not generally available and Shabbos preparations occupy most of the time, and Saturdays, when life comes to an abrupt halt like a lift stuck between two floors. This is so ostensibly because Torah study is paramount and bitul Torah, neglect of Torah study, is widely deprecated in the classical texts. Yet during the Days of Awe when we are supposed to try and curry favour with our Creator precious study time must give way to the poor rebbes' sleeping habits and even more time wasted for everyone to go and torture some chickens for kapores. To top it off the rebbes then jet off to see in the New Year or spend Yom Kippur with their Rebbe leaving their little charges with a substitute of little aptitude other than a rimmed hat, bearded chin, white shirt and long coat.

This attitude to time and discipline is no less apparent throughout the year when there is often a race between boys and their teachers at who can be later in the classroom. It was a standard excuse during oral examinations, 'I wasn't well that day', or, 'I had to go to the dentist'. This would be met with the sarcasm typical of Hebrew teachers, 'did you also not eat your lunch that day?' or some other attempt at wit which earned him a muffled snigger from the classroom. Once inside the class many of the the rebbes will mess with their –banned- smart phones or leave the class to take calls. I once walked in on my boy’s rebbe counting a wad of £10 notes while the children in front of him were reciting the morning prayers.

Interestingly enough, this does not happen in girls' schools where discipline like handing in homework on time, or being assigned homework at all, requiring a note when off or late and being dead on time come what may is ingrained. Little wonder then that while men treat time keeping as something for wimps and rules for shmeckles, it is the women who are so much better at anything from writing a letter, paying bills on time or holding down a job and earning an income. For if, as Woody Allen contended, 80% of success is showing up, us men find even that a chore unless it’s a couple of hours late.

One might think that this lax attitude to general timekeeping is offset by meticulousness where time forms part of religious observance. After all our lives are governed by arcane rules which we go to extremes to observe in the minutest detail and from which we are never offered a break. In fact that could not be further from the truth. It often appears as if they read the mishnah There is not a man who has not his hour as a commandment to ignore the hour for the remainder of the time.

The three-times-a-day prayers all depend on time yet walk into a chasidic shtibel and morning prayers are recited till as close to noon as one can get without bumping into it, and mincha which can be said all afternoon only gets going at dusk and stretches till well after what is generally called nightfall. Come though to the evening prayers of mariv and the clock spins in the other direction. You and I may swear it's night with a sky full of stars but along come the chasidim who will tell you that they're the wrong type of stars. Even Network Rail would struggle with that one.

Sabbath is no exception either. From sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday all work is prohibited on pain of death and yet chasidim regularly carry out forbidden tasks till well after sunset because to them the sun of halacha sets at a different time. Perhaps they're still making adjustments for when it was stopped in its tracks by Joshua but the end result is that we have our own solar system in which the sun, moon and stars rotate according to when we mandate them to and not according to the observations of promiscuous eyes and calculations of brains confined in uncovered heads.

With chasidim rules are truly honoured in the breach since a breach is afforded far more respect than compliance. It is as if breaking rules is so ingrained that even the one rule of time to which our entire universe is subject must be stretched and bent when not snapped and broken altogether. Chasidim even have a concept known as 'lemalo min hazman'  which means above or beyond the realm of time. A Rebbe need only disregard the chronometrical hands and dare recite morning prayers in the afternoon or celebrate the departing of the Sabbath on Sunday morning and he is immediately elevated to a saint and a mystic. For while to the wider world being ahead of one’s times is considered visionary if not a sign of genius, in our reverse-looking eco system it is being behind time that marks one out for greatness.

All of which explains why a mere school bell is not going to do something that even the constellations struggle to contend with.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Headless chickens–armless kids

kapooras

Perhaps Heinrich Heine’s maxim about burning books and people should be re-phrased: Those who mistreat chickens, mistreat kids.

Mind you, this is what happened when the chicken crossed the road.

kapores

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Taliban segregation in Stamford Hill

**See update**

Last year I wrote about the signs on Craven Walk on Rosh Hashanah segregating the pavement with the eastern side for females and the western side for males.

