Saturday, 29 October 2011

Former Canon of St Paul’s converted. By the Chief Rabbi

This is what the recently retired canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Rev Giles Fraser, had to say in an interview in Friday’s Guardian:

"I used to be a socialist and for a long time I did have the view that there was something intrinsically immoral about capitalism. I changed my mind quite fundamentally about that quite a few years ago. I had a conversion sitting in Notting Hill market, reading the chief rabbi on the subject – an essay called 'the moral case for market economy'.”

Perhaps not quite a road to Damascus moment but then Notting Hill is a lot safer especially these days.

I do however wonder whether the Chief would ever dare tell the world of a conversion of his by a leader of another faith. He got himself into trouble in the past when suggesting that Judaism may have something to learn from others, which he then hastily retracted. Ever since he has steered clear of sensitive issues for fear of getting tangled in the knotty beards or the crocheted yarmulkes.

It is a shame he lacks his predecessor’s forthrightness on anything from Israel to charedim. For while the world benefits greatly from his writing and speeches Judaism sorely lacks someone of his stature and capabilities to give us some straight talking.

Well, a rabbi resigning on point of principle. When was the last time you heard that one?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Cometh the hour, delayeth the chosid

Should you ever have had the good fortune of being invited to a Stamford Hill wedding you will know that of all the songs belted out at these affairs, get me to the church on time is one you will not get to hear. The inoperative word being not so much the church as the ‘on time’ because if anything can be guaranteed it is that the affair will kick off at least an hour late. And that’s early. This is not only a Stamford Hill affliction but one that applies to chasidim in general wherever they happen to dwell. If an explanation were ever needed of this rather unpleasant habit (with which yours truly is equally hampered) the days of selichos which we have just put behind us are as good as any.

During the selichos days men rise earlier for the pre-shachris service which commences at about 6.15-6.30a.m. Not terribly early one would think, and not much earlier than many a working person rises to get to work on time. Not everyone gets up that early as there are later services but most will rise earlier than usual for the additional prayers. And those that don't will be home later than usual having to fit in those extra bits to find favour with the Almighty during the days of judgement.

Nothing terribly unusual as the Jewish calendar constantly calls for changes to schedules. The difference with selichos however is that unlike the Holidays when the world largely comes to a halt as far as we are concerned, the selichos disruption is on regular work days and once prayers are over life continues as usual. The extended prayers are followed by work or kolel, schools teach, shops trade and stuffing our gullets with food is not a religious obligation. Yet, and this is the point I'm getting to, as a result of this minor disruption the boys' schools' entire timetable is rewritten. The poor Hebrew teachers have to get up a few minutes earlier and the school bell ringing in the start of the school day must wait. And this is the first lesson kids get on the malleability of time.

These are of course the same schools that keep their charges indoors in front of desks for most of the day, where sports and exercise classes are largely unknown, half term unheard, holidays kept to a minimum, and the only days off are Fridays, when parents are not generally available and Shabbos preparations occupy most of the time, and Saturdays, when life comes to an abrupt halt like a lift stuck between two floors. This is so ostensibly because Torah study is paramount and bitul Torah, neglect of Torah study, is widely deprecated in the classical texts. Yet during the Days of Awe when we are supposed to try and curry favour with our Creator precious study time must give way to the poor rebbes' sleeping habits and even more time wasted for everyone to go and torture some chickens for kapores. To top it off the rebbes then jet off to see in the New Year or spend Yom Kippur with their Rebbe leaving their little charges with a substitute of little aptitude other than a rimmed hat, bearded chin, white shirt and long coat.

This attitude to time and discipline is no less apparent throughout the year when there is often a race between boys and their teachers at who can be later in the classroom. It was a standard excuse during oral examinations, 'I wasn't well that day', or, 'I had to go to the dentist'. This would be met with the sarcasm typical of Hebrew teachers, 'did you also not eat your lunch that day?' or some other attempt at wit which earned him a muffled snigger from the classroom. Once inside the class many of the the rebbes will mess with their –banned- smart phones or leave the class to take calls. I once walked in on my boy’s rebbe counting a wad of £10 notes while the children in front of him were reciting the morning prayers.

Interestingly enough, this does not happen in girls' schools where discipline like handing in homework on time, or being assigned homework at all, requiring a note when off or late and being dead on time come what may is ingrained. Little wonder then that while men treat time keeping as something for wimps and rules for shmeckles, it is the women who are so much better at anything from writing a letter, paying bills on time or holding down a job and earning an income. For if, as Woody Allen contended, 80% of success is showing up, us men find even that a chore unless it’s a couple of hours late.

