Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Kafka and the Belzer Rebbe: “It lures me”


LuckBatPoet (H/T Ze Hayom)

“Not only Sultan but also father, grammar-school teacher, gymnasium professor etc.”

The above photo is of Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach (1851-1926), the third Belzer Rebbe, taking a stroll in Marienbad, now known as Mariánské Lázně in the Czech Republic. A spa town in the historic region of Bohemia, it was popular in the 19th century with ‘many celebrities and top European rulers’ visiting to enjoy the curative springs. Chasidic ‘royalty’ who know a good thing or two about material comforts were not far behind and many Chasidic, and non-Chasidic, rabbis frequented the spas during the summer months in the 1920s and ‘30s.

LuckyBatPoet has a set of photographs, Marienbad People, which includes barons and grafs and gives a flavour of the high society that descended upon the town in its golden era. Included in the set is a number of photos of rabbis, amongst them the Gerer Rebbe, Reb Elchonon Wasserman, Rav Dushinsky, the Viznitzer Rebbe and others. What however is striking about the photo above is because in another photo of the Rebbe the accompanying text reads:

Czech-German-Prague jewish writer Franz Kafka met 17.7.1916 this "miracle rabbi" from Belz in Marienbad and accompanied him and his followers in a long walk, he described this unusually, noteworthy and surprised meeting in a detailed letter to his friend Max Brod on 18.7.1916.

The above letter appears in the collection of Kafka’s Letters to Friends, Family and Editors and the photograph above almost complements the letter. There’s the chair carrier in the left forefront, the cane carrier to the right, the Rebbe with his ‘tall fur hat’, ‘long white beard’, ‘his hand resting on his waist’, the ‘silk [k]aftan which is open in front’, the ‘broad belt about his waist’, ‘the white stockings’ and a ‘demeanour marked by admiration and curiosity’. He could almost be writing about contemporary chasidim observing road excavations or gathering at a street commotion when he mentions ‘that characteristic Eastern European Jewish wonderment’.

Kafka had joined the Rebbe’s retinue at least twice and his report seems to possess all the naivety of an Alice in Wonderland. The similarities don’t end there. Like Alice he hangs about at the start doing nothing until there appears a bustling chasid, bearing a strong similarity to the White Rabbit, whom Kafka, like Alice, follows. The Chasid reappears though instead of searching for the Duchess's gloves he’s after spa waters for the Rebbe. While Alice observed a queen yelling ‘off with his head’ in this version it’s the Rebbe yelling ‘you are murderers.’

Kafka is drawn into a world he barely understands and is fascinated by everything he sees. When he observes the Rebbe’s comments to be ‘childish and joyous’ and that the thinking on the part of the escort is reduced to the same level he surely must be including himself. For he too stands accused of a childlike wonderment believing what he sees to be ‘truth’ which ‘an ordinary head cannot sustain.’ Alice morphs throughout her tale and it appears the Rebbe has brought about a metamorphosis of the author of the famous work of that name.

And as to the question, Who stole the tarts? I’ve scoured the photograph in vain for the ‘exceptional rogue’ with ‘the huge belly’, ‘smugness’ and ‘shifty eyes’.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Freilichn Chanukah

Mr Coffee: Good for the Jews?

Hackney-20111215-003122-crop - Copy

Stamford Hill is notorious for its lack of kosher eateries and has probably the fewest kosher restaurants or coffee shops per capita anywhere in the Semitic world. The first complaint you hear from visitors from abroad is that there is nowhere to sit down and eat. Don't start naming some greasy spoons which serve up a fare compared to which conventional junk food looks like a gourmet feast . Never mind too the several decent and half-decent bakeries (Indigs in Oldhill Street being the king by far) which don't offer any seating. If you wish to rest your tired limbs round here you can, if you belong to the male species, pop into any number of shuls where free or vended coffee is available all day, but forget about a bite in pleasant surrounding, with pleasant food and, dare I say, pleasant waiting staff.

The reasons are manifold. We are a conservative community and the vast majority especially of the middle aged to older generation prefer nothing better than their wife's schnitzel and roast potatoes consumed at the head of the kitchen table. If they must eat out, a plate of tsholent and kugel at a reception or kiddush will do nicely. With the latest fad for serving tsholent and kugel to the dancing guests at weddings many of those invited for the dinner sneak off for the grub in the foyer rather than bother with the schnitzel/roast chicken which is so tricky to handle and especially in public.

A greater proportion of the younger generation do like their food and wine. Grapevine is popular and a new wine shop on the Hill has now joined the fray. Yet they will drive to North West to spend their dining pounds. There is a degree of snobbishness as sitting down in Stamford Hill means sitting down with our own which is ok if you must but not for a quiet evening out with the Mrs. There is a also a fair number of foreign emissaries (to put it politely) with whom one doesn't exactly cherish sharing a romantic evening with the better half.