Needless to say that this year the exercise was repeated but they went one better. Someone, with the best intentions of course, as always, employed eastern European stewards to direct the men to their side and the women to theirs so that never the twain should meet.

Rumour has it that some millionaire with significant more money than sense hired the modesty police to patrol and enforce the segregation. The Health and Safety department of Hackney would undoubtedly have been proud, though. The stewards both wore bright fluorescent yellow jackets.

Protection of the body; safety of the soul; madness of the mind.

**Update

tashlich1

Above is the offending notice. Note how in Hebrew it is a request while in the English it has been ‘decided’ as if the streets belong to them.

There was then a contradictory notice signed by ‘The residents of Craven Walk and Watermint Quay’ setting out which gender is to walk on which side of the road but, Go- Forbid, allowing them to occupy the same street at the same time. A shocking development and a terrible chutzpah and hefkeirus in the face of the Union’s far more stringent position.

Due to the confusion, it is not clear whether the stewards were there to enforce the Union’s edict and drive the wrong gender from the wrong street, or whether they were anti-Unionists to direct the men and women to the areas generously allocated to them by the kind and considerate ‘residents’.

Either way Tashlich was a truly uplifting experience and rather than be distracted by women in white shawls or white sleeping caps we were treated to the fairer sex in various stages of undress. This was an overt display of God’s kindness for those who had no sins to dispose of and hence may have been lying to the Good Lord when seeking His forgiveness. A flash of flesh and they could happily join the throngs in polluting the River Lea with their sins.

As for those promiscuous folk I observed besides the pond on Clapton Common standing shtreimel to tiechel and within shockling proximity of each other, they might as well jump in the lake. While they were disposing of their sins with one hand the other was gathering lascivious thoughts engendered by Chasidic womeonfolk in their Yom Tov finery.

What a wasteful and sinful exercise and surely something to keep the ‘Advocates’ of the Jewish Community Liaison Committee, members of the Shomrim and advisors of the Independent Advisory Group busy for the forthcoming year. What we should really have is a Union Waterworks Division to liaise with a Union Segregation Committee to arrange for Eastern European male and female stewards to direct the men and women respectively and then a screen down the length of the road to prevent any cross fertilisation.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Days of Awe in days of yore (or, Reading God the Riot Act)

Last Friday's JC had a review of the Chief Rabbi's new Machzor for Rosh Hashono by Dr Jeremy Schonfield. The reviewer refers to passages in our prayers which are "evidence of an awareness that all is not well in God's relations with Israel", and is critical of the Artscroll translations which gloss over these themes and instead reflect "a simple piety often unworthy of the intellectual depth of the poetic writers".

I was reminded of the review when on Monday in selichos there appeared the following verses from Jeremiah (14:8-9): Why shouldest Thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night? Why shouldest Thou be as a man astonished, as a mighty man that cannot save?

It is no wonder that we Jews are such relentless critics because if our God doesn't escape our vitriol mere mortals can't stand a chance. In modern argot, the Prophet's words would translate as, why are You behaving like a wimp? Can't You get off Your butt and do something?

Dr Schonfield is right that this element of our relationship with God has largely gone. While in the selichos liturgy the poets lambast God for His treatment of His people, nowadays it is all sycophancy and fawning to a God to whom we owe everything, Who owes us nothing and the best we can do is stand like beggars at His table and wail for a morsel or a bone.

In fact one can go further and say that the Jewish God is almost dead. Fifty thousand people travel to Uman in the Ukraine to be with the dead Reb Nachman, many thousands travel far and wide to worship a living Rebbe, in Israel they worship the land as if that is the new vengeful and jealous Jewish deity, and meanwhile God is forsaken and no one will give Him the tough love He so often deserves.

Verses like the one above, the constant refrain in the selichos of “Arouse, why do You sleep', or sarcastic lines like 'we have spilt our blood for You yet have still not achieved Your forgiveness' remind us of our complex relationship with our God. That even if it was our destiny to be His sitting ducks at least we were given the privilege of speaking our mind to Him to ensure He doesn’t get off lightly.

