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!

Northern Lights: Review of the Gateshead Dinner

Last week Tuesday evening I attended a dinner that was without doubt the greatest show of force of Anglo-Chareidi Jewry for the last 25 years. Phew! With an opening like that I could almost become a staff writer on a Chareidi newspaper. That though may have been too plausible, so let's try again. The greatest Chareidi event on our isles since the last Agudah Convention at the Normandie Hotel. That sounds more like it. A touch hyperbolic, I know, but where in the world would we be without the heavenly gift of hyperbole. There would be no tragedies every time a geriatric pops off, no cause for national mourning when some kabbalistic shaman is dispatched by his partner in crime and our very existence wouldn't be jeopardised each time Hackney tries to introduce resident parking zones or, Go- forbid, spit, spit, speed humps.

As the accredited reporter for Kehiloh Kedoishe B'nei Shylock (Shaylock for non-Chasidim) I took my place in the press gallery to report on the thrice in a lifetime dinner in honour of Gateshead Yeshiva at the Prince and Princess Suite in Edmonton. I shan't trouble you with the faux Greco columns, busts and reliefs that transform a mundane unit on a lowly trading estate in a grottier part of town to the splendour and majesty fit for a Jewish wedding. There'll be plenty of opportunities for that once the wedding season is again upon us and I'll be spending my evenings and early mornings admiring the ceiling insets in heavenly hues -with clouds- replete with twinkling stars of changing colours.

So back to the Dinner folks. I'm afraid the cocktail bar served mainly soft drinks and wine was in pitifully short supply. This wasn’t surprising despite Gateshead’s proximity to the party hotspot of Newcastle as the dinner was predominantly for our NW brethren and we know how well they sip their chocolate liqueur from medicine spoons. To compensate however female waitresses traversed the hall which again confirmed that the crowd was mostly the genteel NW folk as no bread rolls were thrown their way. For similar reasons humour too was in short supply though the chairman Reb Gershon Miller did quip that they called the evening a Gala Dinner as calling it a Gateshead Yeshiva Dinner may have reminded ex-students of the Gateshead dinners they've spent a lifetime trying to forget. This was after Reb Gershon welcomed his audience in a pained and anguished musardike tone of voice that couldn't fail to remind the diners of the approaching Elul zman. If not for the humour and the entire hall may have broke out in an impromptu rendition of Lehisracheik min hagaivo...

Guys, it's dinner time and I would like to keep you fed but we do have several speeches to cover. There was little to read about in the brochure with few historical photographs and strangely they only placed one on every other seat. So make do with your spring rolls and Chinese noodles and personal bottles of Coke and sit back and enjoy the before, during and after dinner speakers. We have a star speaker too but we've kept him for the end lest he upset your appetite with his blow by blow account of a child murder in NY. I'm not complaining though; he is a Chareidi leader of the modern variety and he does have a job to perform.

I am not being fair because truth said I came away from the evening highly impressed. It's not every day I review dinners because it's not every day I attend them. This was however no plain dinner as Gateshead is no plain yeshiva. As Rabbi Padwa said in his speech Gateshead is not only the predominant yeshiva in England and indeed in Europe but it is also one of the leading yeshivoth in the world. How true it is and the dinner was a great show of force not only for Gateshead but for Orthodox Judaism in this country.

I was there to pay homage to my alma mater and former Rosh Yeshiva though they may have preferred me not to mention this. I was rewarded for my effort when Reb Gershon introduced the star of the evening: none other than the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Avrohom Gurwitz himself. I am not exaggerating when I say that a current passed through the hall as Rabbi Miller concluded his introduction with 'T'nu Kovod Latorah' and requested the Rosh Yeshiva to grace the assembled with divrei brocho. The entire hall rose like one and spontaneously broke into song. Quiet quickly resumed and a revered silence fell upon the hall as Reb Avrohom commenced his speech.

I have not seen Reb Avrohom for many years and I was struck by the man standing at the lectern and addressing the crowd. Here was an angelic face with sparkling eyes, his peyoth neatly behind his ears and a kempt beard flowing from his luscious lips clothed with a soft smile. His dark, plain tie behind his talith koton the flaps of which protruded onto the lapels of his dark jacket, there stood before us without doubt a man of stature whose presence was felt by all in attendance. In a gentle voice and measured tones with no histrionics and no exaggerated hand gestures there spoke a man whose dedication of a lifetime to teaching Torah was felt in each clearly enunciated syllable.

