Thursday, 4 August 2011

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.


  1. Great article, thanks. Looking forward to your poem.

    Does your blog allow occasional space for guests? I used to write for the New Jewish Thought website until it changed direction. I lived in Stamford Hill for 3 years and look back on it as an eye-opening exercise in crossing cultures.

    Hope you are well and enjoying life. Tzom kal!

  2. Simcha, you're the first to ask and I can't see why not. Send it and I'll have a look.

  3. Hi again.

    I've written poetry, short stories, comedy sketches, and pieces on spirituality. Please advise which of the above you would most like. I will attempt to import whatever it may be into a comment, but I am not the greatest at using a computer and it might not work. Alternatively, I could send it to an e-mail address, which I promise to keep absolutely confidential. Any other suggestions gratefully received.

    Love, peace and Gut Shabbes

  4. A well written article with gentle welcome wit, without the sometimes unwelcome sarcastic shower


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