So how refreshing to have come across the oratory of a Rabbi Yehosua Szpetman who talked to God in the manner of the Prophets. Born in Lublin, Poland, he was a rabbi at the Nelson Street Synagogue in the East End of London during the 1930s and '40s and a collection of his speeches in Yiddish were printed in 1938. This is not a rabbi who minced his words when addressing his Creator even when doing so publicly in front of his flock. Times in 1938 were of course significantly different to our days but this was not a rabbi to turn on Jews when trouble befell them and tell them to mend their ways in the petty, childish speeches one gets to hear these days. Instead it was God who needed to mend His ways. Rabbi Szpetman did not turn Jew on Jew and try to unite Jews with their God by sowing division amongst His people. Nor did he turn on our enemies by spouting vacuous curses which serve only to stoke flames of hate and strife.

Instead his addresses are directed to God Himself. Challenging Him, Lambasting Him, calling Him to action. Like the Prophets of yore, he addresses an omnipotent God but only to point out his apparent impotence. Stop behaving like a god, he appears to be saying, and be a man for a change.

A Ksivo Vachasimo Toivo to all my readers and I leave you with Rabbi Szpetman in this extract I have translated from a fiery sermon for Rosh Hashono:

Tekioh!

Let us ascend to the Throne of Honour, to the King who is King of kings, the King Who sits on a high and lofty throne! Let Him hear our call of the Shofar, let Him come out from his hideout , from His holy Curtain and let Him attend and receive our blasts, wails and trills of the Shofar, that are like a bitter cry.

Arouse like prophets and call, Arouse! Why dost Thou sleep, why art Thy like a stranger in the land…, like a wayfarer retiring to spend the night…, like a mighty who cannot rescue? Arise! Why do You sleep, You Guardian of Israel? Why are You like an alien, like a stranger in the world? Like a visitor, like a warrior in chains?

On this day of Rosh Hashono, from Your coronation, the Day of the Birth of the World, shed Your royal crown, the diadem and don sackcloths and ashes, so to speak, and come with us into exile. Let us together mourn, cry and wail for the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Jewish people. The whole world has been turned into an altar and its only sacrifice is the Jew. Let us together say remembrances on the mass graves, old and new.

Let our tears from distress fall on the Great Sea and seethe, boil and storm the ocean. Let the cry of the Shofar within our essence, the pain and indignity of the souls and bodies of the Jewish people make the desert tremble. Let strong oaks fall and let there leap flames of fire. The voice of the Lord is on the water, the voice of the Lord makes the desert quake, the voice of the Lord mines flames of fire, the voice of the Lord fells cedars.

Shevorim!

Teruoh!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ignoring the Founder

**See update below**

Yesterday was the 61st yortseit of the founder, or main founder, of Yesodey Hatorah Schools, Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Pardes. You wouldn't however be aware of it if you are fortunate enough to have your children admitted to one of its schools because the powers that be do not deem it worthy to mention to the children. True it is noted in the YHS calendar but with no explanation of his connection to the school.

It isn't as if the school doesn't trouble itself with its history, real or re-written. When the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shmelke Pinter comes along the schools go into overdrive. Siyums and assemblies where the children are told ad nauseum about his greatness and that many years after his death they still owe him a debt of gratitude, write-ups in the papers the week before, photos in the papers the week after. There is even a fawning song for the girls to sing at the anniversary commemorations including the words 'Reb Shmelke our founder'. A straight and simple lie it may be but that's a small price to pay to perpetuate the myth now that his 3rd generation are filtering through to management and teaching positions while some interim caretakers are elbowed out in the process.

