Tag Archives: Orthodox Judaism

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.

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From Raleigh C to Petach T: Musings on Shul

The theory of Primary Return-to-Womb Craving describes the infant’s resentment at his extrusion from the womb, and his longing to return to it. And while this infant has, thankfully, got over the loss of that particular sanctuary, he has experienced greater difficulty in overcoming that of another: his former home town shul. I just haven’t found anywhere to replace Raleigh Close (see When Kol Nidrei really was Kol Nidrei).

I can no longer, since making Aliyah, describe myself as a shul-goer. Indeed, the synagogue attendance line of my JDate profile reads “Sometimes” only because “For Kaddish” is not an option in the drop-down list (see A queer kaddish at the Melchett minyan). I suppose it might be different if I had kids, though definitely if the strength of my belief in “The Big G” (and I am not talking Gooch, Gatting or Gascoigne) – or, at least, in the Orthodox Jewish conception of Him (see Orthodox to Reform: Losing my neshama?) – could not fairly be compared (though by someone less reverent than me) to a middle-aged erection.

As a result, prayer, for me, has only ever really been about superstition, bet-hedging, and football: I admit, with no little shame, to having recited a particularly kavanadik Shemoneh Esrei in the car park of a South Yorkshire service station on the way to a Leeds v Glasgow Rangers Champions League tie. Needless to say, it didn’t help. And, a few months later, towards the conclusion of an FA Cup marathon against Arsenal – and having learned nothing from my earlier heresy – I vowed to the friend standing next to me, as Gary McAllister was lining up his free-kick, that I would attend shul more regularly if he scored. He did. But so, too, subsequently, did Ian Wright. Twice. And I felt justified to renege.

Otherwise, I recite the first paragraph of the Shema on take-off, during turbulence – at the point it starts inducing mutually empathetic looks between passengers (who, previously, hadn’t even noticed one another) – and when awaiting the results of medical tests. Indeed, when observing folk deep in prayer these days, they appear to me to be faintly ridiculous, and even, on extreme occasion, mentally ill. Anyway, repeating that He is the main man/real deal/bee’s knees in scores of different ways just doesn’t do it for me (and, more to the point, neither, I suspect, does it do it for Him).

But none of that seemed to matter in Hendon (see Hendon: Just Nostalgic Illusion?) And Raleigh Close still is, for me, Shul, both in terms of community and its many, quite indelible characters . . .

  • legendary shammes Moshe Steinhart and his blundering, malapropism-littered announcements, awaited considerably more eagerly than the rabbi’s sermon [convey my apologies, please, Dan Gins];
  • the gangling, mustachioed choirmaster – imagine the love child of Freddie Mercury and Russ Abbot – with equally deliberate, exaggerated (and ridiculous) conducting and leining styles;
  • the young shockler who would sway so violently during prayer that one almost expected his head to fly off his shoulders, and who was once catalyst for a communal debate on Derech Eretz when the minister, wanting to commence his sermon, was ‘forced’ to wait for him to finish Shemoneh Esrei;
  • the little man who would storm out in mid-sermon (“He’s off!” would be the excited whisper) if – or, more accurately, when – he disapproved of any of its contents;
  • the large one who perceived it as a personal slight – and so many shul-goers (Jews?) love nothing more than to imagine these – whenever a hat or tallis bag was innocently placed on a sill of the stained glass windows endowed in memory of his parents: “Do you mind,” would come the familiar bellow, “that window belongs to my parents!”;
  • the even larger one still who, for some reason known only to him, took it upon himself to be sole guardian of the Simchas Torah whisky supply;
  • the pensioner who would openly fill her coat pockets from the Community Centre kiddush tables, as well as the various others who you just knew wouldn’t budge an inch to let you get at a piece of that herring;
  • Angelo the caretaker, whose physique and bone-breaking handshakes made Goldfinger’s Oddjob look like a pansy in a bowler; and
  • the seemingly permanently irate member whose tirades, raising awkward (and important) issues that no one else dared to, would get more bums on seats at AGMs than the right to vote for another tit in a topper.

With Yahrzeit for my late father falling on a recent Shabbos – not the quick, painless, weekday tefillah for me, this year – I ‘enjoyed’ two contrasting experiences that proved to me that there is nowhere quite like shul to study the excesses, idiosyncrasies and neuroses of my fellow Yeed . . .

On the Friday evening, before dinner at a friend’s in the area, I attend Mekor Chaim, a ‘Germanic’ establishment on Petach Tikva’s Rechov Frankfurter. Now, Yekkes are renowned for their near-obsessive timekeeping and attention to detail. And it is no myth: I arrive, five minutes early, to an empty synagogue; but, by the opening words of Ashrei, it is virtually full.

