Sunday, 8 September 2013

Time for Reflection

divrei chaim - aseres yemei tshuva letter
An anonymous letter apparently posted to members of the breakaway Divrei Chaim minyan(im?)

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Headless Kapores

uohc 5773 calendarGoing, going…

5774 uohc luach


They couldn’t be more daft than we thought, could they? I mean, after a year like this we must by now know the wildest frontiers of their insanity and how could it be otherwise. Well, think again.

As the UOHC publishes its annual edict to segregate the public highway and introduces a Challa Burning service which, come on, admit it, it’s what’s really been missing from our lives and something we’ve all been begging for, and as one of their mikves which has now been a building site for about 10 years enters another year still as a building site, and as the police keep digging away at one of their loftiest, those in charge have had some other ideas on their mind.

While we’ve been rising early and begging forgiveness, unbeknown to us its entire lay and rabbinic leadership has committed mass hara-kiri. The rabbis got laid and now the lay leadership has joined them in taking a jump. And all for the sake of protecting the modesty of the one who least needs protection and harbouring he who ought to be handed over.

Let me explain. Each year the UOHC publishes a wall calendar which is displayed in its affiliated shuls. Besides the calendar bits, it lists the various services the UOHC deigns to provide to its minions. Like the Beth Din which disputatious parties prefer to avoid, the mikvo’oth of which some are little more than cesspits, the wedding-hall extortion racket which masquerades as a service to the needy at their most vulnerable hour, the fox-feeding yard in Enfield, the sodden marshes in Chesunt and, needless to say, the granddaddy of all rackets, Kedassia, which is accompanied by a dire warning of the consequences of forging the royal seal.

The format of the calendar has not changed in decades just as the dinosaurs who run that show are an annual cut and paste job. As far back as I can remember the layout has always been that in the top right corner were listed the members of the Rabbinate followed by the trustees you wouldn’t trust, the executive committee that gets little done and finally the whatever committee members who are as static as the dust on the windows of their Stamford Hill HQ.

Then to the left of the calendar appears a list of the names and addresses of affiliated shuls and shtieblech each with its rov or dayan. Despite the succession battles bedevilling almost every chasidic court with each side claiming to carry the authentic banner while accusing the other of usurping the crown, the UOHC has done a rather good job of keeping the peace. The calendar maintains an impartiality and each shtiebel is accorded the name it accords itself. And if the uninitiated are confounded by several shuls of the same name with no apparent means to identify to which faction each belongs then that is a small price to pay for communal harmony.

This year, however, the tightrope walkers must be nursing sore backsides for if they are good at keeping out of the troubles of others they are disastrous at managing their own. As we know, the last year in the annals of the UOHC has been like no other. An unprecedented resignation of one of its rabbinic star performers, a police investigation into the same star, denunciations by rivals, countless meetings of ditherers and dunces, letters, expulsions, retractions, international courts adjourned indefinitely. In short an Annus Horribilis of which the net affect is the diminution of the stature of the entire body, the decline of the moral authority of its clerics and the loss of confidence in its lay leaders.

In typical ostrich fashion at which they so excel their reaction has been not introspection, not even damage limitation but simply trying to pretend that life carries on as normal. Normal in this context meaning, that those who have done little more in their lives than warm their seats continuing in their good old ways. It’s the tried and tested method inherited on the whole from their fathers and if there’s been a hitch or two during the last year that is still no reason to chuck out the rebbe with the mikve water.

And so with the wisdom and sagacity we have become accustomed to they decided that the best policy for the calendar is to add a worm-free sandpit in the middle to bury their collective heads in and all the better to exhibit their kosher version of the horrible annus. And so the space that in the past was reserved for the Rabbinate (see top photo) this year contains nothing (see bottom photo). No lists, no names, no rabbinate and no committee. Just as it ought to be, some might think. If the rabbis must go then the lay leaders of whom not a single one took any responsibility for the mess they dragged us into should fare no better. And if their names being dropped from the calendar is the start then let’s help them finish it off.

That was still not enough to protect the modesty of the randy one and they had to go one further. On the timetable of the Beis Horo’o they also dropped the names of the rabbis on duty because, once again, if all the functioning rabbis were on display the dysfunctional one would stand out by this omission and so all had to go. Like the joke of the editor caught in flagrante with his secretary on the office desk. If the personnel were too valuable to be fired then at least the desk had to go. In our case it’s the poor calendar.

divrei chaim calendarBut hang on there, did I not say that there is one other list. As mentioned above, the left hand lists all the affiliated shuls. Those with long memories may recall that but for a brief 24 hour period when the Divrei Chaim shul was unaffiliated and which was followed by a hostage taking drama nothing has changed on that front. So with the shul intact the list too could remain intact and so published in full it is (see above). Goodness gracious for that since the UOHC do not provide enough services to fill the blank space that would have resulted from omitting that list.