Let us though return to Rabbi Pardes. Although London remains indebted to him for the schools he established, and indeed the Pardes House Schools in Finchley proudly carry his name, the poor man died childless and therein lies the point. For insofar as YHS is concerned, he who took over sired several sons who in turn took over from him and they don't want to know. Across the road from the YHS Boys’ school some discreet lobbying landed us with the awkwardly named Rav Pinter Close, letterheads of the school trumpet its 'Past Principal' besides the eponymous current principal and current headteacher and nothing is done to correct the oft repeated canard of Pinter père being the founder.

lh - Copy

Some principles indeed. Is it usual for schools to list past principals on their letterhead? I don't think so. Listed on its letterhead is also a past president. Ever heard of a school president? Me neither. And if they had a president in the past, when and why did they cease appointing one? Surely the Chair of Board of Governors who has gone AWOL since the day he was appointed would be happy to take the title. He hogged the Hackney mayoral chair like an Adath rosh hakohol so a presidency shouldn't cause him indigestion.

The thinking on the stationery must go something like this. To justify the proliferation of Pinters on the letterhead and give themselves an air of invincibility include the founder of the dynasty as 'Past Principal', and to justify mentioning historic positions while making a pretence of objectivity include a respected ghost from the past who neither dispels the myth nor challenges the incumbents.

But as for the founder himself who could do with some children keeping his memory alight, his candle is not worth the cake and lechaim even amongst the children and schools that remain his legacy irrespective of those who would rather not acknowledge this very awkward fact.

**Update: Someone wrote to say that Rabbi Pardes was mentioned yesterday at least in the girls’ school. It would have been a day late but still better than nothing, I suppose.

lh2 - Copy

In the meantime I came across this letterhead of the boys’ school. Note the two principals but no headteacher. It could be that da’as torah mandates that headteachers need be listed only for a girls’ school. Or it might just be be that a headteacher does not merit a mention unless he or she shares a surname with the ‘past principal’. Who knows, though it does suggest the following variation on the light bulb joke.

Q: How many Pinters does it take to run a school?

A: As many as will fit onto the letterhead.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue (and drive it out of town)

Catching up on what I missed while away I came across Geoffrey Alderman's article in the JC on the introduction of elements of religious law into UK law. While the debate is largely driven by Sharia law, rabbis of the realm must be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of laying their hands on officially sanctioned powers. And we underlings should quake at the thought of them being engaged not only on God's service but also On Her Majesty's Service. Rarely will Her Majesty have had in her employ servants so diligent in carrying out their official duties and never will rabbis have been so meticulous in applying dino demalcuso, or the law of the realm. They will render unto Ceasar with the zeal of rendering unto God, and render unto God with the power and force Ceasar shall put at their disposal.

Rather than argue the pros and cons of granting power to religious courts allow me to provide a flavour of justice as dispensed round here so as to savour and look forward to the day we are fortunate enough in having the powers of the Beth Din sanctioned by Parliament.

Recently a notorious, alleged, paedophile was, allegedly again, caught 'in the act'. The matter was referred to the rabbonim who on the whole acted in the time hallowed tradition of doing nothing. There is one new broom in town and he decreed that the offender be kicked out of his shul. In addition, mark this, as punishment the alleged offender was ordered to pay for his victim's psychological treatment. As the Old Testament might have put it, a session for a session.

In another case a man charged abroad with paedophilia related offences spent the summer in a family camp where children roamed freely unsupervised. As for the Shomirm, I couldn't put it better than Luzer Twersky quoted in this article on the Brooklyn Shomrim: Borough Park is a very safe neighbourhood for adults. It's just not very safe for kids

Well, sex does scare the hell out of chareidim and kids are ok for sentimentality though they never trump the adults so there is some explanation albeit far from being logical. But there are other laws too. A parent of a child rejected by the school that is more famous for rejection than acceptance made a Freedom of Information request relating to the school's finances. He had barely filed his request when he was summoned to the Beth Din. Sitting there was not one rabbi, nor three rabbis who usually constitute a court but the entire rabbinate made up of the Chief, his henchman, enforcers and even specimen imported from Golders Green.

Summoned was not just the offending father but also the mother because as the 'rabbi' is wont to say, women round here are equal but different. And since the mother’s dress usually forms the reason for rejection she must have been central to the proceedings. A Star Chamber you might want to call it as the accuser himself was nowhere to be seen, though that did not prevent the rabbis from threatening to throw all 20 volumes of the Talmud at them. Mind you given the size of many of the rabbis a rump parliament would probably be more accurate. Needless to say the FOI request was never responded to and the information sought never imparted.

