The Last Supper? (A Gruesome Tail)

Anyone who has experienced the joy of my presence at their Shabbos table will know that I am in the habit of gathering, deboning, and taking home food left on plates for Stuey and Dexxy. Indeed, so regular has this fowl, greasy habit become that I am convinced that my hairy housemates believe that I spend every Friday evening hunting poultry.

On occasion, I take them along, too. And having thrust the pair (uninvited) upon her for lunch at the weekend, my dear aunt’s nerves were clearly becoming increasingly frayed by the longing stares, from beside her chair, for scraps from her plate.

“That is what they do,” I said, as if believing that this would placate her. “In fact, I have heard that if someone dies alone, and a dog has no choice, it will even eat its owner.”

“You see,” snapped my aunt, suddenly Messi latching onto a mishit back pass, “that is why you need a wife!!”

Folk have had so long to come up with convincing arguments as to why I should get hitched (cast your own vote in my Marriage Poll). But all have failed miserably. And this latest one – to avoid being consumed by Stuey and Dexxy – was only marginally more bizarre than most of the others (which usually boil down to: “Why shouldn’t you be miserable, too?”)

Hello, sailor!

Hello, sailor!

I have more than one friend who just longs to come home and to wake up to a fraction of the love I receive “365”. Accepted, it is not human. But neither is the mutual malevolence and contempt so seemingly common in more ‘normal’ relationships.

“If it happens, it happens,” is what I continue to tell the noodgers (whilst assuring everyone that my Purim fancy dress – see inset [in the event you hadn’t noticed] – was just that).

In the event that it doesn’t, then, seeing as I will never muster the courage to cast off the shackles of my upbringing – cremation would be my end of choice – and it will be them or the worms, why shouldn’t Stuey and Dexxy have one last good frenzy to remember me by?!

They wouldn't . . . would they?!

They wouldn’t . . . would they?

NOarchitects, No Cry: A Berlin Tale

“Life,” said Alvy Singer, “is divided into the horrible and the miserable.” I never really got that. Until, that is, these past twelve months . . .

My lovely mum z”l started to go downhill around this time last year, and I spent the last four months of her life caring for her, while Netanya Social Services faffed around with grading questionnaires. “Can you put your socks on by yourself, Norma” visiting social workers, each more gormless than the next, would repeatedly ask her as she smiled back sweetly. A light had gone out. The memory still pains. And the Filipino arrived much, much too late.

I have been unsettled ever since. I feel I need a change. New surroundings. A fresh challenge. Rural Ireland was on the cards. But I just wasn’t sure. And London feels a backward step.

Everything seemed to start to be coming back together, however, on a trip to Berlin at the beginning of last month. While looking for an investment property, I was shown an unrenovated loft in a converted salt warehouse in a very cool part of Prenzlauer Berg. And I just fell in love with it. So much, in fact, that I decided, there and then, that I would move in. I know, I know, “Berlin?!” But it does have a wonderful spirit these days.

A price was agreed with the co-vendor/developer, an Ulrich Caspar, and, before leaving the city, I met, on his recommendation, two 30-something architects: American Adam Odgers and his German partner Deborah Nickles, trading as NOarchitects. It was a very positive meeting, and instinctively – I was now on a roll (I even pinpointed in which corner I was going to start writing properly again) – I informed them that I would be delighted to work with them once the contract for the loft had been finalised.

I promised Caspar that I could, and would, act quickly – a notary appointment was actually set for 2 o’clock today, a mere three weeks after I left Berlin – and also made it crystal clear to him, at a third meeting that I requested on the afternoon before my flight, just how important the purchase was for me at this time.

And I have wasted no time since returning to Israel: I put my Tel Aviv home up for sale – I have already found a buyer – and, in preparation for signing, arranged power of attorney for my German lawyer through the Tel Aviv District Court, and converted and transferred large sums to an escrow account in Berlin.

