Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Days of Awe in days of yore (or, Reading God the Riot Act)

Last Friday's JC had a review of the Chief Rabbi's new Machzor for Rosh Hashono by Dr Jeremy Schonfield. The reviewer refers to passages in our prayers which are "evidence of an awareness that all is not well in God's relations with Israel", and is critical of the Artscroll translations which gloss over these themes and instead reflect "a simple piety often unworthy of the intellectual depth of the poetic writers".

I was reminded of the review when on Monday in selichos there appeared the following verses from Jeremiah (14:8-9): Why shouldest Thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night? Why shouldest Thou be as a man astonished, as a mighty man that cannot save?

It is no wonder that we Jews are such relentless critics because if our God doesn't escape our vitriol mere mortals can't stand a chance. In modern argot, the Prophet's words would translate as, why are You behaving like a wimp? Can't You get off Your butt and do something?

Dr Schonfield is right that this element of our relationship with God has largely gone. While in the selichos liturgy the poets lambast God for His treatment of His people, nowadays it is all sycophancy and fawning to a God to whom we owe everything, Who owes us nothing and the best we can do is stand like beggars at His table and wail for a morsel or a bone.

In fact one can go further and say that the Jewish God is almost dead. Fifty thousand people travel to Uman in the Ukraine to be with the dead Reb Nachman, many thousands travel far and wide to worship a living Rebbe, in Israel they worship the land as if that is the new vengeful and jealous Jewish deity, and meanwhile God is forsaken and no one will give Him the tough love He so often deserves.

Verses like the one above, the constant refrain in the selichos of “Arouse, why do You sleep', or sarcastic lines like 'we have spilt our blood for You yet have still not achieved Your forgiveness' remind us of our complex relationship with our God. That even if it was our destiny to be His sitting ducks at least we were given the privilege of speaking our mind to Him to ensure He doesn’t get off lightly.

So how refreshing to have come across the oratory of a Rabbi Yehosua Szpetman who talked to God in the manner of the Prophets. Born in Lublin, Poland, he was a rabbi at the Nelson Street Synagogue in the East End of London during the 1930s and '40s and a collection of his speeches in Yiddish were printed in 1938. This is not a rabbi who minced his words when addressing his Creator even when doing so publicly in front of his flock. Times in 1938 were of course significantly different to our days but this was not a rabbi to turn on Jews when trouble befell them and tell them to mend their ways in the petty, childish speeches one gets to hear these days. Instead it was God who needed to mend His ways. Rabbi Szpetman did not turn Jew on Jew and try to unite Jews with their God by sowing division amongst His people. Nor did he turn on our enemies by spouting vacuous curses which serve only to stoke flames of hate and strife.

Instead his addresses are directed to God Himself. Challenging Him, Lambasting Him, calling Him to action. Like the Prophets of yore, he addresses an omnipotent God but only to point out his apparent impotence. Stop behaving like a god, he appears to be saying, and be a man for a change.

A Ksivo Vachasimo Toivo to all my readers and I leave you with Rabbi Szpetman in this extract I have translated from a fiery sermon for Rosh Hashono:


Let us ascend to the Throne of Honour, to the King who is King of kings, the King Who sits on a high and lofty throne! Let Him hear our call of the Shofar, let Him come out from his hideout , from His holy Curtain and let Him attend and receive our blasts, wails and trills of the Shofar, that are like a bitter cry.

Arouse like prophets and call, Arouse! Why dost Thou sleep, why art Thy like a stranger in the land…, like a wayfarer retiring to spend the night…, like a mighty who cannot rescue? Arise! Why do You sleep, You Guardian of Israel? Why are You like an alien, like a stranger in the world? Like a visitor, like a warrior in chains?

On this day of Rosh Hashono, from Your coronation, the Day of the Birth of the World, shed Your royal crown, the diadem and don sackcloths and ashes, so to speak, and come with us into exile. Let us together mourn, cry and wail for the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Jewish people. The whole world has been turned into an altar and its only sacrifice is the Jew. Let us together say remembrances on the mass graves, old and new.