One might think that this lax attitude to general timekeeping is offset by meticulousness where time forms part of religious observance. After all our lives are governed by arcane rules which we go to extremes to observe in the minutest detail and from which we are never offered a break. In fact that could not be further from the truth. It often appears as if they read the mishnah There is not a man who has not his hour as a commandment to ignore the hour for the remainder of the time.

The three-times-a-day prayers all depend on time yet walk into a chasidic shtibel and morning prayers are recited till as close to noon as one can get without bumping into it, and mincha which can be said all afternoon only gets going at dusk and stretches till well after what is generally called nightfall. Come though to the evening prayers of mariv and the clock spins in the other direction. You and I may swear it's night with a sky full of stars but along come the chasidim who will tell you that they're the wrong type of stars. Even Network Rail would struggle with that one.

Sabbath is no exception either. From sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday all work is prohibited on pain of death and yet chasidim regularly carry out forbidden tasks till well after sunset because to them the sun of halacha sets at a different time. Perhaps they're still making adjustments for when it was stopped in its tracks by Joshua but the end result is that we have our own solar system in which the sun, moon and stars rotate according to when we mandate them to and not according to the observations of promiscuous eyes and calculations of brains confined in uncovered heads.

With chasidim rules are truly honoured in the breach since a breach is afforded far more respect than compliance. It is as if breaking rules is so ingrained that even the one rule of time to which our entire universe is subject must be stretched and bent when not snapped and broken altogether. Chasidim even have a concept known as 'lemalo min hazman'  which means above or beyond the realm of time. A Rebbe need only disregard the chronometrical hands and dare recite morning prayers in the afternoon or celebrate the departing of the Sabbath on Sunday morning and he is immediately elevated to a saint and a mystic. For while to the wider world being ahead of one’s times is considered visionary if not a sign of genius, in our reverse-looking eco system it is being behind time that marks one out for greatness.

All of which explains why a mere school bell is not going to do something that even the constellations struggle to contend with.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Headless chickens–armless kids


Perhaps Heinrich Heine’s maxim about burning books and people should be re-phrased: Those who mistreat chickens, mistreat kids.

Mind you, this is what happened when the chicken crossed the road.


Saturday, 1 October 2011

Taliban segregation in Stamford Hill

**See update**

Last year I wrote about the signs on Craven Walk on Rosh Hashanah segregating the pavement with the eastern side for females and the western side for males.

Needless to say that this year the exercise was repeated but they went one better. Someone, with the best intentions of course, as always, employed eastern European stewards to direct the men to their side and the women to theirs so that never the twain should meet.

Rumour has it that some millionaire with significant more money than sense hired the modesty police to patrol and enforce the segregation. The Health and Safety department of Hackney would undoubtedly have been proud, though. The stewards both wore bright fluorescent yellow jackets.

Protection of the body; safety of the soul; madness of the mind.



Above is the offending notice. Note how in Hebrew it is a request while in the English it has been ‘decided’ as if the streets belong to them.

There was then a contradictory notice signed by ‘The residents of Craven Walk and Watermint Quay’ setting out which gender is to walk on which side of the road but, Go- Forbid, allowing them to occupy the same street at the same time. A shocking development and a terrible chutzpah and hefkeirus in the face of the Union’s far more stringent position.

Due to the confusion, it is not clear whether the stewards were there to enforce the Union’s edict and drive the wrong gender from the wrong street, or whether they were anti-Unionists to direct the men and women to the areas generously allocated to them by the kind and considerate ‘residents’.

Either way Tashlich was a truly uplifting experience and rather than be distracted by women in white shawls or white sleeping caps we were treated to the fairer sex in various stages of undress. This was an overt display of God’s kindness for those who had no sins to dispose of and hence may have been lying to the Good Lord when seeking His forgiveness. A flash of flesh and they could happily join the throngs in polluting the River Lea with their sins.

As for those promiscuous folk I observed besides the pond on Clapton Common standing shtreimel to tiechel and within shockling proximity of each other, they might as well jump in the lake. While they were disposing of their sins with one hand the other was gathering lascivious thoughts engendered by Chasidic womeonfolk in their Yom Tov finery.

What a wasteful and sinful exercise and surely something to keep the ‘Advocates’ of the Jewish Community Liaison Committee, members of the Shomrim and advisors of the Independent Advisory Group busy for the forthcoming year. What we should really have is a Union Waterworks Division to liaise with a Union Segregation Committee to arrange for Eastern European male and female stewards to direct the men and women respectively and then a screen down the length of the road to prevent any cross fertilisation.