Just eight days ago, last Wednesday, NOarchitects supplied two potential mortgage providers with a cost estimate for the renovation. “Due to sign next Thursday!” I excitedly e-mailed Adam Odgers from my phone.

Three days ago, however, only three days before the notary appointment, I received a chilling e-mail from the real estate agent:

“I am sorry, but I have the worst news possible. The owner of the loft called me this morning and said the architect of the house is going to buy the small loft. I am angry beyond believe and don’t know what to say. I let you swallow this before we communicate further.”

I presumed that Birgit was referring to the architect of the building. But no. On calling NOarchitects, just to rule them out, Deborah Nickles informed me, as cold as a German cucumber, that she and Odgers were purchasing the loft. “We have only just received an answer from the bank,” she explained, as if expecting me to understand. I told Nickles, though calmly, that what she was doing was not only morally wrong, but professionally unethical, and that she shouldn’t do it. She couldn’t confirm anything, she said, without first talking to her partner, and she promised that he would call me back.

I immediately phoned Caspar, a 59-year old film producer (when he isn’t playing with people’s lives), with whom I had really hit it off in Berlin (even discussing the screen potential of Hasmo Legends, about which, to my pleasant surprise, he seemed most enthusiastic). “These things happen,” he told me, as if it had nothing to do with him. It seems that he and his Ararat Film und Grund GmbH partner were more interested in receiving ‘free’ (or, at least, cheaper) architectural services for their next project – the adjacent building – than honouring any agreement with me, or appointments with notaries. I had just been some kind of convenient fallback plan.  Combinot, it would appear, are not an exclusively Israeli phenomenon.

I e-mailed Odgers and Nickles, warning them against this path, that it was wrong, that it would do their fledgling business and careers no favours. But they chose to hide. And Odgers didn’t pick up when I called him that evening. Instead, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, I received an e-mail from Caspar’s partner – a clearly delightful fellow called Friedhart Steinich, 58, whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting in Berlin, but who, from a quick Google, appears to have a namesake who has been accused of beating up his tenants – as follows:

“speak with me about your problem. Not with Adam or something. And listen me: Never we make a deal together. Why? You cry too much. Your letter is for me a joke. Sometimes get childs not all, what they want. Berlin have much flats to sell. Good luck! Try it again. Not amused”

The German way of saying sorry, I imagine. I considered lecturing Steinich on the legal principle of good faith. For a second.

I am not going to waste any further melchett mike inches on any of these characters. They – and, in the case of Odgers and Nickles, the relevant professional bodies in Germany – will be hearing from my lawyers. But, if you have stumbled across this blog in performing due diligence on NOarchitects, Adam Odgers and/or Deborah Nickles, be warned: before instruction, make sure that any property is already safely in your name.

As for Berlin, you might think this tale bashert, the Abishter’s way of telling me what my conscience hadn’t. It will certainly make me think twice, next time, before uttering “Only in Israel . . .”

The Israeli Way in Death and Mourning

My cousin’s concern about my propensity for doing the right thing – the reason for him lending me The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning way back in January 2000 – was, I would like to believe, not as well-founded as it was well-meaning. Insofar as it related to my timely returning of other people’s property, however, there was certainly some justification for his doubt: the book – lent for fear that my somewhat cavalier approach to Orthodox practice might cost my just-deceased father his place in the World to Come – was still in my possession in August 2013.

The Jewish Way in Death and MourningBut, since dusting down the volume last month on the passing of my dear mother (may her memory be for a blessing), it has struck me that the otherwise fine and comprehensive work suffers from several important omissions, not least of which is a complete failure to address how one should deal with loss in modern Israel, because, while losing a loved one is always difficult, losing one here comes with all kinds of unexpected hardships. So, if Rabbi Lamm will forgive my chutzpah . . .

melchy on mourning, rule I: Do not, under any circumstances, allow your nearest and dearest to take his or her last breath late on a Friday morning – it just causes such an unnecessary, Erev Shabbos palaver . . .

