So detached is life in Tel Aviv from that in the rest of Israel and the Middle East that this city is often (most famously in the 2006 film of the same name) referred to as “the bubble.”
For much of last month, however, I exchanged this bubble for my former Anglo-Jewish one – a bubble no less – giving me the opportunity to redirect my blogging eye and (more so) ear from the Israeli to the British Jew (Jews in general being such a wonderful source of material for observational bloggers), and to consider in which bubble I best now fit . . .
The couple (who had been visiting Israel for a wedding) seated next to me on the easyJet flight to Luton provide the perfect reacquaintance with the harsh daily realities of Anglo-Jewish life: After sharing with me their disappointment that their fancy Stanmore development didn’t work out quite as they might have hoped – “Our entire floor is Asian,” declares the wife in unapologetic disgust, not caring how many other passengers can hear – they rejoice in the savings afforded by easyJet over El Al. “It was three hundred more pounds to spend in Israel,” cackles the husband, as I ponder, cynically, where the cuts might have had to come had they flown instead with Israel’s national carrier. And I afford myself a wry smile an hour or so later as the wife kvetches, Beattie-like, about the paucity of easyJet’s leg room: “Sitting’s no good. Standing’s no good . . .”
I spend that Saturday night at an old friend’s house in London, and – before catching my lunchtime flight to Inverness – join him and his kids for their Sunday morning outing to Tesco. And just when I am thinking how well-mannered English children are compared to their Israeli counterparts, my friend’s seven-year old yells at him from the back of the brat carrier, “You’re going the wrong way, you shmock!”
I haven’t yet decided which part of the Highlands I will be exploring over the next four days. Reading in my Rough Guide, on the flight, that Ullapool was “founded at the height of the herring boom,” I am happily reminded of my late grandfather – who would return from shul with his opinion not of the Rabbi’s sermon . . . but of the herring – and of my all-time favourite quote, “A kind word is no substitute for a piece of herring” (Shalom Aleichem). On this fishy whim, I resolve, on this trip (I try to visit the Highlands once a year), to cover the north-west and north coasts. And, whilst not a patch on the west coast, I enjoy four serene (the reason I tend not to take women) days, before returning to London to join my 39 fellow Norwood cyclists (there were eighty on the first ride, the week before) for the Thursday night flight to Nairobi.
On hearing that I have come from Tel Aviv, I am greeted by the Norwood representative – on my arrival at Heathrow Terminal 4 – in eerily similar fashion to the way that I had been in Saigon on my last bike ride for the charity, three years ago: “I’ve got a flat in Herzliya Pituach.” Unfortunately, I have left my medals at home, but it becomes apparent – during the course of the next week and a half – that a number of the riders have purchased holiday homes in Israel (South Netanya and Poleg appear to be the current “in” locations), with many of them blaming their other halves (“If it was up to me . . .”) for their continuing sojourn in the UK. But even after witnessing our group spontaneously respond to a rendition, by local schoolchildren, of the Kenyan national anthem with one of Hatikva (as opposed to God Save the Queen) – extremely weird, and interesting, I thought – I still don’t buy it.
There is mutual delight a few minutes into the flight when my neighbour, an ex-Hasmo (who had left the school before I joined), discovers that I am melchett mike (my delight, however, turns to under-my-breath muttering when Peter states that he “prefers the Hasmo stuff”). Overhearing our conversation, another rider then declares himself the nephew of Mitch Taylor, no less (whom, he informs me, passed away in 2000). This results, quite naturally, in Paul being hounded for the next week and a half for any snippet of inside information on the Legend (some memorabilia, he says, may be forthcoming). And when, on the Friday evening, Masai warriors enter the lounge of our safari lodge to perform their tribal dance – pogoing and yelping may be a more accurate description – I cannot help but recollect another fine Holders Hill Road pedagogue, Joe Paley, who, on displaying a photograph of African tribesman to our 2AB geography class, announced, “These, my boys, are schwarzes.”
Norwooders are a fine bunch who, for their generosity and selflessness, can be forgiven their occasional preoccupation with boxes at football, home swimming pools and private yachts – the irony being, of course, that, when they really need them, their 4x4s are parked outside Waitrose Brent Cross – and for their dependence on their iPhones: After passing a herd of elephants, one afternoon, one incredulous rider exclaimed to me, “Here we are, on safari in Africa, and they’re checking share prices and the results from Chepstow!” There is also more, and pricier, cycling paraphernalia on show than at your average Tour de France, with some riders – and I jest thee not – even providing Kenyan game parks with their first exposure to “sat nav.”
The ride, however, is a huge success, and – for anyone contemplating a Norwood Challenge – it really is a fantastic way to get/stay fit and to experience a new country, both while raising money for a wonderful cause. And witnessing the joy that participants with learning difficulties, riding on the back of tandems, get from these rides is always extremely special.
Observing every type of Anglo-Jew enter Luton Airport Departures on Tuesday morning, I am given more pause to consider where (if at all) I now fit in: From the family of pasty, young Stamford Hill hassidim – with the wife who might as well be a travelling childminder for all the attention her husband gives her – to the Bushey (formerly Edgware) 2010 Edition becks, chewing gum as if their jaws are on a spring, and everything in-between, I watch them all as if on a safari of the British Diaspora. And I am only drawn out of my study by the unforgettable sight of the NW11 (at an educated guess) twenty-something who, in attempting to persuade the check-in commandant that her hand luggage really is within the maximum size, forces it into the easyJet test-frame by bringing down to bear upon it her not inconsiderable toches.
While there are flights to numerous destinations, a mere two to Tel Aviv (there is also an El Al one) is enough to guarantee that the Luton Duty Free might just as easily be Golders Green Road on a Friday morning . . .
In WHSmith, a middle-aged gentleman – clearly overcome with naches that a fellow Anglo-Jew has made it onto the front shelf – feels it incumbent upon him to announce to the entire store that Howard Jacobson’s new novel has “just won the Booker Prize.” My panic, however, that he is about to recite aloud the full list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners since 1901, proves unfounded as his wife whisks him off to find the latest Elton John CD.
