Thursday, 4 June 2015

Driving Miss Reizy

Why the letter, people have been asking. I don't have in mind those who see it as chasidim reverting to form or those who believe Isis to have started a chapter in Stamford Hill. I suppose I would be a prime candidate for decapitation and yet I can assure you that I sit here with my yarmulke some distance from my shoulders.

The question, however, is being asked within Belz and within Stamford Hill where Belz would not generally feature amongst the extremists. The regular litany of bans and strictures on wigs, tights, skirts, heels and anything else the vivid chareidi imagination conjures up will rarely if ever carry on them a Belzer imprimatur. Having supported eiruvs and their dayan having backed the breakaway milk and more recently the new meat, Belz is usually an advocate for change rather than one of the local extremist groups of which we are blessed with a broad range of shades and colours. So why this letter that has caused so much consternation within and without?

Well, to answer that, an understanding is required of the tensions facing chasidic communities worldwide and not just Belz in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that chassidim are scared. Scared stiff, in fact. Chasidim in general operate to a greater or lesser degree on the basis that authentic Judaism as we know it today was born in the Carpathian mountains in the 18th century and this is what we must and do maintain. We dress during the week like the Amish and on Holy Days like Polish counts circa 1780. East European Galicia may no longer exist on the map but its heart pounds vibrantly in various chasidic dynasties.  And if we are to believe our elders and what the western media often tell us then this is what we have indeed accomplished and what would otherwise have been considered mission impossible is precisely the way we are.

But if that were true my soapbox would consist of vacuous bubbles rather than heavy suds. Because sorry to disappoint those believers who stumble along here in a moment of temptation but chasidim are nothing of the sort. We are all westerners ok. We engage in almost all the west has to offer bar that precious commodity of free speech, and especially on the printed page, and unfortunately we could do much better on the educational front. Yet notwithstanding our shortcomings we have proved very adroit in straddling the two worlds; in keeping largely to our traditions while enjoying the freedoms the western world has to offer.

Only this week Belzers across the globe watched their Rebbe's grandson's wedding live streamed through the otherwise banned you know what. For every odd flying chosid making the headlines in refusing to be seated near a female there are a dozen chasidim comfortably ensconced in club class and above.  Those guys are turning left not veering to the right. And so it is on all fronts. Chasidim can't resist issuing bans but then break them almost before the ink is dry.

But beneath this shiny veneer, those in charge know that something deeper is taking root. Our youth are drifting and chasidic circles are feeling it most acutely. Youngsters in their fur hats and breeches discuss Big Brother and not in the context of a Bar Mitzvah or wedding. They talk about I'm a Celebrity and think, get me out of here; they pick up moves from Strictly and import them to our raucous weddings. And too many rather than import the alien ways export themselves out. It is this tide that the Belz spiritual leaders are trying to stem but which in this instance has unleashed a torrent.

This in and of itself may still not excuse the letter and anyway that is not my mission. Let the Belzers do as they wish and I simply want to set out the context. One must further consider how driving is viewed generally in Stamford Hill and amongst chasidim in particular. A family where the woman drives is a subset with its own characteristics and stereotypes.  Remember there were few cars in Eastern Europe when this all began and what ever they did ride is unlikely to have been driven by a female, let alone a Jewish one. Thus ‘she drives' has become shorthand for a somewhat less traditional life style.

This is difficult to define to an outsider because it does not suggest being less Jewish or less frum in any way but it does imply being less chasidic of a certain schmaltzy type. It signifies being more relaxed about the yumminess of western culture, less minded about every uttering of the rabbis and points to having something of a mind of one's own. Not the woman driver in particular but the household she and her husband are leading. And if they are from a more stringent background then it implicitly represents a rejection of an element of our traditional values. It could even point to a closeted heretic, not necessarily of the mysterious ways of God but towards the movement and its mores.

When faced with these kinds of risks our gatekeepers would rather not delve into the details and reflexively resort to what they know best: banning. But alas such are the times that bans are not what they used to be. Banning smartphones has made not one bit of difference as Whatsapp may like to tell you. It has become impossible to enforce and too much of a necessity to too many people for it to be realistic to even try. Banning long wigs and sheer tights has not affected their ubiquity and banning the internet has just made more people sign up.

It is in this context that women's driving becomes an issue, not as a cause but as yet another symptom, and a very overt one at that, of the much feared downward spiral. What follows could be – for men - short sleeves, coloured shirts, a short coat and heaven forfend even a short suit, and once you reach there who knows where it all ends. If this sounds like madness then you are evidently not a chosid in any sense of the word and have never vacillated prior to the wedding of a second cousin thrice removed whether to wear a streimel or a hat. But as any self-respecting chosid will tell you, many an apostate started by twisting his peyos rather than curling them and when the woman starts driving then the proverbial has truly hit the fan.