Following futile efforts to extract anything more from the ward sister – imagine a Russian, utterly unendearing version of Hattie Jacques, who had clearly honed her family liaison skills in one of Brezhnev’s (far) eastern correctional facilities – than “she died,” I was summarily dispatched to the hospital on-duty rabbi to discuss burial.

“You should bury her now,” advised the kindly-looking chossid, in his late sixties, following a nervous glance at his watch. It was almost midday. “The cemetery is about to close.”

“But no one will be there,” I replied, with more than a hint of panic, “not her friends, not family . . . no one!” That was certainly not the send-off I had imagined for my very special mum (nor the one, I think, that she would have wished for herself).

“Well, it is up to you.”

“So . . . do I have to bury her now, or don’t I?”

“You should.”

“But do I have to?” I repeated, more forcefully this time, still wary – in spite of my rather less than positive experience, from Holders Hill Road, of Jews with beards – of going against religious wisdom in such a matter.

“It is up to you.”

With the conversation fast turning into a Marx Brothers routine and the rabbi clearly itching to lock up his Portakabin for Shabbos (and even relieved, perhaps, that I was leaning towards a Sunday burial), I took a filial decision: that if the rabbi hadn’t, Hasmo-style, yanked my negligible sideburns and forced me into burying my mother that very afternoon, there was clearly some discretion in the matter . . . so, Sunday noon it was!

melchy on mourning, rule II: Keep a large stick by the shiva house door . . .

When, immediately upon reaching the end of the line of well-wishers, I was approached, graveside, by the two schlemiels proffering the monumental masonry equivalent of the Argos Catalogue, I made short work of them and thought no more of it.

But when another matzeiva (headstone) salesman knocked on the shiva house door the following morning, I was simply too disbelieving to come out with anything that I would subsequently be proud of. And it was still a one-off, I reassured myself – sharp practice by a monumental mason with enough chutzpah to get ahead of the pack.

With the second and third visits that week, however, I was reminded of just where I was living: a country where, so sadly, almost anything goes.

“It’s just business,” an English-raised cousin attempted to placate me.

Living here clearly changes us, too.

melchy on mourning, rule III:  Come up with a reason better than death as to why you wish to cancel service contracts . . .

The shiva passed without incident. And I don’t think I managed to offend anyone this time around, unlike at my father’s, in 2000, when, to an unmistakably smartarse “Do you know who we are?”, I replied “Yes, you are the shiva cousins!”

Since then, however, I have had to deal with the God-awful companies that supplied my mother with TV, telephony and Internet for the last six and a half years.

I began with the Internet service provider, 012 Smile (though Frown has always seemed a more fitting epithet). And, after days of trying, I finally got through to a human being (or so I thought) . . .

“I want to cancel my mother’s Internet subscription,” I informed the customer service representative. “She passed away, unfortunately, on the second of August.”

“But why do you want to cancel?” enquired Jacqueline.

“Do I really need to explain?”

“It’s a pity,” said Jacqueline, clearly on a roll, “I can give you three months free!”

“Did you hear what I just told you? My mother died.”

“Please stay on the line,” the hapless, tactless Jacqueline replied, the shekel finally having dropped, returning some twenty seconds later with a clearly heartfelt “We, of course, share in your sorrow . . .”

Next was the ever-delightful HOT (see HOT . . . in the bedroom and under the collar, Nimas Lee: An open letter to HOT, and Some Don’t Like It HOT) . . .

Its Irena actually seemed to grasp – first time, too – why my mother would no longer be requiring telephone, Internet, or even television services, though I did receive three follow-up calls that same day, all beginning “I understand that you want to leave us . . . do you mind me asking why?”

HOT are so very thoughtful: even if there was a minuscule chance of a customer having a last-minute change of heart (or going back to them in the future), they obliterate it with a timely reminder as to exactly why you decided to get shot of the bastards in the first place!

melchy on mourning, rule IV:  Avoid kaddish wars . . .