Taking a break from Anglo-Jew Watch, I inquisitively, though furtively, on my haunches, explore the nether shelves of Boots’ disingenuously-named Family Planning section – fruit-flavoured condoms, lubes and vibrating rings (“to stimulate both partners”) – before glancing up in horror to find a black-hatted, bearded sixty-something (above) standing over me. For a second, I expect to be pulled up by my ear lobes or sideburns and dragged off to see Rabbi Roberg. In spite of my relief that this doesn’t happen, I refrain from asking him what the vibrating rings are for, or whether – under certain circumstances – one would have to say a bracha on the fruity prophylactics.
While feeling further alienated from the Anglo-Jew with each passing visit to Blighty, my continuing interest in him would suggest that we still have a lot more in common than I may sometimes care to admit. Nonetheless, I am relieved, eventually, to make small talk – in the queue for boarding – with a religious Israeli kibbutznik.
The uncomfortable truth for me, and, I suspect, other olim, is that we no longer neatly fit into any one bubble, finding ourselves somewhere in that narrow corridor between bubbles that – like those blown by children – are separating . . . but have not quite, yet, split.
“Sorry,” he proffered, as he inadvertently passed between me and the bookshelf.
“Bloody hell” I thought, after doing a brief double take, “that would never happen in Steimatzky!”
I had been browsing the Travel Writing section of my favourite bookshop – Waterstone’s (formerly Dillons) on Gower Street – as the impeccably mannered Englishman momentarily obstructed my view. This seemingly insignificant episode, however, resonated with me, demonstrating as it did the huge contrast in attitudes and behaviour between my birthplace and my homeland.
There is something lovely and serene about many aspects of life in Blighty, including the manner in which (most) folk treat each other with common courtesy and respect (if not warmth).
After a week in London (following a year and a half without a visit), however, I was ready to come home (which I did a few days later, last Thursday). Whilst enjoying the ‘civilisation’ booster, I now experience considerable difficulty in readjusting to the English, and – oddly perhaps – to English Jews especially.
This has become very apparent to me on Anglo-Jewish charity bike rides overseas, when I find it extremely testing having to spend a week and a half with a hundred, primarily North-West London coreligionists. For my last ride, in the Far East, I made my own way from Tel Aviv to the group’s hotel in Saigon. On arrival, the first person I came across, from Stanmore, on hearing that I had come from Israel, felt compelled to assure me of his Zionist credentials:
“I would never sell my flat in Herzliya Pituach.”
Oh, Theodor would have been so proud!
At last Monday’s seder (Passover meal), which I enjoyed in Muswell Hill, the Manc sitting opposite me, finding an Anglo-Israeli at the table, laid into American Jewish settlers, who – even if I don’t always agree with them – have priorities considerably more weighty than the “French château that sleeps 19” which Manc informed us he is about to lose to his ex-wife. I liked her already.
Then, clearly trying to impress the new fiancée by his side – and more closely resembling the Haggadah’s (seder service’s) Wicked Son (who tries to distance himself from the Jewish people) with every ignorant word – he became a tad bolder:
“It might have been better if Israel had never existed.”
“Your life would be a lot more precarious if it didn’t,” I fired back as if he had just dissed my mum. In fact, if the Wicked Son hadn’t been my friend’s brother-in-law, the Isaac Son might have jeopardised any future invitation by following the Haggadah’s instruction to “smash his teeth”.
The purpose of my trip was to attend an Isaacson simcha (festivity). And whilst – following the bar mitzvah of my cousin’s twins – there are two fine new Isaacson men, the speeches (including that of the Rabbi), essentially on cricket and Arsenal FC, prompted even this once sports mad teenager to think that his Isaacsons (should he, one day, surprise everyone) will grow up here.
When in England, these days, I find myself acting like a member of the Israel Tourist Board. Wicked Son excepted, I offered Melchett hospitality to everyone I met. The obvious reluctance of some to accept it, however, saddened me.
“I am not visiting until there is peace,” declared a cousin on the other, Reiss side of the family, who spends his vacations in Dubai. “I wouldn’t feel safe there” (a curious statement, I thought, considering he has never been). And another (who has a box at Arsenal) hasn’t returned since receiving poor service at his hotel’s pool during his only visit, in the Seventies.
I also dropped in on an old friend from law school, whose seemingly delightful Hampstead Garden Suburb existence – replete with BMW jeep and designer Labrador – showed me what I could have had if I didn’t love this f*cked-up country so bloody much.
The only thing that I truly do miss about Blighty is the sound of leather on willow – one even more seductive than that, from the building opposite, of “Melchett Shabbes afternoon girl” (if you get my drift) – but the politeness, the châteaus, the Premier League boxes, the Suburb, the jeeps, even the ‘proper’ dogs (only joking, Stuey and Dexx!) . . . none of them held any real allure.
If you feel that you truly belong here, none of that “stuff” is any substitute.
This is the almost universal response I have received from Tel Avivim these past weeks, when I have informed them that I am considering a move to the country’s capital (though many of them probably do not even consider Jerusalem as such).
Dossim (singular doss) is Hebrew slang for the ultra-Orthodox or charedim (though it can also be used, usually less pejoratively, in relation to modern Orthodox dati’im le’umi’im).
Its dearth of dossim aside, Tel Aviv has more to offer than Jerusalem in nearly every department: arts and entertainment, food and drink, nightlife, shopping, sport. It also has the sea. Jerusalem has the Old City (though so does Jaffa), Israel Museum and Yad Vashem.
Tel Aviv nightclub
But the other thing that Tel Aviv has a lot more of than Jerusalem is poza (pose) and bullshit. Big bullshit. And I need a break from this city. And fast.
The faces on the shdera (Rothschild Boulevard) that I not so long ago greeted with warmth now elicit little more than a perfunctory smile. And, as for the regulars at the kiosk who insist on sharing their views on nearly everything – but invariably worth nothing – with anyone sufficiently unoccupied (and kind) to listen, I can hardly bring myself to look at them. Like the Israeli football pundit, each one “talks a great game” in his or her respective field or area of knowledge – real or, more often, imagined – but you can list their collective achievements on the back of a Tel Avivit’s thong.