Standing at the back (always my favourite spot in shul), minding my own business, awaiting the arrival of my friend Henry, it becomes increasingly apparent that I am unsettling the shul’s gabbeh. He asks me to take a seat on at least three occasions, with increasing levels of assertiveness. I do so, but am then told to vacate the one I have chosen because it doesn’t have a little green sticker. These, I discover, have been painstakingly positioned on (the identical spot of carpentry of) every seat in the shul not belonging to someone. When I inform the gabbeh that I am waiting for Henry, he leads me to his seat and tells me to sit in it.

The problem when Henry arrives, however, is that the free seat next to his also doesn’t have a little green sticker. Henry directs a glance at the octogenarian on the other side of it as if to say “He is my guest, do you think it would be okay . . . ?”, but, met with a look of “Rules are rules”, thinks better of it and plants himself in the row in front.

In view of Mekor Chaim’s obvious puritanism, I am rather uncomfortable at being introduced to complete strangers, even ex-Hasmos, after the service as “melchett mike”. The last time I had been in a shul this strict – the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash, better known as Munk’s (Mekor Chaim, I later discover, is known to its expat members as “Munk’s Lite”) – was 32 years ago, for Johny Finn’s bar mitzvah. On that occasion, I received an unceremonious whack to the back of the head from a complete stranger – for talking during leining – so savage that my cousin still delights at the mere recollection.

Anyway, it is not Raleigh Close.

The unbending strictures of more Orthodox shuls can, when combined with the rather more flexible business ethics of certain of their members, result in seemingly glaring moral contradictions. At Brent Street’s Hendon Adass (consisting largely of refugees from central and eastern Europe), for example, a husband and wife partial to a post-service peck on the cheek were said to have received a letter from shul management warning them to refrain from such lewd acts. Several other congregants, on the other hand, returning from prison terms for offences of fraud and deception, were in receipt of no more than a “Boruch haboh!”

Such shuls can also be a vehicle for wonderful comedy. My favourite Hendon Adass story is of the brothers who, one Yom Kippur, informed their younger sibling, who wished to go home and eat, that the rabbi held the keys to congregants’ homes. They then watched the five-year old walk up the hushed aisle and repeatedly tug on the tallis covering the head of Rabbi Pinchos Roberts – severe at the best of times, never mind on the Day of Atonement – who, when he eventually peered down, was met with the now legendary words: “Goldberg. 1 Shirehall Lane.”

Shabbos morning at the Central Synagogue in Jaffa (yes, a long walk from Petach Tikva) is a different proposition altogether. Founded by Romanian olim, but now attended by a hotchpotch of 17 (I counted) males of predominantly Sephardic origin, its kaddish – unlike that in Petach Tikva, recited in mutually considerate unison from around the bimah – is an exercise in who can bawl the loudest.

Later in the day, attempting to slip off sharpish after Havdalah (to beautify myself for a date), I am accosted by the shul nutter – there is always one – who, refusing to accept my pleas that I am not an American, insists on getting my telephone number.

“I don’t know it by heart,” I reply, congratulating myself on my ingenuity, until Nutter insists, after locating a pen, on giving me every one of his four numbers, each of which he inscribes with the numeric dexterity of a 3-year old.

Most definitely not Raleigh Close. And I am relieved to get back to Stuey and Dexxy.

A week and a half ago, however, imbibing the spirit of Jerusalem and (with no kaddish commitment) just looking for a nice Friday evening shul experience, I receive a tip-off about HaNassi, an Anglo minyan on Rechov Ussishkin, a mere seven minutes’ walk from my new home. And, while hardly identifying with the overtly political nature of the rabbi’s Purim handout – not to mention his contention that one’s choice of fancy dress is “an expression of the real person . . . illustrat[ing] the innermost desire to really be what the costume represents” (I had dressed up, the previous evening, as a camp sailor) – it is lovely to be surrounded by familiar, ex-Raleigh Close faces.

“This is not for you,” opines another Henry, who, while seemingly pleased to see me, is certain that I am looking for a younger crowd.

But he is quite mistaken. This is exactly for me. See you on Friday!

Spitters and splitters: what have the charedim ever done for us?

Everyone’s been talking charedim here, this past week, after ultra-Orthodox Jews spat on a 7-year old girl as she walked home from school in Bet Shemesh (The Independent). And I am not going to hide behind the journo’s favoured “allegedly” because, even if this child has been telling tales, such incidents have been regular occurrences in the city – 15 miles west of Jerusalem, and with a large, modern Orthodox, Anglo expat community – over recent years.