And this, my dear readers, is the story of our community.

We’ve been leaderless for almost a year but now, thank God, just in time for the New Year, they’ve had the grace to admit it and finally go. What a decent lot they must have been and how we shall miss them dearly. May God bless ‘em all. Amen.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailors

DfE Yeshives education2

For the story so far see here… and now read on.

After the auditory contest between voices of reason on one side and cacophonous canines on the other it will come as little surprise to learn that the dogs gained the upper paw. It's not for nothing that 'man bites dog' makes the more implausible headline.

What supposedly happened beyond that initially reported was that a group of school heads who did not make it to the Westminster outing wrote to Rav Padwa a sulking letter stating that they do not wish to be represented by AOJSOL. For a start they felt that the acronym is too long for people who on a point of principle shun the English language and unless is was transliterated into Hebrew or circumcised by 3 or more letters they will have nothing to do with tongue twisters of this kind. Besides, it is their firmly held belief that a policy of talking to the authorities and negotiating with the DfE over the secular education of kids carries with it the stench of capitulation and surrender and it is our shirts that are white and not our flags.

The local thinking goes roughly so. Our starting position will always be that whatever curriculum they have in mind it is still lehavdil inferior to ours. Period. Sof posuk. And even if it was equal, which of course it is chas vecholilo not, non-Jewish children are not taught Yiddish or Hebrew so there is no reason why Jewish children should be taught English. Or maths, geography, history and science for that matter, which round here all come under the rubric of 'English'. To this must be added that our kids don't do drugs and we have no teenage pregnancies out of wedlock and this, as we well know, is an excuse for anything from loft extensions to double parking, honking horns and overloaded school buses. Mind you we don't do brain surgeons or precision engineers either but that's being pedantic so let's move on.

This preamble conveniently out of the way, we must then challenge the DfE that English is bichlal not so important. You see, non-heimishes have jobs descending deep into mineshafts and window-cleaning skyscrapers and the Tower of Babel story teaches us that without a good grounding in linguistics ascending too high can cause one to hit the buffers. By contrast, us chosen ones are surrounded by zillionaires who were not taught any English and have still made it in life in a way that the schlemazels at the DfE can only dream of. And so we ought to tell them that if only they experienced the taste of a Shabbos table replete with plastic tablecloths and 13 dips before the fish they too would undoubtedly concede that Rabbi Tarfon beats Darwin and 'An alleyway that is taller than 20 cubits' trumps Henry VIII and his 8 wives, thank you very much.

(It may assist to add that Richard Branson also has no university education plus he sports a beard and has not done too badly for himself either. This could raise the rather delicate matter of the name of his brand and his proste habit of hoisting up stewardesses in his arms. In fairness, though, the last time I saw his meidelech in Terminal 3 they were all clad in coats which reached considerably further than 4 inches below the knee although truth be said the coats were red and their length may have encroached beyond chareidi and into MO territory.)

So going back to where we started, since this unfortunately was not the approach taken by the AOJSOL, the dissenting schools decided to play truant. After all, what are English lessons for if not for playing up? But what really upset them more than anything was that if not for that un-pronounceable acronym the mandarins at the DfE wouldn' t even know of our existence. And since this is their trump card it warrants some further thought.

As the previous post made clear, every year the ground somewhere on the border between E5 and N16 opens up and swallows 150 or so 13 year olds, drawn as they must be to the sweet melodies of our pied pipers. Not quite pipers as the local instrument of choice happens to be the synthetic keyboard but they are mesmerised by some kind of heimishe tune nonetheless. Given that these kids are completely off the radar, the argument goes, if not for the AOJSOL snitching to the DfE they in Westminster would know nothing about our yeshivos which could then thrive happily ever after. Our Jewish ingenuity has got us out of the deepest of ruts and this one need have been no different. And even should the education apparatchiks have decided to pay us a visit and survived the trip to our neck of the woods we would still have been able to arrange an askan here and a shtadlan there to bamboozle them with facts and figures until they'd be searching for nothing but the exit.

Well, as I almost said at the outset, this is firmly canine territory of the insane type and if there is one thing to be certain of in this asylum it is that the lunatics win out in the end. Reason and sanity have no role to play other than in their scarcity and round here the less one possesses of those hazardous attributes the more one is likely to succeed. And so the AOJSOL beat a hasty retreat and for last 18 months the barking lot were able to rub their hands in glee for having totted up yet another victory. Until this letter, of course, to which far brighter minds are currently applying their assets and who need no input from us lot.