And I find the Tel Avivi‘s “Too many dossim” verdict more than mildly offensive, sounding, as it does, rather too much like “Too many Jews”. Anyway, it is as ridiculous a generalisation as claiming that Tel Aviv is full of godless chilonim (seculars) who fornicate with strangers in nightclub toilets (most of the Tel Avivim I know would never dream of such a thing, having sufficient respect for their womenfolk to use the back alley).
Whilst I could never be referred to as a doss, my fairly typical Anglo-Jewish upbringing means that neither will I ever be labelled chiloni. And I am very pleased about that. Your average proud chiloni usually possesses a code of values not far above that of the politician or, still worse, real estate agent. And I certainly don’t see anything so wonderful in the chiloni Tel Aviv lifestyle that gives its practitionersthe right to look down their noses at their compatriots forty-five minutes down Road Number 1.
Israel’s charedim, too, are far from perfect. One would like to say that they don’t tell others how to lead their lives, and that they don’t “throw stones”. But, of course, they do both (the latter literally). On the whole, they set a pitiable example, providing ample ammunition to detractors who didn’t require much to start with. (See my earlier post, The Good, the Sad and the Ugly.)
It is quite clear that the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Jews fit into the category of either doss (in the widest sense) or chiloni. Those occupying the sparsely-populated centre ground are, primarily, from traditional (though not Orthodox) Sephardic (North African) families, but extremely few Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin).
Jewish practice in the Diaspora, on the other hand, being far less polarised, works a great deal better. I don’t believe I ever heard an English Jew describe Golders Green, or even Stamford Hill, as containing “Too many frummers” (the Yiddish equivalent of dossim). Anglo Jews display a solidarity – even if out of necessity – that is sadly lacking in Israel, where chiloni and charedi are in a continuous, and perhaps inevitable, scrap over the size of their respective slice of Israel’s political, social and economic cake.
Growing up in London’s United Synagogue, we would often joke about the co-religionist who would come to shul on a Shabbes morning, and then go and watch Arsenal or Spurs (his football team) on the very same Saturday afternoon. And favourite players would often even be guests of honour at bar mitzvah parties!
Such a halfway house would be virtually incomprehensible to doss and chiloni Israelis (though for opposing reasons), for whom its enabling factors and conditions – mutual religious tolerance and respect – is, tragically, as much of a pipe dream as peace with our Arab neighbours.
I admit it. My behaviour can, at times, be strange. And in ways I can barely explain. Even to myself.
And my not even attempting to obtain tickets for the Morrissey (last year) and Leonard Cohen (last week) concerts in Israel was amongst the strangest. I am a hard-core fan of both singer-songwriters (add poet for Cohen), owning virtually their entire back catalogues, and both performed just a few miles from Melchett.
But I will at least try to explain (if only for myself) . . .
I guess I am a cultural snob. And, when Israelis suddenly feign interest in visiting musicians whose work I have spent much of my adult life exploring, it can just be too much. I mean it might be okay with your Depeche Modes and Madonnas (both of whom played Israel this summer), but more inscrutable artists like “Mozza” and “Lenny” should not be so easily accessible! It is not just a question of buying tickets, showing up . . . and catching up.
This distaste is similar to the one I have for football ‘supporters’ who only show an interest in their team when it starts to win (on that note, has anyone come across a Manchester City fan who goes by the name of “Seitler”?) . . . as opposed to loyal fools like me, who even go to watch them in shit holes like Scunthorpe (yes, I visited Glanford Park on my last trip to the UK).
No, the opportunist concert goer is no better than the “glory hunter”, or “part-time”, football fan. You don’t want to share your adoration of your idol(s) with either of them. Unlike you, they lack credibility (and snobbery).
And so it was, for the first performance by Leonard Cohen in Israel since 1975 – all 47,000 tickets were sold in less than 24 hours – I didn’t even pick up the phone. No, I voted with my feet . . . and cut off my nose, because a large part of me obviously wanted to be there.
In Israel, such behaviour is referred to as davka – loosely translated, in this sense, as “just to be contrary” – and I am the Prince of Davka!
But, last Thursday afternoon, staring blankly at yet another contract in my office, I started to become increasingly distracted by the thought that, a few hours later – while I would be walking Stuey and Dexxy along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard – Leonard Cohen would be playing to a packed National Stadium just down the road, in Ramat Gan. And who were they to be there . . . and me not?!
At some point, the momentousness of the occasion then hit me even harder. It was three days after the Canadian’s seventy-fifth birthday. But, more poignantly, we were in the middle of the Ten Days of Repentance – between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and Cohen would undoubtedly be performing a Holy Land rendition of Who by Fire, his cover of the High Holy Days’ “hit”, Unesaneh Tokef (as well as of other songs with Biblical themes, like Story of Isaac and Hallelujah).
I got into Leonard (and, indeed, Bob) in the sixth form at school, thanks to the precocious taste – for Hasmonean, at least – of my classmate, Jonathan Levene, to whom I am forever indebted. Who knows . . . if not for Jonny – who even now I believe, as a black-hatted frummer (called “Yoynosson”), occasionally (though perhaps clandestinely) still listens to Cohen and Dylan – I may have succumbed, like so many of my peers, to the relative poverty of Billy Joel, Elton John, Genesis, ELO, Meat Loaf, and even, God forbid, Dire Straits. I have seen Cohen “live” on just one occasion, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993. (Any Lenny “virgins” would do well to check this out for starters . . . just to understand.)
So, leaving work on time for once, I raced home, threw Stuey and Dexxy into the back of the car without their customary early evening walk (thus risking bladders being emptied on the back seat), and headed down to Ramat Gan. Bringing the beasts meant that I wasn’t even going to be looking for a ticket – I just wanted to feel part of the “occasion”, and, if possible, hear just a little of the great man’s distinctive bass from outside the stadium.