And, the thing is, I just don’t buy the spurious, disingenuous even, “It’s not all of them” defence employed usually by more moderate, but still observant, Jews – for whom such extremism perhaps poses uncomfortable questions – as a smoke screen to conceal the fact that it is most of them. While having little time for the arrogance of so many of Israel’s chilonim (see Doss vs. Chiloni, Parts I and II), I couldn’t help but ask myself this past week: What have the charedim (unlike the Romans) ever done for us? (Suggestions by comment, please, below.)

As a (peculiar perhaps) child, I owned more black-hatted, long-bearded and sidelocked figures – collected on frequent family holidays to Israel – than Action Men. In fact, I was enchanted by chassidim, and – attending Orthodox schools, and possessing a precocious fascination with the “Old Country” (as well as grandparents who would relay the more juicy details, unfit for a child’s ears, in Yiddish) – they seemed the closest link to my matrilineal Galician forebears (to whom I was more drawn than the rather more clinical Litvak misnagdim on my father’s side).

Easily the most memorable aspect of our fourth year Hasmo Israel Trip (see fifth bullet point here) was the Friday night tishen in Mea Shearim and Bnei Brak, at which I had been mesmerized by the spectacle of thousands of chassidim gathered around the table of their Rebbe. And immediately upon making aliyah, I trained as a tour guide at Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial Museum), largely because – as well as allowing me to look the Teuton in the eye as I presented him with a less palatable account of his recent history than that fed him by Germany’s postwar educational system – it enabled me to really ‘touch’ this past. And, in 2000, I visited the south-eastern Polish city of Ropczyce, and its satellite towns of Radomyśl Wielki and Sędziszów Małopolski, which at least some of the Reiss Dzikówer chassidim had the vision and/or good fortune to abandon in time.

To you, too, mate!

Something, however, has changed in me – perhaps I have lived here for too long – because I just don’t see charedim in the same light anymore: I no longer see warm, charismatic, spiritual guardians of our wonderful religion. What I do see are ridiculously anachronistic, lazy, chutzpadik, and in many cases (as in Bet Shemesh) violent, spongers and parasites, who threaten our democratic, tolerant values differently, but no less meaningfully, than our Islamofascist cousins in Gaza, Lebanon and Iran (see The Good, the Sad and the Ugly).

Following a Friday night dinner, last year, at my cousin’s home in the ‘normal’, Anglo part of Bet Shemesh, we took a late night wander up the hill into the charedi area on the other side of the valley. Stuey and Dexxy were on their leashes, and I didn’t let them get close to any of the ‘penguins’ whom we passed on the road. But the intimidation to which we were subjected – one particular nutter following us and muttering “noshim ve’yelodim” (women and children) as if he had never seen a dog – made us beat a hasty retreat. And how I resented that: these leeches, the overwhelming majority of whom, neither paying taxes (can someone please explain why they are allowed to vote) nor serving in the army, contribute nothing to this country, telling us – like the skinheads and “yobs” of our boyhood in England – on which of its streets we could and could not walk.

One lad who'll never have a problem with indecent girls

Sikrikim, a splinter group of Neturei Karta – the scum whose distinguished roll of honour includes kissing up to the little brown Hitler in Tehran (can any Jew ever have witnessed anything as sickening as this?) – are believed to be behind recent events in Bet Shemesh (see the darlings in action here). But they, to my mind, are just the worst of a generally bad lot. Charedi discrimination against women (it goes without saying that they are also viciously homophobic) – closing roads to them, forcing them to the back of buses, and even defacing female faces on advertising hoardings – has become commonplace in Jerusalem. And why would a secular Israeli choose to visit his capital on Saturdays when ultra-Orthodox pressure has succeeded in virtually closing it down (it is well-nigh impossible to even grab a cup of coffee in most areas of the city)?

Chassidic sects are also, on the whole, extremely exclusive – with the notable exception of Chabad Lubavitch (one of the main reasons that it is viewed so suspiciously by the others) – with frequent outbreaks of violence between them (the most recent just a month ago). While the rest of us may joke about our tendency to factionalism – “splitters!” – we also cherish our common brotherhood. Seemingly not so, however, charedim. A chassid of the Gerrer sect (considered amongst the more moderate), living in Tel Aviv, informed me that he considers secular Israelis “goyim”. And after helping constitute his struggling minyan – even dragging in reluctant “goyim” from the street – during my year of kaddish for my father, I was only once invited to any of their homes . . . and then only on the morning of Pesach for that evening’s seder (sure enough, though, at the end of the 12 months, I was asked for a donation!)

Ayatollah Ovadia

I exclude the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox from much of the above, though their Shas party is a toxic mix of religion, political patronage and social welfare, led by a small-minded twerp, and formerly by corrupt demagogues such as Shlomo Benizri (in jail) and Aryeh Deri (out of jail), all backed by a loose-tongued, rabble-rousing lunatic posing as a spiritual leader (should be in jail). Hamas without the virgins, if you ask me.