Let our tears from distress fall on the Great Sea and seethe, boil and storm the ocean. Let the cry of the Shofar within our essence, the pain and indignity of the souls and bodies of the Jewish people make the desert tremble. Let strong oaks fall and let there leap flames of fire. The voice of the Lord is on the water, the voice of the Lord makes the desert quake, the voice of the Lord mines flames of fire, the voice of the Lord fells cedars.



Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ignoring the Founder

**See update below**

Yesterday was the 61st yortseit of the founder, or main founder, of Yesodey Hatorah Schools, Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Pardes. You wouldn't however be aware of it if you are fortunate enough to have your children admitted to one of its schools because the powers that be do not deem it worthy to mention to the children. True it is noted in the YHS calendar but with no explanation of his connection to the school.

It isn't as if the school doesn't trouble itself with its history, real or re-written. When the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shmelke Pinter comes along the schools go into overdrive. Siyums and assemblies where the children are told ad nauseum about his greatness and that many years after his death they still owe him a debt of gratitude, write-ups in the papers the week before, photos in the papers the week after. There is even a fawning song for the girls to sing at the anniversary commemorations including the words 'Reb Shmelke our founder'. A straight and simple lie it may be but that's a small price to pay to perpetuate the myth now that his 3rd generation are filtering through to management and teaching positions while some interim caretakers are elbowed out in the process.

Let us though return to Rabbi Pardes. Although London remains indebted to him for the schools he established, and indeed the Pardes House Schools in Finchley proudly carry his name, the poor man died childless and therein lies the point. For insofar as YHS is concerned, he who took over sired several sons who in turn took over from him and they don't want to know. Across the road from the YHS Boys’ school some discreet lobbying landed us with the awkwardly named Rav Pinter Close, letterheads of the school trumpet its 'Past Principal' besides the eponymous current principal and current headteacher and nothing is done to correct the oft repeated canard of Pinter p√®re being the founder.

lh - Copy

Some principles indeed. Is it usual for schools to list past principals on their letterhead? I don't think so. Listed on its letterhead is also a past president. Ever heard of a school president? Me neither. And if they had a president in the past, when and why did they cease appointing one? Surely the Chair of Board of Governors who has gone AWOL since the day he was appointed would be happy to take the title. He hogged the Hackney mayoral chair like an Adath rosh hakohol so a presidency shouldn't cause him indigestion.

The thinking on the stationery must go something like this. To justify the proliferation of Pinters on the letterhead and give themselves an air of invincibility include the founder of the dynasty as 'Past Principal', and to justify mentioning historic positions while making a pretence of objectivity include a respected ghost from the past who neither dispels the myth nor challenges the incumbents.

But as for the founder himself who could do with some children keeping his memory alight, his candle is not worth the cake and lechaim even amongst the children and schools that remain his legacy irrespective of those who would rather not acknowledge this very awkward fact.

**Update: Someone wrote to say that Rabbi Pardes was mentioned yesterday at least in the girls’ school. It would have been a day late but still better than nothing, I suppose.

lh2 - Copy

In the meantime I came across this letterhead of the boys’ school. Note the two principals but no headteacher. It could be that da’as torah mandates that headteachers need be listed only for a girls’ school. Or it might just be be that a headteacher does not merit a mention unless he or she shares a surname with the ‘past principal’. Who knows, though it does suggest the following variation on the light bulb joke.

Q: How many Pinters does it take to run a school?

A: As many as will fit onto the letterhead.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue (and drive it out of town)

Catching up on what I missed while away I came across Geoffrey Alderman's article in the JC on the introduction of elements of religious law into UK law. While the debate is largely driven by Sharia law, rabbis of the realm must be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of laying their hands on officially sanctioned powers. And we underlings should quake at the thought of them being engaged not only on God's service but also On Her Majesty's Service. Rarely will Her Majesty have had in her employ servants so diligent in carrying out their official duties and never will rabbis have been so meticulous in applying dino demalcuso, or the law of the realm. They will render unto Ceasar with the zeal of rendering unto God, and render unto God with the power and force Ceasar shall put at their disposal.