I was not alone. There were a couple of hundred of us ticketless hobos, sitting on kerbs and the grass verges of the adjacent Ha’yarkon Park. I bumped into a journalist acquaintance, Lisa, who had hoped to bum a ticket through media contacts outside the stadium. But to no avail.
I fantasized, briefly, about approaching queuing Israelis (an oxymoron, I know), and posing a simple enough question (for any genuine Cohen fan):
“Chelsea Hotel #2 refers to Lenny’s affair with which singer?”
I even planned my response for the (expected) failure to provide the correct answer (Janis Joplin):
“Right, get outta the queue! And gimme your ticket! It’s confiscated. Now go home!”
Back on planet Earth . . . following one round of the stadium perimeter, Lisa and I perched ourselves on the stretch of kerb where Cohen could be most clearly heard. To our chagrin, however, there were a couple of horribly annoying Israeli women also seated in the vicinity who insisted on vocally accompanying his every word. And not only that . . . but with the heaviest of “Hebrish” accents. Nauseating guttural noises accompanied Lover Lover Lover:
“Yes and love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh . . . love-airrgggh, come back to me.”
Lisa, eventually, could take no more and left. The opportunity I had been waiting for arrived when Stuey and Dexxy started barking at a passing canine, at which the irritating duet – far less attractive, I might add, than my hairy duo (otherwise I may have let them off) – had the temerity to deliver filthy looks in my direction. That was my cue. I assured them that I would keep the dogs quiet . . . if they would do the same with each other. I am becoming more Israeli by the day. (There was plenty other Israeli chutzpah on show – during the second half of the concert, for instance, as minibuses started rolling up, fellow freeloading kerb-sitters remonstrated with drivers about the noise of their engines!)
I had a hot date planned for later in the evening, and left early to avoid the departing hordes. To quote Suzanne, perhaps Cohen’s most well-known song, “[I] want[ed] to be there”. And, strangely, I felt as if I had been. It was well worth the effort.
In spite of having been ordained as a Buddhist monk (in 1996), Leonard Cohen still considers himself “one of us”:
“I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”
Legend has it that Cohen – who was performing for Israeli troops – shared cognac with Arik Sharon in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, and that he was plagued with guilt when he found himself relieved to learn that a passing convoy of bloodied bodies was ‘only’ one of Egyptians. He would later remark:
“Lover Lover Lover was born over there. The whole world has its eyes riveted on this tragic and complex conflict. Then again, I am faithful to certain ideas, inevitably. I hope that those of which I am in favour will gain.”
The recollection of Israeli singer Oshik Levi sheds further light:
“Leonard Cohen proceeded with us for three months, day after day, four to five – and sometimes eight – performances a day. And, in every place we arrived at, he wanted to be drafted. At one time he wanted to be a paratrooper, at another time in the marines, and another time he wanted to be a pilot. We would sleep in sleeping bags on the floor because there was no room, and Leonard – who didn’t want to feel like a star – refused when I tried to arrange a place for him in the Culture Room.”
Asked which side he supports in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Cohen has responded:
“I don’t want to speak of wars or sides . . . Personal process is one thing, it’s blood, it’s the identification one feels with their roots and their origins.”
Cohen hit hard times in 2005, alleging that his longtime former manager had misappropriated over five million dollars from his retirement fund (leaving just $150,000). And the Israel leg of his world tour will not have done much to help – Cohen donated all of the profits (estimated at two million dollars) to an Israeli-Palestinian charity (a political gesture, no doubt, in the face of pressure from the anti-Israel lobby).
Even international music legends are not guaranteed to make money here . . . though I am certain that Cohen will have enjoyed coming back to his “roots”.
God bless you, Lenny. And come back again soon (I promise, next time, to leave Stuey and Dexxy at home).
[For further photographs from, and discussion relating to, Cohen’s time in Israel during the Yom Kippur War, see the Leonard Cohen Forum. Other quotes and information from Wikipedia.]
Dalia, one of the Rothschild kiosk quarter-to-seven crew – and the most balanced and normal of the natives who drink their morning coffee there (the competition, it has to be said, is not all that fierce) – recently surprised her husband, for his birthday, with a long weekend in Budapest.
On the morning following their return, she was simply gushing about the Pearl of the Danube, and especially the Marriott Hotel, on its banks, at which they stayed. The food. The rooms. The service. All superb. “And the best thing of all,” declared Dalia, without even a hint of jest, “we were the only Israelis.”
Now, you will never hear the Englishman – on his return to Blighty from the Costa del Sozzled (or whichever other destination he decided to grace with his civilising presence) – revel in the fact that he didn’t come across any other Englishmen during his sojourn.
Far from it. The Englishman delights in being amongst his own (and is even somewhat lost without them). Indeed, it is the “Kraut” and the “Frog”, the “Itie” and the “Spic” – in short, “Johnny Foreigner” – whom the Englishman does not wish to rub shoulders with on his hols.
I have been pondering this difference in attitude between the Englishman and the Israeli towards their own. It is not hard to fathom what it tells us about the Englishman . . . but what does it say about the Israeli?
The Israeli revels in one-upmanship. Everything he does or has must be better, less obtainable, more expensive – or, in the case of an identical product or service, cheaper – than what his friend does or has. So, for Dalia, the absence of other Israelis in the Marriott perhaps gave it an air of exclusivity.
The Israeli also believes that the Gentile – or at least the European, or white, English-speaking one – must necessarily have more class and/or culture than the native of the Middle East (said Israeli has obviously not spent a Friday evening in your average English city centre). Even I, a naturalised Israeli, receive looks of reverence when I – or, rather, my dreadful Hebrew-speaking accent – reveal my English roots. And I listen in puzzlement as awe-filled locals rave about aspects of London and England that I always took for granted. So, perhaps Dalia just didn’t want the Middle East interfering with her European weekend.
The Israeli also exhibits his own variant of what comedian Jackie Mason describes as “too Jewish” syndrome, relating to the Hebrew’s lack of comfort in his own skin. So, escaping her fellow Israeli for a few days perhaps provided Dalia with a welcome break from that uncomfortable ‘mirror’.
