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.

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.