Sunday, 25 May 2008

Paradise Gained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 May 2008

JC Power List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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