Jewish self-deprecation, our numerous complexes, and especially Groucho Marx’s not wanting “to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members”, all play their part here too.
Or perhaps I am just over-analysing. Anyone who has been on a flight, in a hotel, or anywhere for that matter, with a group of Israelis will know that there are politer, more decorous and rule-obeying breeds. Dalia’s continental breakfasts would not have been quite the same if dozens of her compatriots had been fighting over, and smuggling vast quantities of food out of, the Marriott buffet.
But – and I am getting to the Rosh Hashanah Message bit now (I think you will find the transition quite seamless!) – whilst neither Israelis nor life in Israel are perfect (both far from it), I strongly believe that those of you who are still living in the Diaspora are really missing out. You are just not “in the game”.
And when I hear of the ‘problems’ and concerns of friends visiting from the UK, of their interests, and those of their kids – not to mention Britain’s (and Europe’s) creeping Islamisation (about which I have blogged) – it just serves to reaffirm my decision to live here. Apologies for getting all existential on you, but, in the large scheme of things, the plushest of homes, flashest of cars, most extravagant of holidays, and even the best of schools, surely mean and count for little.
Diaspora Jewry . . . the shofar calls!
To return to the “footie” analogy (they tend to be the best, I find), the intensive training, expensive boots and fancy strip mean nothing . . . if you can’t even get on the pitch. And having the privilege to live during a rare period of Jewish self-determination – with sovereignty in the Land of Israel – has given all of us the opportunity to get on that “pitch”. It is totally incomprehensible to me how Jews, and self-declared Zionists to boot (pun intended), choose instead to watch from the touchline. (Whilst this may come across as preachy, my intention is not to patronise. And if just one or two readers think about the “Israel option” while bored sh*tless in shul this weekend . . . then pissing the rest of you off will have been worth it!)
So, a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year to readers of melchett mike and to all of Am Yisroel (the Jewish people) . . . but especially to the State of Israel and its citizens, who – in spite of their many faults – are the vanguard of our people, bringing their Diaspora brothers the standing, credibility, and thus security, to continue what I believe to be their relatively meaningless (in a Jewish sense) and increasingly precarious existence.
And, whilst Dalia may not be so pleased to see you during her next European “weekend of culture” . . . she would be delighted to have you here!
“If you could have chosen anyone,” Jonny said excitedly, “Osher would have been in the top five . . . perhaps even the top one!”
And over two hundred comments in three weeks is testament to the fact that – agree with his views or disagree, and whether you liked him at Hasmo or not – Osher Baddiel is almost the definition of a legend: “a person about whom unauthenticated tales are told” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).
Much of my initial, 45-minute telephone conversation with – or, more accurately (for the first twenty minutes or so), lecture from – Osher (see Hasmo Legends XIII: The Background below the main post) centered on the right to exist. Not of Israel. But of Hasmo Legends. According to Osher (I hope Mr. Baddiel will forgive the impertinence . . . it is how we all knew him), the series is a necessary evil which encourages only mischief and is causing only hurt: “A fat lot of kiddush Hashem it is doing.” And he repeatedly urged me to remove all posts and comments at once: “Close it. Kill it. Bye-bye.” (But Osher’s unambiguous views on the subject are there for all to read, and rehashing them here serves no useful purpose.)
When (during the initial barrage) I managed to get a word in edgeways, I informed Osher that my motives for penning Hasmo Legends were anything but malicious – I had a lot of warm and amusing memories of Hasmonean, and had been amazed to find little or nothing written about the institution on the Web. I told him that if he would actually read my posts (and turn a blind eye to the odd indiscretion), he might even find them amusing and of merit. In spite of having an Internet connection, however, Osher seemed intent not to be seen to be condoning the series, the blog, or their author (though he did eventually concede that I was “not a bad fellow”, but had just “made a very silly mistake”).
It is Osher’s disapproval of Hasmo Legends, and of melchett mike, which makes the fact of his posting all the more startling, according both a certain degree of ‘official’ approval which they did not previously have. Of course, I had no intention of telling him that. And his express precondition for posting, that I refrain from editing his words, was entirely superfluous. I had no intention! Whilst chosen to damn me – and my fellow “overgrown babies” – those words merely incriminated their author and, in many ways, Hasmo’s former religious ‘elite’. Indeed, they are a far better record of the ethos of Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys than our cumulative testimonies. And, every time I read them, I am taken back to the pottiness of those musty, dilapidated classrooms.
However surprising the fact of his posting, it confirms Osher’s status as Hasmo’s primary maverick. Excluding the posts of Tony Pearce – who only had a cameo (however unique) in the carry-on that was Hasmonean – and a brief comment from Clive Fierstone, no other Hasmo Legend has had the courage or imagination to rear his head. We hardly expected DJ or Jerry Gerber to speak out, but one of the renegade English department, for example, could quite easily have done so without jeopardising a Golders Green shtiebl membership (in spite of his son being a regular contributor to melchett mike, unearthing information on Nazi war criminals has proved a simpler task than obtaining anything whatsoever on Jeff Soester).
I tried telling Osher that comments to Hasmo Legends indicate that the Hasmonean experiences of many ex-pupils (certainly many more than I would have imagined) were far from idyllic (and again, far further than I would have believed). Osher dismissed out of hand, however, the “online therapy” justification for the series.
When I brought up the issue of corporal punishment, Osher responded that “there was very little malice” at Hasmonean, that “those things were done in those days”, and that “sometimes a kid gets what’s coming to him”. Indeed, much of the violence in today’s society, Osher believes, stems from children no longer being physically disciplined at school: “Children don’t know what physical hurt means, so they do it to others when they leave.” And “the Torah,” Osher argues, “doesn’t say it is wrong to hit a child”.
I was longing, however, to get to the two matters of most interest to me: Osher’s attitudes towards Israel/Zionism, and to his celebrity rent-a-Jew cousin David Baddiel (who, on telly, always seemed oddly willing to play the role of a Jewish Uncle Tom).