There does not seem to be a shul in this entire country – or an Orthodox one, at least (It’s always the frum ones,” the Legendary Ivan Marks would often lament– where one can recite kaddish without being drowned out by some arrogant tosser (Ashkenazi) or nutter (Sephardi) who appears persuaded that his departed relative was so much more special than everybody else’s that his duty in mourning is to cantillate over them all.

I have as yet resisted (though only just) the temptation to compete with said tossers/nutters and, the stronger one still, to just bash them over the bonce with my new hardback Koren (see below). But, oh, how I long for the civilisation of the United Synagogue!

melchy on mourning, rule V:  Don’t be a cynic . . .

I attended shul three times a day during shloshim (the first thirty days of mourning). But how many times, and in how many ways, can one say “God is great” in a single day and still maintain a semblance of interest?! I would just sit there incredulous most of the time, staring at the intelligent-looking people around me, wondering just how they could all seemingly be so into this.

My continued fiddling under the table, however, with my new Galaxy S4 – before jumping up, like a Yok-in-the-box, to recite kaddish (I hope it still counted) – was starting to get noticed, so I purchased the Koren Siddur in an attempt to keep my brain at least partially active during proceedings. Before, that is, that I became sceptical about even that . . .

Translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,” I scoffed to myself, “who are they trying to kid?!” And I attempted to envisage Johnny Oxbridge sitting there through the long NW8 nights with his Thesaurus and a small, though perfectly presented, plate of cucumber sarnies (Grodzinski’s white, lightly buttered, sliced into quarters . . . am I right, Elaine?!)

I am a once-a-dayer these days. I say kaddish once. And I even strive for a little kavonoh. That feels right for me. After all, isn’t that what it is all about?!

.וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן . . .

Only the Shammes: Moshe Steinhart z”l, 1925-2013

Hendon lost another (the other?) of its truly great characters on Thursday. And like Alan Hyam (bka “Cyril”) Bloomberg – who went to meet the Creator of all creatures, wretched and otherwise, in May 2012 – Moshe Steinhart, the shammes (beadle) of Hendon United Synagogue for almost 40 years, carried a name known well beyond the confines of NW4.

Any self-respecting Raleigh Closer asked to come up with his memorable ‘70s quartets would – alongside Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle and Moon, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Pelé and Tostão, Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft – also find room for Hardman, Korn, Steinhart and Balducci, who constituted the backbone of his vibrant shul and community during that decade (see When Kol Nidrei really was Kol Nidrei and From Raleigh C to Petach T: Musings on Shul).

Here was a foursome, like the aforementioned others, the members of which complemented each other to perfection – gravitas and humanity, showmanship and flair, industry with a hint of madcap, and authority and brawn – to the extent that, on hearing reference to minister, chazen, shammes or caretaker, I still find myself thinking of that particular one of them.

Moshe Steinhart z"lMoshe Steinhart was born in Frankfurt, Weimar Germany, on 20 February 1925, but was raised in the Diskin Orphanage in Jerusalem. And letters of recommendation from the institution’s rabbis – discovered and read out at Moshe’s funeral, in Bushey, on Friday – confirm what many of us knew: that, beneath a simple, modest exterior, lay a man of considerable scholarship and yiras shomayim (fear of Heaven).

I don’t profess to have any clue as to how Moshe ended up in Hendon in 1967 – I have difficulty enough comprehending how I did (see Hendon: Just Nostalgic Illusion?) – though I believe that it was via various beadling apprenticeships in the East End and environs. What is clear, however, is that he found himself right at home in its shul, revelling in the role of shammes, the synagogue officer responsible for making the place tick. Indeed, one could argue that – like Keith Joseph in the Thatcher revolution, Peter Taylor at Nottingham Forest, and George in Seinfeld – Moshe, rather than his more esteemed, feted colleagues, was really the “main man”.