But before I retire my pen I wish to address just once thought that may be fleeting through the mind of the casual observer. One might just wonder at this stage where the parents come into all of this. I mean, it's all very well with the Westminster door-openers appearing for a photo call in the Tribune and the opponents resorting to the shul noticeboards because to them even the Tribune is not kosher enough. But surely parents must take some stand on the matter of the education of their dear neshomolech. A fair point, I'd think.

Well, Mr Casual Observer, never mind a stand, they don't even have a seat on the issue. It's more like that they lie prostrated in a permanent vegetative state, though this does require some qualification.

If a survey were to be carried out in Stamford Hill I'd lay a bet that the vast majority of parents would prefer (not much more than that, I'm afraid) their children to be taught the basics of the English language . Let's face it, at some point in life they may have to make an insurance claim or complain about the lack of kosher meals on a flight to Acapulco and should the wife at that time be institutionalised in Beis Broche and not at hand to assist a smattering of English could be something of an asset.

I'd go one further, that most parents would think it not a bad idea to teach the kids some maths, too though many might baulk at the prospect of burdening their pure souls with Pythagorean triangles and Euclidean geometry. After all, what did Hashem create calculators for. For the sake of balance I should add that many if not most would almost certainly be opposed to the study of literature in the form of Jane Austen or Henry James and not to mention that old antisemite Mr W. Shakespeare.

Yet despite this apparent eagerness of parents for some form of secular education for their male offspring they still have the lower hand at the point of delivery. Which brings us back to the barking lot.

Parent power is not something mentioned in the mishna berura and if it makes any sense it's just another reason to shun it like a vaccination. And so parents sacrifice their kids for the sake of their kids. Deny them the education they are entitled to for the sake of their birthright of a good shiduch. Coerce them by omission into a life of limited opportunities at best and public dependency at worst for the sake of not rocking the boat.

What they fail to note is that that their vessel is no longer seaworthy, the captains are drunk and the brainiest are going overboard. But those who remain will refuse to provide a life vest to their kids to carry them through the high seas of life because like seat belts it's yet another thing we don't quite believe in.

And so backwards we drift with no pointer on our compass.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Unlike Father, Unlike Son


Padwa protests

From Halichos Chanoch, by Rav Avrhohom Yonah Schwartz

I once discussed with the Rav [the late Rav Padwa] the principles of protesting against breaches [of religious practice], and he showed me the words of the Trumas Hadeshen that protest should often be avoided.

"Be aware that my soul is shocked by the hostility, strife and battle in your community which is caused mainly by scorn and abuse. I anticipate withdrawing shortly from being involved in these matters because I realise that I lack the strength to clear the paths and remove the obstacles. I am for peace but when I speak they are for war, and this is therefore a voluntary preoccupation and not obligatory and so what is it to me?"

I heard from Rav Heshil Padwa that at the time when his father the Rav lived in Jerusalem there were often demonstrations against chilul shabbos and many of the residents of Botei Broide, where the Rav served as a Dayan, would attend the demonstrations. The Rav, however, did not go. A local resident once complained to the Rav why he does not attend the protests. The Rav replied, there is indeed an obligation to protest but why do Rav Pinchas Epstein and Rav Bengis and other city elders not fulfil this mitzvah. This suggests that they are of the view that the mitzvah [of holding protests] is for people of a lower order. Although I don't consider myself to be on an elevated level I'm also not obliged to publicise myself as belonging to the lower order.

Once there was a demonstration in London against the Israeli government and the Rav refused to attend. This caused an outcry in some circles. I asked the Rav for his reasons and he replied that had he attended journalists and the media would have been aware of his presence and would have asked him questions and since he is not fluent in English he could not answer them properly. And even if his English was good enough he would also not go as he holds a position of authority and every word of his matters. He must therefore be articulate to be able respond appropriately, and no response also carries a responsibility. And so he decided that it would be preferable not to attend.

…vs. this

Padwa Brussels

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Man Overboard

Joe resignation

Something of note has taken place in Stamford Hill. In a town where a match is hot news, a motor car collision of international significance and a genieivah of any kind worthy of the attention of the General Assembly, the event we are about to describe is nothing short of Security Council import.

In a different place and era this might have called for screeching headlines in our communal press, press releases by our spinners and perhaps even a dinner or banquet to mark the the once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. This would allow our refined Dear Leaders to mingle with the fairer sex while mandating us commoners to keep an ocean-breadth's distance from those enticers and seducers. Mind you in another era we may not have been discussing this at all so best to just keep calm and rush off to call your neighbour, cousin and, if they're out, do some shopping where you may just bump into them. Or, for men that is, attend another charity reception and discuss the news over yet another plate of tsholent and kugel served of late approximately seven nights a week.