I started by quizzing Osher about the truth of a comment to melchett mike,that he had asked a pupil who attended school on Yom Ha’Atzmaut in a blue and white striped shirt why he was “wearing an Auschwitz uniform”. “Not me,” replied Osher, “I would never have said that.” What Osher did, however, volunteer was his recollection – following a talk with Sixth Formers on some aspect of (what he considered to be) “chilul shabbes in Eretz Yisroel” – of the scrawling on a classroom wall: “Osher, Hitler would have loved you!”
Osher’s views on Israel – to a Sheinkin dweller at least – do seem rather extreme: “If you don’t keep Torah mitzvos, you have no right to it.” Osher further decries the arrogance of chiloni Israelis, who “think they can defend themselves without AvinuShe’bashomayim.” And he is certain that Israel only continues to exist because of God’s help, much of which has been “undeserved” and given “on credit”.
Far from being totally detached from the State, however, Osher’s mother and son live here, and he certainly has a finger on Israel’s pulse, commenting on the evils of certain “parades” (he didn’t need to specify which) and that so-called human rights groups, B’tselem and Shalom Achshav, are “terrible enemies of the Jewish people”.
When I asked Osher whether he had any sympathy for Neturei Karta and the individuals who met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, he replied that he was “dead against them” and that they were so out of touch that “even the Arabs don’t use them for propaganda”.
In spite of having it on my to ask list, I decided not to bring up Osher’s alleged ‘assault’ on Norman Kahler, as witnessed by various commenters to melchett mike. If I can be forgiven for the Khaled Mashaal impression, it sounded very much like Norman – with his endless “Zionist provocations” – had it coming to him!
I did, however, ask Osher whether he had really washed boys’ mouths out with soap. No denials there: “It was no more treif than what had come out of them. And they never swore again.” In front of him, at any rate.
Osher's cuz, Dave
My curiosity as to Osher’s relationship with his author/TV presenter (he is no more a comedian than Osher) relative, David Baddiel (right), stems from my recollection of the latter – in a desperate, failed attempt to draw Osher into a 2004 episode of the BBC genealogy seriesWho Do You Think You Are? – making some cringeworthy reference to his ultra-Orthodox cousin whilst standing outside a Golders Green bagel bakery. Osher recalled how the documentary’s producer had spent two and a half hours in his Stamford Hill home, over tea, trying to persuade him to participate. Even the very little Osher knew about David – including the “goyishe girlfriend” – was sufficient to persuade him that it could only come to no good. And David’s boasting of his partiality for seafood confirmed to Osher that he had made the correct decision. As he put it, in true Osher style: “Even goyim don’t eat oysters!” Anyhow, it seems that a wider Baddiel family Rosh Hashanah reunion may not be on the cards.
Towards the end of our first conversation, Osher enquired as to my marital status. On hearing of my singularity, he proceeded to impart similar advice to that which I receive daily from my dear mother. Following his “parades” reference, I was longing to reassure Osher – though why I don’t know – that I am not gay. But I couldn’t quite summon up the courage or the appropriate wording (I mean, would I have gone for “gay”, “homosexual” . . . or something rather more “feigele”-like?)
Osher then enquired as to my level of religious observance. I gulped (even though I knew it was coming). “Are you sure you want me to tell you?” He did. And I told him. “Of course you believe in the Ribono Shel Olom,” Osher assured me, “you are just estranged from him. It is just that you have seen things in your life that you didn’t like.” (At the risk of reinforcing your views on modern Israel, Osher, what I forgot to tell you is that I was the first person in my company – of over nine hundred employees – to challenge the big boss and put a mezuzah on my office door. My deference to the Big Boss, even if born of superstition, perhaps means that I am not such an apikores after all.)
My “joker” for Osher was the thorny issue of charedi service – or, rather, the lack of it – in the IDF. But I might as well not have played it. “The Shulchan Oruch and the Rambam,” he assured me, allow for “Torah learners to be left alone.”
“Anyway,” said Osher, “frum Jews have never got a good press, because we’re outlandish and strange.”
I couldn’t argue with that. I had, however, enjoyed talking – or, rather, for the most part, listening– to Osher. And I must have asked him about five times whether I could have “just one more question”. In spite of Osher repeatedly saying that he “would like to keep up the contact” (I would too), I had the strong feeling that I had to make the most of this audience because he might not speak to me so freely again.
Defending his position on corporal punishment, Osher had commented: “Fashions change. Values don’t. Because they come from Hashem . . . and He doesn’t change.”
Pithy and brilliant.
What a shame, I thought, that this man – who most definitely has something to say (even if I might not always agree with it) – didn’t teach me at Hasmo, instead of the various muppets . . . who had nothing to.
[I took contemporaneous handwritten notes of my telephone conversations with Osher Baddiel with his express knowledge and consent, and on the clear understanding that I would be using them to accurately document them. I did not amend the above post in the light of the following.]
Osher: The Postscript (featuring melchett mike‘s Osher Poll)
During my drive home from work, on Monday, I had two “missed calls” from a UK telephone number. I called back. It was Osher Baddiel. He asked me to remove his post from melchett mike. I listened to the reasons for his request – essentially, the nature of the comments it had engendered – whilst remaining purposely non-committal.
The following day, after receiving a message from Osher on my answer machine – seeking confirmation that I had removed the post as requested – I sent him the following by e-mail:
Dear Mr. Baddiel,
I just heard your voice message.
After spending the evening thinking it over, I have decided not to remove your post from the blog. You expressly agreed that I post it, and – with the greatest respect – I will not remove it because you don’t like the resulting discussion. I will, however, consider removing or editing specific comments.
I had already (i.e., before your telephone call of yesterday) written a further post about our conversations, which I told you I would and which I intend to post. If you would like me to send it to you first, I will be happy to and to take into consideration your response. Anyway, I think you will find it to be – in the main – flattering and positive.
As I have mentioned to you, many, many ex-Hasmos have found the Hasmo Legends series to be extremely beneficial, and not just mere entertainment.
I am not e-mailing because I wish to avoid talking to you, but because I fear it would end in an argument. And I don’t wish to get into that situation with you. Our world views are very different. I will talk about the law and rights. And you will talk about Torah.