But there is something more at play and even apostasy is not the entire truth. We are well aware that there are many good Jews who don't look and conduct themselves like us and are no less Jewish for that. For ourselves, however, we, by which I mean men and women alike, generally want to be the way we are because it's what we know, what we like, what we believe to be right and what we want for our children. Part and parcel of that is the standing of women in our society.

No one forces anyone to have large families and no one prevents those women who wish to work from doing so and indeed plenty do. But yet many women do have large families, out of choice or out of being conditioned to make such choices, and prefer to stay at home to raise their children and look after the home. And very many of these same women choose or have been taught to choose not to drive. You or I may not approve but then no one has asked us. God save us if we all have to live our lives in accordance with the latest headline of the Daily Mail or The Guardian, and when they start singing from the same hymn sheet it really becomes scary.

Yes there are women out there who would love to drive but their husbands won't allow them. But then there are men out there who'd love to trim their peyos and beards but their wives won't allow them. The comparison may be somewhat disingenuous but the fact is that a woman wanting to drive will be as anxious of the sisterhood's displeasure as she will be of her father's and husband's censure. As a woman from a prominent Belz family said to my wife, she would love to drive and there are other things in the system that she is unhappy with but she chooses to belong there and so must take the good and the bad. I might think that they often get a raw deal and if one side of the equation chooses to sit in the kitchen while the other gets the car I hardly need to tell you who's living the good life. You may also question how free such choices are but once again it's not what you think that matters. Trust me, being around  when some of these women tell you that they can make up their own minds for themselves would put many a sturdy man to flight.

And to those wonderful Jews out there falling over each other to tell all who care to listen how this is not Judaism I say thanks but no thanks. If the Chief Rabbi, Board of Deputies, the JC and other bastions of Anglo Jewry would care to speak up on the parlous state of chasidic boys' education in general or the rampant cover-up of child abuse in the larger community I'd cheer them to the rafters. But that is where one barely hears a murmur. It is only when they feel the need to tell the wider world how Belzers do not practise the real Judaism that they suddenly find their voice.

Well, let me remind them of what we constantly hear from them when the boot is on the other foot, that there is no ‘real’ Judaism and yiddishkeit comes in all shapes and sizes. So you don't lecture us on ours and we will leave you alone with yours. Should they ever come to burn bras in Belz then an invitation will undoubtedly be extended to all those terribly nice people out there but in the meantime your chorus has that same self-righteous ring that you all too often accuse us of.

So raise a Lechaim to Belz for the simche in their Rebbe's court and for the all but signed peace treaty they reached this week with their lifelong adversaries. But you needn’t drive yourself to distraction by a ban which if it’s to be honoured will be only in the breach.

Friday, 22 May 2015

“A Victim’s Perspective”

The following is a letter from one of Todros Grynhaus’s victims who testified at the trial when Grynhaus was convicted. The letter is addressed to 3 named so called ‘askonim’ who were involved in Grynhaus’s defence. The letter was written during the first trial when the jury were unable to reach a verdict. Grynhaus was convicted this week after a second trial.

This letter is published with the written consent of its author.

[Name and address]


8th March 2015


Dear Mr [], Mr [] & Mr []


I am addressing this letter to you, as part of the leading askonim looking to protect, defend and ultimately exonerate the notorious criminal in regards his current court case; I am aware that there are many other askonim involved and I am happy that they all take note of the points I put forward. Of course we are all mindful of that fact, that now that case has started, there is little your team can actually do, aside sitting and fidgeting in the public gallery each day, encouraging and inspiring your hero, giving him as much moral support as you can, whilst simultaneously absorbing the level of depravity your hero accomplished.

I don’t want to waste your time (though clearly you have lots of it) arguing the spuriousness of your belief. If the Leaders of our Community, those that are able to see the big picture, those that have access to so much detail, and who have been privy to so much material and information,  have been unable to convince you of the colossal miscalculation in your warped thinking, what hope do I, a layman of the community have?

So the purpose of this letter is not to attempt to convince you to ‘change sides’; it is very apparent that none of you have any experience in dealing with victims of abuse so it impossible for you to empathise with them. More worryingly by your misguided actions you have helped build a scenario where the abuser has become the victim and the abused have become the perpetrators.

So the purpose of this letter is simply to try and explain to you how the last few weeks have been from a victim’s perspective.

Let’s recap: A person I trusted, a person in a position of authority betrayed and abused me. The fact that this was committed over thirty years ago is mostly irrelevant. The fact that the crime took place in his family home; a mere few feet from his parents bedroom is perhaps slightly more related. The fact that it was not an isolated incident, not for me or for my fellow victims is central to this case.