If charedim wish to live in the past, rather than in a modern, democratic Jewish state, I suggest that we ship them – or, at the very least, those amongst them who refuse to abide by the law of the land (and I would make all of them pay taxes and serve in the IDF) – back to eastern Europe. Let them see how their shenanigans are tolerated there.

One thing is for sure, though: we would be better off without them.

Happy (Goyishe) New Year!

Meidlech Power: Women protest against discrimination in Jerusalem, last week

Orthodox to Reform: Losing my neshama?

I attended a bar mitzvah in Jerusalem on Saturday. At Kol HaNeshama, the Reform synagogue in Baka where I used to pray – or, more accurately, join in the singsong and close my eyes and pretend to meditate while other congregants were meditating (or pretending to) – after making Aliyah, 14 years ago.

And it really was very pleasant.

The “bible” Bible for Reform Jews is apparently W. Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary (right). And its preface, describing the Torah’s origins, certainly made a lot more sense to me on Saturday morning than any account I ever heard during my Orthodox upbringing, either in Britain’s United Synagogue or (even more certainly) at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys.

Plaut asserts, I think (an attractive congregant was interfering with my concentration), that while the Torah is neither the word of God nor written by Moses – it is a continuing source of amazement to me that so many, otherwise normal, friends and acquaintances actually believes that it is – its several authors chronicle the Jewish peoples’ perceptions of and relationship with (their notion of) the Deity.

Progressive synagogues – or temples, as they often seem to be called – possess an air of serenity, goodwill and even universal love that, if not entirely absent from their Orthodox equivalents, is far less apparent. The difference in atmosphere is best summed up by the split-screen dinner scene in Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer juxtaposes the decorum at the Halls’ table with the noisy vulgarity at his family’s (though I do not employ the analogy to suggest either that Progressive Jews are more akin to WASPs . . . or that Orthodox Jews are coarse!)

On Shabbes mornings at Raleigh Close (Hendon United Synagogue) – where congregants would continually approach my grandfather, considered something of a “stag”, for tips on new share issues – I would learn more about the stock market than Torah. And the backbiting and intrigue for which Orthodox shuls are renowned was one of the primary factors in the continual refusal of my father, a constitutional anti-macher (big shot), to accept nominations for its board of management.

Progressive synagogues, on the other hand, have always felt to me fundamentally un-heimish (homely and warm) and – in spite of all the meditating and happy-clappyness – seem to suffer from a deficiency of true neshama (soul). In fact, they cause me to feel a sense of alienation similar to that experienced by Alvy at Annie’s parents.

Indeed, for those of us who are “FFB” – Frum (Orthodox), or in my case frumish, From Birth – the transition from Orthodox to Reform may be fraught with difficulty and discomfort. So, whilst I am far more ideologically aligned with Progressive forms of Judaism these days – even experiencing a sense of dissonance in Orthodox shuls – I have found the conversion process to be far from straightforward.

Whilst I haven’t yet concluded whether being able to hug one’s partner or massage his or her back as they recite kaddish (the memorial prayer) – which Progressive synagogues’ mixed seating enables – is beautiful or unnecessary (I am veering towards the former), I am now entirely used to increased female participation in services (which even some Orthodox shuls are now fostering).

But, on Saturday morning, there was the odd appearance of a mobile telephone (perhaps Hashem now accepts text messages), and – just when I had thought that that was as inappropriate as it could get – the woman in front of me pulled out a pen and paper, and started scribbling away frantically (perhaps the winning Lotto numbers had come to her during her meditations).

Whilst a Kol HaNeshama regular later assured me that such behaviour could only have come from a visitor, the same cannot be said of the female congregants who had donned a tallis (prayer shawl) and/or – what, for some strange reason, winds me up more than anything else in Progressive synagogues – a kippa (skullcap). In fact, the latter appears no less alien to me on a female head than a strap-on protuberance does – or rather would (“I have never seen one, Your Honour”) – between her legs.

But who am I, a self-declared and unabashed apikores (heretic), to judge any of my coreligionists? Especially since, at the same time on your average Saturday morning, I can usually be found on Rothschild Boulevard doing nothing more spiritual than indulgently licking the foam off my hafuch (latte).

What it boils down to, I guess, is that while you can take the dat’lash (acronym for dati le’she’avar, formerly religious person) out of Hendon, Menorah and Hasmo (and notionally Gush), it is far more difficult – perhaps impossible – to take the Hendon, Menorah and Hasmo out of the dat’lash (for a recent, interesting article on the dat’lash, see The ties that continue to bind).

And, to all readers of melchett mike – whatever you practise or believe . . . or not – a happy, healthy, and healthily irreverent 2010!