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.


Anonymous said...

A very nice piece IYTU. By the by, I feel that your last few posts are more considered and thoughtful, even positively focused, than earlier ones which consisted more of disillusioned (but very amusing and poignant and not necessarily unwarranted) vitriol.

If I could comment on something you said here, I'd be interested in your response. Here you mention it explicitly but it's a sentiment I've picked up from other posts.

When talking about how you looked at those around you and wondered if they are 'morally inferior' for dressing as they do, you answered:

'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.'

This suggests to me that you are 'culturally' attached to Judaism. Rather than viewing Torah / mitzvos through a religious or spiritual light where they are intrinsically valuable and practising them enriches your spiritual existance, you see them as providing a alternative cultural framework.

From what I've read of your other posts, I don't believe you really feel this way. You seem like a committed 'religious' Jew who is keen for his children to grow up likewise. You seem to be irked (justifiably in my opinion) by the hypocrisies, social conformism and pettiness that mar sections of the Jewish community.

If I may be so bold though, and this is only from what I pick up from your posts, you sound like you would be happier leading a frum but more 'modern' life in North West London. Not that life there is any freer of those things you complain about in Stamford Hill, but you comment, '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.'

There are many that have a 'decent education' that enables them to join any profession they choose - they work as any member of the wider non-Jewish society does but at night they come to the Beis HaMedrash to learn. They don't have televisions, their wives are besheitled and skirted, best of all, they speak correctly and not in that lazy-accented way that has become so prevalent.

Of course Stamford Hill may still view them as not frum enough - they may only sit seperately at weddings rather than in seperate halls, but it seems to me that there is definitely a society where one can lead a fully orthodox and halachically committed life and engage to a greater extent with the wider world.

IfYouTickleUs said...

Thank you for your comments which have given me quite a bit to reflect on.

Firstly I should say that I am by nature a critic and am drawn to satire and humour. My writing is thus as much a reflection of my viewpoint as of the subject under discussion. Wherever I were to migrate I would would not be removed and would surely find subjects to ridicule and satirise.

I do derive spirituality from my religious practice but it still remains cultural. Pesach is spiritually uplifting but the seder is clearly cultural. My Nishmas is no different to a Christian's Agnus Dei other than that one is mine and the other isn't. It is however also true that when you are brought up with Judaism interwoven into your very being and every aspect of your life, it is difficult to untangle what is religion and what is baggage. It is no surprise that most OTD kids give it up altogether rather than move to a more moderate denomination. There is little spiritualism in seeing wives and daughters and not to mention non-Jewish cleaners slaving away before Pesach.

As for the more moderates, besides that once a chosid always a chosid and this is my cultural home I doubt the grass is much greener elsewhere. In GG, they do take themselves and their rabbis awfully seriously while here they are objects of ridicule. The chareidi world is veering rightward everywhere and Tifereth, Tifereth Shloime, Torah v'Daath and others are eating away at more mainstream schools like Pardes House while Menorah has almost no communal base left.

Moving further north to Hendon, I have read Naomi Alderman's Disobedience and I know some people round there. While there are indeed many professionals their world view is still very insular and their Judaism stagnant. Beyond that there is the MO crowd which is more heimish than US but more open than GG/Hendon Adath/Munks. Although I might find my place there , you quickly find that there are issues like Israel where I would place myself left of centre. In those communities it's not just Israel right or wrong, but that Israel simply cannot be wrong. Despite what I wrote of being a Jew in England I am still a dedicated Goluth Jew.

I am much more interested in intellectual freedom than physical liberties, and anyway so long as you don't make too much of a noise you can do practically what you like round here. The only area which is truly painful is the education of children. I want them to be confident and knowledgeable enough to be able to go out into the world and I don't want them surviving on benefits when they're older. It is an awful price to pay and it is this that will ultimately cause the system to implode. The question is only when.

Anonymous said...