The above cases were still not formal courts and one might contend that in a formal hearing with two opposing parties justice does prevail. So last but not least we come to the notorious case of the wife who divorced in the Beth Din after some 30 years of marriage, during which she brought up several children, looked after the household and suffered more than the occasional hiding. For her troubles she was awarded the grand sum of £500. This works out at approximately a fiver per bruise give or take a slap or two which is about the going rate. The husband on the other hand walked away with the house he had ruled with an iron fist and undoubtedly deserved something for his troubles. When the woman woke up to her situation she was warned off by the Beth Din that challenging the agreement could invalidate her divorce which was a blatant lie. She was however allowed to retain the £500. Equal but different indeed.

All one can really say is that if there was no element of palm tree justice there may well have been some greasing of the palm which rabbinical ingenuity can sometimes find to form a kosher substitute.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Escrow miracles

Escrow

The above advert turned up in the North West London Advertiser and my apologies to those readers who have been disabused of the notion that more rational, genteel folk occupy those regions. I am glad to say that so far it has not turned up in the Stamford Hill advertisers which suggests that either we are less gullible or we have less money to throw around. Or perhaps it’s more difficult to find men to do things on behalf of women round here.

It would be a laughing matter but the story, unverified, doing the rounds in town is of a family recently bereaved of a father and husband who died several weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Apparently this shaman or someone on his behalf contacted the family while the man was ill and dying to suggest that £/$10,000 is paid into an account or with a ‘third party’ to be paid out only if the man was healed. If not he would charge a mere £500 for his troubles. The family having been told that all hope was lost were minded to give it a try. They did however have the mind to consult a sensible rov who told them not to part with a penny.

I am told that the poor widow is terribly upset thinking that if only she had gone along with it there may have been a different outcome.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

I flee from thee, My Country

I'm sitting writing this in a foreign European country, in a rural setting with a view of vineyards, alps, rivers, hills or any other picturesque scene of your imagination which is not urban or industrial but does not give my location away.

When choosing a holiday my number one priority is to find a location outside the UK. Not because there is anything wrong or bad with the British Isles. To the contrary, having travelled as far north as Gateshead, south-west as Lands End and east as Cromer I know this country from the craggy rocks of the Isle of Wight to the verdant rolling countryside, its lonely clouds and crowds of daffodils, its generally clement, if somewhat unpredictable, climate and its harmonious landscape. However, when vacationing I need more than just different scenery and location. In order to get away from it all there must also be different number plates, shop signs and language. But it is not simply that a variation in the jingle of coins and different mastheads on the newsstands transport you away from the stresses of home and work, so let me explain.

I am for most of the time confined geographically to a square mile in an insignificant corner of the capital. To a large extent I might as well be inhabiting a different country with its own self-imposed morals, mores, laws and customs. It has its benefits and advantages. Worries are taken care of by communal bodies, neighbourhood shops cater to our diet and palate, schools ensure that if little else our children will on the whole follow in our footsteps, neighbours and passers-by who, when not directly related, are related to someone who is, and a local population of non-coreligionists that tolerates us in its midst especially when we're not pushing a rear extension alongside the length of their garden.

It is however when I leave our natural habitat of urban ghettos that I am reminded how little I belong to my country and countrymen. Even writing the above words with the possessive, first person pronoun sounds strange. While correct by definition as I was born and bred in England and have lived here most of my life there is still an air of falseness about it. I remain visibly different to the vast majority of my compatriots and never more so when moving about in what should be, and strictly speaking is, my homeland when I feel like a legal alien. But unlike the song I’m an Englishman in England.

Stopping at service stations along the motorway, taking up residence for a fortnight in a village in the Cotswolds or a farmhouse in Devon, attending circuses, fetes, seaside resorts and country fairs I am constantly reminded how little I belong to this land, its people, history and culture and how foreign I am in my own country. Observing families with their children enjoying the weather with an ice cream and hot dog at ease with themselves and I realise that not only do I not belong but that I shall never belong. I might ignore some of the stares or even the occasional frown or worse. I might exchange pleasantries with a family, compare notes about our children but it is temporary and fleeting that serves only to magnify our differences. Rather than await a suggestion to join them for lunch I reflexively keep a safe enough distance so that such an invitation does not materialise.