And then there is the prowling wolf of Kedassia. A local eatery would have to carry a local hechsher with some bearded mashgiach sniffing you out before you've even considered the menu. Even that is jumping the gun and I'm not sure how glad Kedassia would be to grant a hechsher to a fashionable place where young couples turn out, he hatless and jacketless and she dressed to the nines with a hat perched precariously on the latest word in wigs. There is also the occupational hazard of being spotted in that company and jeopardising in the process a cherished place for your kids you know where.

So the local connoisseurs make off to NW where they can indulge themselves with any company and any hechsher so long that there are some Hebrew letters in the window. The North Westerners are happy to take our dough, the local hotheads are spared having to print anonymous bans and threats and the most recent local restaurant is an elegant Brazilian/Italian establishment next door to Tasti Pizza. Rumour has it that Grodzinsky will shortly be opening a coffee shop at the former gaming place on Clapton Common. In the meantime however halachic innovation and ingenuity have given us a new bread freshly baked on Shabbos with virtual supervision from Australia but as far as a decent meal is concerned round here by Kedassia bread alone must man liveth.

Which is where we come to Mr Coffee. Two doors away from Grodz on Clapton Common an enterprising Jewish chap has opened a tiny coffee bar just besides the bus stop selling sandwiches, steaming hot coffee for £1 a shot, a couple of attractive baristas and cakes brought in from Tesco. Yes, you read that correctly, non-kosher cakes and for all I know he may even be using that milk, Go- forbid. Because rather than wait for Kedassia to impose their conditions he went it alone. Drawing a pound of flesh in a milky establishment may also have posed a kashrus problem.

True you can't sit down there and he's unlikely to attract a Jewish clientele at so central a location but, still, it's a start and unfortunately the only way forward. If you can't beat 'em, trash 'em seems to be the message and we at Tickle wish him much hatzloche. They even managed to sneak in some publicity for Mr Coffee in the most holiest of ad-only publications which carries not chas vecholilo a single opinion. Watch this space however because probably as I write a notice is being drafted beginning 'It has come to our attention…' or something to that effect informing the world that the establishment is not kosher. As if anyone ever asked.

In the meantime, Thank You Kedassia for yet another service, in addition to the eiruv, to the community.

Monday, 19 December 2011

London Beth Din ruling on Springfield Synagogue

See also

Occupied territory at Springfield Synagogue

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Occupied Territory at Springfield Synagogue


I was going to write with a background to this but time’s in short supply. Battle has however been joined in the other post so I’ll move the messages over here and let them continue but please folk keep it civil.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Outside the Tent p****ing in

Big Tent - Copy

For translation see below

If you like following Anglo-Jewish politics, and no one will blame you if you don’t, you will know the politics of making a big tent for anything. A bit like I’m a Celebrity except that it goes, I’m a Reform Get Me Into There. The right wing of the US responds, We’re (pseudo) Charedim and get ya the hell outa here because you’re as welcome as Berlusconi at a Bat Mitzvah party. At this point the Jewish miLlionares Club (aka JLC) will see it as their duty to intervene with their own version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire or, rather, who wants a share of our millions. No 50/50 lifelines but an edict to phone-a-‘friend’ or else. Naturally, the Board of Deputies follows suit and, and, come on, wake up there at the back.

If you’ve followed this far you’ll have heard of the Big Tent events which basically gather together similarly minded pro-Israelis who spend a Sunday bemoaning boycotts and deligtimisation of which we are supposedly the hub. After a few cockle-warming speeches and feeling awfully sorry for Israel and disgusted by its detractors everybody goes home feeling they’ve done a good deed and gone out of their way to do their bit for Israel. Of course, the Israelis themselves couldn’t give a monkeys and they happen to think that we’re more into Christmas than Chanukah. The biggest elephant nowhere near the tent remains Israel’s inexorable slide towards a racist theocracy which continues unabated but trust these guys to see the enemies anywhere but staring in their face.

Anyhow, if pro Israelis unite on anything the nay-sayers of Stamford Hill must have a contrary position and so they have. A bit late but this is Stamford Hill after all. In the notice above we are exhorted to stay away from such events, which may only be referred to by its acronym, and told that anyone who has ‘a brain in his coconut’ will know that they bring no good to the Jews. Not, surprise, on tznius grounds, but apparently because this non-event of an event of which other than some bickering machers few have heard of could jeopardise and endanger our very existence in this country. (As for wholesale reliance on state handouts, I’m afraid the notice is silent on that point.) And if not for the notice we would of course have been flocking to it in droves.

The signatories are mostly Satmar affiliated though for reasons known only to themselves Padwa and Halpern Snr added their names. Belz and Ger steered clear as did Dayan Dunner despite his anti-Zionist streak. Also absent are Halpern’s sons and in fact there are no Golders Green rabbis at all who generally lead a more nationalistic flock. This is the second time Padwa has alligned himself with the loonies on Israel; last year he signed for a demo at the embassy on grave digging. Rabbi Schneebalg of Manchester has more sense and knowing that he serves a wider community, abstained. Shame Padwa didn’t inherit those aspects from his father who would have no truck with any of this.

Perhaps the most surprising signatory is Dayan Gukovitsky of Springfield Shul which is affiliated to the Federation. It may have something to do with his territorial battle over his shul and wanting to gain some right-wing allies which he is sorely in need of, but more on that another time.