For years I lived with self blame – I blamed myself for being friendly with his brother, I blamed myself for visiting their home every Shabbos and blamed myself for bring so weak and timid to fight back.  I blamed myself for the sexual abuse that occurred. I believed the abuse was somehow my fault. In some way, I felt my involvement became a significant factor leading to the abuse. I failed to see that victims are victims. My abuser started, maintained and pursued the abusive relationship from its conception until its ending.

Over time, I learnt the next step, that of acceptance. Accepting the fact, the fact that I was, and always will be, a victim of sexual abuse. For decades I didn’t want to admit it and so suppressed the memories. But I learnt that when a victim does not truly accept their traumatic past, it is pretty much impossible to reach the next step in the healing process. I learnt to move forward with life. I learnt that we can never change what happened in the past, yet we needed to deal with this current reality and start to live the rest of our lives.  And I learnt to be patient.

Can I ever forgive him? Up until two weeks ago I thought I could. I know he is (allegedly) human and humans make mistakes. I know that we all can make serious judgement errors and I also know that sometimes it the abused that themselves turn into abusers. Retribution and revenge in the form of many years behind bars will not take away the pain he caused, though if there is a concept of ‘closure’ then it is possible that a jail term would facilitate this.

But a fortnight into the trial I can now never forgive him. And I can never forgive you. For him to stand up in court, having been [] by one of the top QC’s in the United Kingdom, financed by money raised by your team and deny any wrongdoing is almost as sickening as the crime itself. To hear him stand up and emotionally declare himself candidate as ‘Dad-of-the-century’, to belittle his sickening deeds and to be the catalyst that may send out the message to our community that not only can you commit these heinous crimes, but that a group of Askonim will always be there to defend it, whatever and however, is in my opinion such a tragic error of judgement that it can only be explained by accommodating your complete and total ignorance to the subject. Or perhaps you do understand the severity of the crime, perhaps even if TG had been a member of ISIS and had chopped off the heads of twenty children in MH Car Park you would still have defended him as a ‘member of Family Klal Yisroel’ (end of quote).

I understand that the trial may end this week. Do I want him to be locked away for a long time? I have to be honest and say yes. Was this always my desire? Definitely not. Your collective sense of responsibility to defend a flawed member of Klal Yisroel in the manner that you have, has caused more damage than your limited intelligence will ever appreciate.

I can only hope that once this case is over, you hang up your ‘askonus’ boots and move back to eternal hibernation. The world in general and the Yiddishe world in particular will be a far safer place.

Yours sincerely

[Victim’s name]

Sunday, 15 March 2015

“The best challos and cakes in London”

Grodz2

The above Grodzinski advert by Harris Grodzinsky actually comes in the form of a ‘Warning’. It seems that the ad is from 1897 or thereabout and the story behind it is told on the English side.

It is written in a wonderfully archaic Hebrew with a strong haskallic flavour but definitiely pre Modern Hebrew. There seems no doubt that ‘Harris’ was frum as he advertises his punctillious challoh taking and that he keeps Shabbos. Yet the fact that he is writing in Hebrew rather than in Yiddish, the style of the Hebrew itself and his English first name, written in Hebrew letters, (even the ‘Co.’ of the company name is rendered in Hebrew) all suggest that he was influence by the zeitgeist and was no traditional eastender holding on to the old world against all odds.

It seems that in those days it was enough for a baker to self-certify his products and rely on his good name. Nowadays of course it is the kashrus authority that provides the seal and mints a fortune in the process. As for the deception, well let’s leave that for another time.

I couldn’t resist having a go at a translation. It may sound stitled in places and that is becasue I have tried to retain the quanitness of the original.

So here goes:

Warning from Harris Grodzinski

The baker who is praised and famed for his good challos and cakes that excel in their wonderful taste and are the best in the city of London requests from every man who knows him to beware of those who compete with him, not with the quality of the merchandise, but they deceive the customers by minting [Grodzinski's] seal on their merchandise so as to attract to themselves the customers. Therefore whoever wants to acquire for his money good bread of fine-meal free from any combined impurities should turn to me. Also, all my acquaintances know that with me the baking is the ultimate of kashrus, I separate challoh according to the rules and I do not bake my bread on Shabbos, God forbid. My shops are open to all seekers 1) 20 Bedford St 2) 31 Fieldgate St

Thursday, 23 October 2014

ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת – ShabbatUK Special

I know that ShabbatUK (or ShabbosUK as we don’t call it) has hardly registered round here but I for one can’t help being inspired by it. Shabbos is truly a gift that all can partake in. From the chosid who brings it in early on Thursday night with multiple helpings of tsholent and kugel and barely draws it to a close Sunday morning at 3am while seeing off the Shabbos Queen with the leftovers (some households serve it for Sunday supper too), to obsessed halachists fretting with the opening of fridge doors and unscrewing bottles, to the less observant who might celebrate Shabbos with a Friday night dinner and leave it at that.