Even though I didn’t really get to know you during my Hasmo days, I respect you and your forthrightness. And I would still like to meet you some day soon, even though I understand that I might now be jeopardizing that . . . or that I am likely, at the very least, to get a “putch” for my disobedience!
I addressed Osher’s reply of that same afternoon, written between paragraphs of the above, on a similarly piecemeal basis (my explanations of the context, where necessary, in square brackets):
I listened carefully [to your request] and very intentionally did not make any “promises” of the kind [that I would remove the post].
You are of course “entitled to ask for it back”, but – in terms of the general law – I don’t believe that I am obliged to remove it. This is made even clearer by the terms and conditions of my blog (see https://melchettmike.wordpress.com/about-this-blog/).
Your post has had 3,145 ‘hits’ to date. Since November of last year, my blog has had 128,378. These statistics hardly support your contention [that the post has “breathed life into” melchett mike and that I “wish to exploit” it “to engender more interest”] (though you are of course free to think as you please).
I have no desire to get into a personal war of words, but your post makes it abundantly clear that you are not afraid of hurting people’s “feelings”. [re Osher, once again, accusing contributors to melchett mike of this]
The e-mail at the bottom of this page [seeking, and obtaining, your confirmation I could post the draft] makes it quite clear that there were no such “false pretences” involved. [re Osher’s claim that his post was obtained under such]
Just as you have no wish do get into a public “scrum”, I have no wish to get into a private one. You sent me a post. I posted it. I do not believe that I am under any obligation, moral, legal, or otherwise (we are not at school anymore), to unpost it.
If you wish to appeal via the blog, feel free to do so. They are not all “foulmouthed cretins”.
It may sound a little harsh, but the bottom line is this . . . melchett mike is a blog (see the link above). It is not the Hasmonean School Magazine Online. If it were, none of you would be reading it. I am an ex-journalist, and (believe it or not) take my blog reasonably seriously. And, whilst it didn’t “make” melchett mike as Osher seems to think, receiving a post from him was (as I wrote in the first paragraph above) a “coup” for Hasmo Legends. Why would I remove it?
Early on that Tuesday evening, Osher sent me his pièce de résistance (of seven hundred words no less), to which, yesterday morning, I replied as follows:
Dear Mr. Baddiel,
In spite of the deeply insensitive things that you wrote about me in your post to the blog, I went out of my way to refrain from attacking you personally. But you fail to accord me the same courtesy. How ironic that you write about “hurting people, deliberately, gratuitously” . . . and call me a “bully boy”!
You have now crossed the line, and I certainly no longer feel the need to accord you special treatment. I won’t, however, get drawn into an unseemly e-mail ‘war’. But neither will I “tell [my] bloggers” anything. If you are as “not afraid of the truth” and “not scared of [my] bloggers” as you claim, you will have no objection to their seeing the e-mails you have sent me. I have nothing to hide . . . do you?
In some sense, as a result of all their comments, my Hasmo Legends series has become theirs too. And perhaps they are the ones to decide whether your post to the blog should rightfully be removed.
By prompt reply, Osher refused me permission to publish his e-mails, which I will respect (even though, from a strictly legal standpoint, I don’t believe that I require any such permission). Perhaps he considers them copyrightable works of art. In subtlety, however, they owe rather less to the school of Michelangelo than to that of Rabbi Angel (and the plank for our backsides that he christened “wacko”).
Indeed, after what he wrote in those e-mails, I have little respect left for Osher Baddiel. They were hateful, viciously abusing both me – though I am mischievously proud of my new “Rotter-in-Chief” title – and contributors to melchett mike. Osher was particularly scathing and unpleasant about my relationship with his seeming bêtes noires, Stuey (above right) and Dexxy. The great defender of former Hasmo teachers’ and Rebbes’ (suddenly) delicate sensibilities appears to have no problem assaulting those of their former pupils, too many of whom are singing from the same hymnsheet for his liking. (If Osher wishes to challenge any of this, I will gladly publish his e-mails . . . and let you be the judges.)
So, what do I take out of this whole Osher episode (apart, that is, from marvel at the man’s astonishing ability to psychically reproduce dogs)?
(Trite and banal, perhaps, but . . .) That religious extremism is bad, whatever the religion. No less than the fundamentalist imams around the corner from him, in Finsbury Park, Osher dexterously manipulates the Scriptures to suit his own arguments and ends. His post to melchett mike, e-mails, and even telephone utterances, clearly illustrate that Osher does not apply the laws of loshon hora (for example) as rigorously to himself as to others. And I have no doubt that Osher would have a most eloquent and persuasive justification for that. (It is just fortunate that Jewish texts are rather less open to pernicious interpretation than those of our Islamic cousins [though 72 virgins could always be nice].)
And there was I, wondering how many buses I would have to catch for the honour of tea with a Legend in N16 during my next visit to the “green and pleasant land” (though Stamford Hill is probably not quite what William Blake had in mind).
The most frequent question I get asked, by Israelis and non-Israelis alike, is why I moved to Israel.
The non-Israelis – English primarily – can’t understand why I would have wanted to leave the country of my birth (and first 28 years). Whenever there is any kind of sporting contest between their (our?) country and my adopted one, the English cannot fathom why I support Israel. And, when we get inebriated on the Friday evening of my annual visit to Harrogate, my mate John, a good, solid Yorkshireman, always sets me his own version of the Tebbit Test: “If there was a war between England and Israel, who would you fight for?” Suffice it to say, my answer – like John’s question, the same every year – always leaves him shaking his head, lips clenched.
Many – perhaps even most – Israelis I meet, too, can’t understand why I chose what they consider a far harder life. Following a brief discourse on Israel’s (in my opinion) vastly superior quality of life (cf. standard of living), the positive half of my (now somewhat rote) explanation is that I am a Jew and a Zionist, and believe in the State of Israel (though, of course, that is not enough . . . one has to like it here too).