Little things like greeting a villager in the morning take on a huge significance. Am I just being polite and behaving as one does in the country? Am I being over familiar which may be Jewish but not very English? Might I say sorry unnecessarily and overdo my Ps & Qs and so emphasise my alienation? Is this what they mean in trying to make a kidush Hashem? And I haven't even dealt with the feelings when the greeting is not returned or when the seat opposite is vacated shortly after my arrival.

Some might accuse me of being embarrassed of my religion or at least my version of it. Awkward might be more precise. Not so much with who I am but with what I am not. I have no issue with my practises and culture. I don't try (very ineffectively) to conceal my yarmulke with a flat cap and I enjoy visiting Jewish places of interest on my travels. My issue is with the isolation forced upon us for no apparent reason. But rather than try and reason with my accusers I would point out that I am not alone in my sentiments. Others may have found a solution by holidaying with their own and creating a mini-Stamford Hill-on-sea on the south coast, a micro Broughton Park in Llandudno or for the more affluent kosher hotels with pools and 5 star cuisine anywhere from the Alps to the Apennines and Nice to Naples. Ostensibly it may be for the daily prayer quorum and readily available kosher food but it also avoids the discomfort of leaving certainties and absolutes behind.

Rather than travel in my year-round shell I seek a holiday from that too and how better to invite questions and doubt than for a short while leaving oneself to one's own devices. Sitting here on the veranda outside a living room where the main focal point is the TV adorned by a colourful array of remote controls and watching my host and hostess and their teenage children lead what appears a blameless if simple life I query how exactly are we special. Were we chosen to dwell in urban ghettoes and deny our children a decent education which would ease their way in life and enable them to earn an honest living? We pride ourselves on our oral teachings, yet the diction and articulation of the children I encounter are vastly superior to local kids of the same age group. How is the teenager in her rather tight top, shorts and painted toenails morally inferior to my daughter in hosiered legs and knee-length skirt when doing anything from horse riding to roller blading? Is my hostess with her visible cleavage in the French style deficient to my wife's permanently snooded or bewigged head? Is there purpose in rearranging a functioning kitchen and transporting boxes of food to a land of abundance? Is Saturday intrinsically special when there is neither a shul nor a Jew in sight for miles?

The answers to me at least are obvious. My way of life is not a value judgement but that this is my culture and that is theirs. Neither is better nor worse and each has its positive and negative points. Our respective lifestyles are however different and it is this diversity that is valuable and should be celebrated.

So boarding the ferry - actually, taking the Eurotunnel is preferable as the ferry calls for mingling and being quite literally together in the same boat, seeing middle, white England as a family going up and down the stairs to and from the car, relaxing in the lounges, queuing at the bar or shop, watching me suspiciously as I open my car door as if sporting a beard and skullcap predisposes me to cause a nick in their car. So coming off Le Shuttle I spend 2 weeks amongst descendants of Gauls, Helvetians or Etruscans when I may be viewed as Jewish but where I am equally considered English. When I bump into my fellow island dwellers they need not know that they share a homeland with me. When they see my GB sticker and left hand drive let them avert their gaze. If I do strike up a conversation and give Hackney as the response to an enquiry of my origins, it won't matter that my reply feels somewhat misleading as if that isn't proper England or it isn't really from where I am. I am comforted that we are united by a strangeness in a foreign land and that they can no more call Innsbruck or Salzburg home than I can.

There is even the off chance that I will gain the acceptance it seems I crave only many miles away from home. Some years ago driving to Prague I was passing Pilsen, home of the famous beer, when a lorry with English plates came towards me from the opposite direction. As our vehicles passed the truck driver flashed me as a mark of fraternity towards a fellow countryman far from home. Needless to say I flashed and waved back. It was only much later that the irony dawned upon me that I had to travel some 700 miles from the shores of my homeland to feel that I belong to my country.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Riots Schmiots

As riots go it must be said that we didn’t have too a bad one. As the Shabbos boredom reached its zenith some action was delivered quite literally to our doorsteps and no one can accuse us of not rising to the challenge.