One thing is certain: from the hushed elegance of the candlelighting by the woman of the house before sunset on Friday to the more raucous extinguishing of the fire by the man of the house after nightfall on Shabbos, Shabbos is a uniquely Jewish experience. In an age of slavery it introduced the concept of a universal day of rest for everyone from the master to the animals, and it remains no less relevant in our non-stop, 24/7 era. For as long as Shabbos lasts there is little but Shabbos and what surrounds it. Time to reflect, time to enjoy, time to reap the fruits of the week that was and time to rejuvenate for the week to come.

Let us not pretend that it is always easy and the long summer Shabbos afternoons can be a challenge even for the most faithful. But then this is after all religion and not the product of focus groups; one size fits all is in the nature of the beast. Yet nevertheless at its heart is a day of rest, a day of spiritual enhancement and physical enjoyment, a time for parents to enjoy their children and a time for children to get the attention of their parents. As the zmiros goes, Hashomer shabbos habein im habas, Shabbos is observed with the son and the daughter.

So how welcoming to see the new Chief Rabbi’s initiative in organising and promoting ShabbatUK when thousands will partake in the joy of Shabbos, and for many of who it may well be their first such experience. It is often humbling to see how others react to Shabbos when for us who were brought up with it it can sometimes come across as stale and boring. Unfortunately, I will not be hosting anyone or doing anything towards this special Shabbos and yet it is impossible to see and read the excitement about it and not get carried along. So here, dear readers, is my vort lekoved Shabbos Kodesh, ShabbatUK.

On Friday night we recite 3 times the words of Vayechilu hashomayim v’horoetz, which are the psukim for the 7th day of the Story of the Creation in Sefer Breishis. We say it once privately in the shmone esre, once publicly immediately after and a 3rd time over wine with our family at the start of Kiddush.

The words are:

ויכולו השמים והארץ וכל צבאם
ויכל אלקים ביום השביעי מלאכתו אשר עשה וישבות ביום השביעי מכל מלאכתו אשר עשה
ויברך אלקים את יום השביעי ויקדש אותו כי בו שבת מכל מלאכתו אשר ברא אלקים לעשות

And the heaven and earth were completed with all their hosts
And on the seventh day God completed all the work which He had made, and He rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had made
And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it for He rested in it from all the work which He created.

These psukim teach us the specialness of Shabbos. Completing a job doesn’t always bring with it rest. One can complete a job and still be troubled by aspects of it, wanting to go back and change something, regretting at not having done things differently and altogether being stressed about the job despite the fact that it is complete. This is why completing a job is not quite the same as resting from it.

Rest, however, on its own is also not enough. Even when you put your feet up from a task completed other anxieties may arise. What now, what next, are often the prevailing thoughts after having laboured on a project even if it was successfully completed, and holiday blues is a recognised mood that some people experience when taking a break. A blessing is required to introduce peace and harmony to rest and the absence of work in itself is not enough. And when spirituality is introduced to that blessing only then do we have a true day of rest and respite from the rough and tumble of life.

This is what these puskim teach us: Not only did Hashem complete the Creation on the day of Shabbos but He also rested on that day. That too was not enough and In addition Hashem endowed this special day with His blessing and then sanctified the day on top of it all.

It is this blessing that we feel at our Shabbos table surrounded by our families and enjoying the Shabbos food and it is this spirituality and kedusha that we aspire to in the uplifting Shabbos prayers and zmiros.

It must be a privilege and a duty for us who were born into it to be able to share it with others.

Gut Shabbos!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

פתחו שערים – Open the Gates

Yesodey Hatorah Application Pack - Year Beginning Sep 2015

This website is proud to present for the 2nd year running a tri-lingual Information Pack which includes a step-by-step guide and FAQs on applying for admission to Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School.

For once I should and will shut up about my pet peeve. I wouldn’t really be doing my cause a favour if I slagged off the school while trying to promote it. So for today I will do no more than remind you that this is a school that has recently been judged by Ofsted to be Good and which comes after a rating of Outstanding that lasted for over 8 years.

If you have decided that this is the school you want for your daughter then follow the instructions and she should be offered a place. Don’t believe whatever you’re told about getting your child in and don’t be deterred by whatever obstacles are put in your way.

The School has 80 places to offer and year after year is heavily undersubscribed. So if you are frum and live in the Stamford Hill area and you want your daughter to attend Yesodey Hatorah then you should almost certainly be able to get her in. It is your right and so long that you go about it correctly you will find that despite their formidable appearance those gates are actually scaled quite easily.

The deadline is very soon, 31 October, so don’t delay and get your application in at once.

Best of Luck!