Standing – or, more accurately, swaying (even when not davening, Moshe was in almost permanent shockel, a deferential, bordering apologetic, slow, smiling, closed-eye bowing movement) – no more than five and a half feet in his socks (S. Reiss & Son, of course), a black Terylene kippah covering the mass of his snow-white hair, and a beigeish v-neck or cardigan protecting him from the vagaries of Angelo’s boiler, Moshe cut an unremarkable figure, and one that a limp, eczematic handshake (dreaded by children) did nothing to enhance.

Here, however, was a communal legend, and one whose wonderfully naive, malapropism-littered, pre-Adon Olam Shabbos morning announcements, in heavily accented English, were awaited considerably more eagerly – and were always a far bigger talking point – than the rabbi’s sermon. Indeed, any attempt to take the job away from him – by stick-in-the-muds hanging on to the ludicrous notion that synagogues (even United) are meant to be places of worship only – were met with popular, and often noisy, disapproval.

Announcing an upcoming Ladies Guild function one such Shabbos, Moshe informed congregants that tickets could be purchased from any member of the committee: “All you have to do is approach one of our lovely ladies, and she will give you a good time.”

It has been suggested that not all of Moshe’s announcements were as blundering or as innocent as they may have seemed, but, rather, the mischievous playing to an expectant, equally mischievous, kehilla. One such is even reputed to have been made in fulfillment of a dare: “The Honorary Officers take great pleasure in informing the congregation that Rabbi Silberg will be away on holiday for the next two weeks.”

On allocating “call-ups” on another Shabbos morning, Moshe approached the Raleigh Close Bench, i.e., Judge Aron Owen, as follows: “Your Honour, the Honorary Officers have given me the honour of honouring your Honour with an honour . . . your Honour.”

Never short, either, of an apt aphorism, after Immanuel Jakobovitz had been upgraded from “Sir” to “Lord”, but knowing that his wife’s title would remain unchanged, Moshe announced in their presence: “We wish a hearty mazal tov to Rav Jakobovitz for being made a Lord, and to Lady Jakobovitz . . . well, once a Lady, always a Lady!”

My favourite Moshe memory, on the other hand, cannot have been scripted. On the first evening of Succos, one year, he got up at the end of Ma’ariv to invite congregants to kiddush in the synagogue Succah. In spite of this being situated right next to the main shul, Moshe got himself so fermisht about the latter’s five exits that he somehow managed to embroil himself in a ten-minute explanation – by the conclusion of which there was hardly a congregant left seated – as to how to get there from each and every one of them!

Then there was Moshe’s unmistakable delivery: “Mincha this uffternoon will be at a qvorrrter pust six . . .” This would drive my father’s, otherwise supremely tolerant, shul neighbour to distraction: “Why does he have to talk like that?” he would whisper agitatedly. “I am also from Germany, but I don’t talk like that!”

As for his leining style, well, that was something altogether else: an unpredictable assortment of shrieks and squeaks, with spluttered coughs thrown in for good measure, that brought to life even the most dreary list of sacrifices. And Moshe’s rousing Yom-Kippur-mincha-concluding kaddish can never be forgotten by anyone back in his seat early enough – from his United Synagogue sanctioned (or, at least, tolerated) Unesaneh Tokef to Ne’ila shloof – to have heard it.

On the subject of shloofs, there was also Rabbi Silberg’s between-Mincha-and-Ma’ariv Shabbos shiur. Always positioning himself in the front row (middle block, extreme right-hand seat), Moshe would at once doze off . . . until, that is, the Rabbi misquoted a source, with which he would – as if his lower nostril had been disturbed with a feather – stir from his snooze, make the appropriate correction, and immediately return to la-la land.

Moshe was often excitable – “Mr. [Henry] Burns, the bush at the back of the shul is on fire! What should I do?!” (“Take off your shoes and talk to it,” is said to have come the sage reply) – and even irascible, usually, I tend to recall, when his idea of order had been disturbed (for example, by a Torah scroll having been returned to the ‘wrong’ ark).