While rioters around us were breaking windows our locals broke bread with them and lent a hand to shift some of those heavy boxes. We should now look forward to a Yiddish letter to the News Update signed 'A Concerned Looter' advising that when doing returns, if you don’t have a receipt you can always ask for a credit voucher. However, rumours that some of them helped themselves to 50" plasmas are patently false since they would not by any means fit into a bedroom cupboard. There would also be no use for sneakers or Crocs which the gedoilim have ruled to be non-kosher footwear for Tisha B'Av.

Of course we were taken aback by the overt anti semitism of the rioters who chose to ignore us altogether. This is surely an issue that must be looked at by the anti boycott and delegitimisers. It may have been perfectly understandable while the rioting was taking place in Tottenham when we did our bit by forming a human chain which included that shameful scene of a chasidic husband holding his wife's hand in public and on TV.

But when rioting broke out in balbatishe areas such as Ealing and Croydon some hard questions were asked. Why not us, we demanded from our Dear Leaders who considered putting off their Margate and Bournemouth holidays to deal with the crisis. Surely Shomrim can arrange something better than a few straggling rioters lost between Brixton and Enfield. It took a letter from the Grand Leader himself and Shomrim members were finally spotted heroically waving 2-ways at passing traffic and contacting the uncontactable police every time a cleaning lady passed with a carrier bag. 'Never leave them unattended for a minute', they yelled into their halachically adapted mobiles, 'or they may walk off with your fleishige kitchen sink.’ Jewish women of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your goites.

A special meeting of our own Cobra, which goes by the name of the Jewish Community Liaison Committee, was hastily convened at which a resolution was unanimously passed calling on all bakeries to hand out pastries, rogelech and cheesecake as well as challah. Meanwhile beards were trapped in riot gear and tzitzis tangled in stab-proof vests to deal with the Independent Advisory Group muscling in on the action. We have one official spokesman, one person licensed to speak to the old bill, one liaison committee, one vigilante group and the rest can go and watch the action. Though in an unusually strongly worded letter, local Rabbonim urged spectators to cover their faces so as not to cause a chilul hashem.

Calm was finally restored with a visit to the affected area by representatives of the IAG, JCLC, UOHC and SHSRP. The public was assured by the announcement that the number of committees would be increased from 160 to 1600 and that the situation was being closely monitored so that further acronyms may be released should the need arise. Confidence was further restored by the leaking of a transcript of the telephone conference between the chairman of the JCLC, the Secretary General of United Nations and the head of Mossad. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the public made a peaceful exodus during the following weekend while showing an admirable coolness under fire and brimstone.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Console console My people

Shabbos Nachamu must be the most beautiful shabbos in the Jewish calendar. We’ve mourned and felt sorry for ourselves, which we do rather well, for the last three weeks, spent some time on the floor and lamented our losses and suffering and now comes the time to get off the ground,dust ourselves down and dream of greater things to come.

With soaring poetry we put our troubles behind us and fortify ourselves with visions of a harmonious nature and invigorated spirit.

And for that, few beat Isaiah once he gets going.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain (Isaiah 40:3)

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:39)

What a tonic in these days of strife!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Help Tottenham clear up

Here are some places where people can help with the riot clear up in Tottenham:

A new Tottenham Fund has been set up to help Haringey people affected by disturbances at the weekend - and accept the many generous offers of donations from local residents and businesses.

 

"They're meshuggenahs, It's mindless." Aaron Biber

The Jewish Chronicle has Aaron Biber’s story with a link to a fund called Keep Aaron Cutting which remarkably has raised since yesterday almost £14,500 and increasing by the minute.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Shameful scenes

It’s no good ignoring the scenes of Saturday Night when it appeared that Stamford Hill, its wife and kids decamped to Tottenham to enjoy the spectacle. I wonder what would have been our reaction had the reverse taken place and we were inside the cordon and a significant number of a neighbouring community in their Sabbath finery came to watch our heart being ripped out by mindless thugs.