Rather than argue the pros and cons of granting power to religious courts allow me to provide a flavour of justice as dispensed round here so as to savour and look forward to the day we are fortunate enough in having the powers of the Beth Din sanctioned by Parliament.

Recently a notorious, alleged, paedophile was, allegedly again, caught 'in the act'. The matter was referred to the rabbonim who on the whole acted in the time hallowed tradition of doing nothing. There is one new broom in town and he decreed that the offender be kicked out of his shul. In addition, mark this, as punishment the alleged offender was ordered to pay for his victim's psychological treatment. As the Old Testament might have put it, a session for a session.

In another case a man charged abroad with paedophilia related offences spent the summer in a family camp where children roamed freely unsupervised. As for the Shomirm, I couldn't put it better than Luzer Twersky quoted in this article on the Brooklyn Shomrim: Borough Park is a very safe neighbourhood for adults. It's just not very safe for kids

Well, sex does scare the hell out of chareidim and kids are ok for sentimentality though they never trump the adults so there is some explanation albeit far from being logical. But there are other laws too. A parent of a child rejected by the school that is more famous for rejection than acceptance made a Freedom of Information request relating to the school's finances. He had barely filed his request when he was summoned to the Beth Din. Sitting there was not one rabbi, nor three rabbis who usually constitute a court but the entire rabbinate made up of the Chief, his henchman, enforcers and even specimen imported from Golders Green.

Summoned was not just the offending father but also the mother because as the 'rabbi' is wont to say, women round here are equal but different. And since the mother’s dress usually forms the reason for rejection she must have been central to the proceedings. A Star Chamber you might want to call it as the accuser himself was nowhere to be seen, though that did not prevent the rabbis from threatening to throw all 20 volumes of the Talmud at them. Mind you given the size of many of the rabbis a rump parliament would probably be more accurate. Needless to say the FOI request was never responded to and the information sought never imparted.

The above cases were still not formal courts and one might contend that in a formal hearing with two opposing parties justice does prevail. So last but not least we come to the notorious case of the wife who divorced in the Beth Din after some 30 years of marriage, during which she brought up several children, looked after the household and suffered more than the occasional hiding. For her troubles she was awarded the grand sum of £500. This works out at approximately a fiver per bruise give or take a slap or two which is about the going rate. The husband on the other hand walked away with the house he had ruled with an iron fist and undoubtedly deserved something for his troubles. When the woman woke up to her situation she was warned off by the Beth Din that challenging the agreement could invalidate her divorce which was a blatant lie. She was however allowed to retain the £500. Equal but different indeed.

All one can really say is that if there was no element of palm tree justice there may well have been some greasing of the palm which rabbinical ingenuity can sometimes find to form a kosher substitute.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Escrow miracles


The above advert turned up in the North West London Advertiser and my apologies to those readers who have been disabused of the notion that more rational, genteel folk occupy those regions. I am glad to say that so far it has not turned up in the Stamford Hill advertisers which suggests that either we are less gullible or we have less money to throw around. Or perhaps it’s more difficult to find men to do things on behalf of women round here.

It would be a laughing matter but the story, unverified, doing the rounds in town is of a family recently bereaved of a father and husband who died several weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Apparently this shaman or someone on his behalf contacted the family while the man was ill and dying to suggest that £/$10,000 is paid into an account or with a ‘third party’ to be paid out only if the man was healed. If not he would charge a mere £500 for his troubles. The family having been told that all hope was lost were minded to give it a try. They did however have the mind to consult a sensible rov who told them not to part with a penny.

I am told that the poor widow is terribly upset thinking that if only she had gone along with it there may have been a different outcome.

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.