It was clear, too, that Moshe had no time for humbug, or for the egos and nonsense of shul ‘politics’. But he was never confrontational in this regard, merely giving a hapless shrug to the nearest person who he thought might understand (I would like to think that I was in that number), and perhaps muttering his favoured refrain: “What do I know? I am only the shammes.”

But – from mundane office tasks, to yahrzeit-reminding, to getting bar mitzvah boys ready for their big day, to preparation of arba minim (even those ordered at the very last minute), to going to ridiculous lengths to attempt to ‘upgrade’ members disgruntled that their High Holiday seats were insufficiently close to God – no one can have been as devoted to a community. And Moshe was hugely loved and appreciated by that community.

I am not sure if there has ever been a shammes who wasn’t a character. It is almost part of the job description. I am always regaled, by ex-Dubliners, with tales of my late grandfather, Joe Isaacson, who fulfilled the role in the Adelaide Road synagogue of their childhood and youth (Chaim Herzog even recalled him by name in his autobiography, alongside the ostensibly more interesting, and definitely more worldly, individuals encountered in his career as Major-General, UN Ambassador, Member of Knesset, and, ultimately, President).

But, even by shammes standards, Moshe was special. And he was the life and soul of Raleigh Close.

Baruch Dayan Emes.

Moshe is survived by his daughter, Bina, three grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter.

[Thanks to Joe Bloomberg, Daniel Epstein, Richard Herman, Andy Hillel, Matthew Kalman, Alan Portnoi, Daniel Raye, Graham Summers and Anthony Wagerman, for their recollections/promptings. And your memories of Moshe will be gratefully received, as comments below.]

The Edot (Part I): The Pasty UK Years

If pushed to give my primary reason for, on a good day (i.e., when I haven’t been induced into spasm by some impudent native), preferring life in Israel to that in the UK, then pipping even the food, weather and women (in ascending order of hotness) would have to be the rich tapestry of Jewish life here. In spite of our many detractors (and, indeed, problems), the short history of Israel has been one of startling achievement in almost every field, not least of which has been the absorption of so many disparate edot (ethnic groups) – each with its own distinctive culture and traditions – into such a remarkably united (even if we wish it were more so) whole.

But whenever attempting to relate my experiences of, for instance, Moroccan or Yemenite Jews, and especially of their womenfolk, to an Anglo Jew, I am met with a blank expression (one that Part II will attempt to address). The vast majority of British Jews lack any frame of reference in this regard, hailing from or having their origins in Poland, Galicia (today straddling Poland and Ukraine), Russia, the Baltics, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, Hungary. And, growing up in North-West London, the very marginal differences between such Jews could only be discerned from their particular shuls or shtiebls (large and small synagogues) if they had them (most now don’t), from their Shabbos meals, though mainly from their own peculiar – in both senses – sense of identity.

So, in the Isaacson household, for example, my father, of Lithuanian extraction, always appeared to delight in highlighting (in good humour, mind) the intellectual and cultural inferiority of the Galicianer Reiss family into which he had married. The Litvak, he was certain, constituted the very “cream” of European Jewry. Indeed, my father’s claim has always seemed to me to be somewhat justified, the Litvak misnagdim appearing, on the one hand, more enlightened (almost by definition) than the hassidic Galicianers, whilst, on the other, somehow more human than the anally-challenged German Yekkes. (In contrast to most Jewish immigrants to the UK, who arrived immediately before and after the turn of the last century, the majority of Hungarian Jews did not escape the Holocaust and were perhaps, therefore, considered beyond, even light-hearted, stereotype.)

The sickening history of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, however, made the “Old Country” a delicate subject for all immigrants. Even though they escaped Lithuania and Galicia around two and three decades, respectively, before the rise of Hitler, my parents never heard their parents or grandparents talk about the pogroms and persecutions that they had suffered in their backward, Jew-hating hellholes. Anyway, there is far more that unites Ashkenazi (European) Jews than separates them. And the differences between them would be no more recognisable to the outsider – or even to most other Jews – than those between, for instance, British Muslims of Bangladeshi extraction and those from Pakistan.