Referring to the weekly sidra he said that the travels of the Bnei Yisroel in the wilderness are a metaphor for the travails of a person's sojourn through life. Nowadays too, just like then,Torah is one's guiding light through life and an anchor to what is good and eternal. Simple enough sentiments expressed neither condescendingly nor loftily but perfectly matched to the audience and to the event. Torah, he said, was an acquisition by intellectual effort and not by monetary exchange. Our aim is to bring about a generation where 'all your children will be taught by God'. It was a short speech but one where every word counted and nothing that followed could mar the impression and inspiration of listening again to Reb Avrohom.

The next speech, following the main course which was interspersed with reminiscences of long lost friends and roommates of life in Yeshiva 'in our times', was by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman from Upstate New York. The mishna in Ovoith quotes Akavyo Ben Mahalalel, "know whence thou art come and whither though art going"' If listening to Reb Avrohom reminded us whence we are come then hearing Wachsman informed us where we are heading. I am afraid to tell you that it is not a pretty place and rather imbecillious too.

Wachsman is one of the chareidi world's star speakers wheeled out when a heavyweight is required and what a contrast it was from the speaker that preceded him.  Where Reb Avrohom brought harmony highlighting the shining light of Torah, Wachsman sowed discord by howling about the 'nothing' of alternative lifestyles. Where Reb Avrohom brought grace and elegance by respecting the intelligence of his audience and the dignity of the event, Wachsman debased it by insulting his listeners with fairy tales of gedoilim and yelling at them as if they were kids in a chasidic cheder. The contrast between the neat, dignified Rosh Yeshiva with a smile on his face reading from his dog-eared chumesh to the loud, brash, unkempt and frowning Wachsman waving his latest edition softback could not have been greater. One spoke of life while the other chose as his subject a gruesome death. In the Rosh Yeshiva's world the Torah is for all to acquire and lead their life by it. In Wachsman's world the generations are declining and it is 'pretty clear from the sforim hakdoishim' that we shall never again see the likes of the giants of old. Mind you he thinks we are good for our money and the right thing to do is hand it over to his ilk. There were in the crowd several generations but it was only in the gulf between the two speakers that we saw the decline of the later generation.

A rather depressing note to finish on but I’m glad to report that they eschewed the cheesy puffer train dancing which has become the standard finale of Chariedi events from kid's siyums to gatherings of the high and lofty. I left with an elevated spirit and I even composed a kind of ode in prose in place of the dessert which was served at this stage of the proceedings. I shall serve it up shortly.

Monday, 1 August 2011

School lessons

Some weeks ago in his column Ben Yitzchok referred to a number of schools and praised them for not relying on 'Government finance and educational control'. As to some new state-aided Jewish school in Golders Green he had this to say: '...So why go with a begging bowl to the Government for new schools where the admission policies involve uncertainties, to put it mildly.' He then cited the examples of Dr Schonfeld and Rabbi S Pinter and the schools they started and led respectively -Pinter didn't start any schools- for which they did not rely on outside help. He ends, 'Emulating their example is bound to pay dividends.'

This is a perfectly legitimate stance and not so long ago Menorah in North West London was offered voluntary aided status and turned it down, reportedly because they did not want government interference in the running of their school. Indeed Ben Yitzchok expressed similar reservations some 7 years ago when YHS became voluntary aided.
There is however just one slight problem. Ben Yitzchok is the pseudonym of non other than Joe Lobenstein who happens to be (or was until recently - it's impossible to know what's going on in that place) the Chairman of the Board of Governors of Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School. YH Seniors is of course a voluntary aided school. Irrespective of the fact that as far as parents are aware Joe does not carry out any of the functions of a Chairman and makes no effort to communicate with them, he still carries that title.

So why did Joe accept the most senior formal position of responsibility in a school relying on 'Government finance and educational control' while exhorting others to avoid this very same path? Why does he not follow at the school that he is notionally in charge of the lessons he gives to others? If Rabbi S. Pinter’s refusal of outside help is so praiseworthy why is it not followed at the school where his son and heir has titled himself ‘principal’?

Or does the word hypocrisy simply not appear in Joe’s lexicon?