What was on camera was quite bad enough. What was off camera, however, was simply disgusting. One bystander told me the police were scanning number plates at Tottenham Hale so expect the do-gooders for the imprisoned lads in Japan to have some work cut out for them closer to home.

To his credit Rav Padwa published a letter warning ‘minors and adults’ to stay away from the riots but you wonder how stupid people must be to need to be told that a spectacle like the one we saw is revolting. I shall give credit to the Shomrim when I hear how active they are in recovering the looted goods.

padwa

Where are the leaders?

Where I live I could see the Tottenham fires from my window, helicopters and sirens kept me up all night on Saturday and police vans were on many street corners last night. Local shopping centres in Tottenham Hale and Wood Green have been trashed and looted. People are genuinely frightened whether we’re next and some of the comments on Twitter sound horribly ominous.

I voted for Boris and am still a fan but the longer he stays away the more toast he will be at the next election. His comment on how safe London will be for the Olympics would be hilarious if it wasn't so grossly insulting.

Boris: It may not feel that way wherever you are but we’re worried about our safety and livelihoods today and tomorrow not some jamboree next year.

Who is in charge if rioters roam the streets unhindered for hours on end? No police, no politicians, no leaders. But were citizens to take matters into their own hands in the spirit of Big Society the arm of the law would be upon them at once.

We have been cowed into not daring to fight back but when real trouble comes there is no one left to rely on.

The Battlefield: Before, during and after

Tottenham LCS store 1930 1

Shooting-in-Tottenham-Hal-001

Police-Contain-The-Area-A-004

Top: Richard Wood

Middle: Lewis Whyld/PA

Bottom: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Hair raising!

Aaron-Biber-89-assesses-t-006

Aaron Biber, 89, assesses the damage to his hairdressing salon after the riots on Tottenham High Road.

Apparently the rioters were seeking justice.

( Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Angel of the North

After returning on a high from the Gala Dinner, which I reviewed here, I got slightly carried away and wrote the following in honour of my alma mater the one and only Gateshead Yeshiva.

Gateshead!

In your midst is the seat of one of the most prominent citadels of study in the Torah world. Most European yeshivoth that were in existence at your birth have perished and are no more and you alone stand proud and indomitable. Yeshivoth have in recent decades proliferated around the globe yet you remain still unique and distinct thriving in a corner of England that shall forever be associated with Torah and Orthodoxy. You are the cradle of Torah civilisation in this country as we know it today and you should trumpet it with pride and grace. Yours is a Yeshiva that encompasses many shades of Orthodoxy. From the Hasmo boy who wishes to soak up an authentic yeshiva atmosphere before going to university to the chasidic bochur who wants imbibe genuine litvisher lomdus, they all converge on Gateshead. Not for you the practise of contemporary Torah institutions that define themselves by whom they exclude. Like the Angel of the North your arms are outstretched to welcome all who come to the banks of the River Tyne to quench their thirst with the study of Torah. The white shirt is not frightened that he'll be led astray by the speckled tie and the rimless yarmulke is not fearful that the chosid may adulterate its purity of scholarship. For all who are at Gateshead have strived and toiled to get there, cherish its ideals and contribute to its unique character. How many yeshivoth can boast an alumni like yours? As the Rosh Yeshiva said v’chol Bonyaich Limudei Hahsem. Your sons, Gateshead, are teachers and themselves heads of yeshivoth. Dayanim, authors and pastors of far flung communities gathered to honour you when successful business men sat alongside professionals and accountants mingled with lawyers. All who have been through your doors, sheltered under your roof and warmed in your unique atmosphere remain imbued with a love, honour and duty towards Torah. They assembled to wave the flag you planted in each of their hearts which they carry with pride for the remainder of their lives. Long may you survive so that the Sage Gateshead is personified in your leaders and pupils.

Live on Gateshead!