United Colors of British Jewry: Board of Deputies honorary officers, 2009

United Colors of British Jewry: Board of Deputies honorary officers, 2009

A relatively small community of Sephardic Jews – of primarily Middle Eastern and North African descent – added some much-needed colour to the rather pallid complexion of Anglo-Jewish life. My exposure was to the, largely Indian, Sephardic community of Hendon, to the Adenites of Stamford Hill (many of whom attended Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys), and to a smattering of Moroccans, Egyptians, Iraqis and Persians (most of whom had escaped the 1979 Islamic Revolution, wisely with little more than their carpets).

And these Sephardim brought a lot to the table. Quite literally. Their mealtime plenty was quite an eye-opener for the Anglo Jew, in whose kitchen meticulous Shabbos potato allocation was carried out on a Thursday morning. Blessed with an Egyptian aunt, however, I was spared a childhood of exclusively (miserably bland) Ashkenazi fare (though even that was an improvement on traditional English grub). Wary not to injure his daughter’s (my mother’s) feelings, my grandfather would play months of  ‘chess’ with the food she had deposited in his freezer, while my aunt’s wasn’t even given time to ice over.

The door policy, too, operated in Sephardic households was significantly more relaxed, with strays wandering in and out without any requirement for advance written invitation. This was a real culture shock for the Anglo Jew, who ‘greeted’ every unexpected knock at the door – which, even after positive identification, still wasn’t always opened – with a suspicious glance through translucent curtains or a built-in, magnifying peephole.

Perhaps in their attempt to blend in, however, the differences between these various Sephardic ethnicities and cultures were rarely visible to, or experienced by, their Ashkenazi ‘hosts’. And, beyond the puerile mimicking of the ‘funny’ accents of our new Persian classmates, I was never aware of any racism towards, or even light-hearted stereotyping of, our darker brothers. Indeed, many of them easily assimilated into Raleigh Close, Hendon’s very traditional United Synagogue. Moreover, the fact that the biggest “lout/wretch” (to quote the Legendary Swansean) in our school year was Morocco born and bred was neither here nor there.

In Israel, however, the richness of Jewish multi-ethnicity is celebrated, nurtured, and flourishes. And the deliciously incorrect sense of humour enjoyed here, thriving on ethnic excess and eccentricity (this kinda thing), simply could not exist without the edot. Is there anything to the inevitable, resulting stereotypes? You betcha!! And don’t believe anyone who – serving his or, of course, her ‘god’ of political correctness – tells you otherwise.

[Next on melchett mikeThe Edot (Part II): Ethnic Yentzing in Palestine. If you are offended by generalisations, and un-PC ones at that, then give it a miss. Anyway, you are probably on the wrong blog . . .]

Chaim’ll Fix It: When Asking the Rov is Asking for Bovv[er]

With Golders Green reeling from allegations – they are, at this stage, just that – of sexual abuse against one of its foremost Orthodox rabbis, the only thing that surprises me is that anyone is surprised at all.

Going to see your rov for marital problems is, if he is not also a trained counsellor, akin to seeing a psychologist for lack of belief in God. And for a married woman to do so, and repeatedly, on her own would be as wise as consulting Norman Bates about your troubled relationship with your late mother. Tzores is certainly not all it is asking for . . .

Extending Al Pacino’s famous monologue (aren’t those Italians marvellous: first The Godfather, then The Sopranos, now this), “Hath not a rabbi a shmekel?” And finding himself in intimate situations with members of the opposite sex (in some cases, with members even of his own), the “Little Fella” has been known to entice all but the most proper and resolute of proprietors into doing all manner of things forbidden.

And, no, this is not a defence of pervy rabbonim. Even ignoring the filth who rally with anti-Semites (parading as anti-Zionists) on the streets of London and who have embraced the malevolent runt in Tehran, as well as the disgraceful shenanigans of the charedim over here, my experience of all too many Orthodox rabbis – from the assorted misfits and lunatics at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys to those in the ever so shady world of “outreach” – has not been especially positive.