Somewhat surprisingly, the “Jew and a Zionist” account elicits fewer looks of incredulity from the English than from chiloni (secular) Sabras (born and bred Israelis), many – or perhaps, once again, most – of whom consider Zionism of only marginally more relevance to their lives than Judaism. It is as if these people view their nationality in a total religious and historical vacuum. Whilst I am far from religious, my Jewishness has always come first, being a sine qua non of both my Zionism and my Israeliness (soon after making Aliyah, I had furious arguments on the subject with my then work room-mate . . . though I put them down to Michal being a particularly aggressive Israeli bitch). So, in relation to John’s question (above), if I had emigrated instead to Australia – i.e., if there were no Jewish factor – my reply would be quite the opposite.
The other half of my explanation to Israelis is that I never really felt that I truly belonged in England. Most people find that odd. And I can understand why. I was born in England. I went to school there. I was a BBC journalist. I then qualified as an English solicitor (no, those are not “the ones with the wigs”). I am a keen football fan (some have said even a typical English hooligan). And I like cricket even more, travelling with England’s Barmy Army to the West Indies earlier this year.
But it was that trip to the Caribbean and time spent with said Barmy Army (right) – the only semblance to an “army” being that, after a few days, you can’t wait to get out – which reminded me (not that I had ever truly forgotten) why I am not (really) an Englishman: I simply do not enjoy consuming copious amounts of alcohol for hours on end while standing at some nondescript bar stinking of urine (the bar that is . . . not me), making less sense by the pint (me this time). (In fact, thoughts and feelings fresh, I wrote the first draft of this post during the first leg – from Barbados to New York – of my return journey to Tel Aviv, on the 3rd of March.)
Of perhaps more significance, three of my four grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, while the parents of the fourth only arrived in England a year or so before she was born. And my father was born in Ireland. So, in what way can I meaningfully be said to be English (which many would argue constitutes a distinct ethnic group)?
I grew up in an area of North-West London that could justifiably be classified as a “ghetto”. With the exception of an Indian family and a Greek one, everyone in our crescent of approximately fifty houses was Jewish. I went to a Jewish kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, and – other than merely dutiful or perfunctory exchanges with non-Jewish teachers, my father’s hospital colleagues, our cleaner Mrs. Hart, and my babysitter Mrs. Smith – did not experience any form of meaningful interaction with Gentiles until I attended university, aged 19.
And, after discovering Amy Henderson – tall, willowy, blonde, dreamy bluey-green eyes, and bra-less under fine lambswool jumpers in the biting cold Manchester winters (if you get my drift) – on the first day of my philosophy degree, it took until my graduation, some three years later, to regain my composure (and if any of those stories about going blind are more than bobe-mayses [old wives’ tales], then, God, I am truly sorry).
But my Jewishness and ghetto upbringing aside, even the ‘true’ English – though they believe, and will argue, that they do – have little sense of identity. Ask an Englishman why he is proud to be English and he will puff out his chest and boldly tell you about the Second World War – unless you enjoy pain, reminding him that it was actually the British who fought the War is ill-advised – and, err . . . football. He might also mutter something about the flag of St. George (see the photograph above). But you won’t understand what. And neither will he.
This lack of meaningful identity can be readily observed whenever you mention an Englishman’s compatriots to him. Geordies (from Newcastle) are knobs, Mackems (Sunderland) are dicks, Tykes (Yorkshiremen) are foul, Mancs (Manchester) are horrible, Scousers (Liverpool) are scum, Brummies (Birmingham) are prats, Cockneys (London) are twats, etc. They all bloody hate each other.
So, if a ‘true’ Englishman struggles with his identity, what hope is there for the English (ostensibly) grandson of Lithuanian and Galician Jews?
Of course, in terms of nationality, I am part British (part Israeli). Being so, however, is not synonymous with being English (whatever Israeli sports commentators might believe). And, certainly as far as the Englishman is concerned, if he has to share his Britishness with the Scots and – worse still (from his perspective) – with the Welsh, he has no problem admitting a mere 280,000 Jews too.
Notwithstanding all of the above (spot the contract lawyer), I identify myself as – probably because I instinctively feel – Jewish first (and very foremost), English second, then Israeli, and British last.
British last because it is only really meaningful in terms of wars and passports (i.e., formal nationality). The Olympic Games’ Team GB does not inspire a fraction of the passion of, for example, the English football or cricket teams. Indeed, the common traits of the English, Scots and Welsh hardly distinguish them from Uzbeks or Western Samoans.
From time to time, I visit the British military cemeteries in Jerusalem (left) and Beersheba, where thousands upon thousands of World War One dead rest. It is a deeply moving experience, knowing that these young men – from towns and villages I have only heard of through my former (sad) interest in local league cricket – fell in a far-off land, fighting a war which probably meant even less to them than the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan do to today’s British servicemen. And I always wonder whether anyone still mentions – never mind visits – them . . .
After everything I have written, however, how can I identify myself as English before Israeli?
Whilst you are entitled to be confused, unlike my Israeliness – which, as I explain above, is inextricably linked to my Jewishness – my Jewishness and Englishness stand alone. I am also far more English in character (cf. sense of belonging) than Israeli, which I will never truly be (other than, again, by nationality). And, in my adopted home, I am widely regarded as English – whenever I visit the café next to my office, its owner unfailingly “outs” me with a loud “Ahhhh . . . English-man!”
There are never lumps in my throat, however, when I watch A Bridge Too Far, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Dam Busters, or Battle of Britain . . . and they are proper movies, unlike those “B” Entebbe ones. The excrutiating experience, however, of watching Yoni (Netanyahu, Bibi’s brother) slowly expire, and the exhilarating one of the freed hostages running down the ramps of those Hercules transport aircraft, touches me in a way that nothing English or British ever could.
At a time when it was not common, or widely acceptable, for people to question the existence of the Deity, British philosopher Bertrand Russell (right) felt the urge to write his essay Why I Am Not a Christian (a good read, incidentally, for anyone prepared to open their eyes and mind).
And today, when it is not widely acceptable to be a Jew, never mind an Israeli, I guess that I am feeling a similar need to examine and to understand my sense of identity.
And, if that sounds a bit f*cked up, well . . . that’s because it probably is.