That's perhaps how it ought to have been but instead we get silence. 6 weeks’ silence to be precise. Silence on the cause, silence on the effect and silence on the event. Those who delve into philosophical narishkeitn will know the conundrum of whether a tree falling in a forest makes a noise if there is no one about to record the sound. One for next nitl, if you've yet to give it some thought. But here in Stamford Hill we go one further: we assume the tree still to be standing. And if the evidence is otherwise overwhelming we are told not to look because as Nietzsche almost said, that which doesn't kill you can still turn you into a heretic and that, trust me, is far worse.

You see, the R word has reached our shores and I'm afraid it's as grim as it sounds. A resignation has taken place in our yard and a tree has fallen in our dense forest. It may appear that no one was around to record the drop, yet the sound has reached our ears and alas it is this blog that has been anointed to bring the bad tidings unto the humble.

My friends, the tree is none other than our esteemed MBE, pontificator of some six and three-quarter decades, the beardless defender of the bearded, the wild party boy protecting our collective modesty, the guardian angel of the purest of our traditions. Our tree, our oak, our elm from chelm, our bark, our perennial, our plank, our whatever-you-can-think-of and a lot less, is no longer the sub-prime guarantor of our future generations.

For none other than Joe Lobenstein MBE has resigned as Chair of the Board of Governors of Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School. Did I hear someone mutter that they didn't even know he was the Chair in the first place? Ah, that's probably because they have a child at the school and so the identity of the Chair is classified information. Parents have a Principal and a Head and should be happy to know who they are.

And so getting back to The Event, just as you thought the R word doesn't even appear in the kosher dictionary the MBE has tendered his resignation citing his advanced age and the increased volume of work . But let's be fair to the man. Dear Joe is in his eighties and running a school can be a bit of a burden. At a loss how to spend an enormous budget surplus, turning admissions into exclusions, shuffling the mummy and daddy chairs for the esteemed family must take up time and so even good things must come to an end at some point.

Of course you may ask whether he has also stepped down from his position as Vice-President of the UOHC, and from the presidium of the Agudas Yisroel something or other, and as advocate or some bombastic title on the police liaison committee, and from his Neither Here Nor There sopbox, and not to forget the Foreign Affairs Committee and tending to his moustache and dusting his hat. It may well be that he has stepped down from each of those august institutions and will now retire gracefully to write his eagerly awaited memoirs, publish a collection of his prized columns and speeches and perhaps even produce a line of fridge magnets featuring his witty 'Overheard' quips.

And did I mention his trusteeship of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society? How could I not? You know that organisation with the plot off the A10 which feeds the foxes below ground and the rats above. The trust which, according to its 2011 accounts, has a 'potential liability' to pay 49% of its surplus funds to the UOHC but which in 2011 is still quoting the recommendation of a 2002 actuarial report that 'no such distribution be made.' (Isn't it time the actuaries were commissioned once again?) Some ‘potential’ indeed.

As I say, it may well be that the above positions now lie as vacant as an aged strumpet begging for a suitor. And it could equally be that managing the fortunes of almost an entire family at YHS was a particular tough nut to crack. Then again it may just be that the need to spend more time with his family became particularly pressing as the School Chair was beginning to warm up of late.

And this is where we must take issue with Dear Joe. As regular readers will know, this blog can from time to time be unfavourably disposed towards the esteemed family that has taken possession of the private school maintained by the public purse, but today we must make an exception. Fair-weather friends cannot be cherished and for Lobenstein to ditch Pinter at this perilous hour mars what otherwise would surely have been a flawless record of selfless dedication to the public good and not-so-public coffers.

Of all Joe's attributes, jumping ship in choppy waters is not one we have associated him with. As one who spent a lifetime leading from the front it ill behoves him to be heading for the exit the moment sniffing noses make an entrance. As a captain surely he should have stayed behind until the last of the passengers has disembarked or is safely ensconced in a lifeboat and then perhaps explained what the heck is going on at the school where he was notionally in charge. Not jump overboard at the first sight of a cloud. Where is his renown mesiras nefesh? His world-famous shtadlonus? He may not have been there to petition Oliver Cromwell, but he has been steadfast ever since so how has it come to this?

But let us resort to the Great Man's famous words in an interview to the Daily Telegraph: 'We are survivors,' and how right he is. We can have scandals on our watch but we plough on. We can have financial skulduggery in our midst, but we hog our chair. We can preside over sexual scandals to which we respond with modesty squads. We can ride as high a horse as will fit our posterior and never will we be toppled. And if having overarched ourselves we are caught short we can always bugger off at the first sign of trouble and let others face the music. Survival of the frummest, as seen at a shul near you.

And so here is a suggested definition for the R word in the next edition of the kosher dictionary.

Resign: (sp. never with MBE) v. 1. Practised as last resort and to be presented as act of humility and self-abnegation when departing after four terms as mayor. 2. v. intr., often derog. in burial societies; to be deprecated as act of contrition. Usage: sparingly. Reserve for risk of censure by non-heimish authorities only.