Standing over the ruins of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a rabbi of one such kiruv organisation – with a clear talent for clairvoyance and no less modest than his new, 7-storey, Old City HQ, replete with Dale Chihuly glass chandelier and Kirk (“Married Out Twice”) Douglas Theater – informed our group, at its most vulnerable, that the (solemn, respectful) German teenagers we had just encountered by the mound of children’s shoes were just “sorry that their grandparents hadn’t finished the job.”

“Why have you got so much rachmones for the Germans, Michael?” he responded, with trademark superciliousness, when I tackled him over what I saw as a horrible abuse of power.

Growing up on the fringes of the more Orthodox world, all I ever heard from friends in it was of the unbelievable small-mindedness, idiocy even, of their supposed leaders: from the prohibition on husbands kissing their wives after shul to the outlawing of patent shoes that might allow a sly glimpse of some M&S undies (mmm…) in the kiddush.

In my community, at least, I was privileged to know rabbis who were first and foremost human beings, one of whom – through application of humanity and commonsense (an advantage, perhaps, of the United Synagogue?) rather than the letter of cruel, antiquated law – allowed my late brother to be buried in the main part of the cemetery. We will always remember him for that kindness.

If frummer-than-thou co-religionists, however, choose to follow leaders who instruct them – in addition to other assorted nonsense – that Hashem doesn’t want them using the Eruv on Shabbos, should it come as any surprise that they also trust in them to save their marriages?

Sadly, the title “rabbi” does not confer or guarantee moral rectitude any more than that of “lawyer” or “policeman” (or, for that matter, “yodelling, peroxide-blond, medallion-man TV presenter”). And the culture of unquestioning deference and soft-headed sycophancy that has been constructed around them, in the ultra-Orthodox world especially, has laid fertile ground for consequent misdemeanour and scandal.

A friend in need (of a new car) is a friend indeed

“Thirteen years I have lived in this country,” I ranted to my new classmate as we trudged out of the Hebrew University a few hours ago, “and I still don’t get it . . . in fact, I will never get it!”

I was sharing with Ofer what had been bothering me all day, probably for the very reason that I was not quite sure why . . .

After informing a friend (“Friend”) in Tel Aviv, yesterday (Wednesday) evening, that I was going to be spending today looking for a new car, he mumbled something about waiting for him to speak to the Volkswagen dealership from which he had recently purchased his Polo.

Chaver mavi chaver, I assumed – literally “A friend brings a friend”, a cash incentive common in these parts – and suggested that we split it (as is also common) “chetzi-chetzi” (fifty-fifty). “Yes,” came the reply, without really sounding meant.

Accompanying me on the short walk up Lincoln and onto Yitzhak Sadeh (where the dealership is based), this morning, Friend came clean, informing me that he had told the salesman that he was bringing me and had already negotiated a free service for himself if I, too, purchase a VW.

I ruminated over this combina (see here and here) –  some might call it chutzpah –  all the way up Highway 1, this afternoon . . .

First, there was the knowledge that nothing in this country comes free, and that Friend’s ‘free’ service will definitely be coming off my end of the deal.

Troubling me considerably more, however, was the vulture mentality: What is it about the natives, that they have to get in/have an angle on absolutely bloody everything . . . even a mate forking out 20-25 thousand quid on a new car?! The same friend in England would have negotiated a bigger discount for me, rather than instinctively thinking what he could get out of the deal for himself. And it is not as if he had introduced me to “This wonderful thing called Volkswagen!” The showroom had been top of my list.

Perhaps I am just a meany – indeed, that was Ofer’s take: “Lama ata lo rotzeh lefargen?” (effectively, “Why don’t you want Friend to receive his just reward?”) – though, more likely, it just wasn’t very comfortable having to gaze in the mirror.

[With the time constraints of being back at school, but still getting the occasional urge to write, posts from now on will be shorter . . . if, as above, not sweeter!]