A Call from the Rabonim

In light of reports of various meetings (BTFI) across England (currently in Manchester), it is obvious to anyone sensible that such activities and their like are of no benefit to Jews, God forbid.

It is unnecessary to dwell on their inherent dangers and it is incumbent on everyone to avoid attending them and to do everything to publicise and announce that these meetings do not speak on behalf of Jews who believe in God and His Torah. God forbid to allow this destruction to enter England where thank God we dwell under the protection of the state, may its grace be exalted*, which is a benign realm.

We are obligated to pray for the well being of the realm and not to become involved with various people [groups] the majority of whom have cast off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos entirely or in various degrees, and their habit is to maraud and cause destruction.

In the merit of undertaking upon ourselves the yoke of our exile and behaving with humility in this country as we have in each and every generation throughout the thousands of years of our exile may we merit to be saved from all forms of peril and to the arrival of the Messiah speedily in our days, Amen.

London [27 November 2011]**


* An expression used for the Tsar and Kaiser and is not used very often nowadays.

** The date of the Manchester Big Tent event though the notice was publicised only last week.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Yesodey Hatorah Senior School: holding its figures to account – Part II

See Part I below

Rather than quibble with Ofsted's grading I have run a simple comparison exercise on the Department of Education website comparing YHS to other Hackney secondary schools for which figures are available. The results, which are for 2009-2010, are produced below.

I will let the figures speak for themselves and merely say that either the individuals/family/board or whoever runs the school has developed a miraculous formula by which they can achieve an 'Outstanding' grade yet spend overall only 86% of their allocated budget, and less than 50% of it on actual teaching, employ less than a handful of FTE (full time equivalent) qualified teachers, maintain a teacher to pupil ratio that would barely fit the school hall though with a back office budget that exceeds each of the other schools.

Or these figures are crying out for some other explanation.


These show YHS to be well above the national average and very high across the board.

Attainment 6 Dec - Copy

Who is teaching the children?

The number of qualified teachers is astoundingly low and the pupil to teacher ratio relates to qualified teachers only.

Teachers 6 Dec - Copy

How is the budget divided?

Since the income per pupil differs for each school the figures below are based on percentages of the income/spend per pupil. Note the relatively low percentage spent on teaching, the relatively high back office costs and the high unspent budget. It would be interesting to know why these funds aren’t being spent and what happens to this apparent surplus. The amount spent on building and energy is also high especially as it is a relatively new building.

budget 6 Dec 3 - Copy

Free School Meals

This is a particularly curious statistic as the 'principal' appeared on the BBC in relation to proposed housing benefit reforms to complain about the disproportionate effect it will have on this community. Yet here is a benefit administered through the school but the take up is incredibly low.

fsm 6 Dec

Data for individual schools is from the Department of Education's website for comparing schools and the national data is from this DoE page.

(Thanks to those who assisted with the charts)

Yesodey Hatorah Senior School: holding its figures to account – Part I

When criticism of YHS is aired, which is not very often since other than a mikveh or shul chat we don't really have a platform for debating these issues and the school is as likely to provide one as chickens would provide a venue for kapores, but nevertheless on those rare occasions when the matter is discussed the stock in trade defence usually goes something like this:

Firstly, this is the best you'll ever get round here and if this lot is done away with their replacement is likely to be some truly frightening loonies who will destroy all the positive things about the school. And anyway, the argument continues, the school has been rated Outstanding by Ofsted, their grades are well above average and so what is there to complain about. That the rating did not apply to Governance is unlikely to tax many in Stamford Hill where committees, meetings, minutes, resolutions and votes are not something many lose much sleep over.

I do not intend to dwell on these arguments at length because however good a job they may be doing it is still no excuse to monopolise a communal asset . It cannot be right for a school to be run by a small, largely self-appointed and unaccountable clique. Without others having a chance to genuinely participate in the running of the school at all levels we will never truly know how good a job is being carried out and whether it cannot be done better.

That aside, there are serious flaws in both arguments. The charge that we are unlikely to get anything better and will probably end up with something considerably worse is dangerously defeatist. Essentially it says that we are inherently incapable of running anything in an organised manner and so we must fall back on entrenched powers whatever the allegations of cronyism, nepotism and worse.

This is a gross insult to the many intelligent and perfectly capable men and women in Stamford Hill who can and do run public bodies in a fairer and more open manner. One would have to ignore the achievements of Agudas Yisroel Housing Association, Hatzole, Chaveirim, Bikur Cholim and many other communal bodies that do valuable work and yet are not run by a single strong man and his immediate and extended family.

This extends to schools too. Beis Chinuch is run by a committee and while it may be to the right of YHS it has also been rated 'Outstanding' in many areas. In addition, the recently opened Beis Yakov primary school only came to life as a result of YHS's invidious and arbitrary admission procedures, if they can be called such. It was set up and is run by a committee of volunteers, it is to the left of YHS and is now operating in its second year.

The main argument however remains that the school has been graded 'outstanding' and so if it ain't broke why fix it?

Continued in Part II