By original poster:

A few points in response to your reply:

I don't see how you can equate Nishmas with Angus Dei. That's like saying an eved kochavim prostrating to Baal is the same as our own tachanunim. Yes superficially they are the same actions but as a religious Jew, one must surely believe that the actions/mitzvos they are performing have much greater intrinsic worth than those of other cultures, otherwise why not swap one for the other? Mitzvos aren't for our own spiritual pleasure-seeking, on a basic level we perform them because we believe G-d wants us to. If we are just keeping the Shulchan Aruch because it feels more 'right' than other religious practices, that surely is a very low level of observance indeed.

I do appreciate what you say about the interwearving of halacha and social custom rendering them hard to distinguish. In a society where a boy starts wearing a white shirt and black trousers at the same time he puts on tefillin, it's no wonder that the two become equated and to take off the white shirt becomes akin to not wearing tefilln anymore.

I would suggest that for a parent in this society, it is their duty to educate their child in a way that makes them appreciate what is done for halachic reasons and what is done for social reasons. If the child at a later stage wishes to wear coloured shirts or shave, they will be able to make an informed decision as to the sub-denomination they wish to follow, and not feel that to drop one social custom is to drop everything.

As for women and children slaving away before Pesach, I've heard it said that if people are exerting themselves to such a great extent, they're not doing it right. Again, knowledge of the basic halachic requirements versus extra chumrahs helps. I'm also sure that a husband, sensitive to his family needs will feel free to help if needs be.

In all these cases, I'm not concerned with what the wider society practices, I'm talking about what the individual can do to prevent a loss of recognition of why they're doing what they do in the first place. Awareness of this can help one make choices.

As for the second half of your reply, without critiquing every community, it's fair to say that everywhere you go, you'll encounter people more or less focused on their religious/spiritual development.

If it's intellectual freedom you are after though, going back to my initial post, I would suggest that for all the other faults, you are more likely to find it in NW London.

As an aside, I don't know about Menorah's communal base disappearing. I was under the impression it was still a very popular school. I know of many people with a similar desire to yourself, to combine serious Jewish education with enough secular knowledge to go into any chosen career, who are trying to send their children there.

Anonymous said...

In GG, they do take themselves and their rabbis awfully seriously while here they are objects of ridicule.
Why do you think this is?

Anonymous said...

I would add that of all the rabbonim in SH maybe the only one who isnt is R Feldman. Any other?

Anonymous said...

By original Anonymous:

"In GG, they do take themselves and their rabbis awfully seriously while here they are objects of ridicule."

As you like to drop in quotes from various sources, I thought this one would be apt for you:

H L Mencken, 'People deserve the government they get'.

Frummer????? said...

Reading your prose, I picture as a ping pong ball floating around wearily in the middle of the ocean. Bouncing from wave to wave, weathering little by little as the long days and nights drag on, it’s destiny, to succumb, fill with water and sink to the bottom without a trace.

I too used to be frustrated at being a Frummer. But thankfully, I'm now able to look back and watch as my annoyances and the stress it was causing, fade further and further away into the annals of my life.

Life isn’t perfect – we all have waves which bounce us around, but at least I have learnt - and am still learning, how to surf them instead of capitulating to them and allowing them to toss me around mercilessly.

We have no choice as to where in this great world we are placed, but the least we can do is take control over that which we have been given and use it to the full.

IfYouTickleUs said...

I may be observing at a low level but to be honest that's my least concern. I find many aspects of Shabbos and Yomim Toivim uplifting and I enjoy many of our other practices as well as our holy books. If I was a pagan I may have found the same satisfaction from solstice at Stonehenge and reading Druid texts but I'm not. I'm not too bothered by the size of my reward if and when it comes. My reward is sitting round the table with my children and discussing the Haftorah. So long that they don't prevent me spewing forth my thoughts and ideas I'll even avoid the Crocs come Yom Kippur.

I'm not so sure about Feldman. Remember he signed a letter in support of Weingarten who was convicted of raping his own daughter over many years.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a brilliantly enlightening piece. This has given an astonishingly clarity of the way you percieve Judaism and your local community. This is even stronger in your post in the comments section. Thanks for a good read.