Wednesday, December 21, 2005

On 'The War on Entertainment'

Naive that I am, I had thought the war against entertainment had been won some time ago. I am wrong. New victories would seem to still lie ahead, and only recently new battles have been won.

Several weeks back a columnist in The Jewish Tribune (the UK's indigenous orthodox Jewish weekly) penned a piece, that for the first time ever I could agree with. He noted that the orthodox community now considered all non-totally religious entertainment as something to keep away from. Something to protect the children from. As an illustration he talked about the annul Zeirim show that he used to act in. This was an all 'kosher veyoisher' play and even Rabbonim would attend (something I did not know). No play has been put on for the last twenty years, the reason being the radicalisation of the potential market. To be economically viable such shows need people on seats; and people do not come to these things any more. Bearing in mind the massive growth of the orthodox community in London this is quite an achievement!

Many people have hailed the piece as courageous and the breaking of new ground. Some of the British blogs have posted about it most notably The Shaigetz. (By the way Mr Shaigetz your style is becoming less and less accessible. Soon we will all need a degree in English lit to be able to understand your prose!)

Two London stories, both occurring subsequent to the said article, confirms that the warrriors of turbo charged conservatism have not lost any of their strength. The first concerns a Stamford-Hill kosher grocery store that had opened on the long winter Motzoei Shabossios for the past twenty years. A couple of weeks ago the storeowner announced that he was not going to do so any longer. His Rebber had called him to say that he should keep the shop closed. Motzei Shabbos is after all a continuation of the real thing. One doesn't want to spoil it by mundane activities like shopping. Admittedly a small story, but in our context, I think, a relevant one.

The second is a very big story with enormous implications. You can read about it on the Stamford-Hill based blog, Frummer. Make sure you read the comments as one of the main protagonists (Meilech Landau) has commented informatively several times.

Basically a talented chassidesher (bobover) man organised a Yiddish language play to be held in a hall over Channukah. The important thing to bear in mind is this; the play was to be for children and in Yiddish, the story chosen carefully, for a chassidisher audience. Mixed seating doesn't even come into question, and due to language barriers guaranteed to attract only Yiddish speakers, so no chance of mixing with and heaven-forbid learning from 'modernerz'.

Last week the Jewish Tribune (Thursday evening) announced it, but by Friday the play had been pulled. Several menahalim (headmasters) of chadorim banned their pupils from attending. Once one menhael does so, so do all the others and soon it was apparent that the show would be a 'box-office' flop. The play's organiser realising he would be left with an enormous bill cut his losses and cancelled.

This is an even bigger story because it involves children. Many had had purchased tickets and are now more than disappointed. It certainly will be the big discussion point amongst children this Chanukah. What message will they take from this saga? Some won't care; for some it will be another reason why they will grow up disillusioned and live lives in a manner that dosen't reflect their upbringing; and for some this will be a lesson in an extremism that they will advance even further when they reach their mid-teens.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Right Wing By Default (Revised)

Chareidim also have a professional class. They also have what we call on this side of the Atlantic ‘the chattering classes’. Many of them have had the advantage of a good secular education. Some of them have gone to some of the best universities of the land. Most of them though are ‘born again charedim’, and in order to prove their chareidi credentials, try desperately to err on the side of right wing bigotry. For a free and true representation of their positions on important matters look no further than the web-log Cross Currents. Make sure you have a bowl close at hand as the urge to puke can become overwhelming.

Cross Currents is important. It is not just another blog. It is the chareidi worldview translated into English. It is the chareidi worldview for the common man. The leaders of chareidi Jewry (‘The Gedoilim’) do not write the articles that get posted on Cross Currents, but the posters on Cross Currents certainly represents correctly the views of the said ‘Gedoilim’. When the story of modern chareidi Jewry gets written in one hundred years time, Cross Currrents will be a primary resource for ascertaining what motivated and moved chareidi Jews of the 21st century.

Cross Currents is right wing. They enthusiastically support capital punishment, and from reading some of the posts this week one gets the distinct impression that they would love to see public hangings in the town square (its ‘torahdik’ after all) – and for adulterers too. I suppose it would make a suitable family outing, as they also hate the ‘entertainment industry’ and its immoralising effect on public values. Anything George W Bush does fills them with childish excitement, and by extrapolation they are pro-torture, pro Guantanamo Bay, pro-war and pro all the other excesses of the said president. When speaking about Muslims and Islam they lose all restraint, and although they have no sensible solution to the Palastinain issue, they opposed the Gaza-disengagement with vigour, not even shirking from making comparisons to Nazi Germany.

I could go on but I want to make my own comparison to Nazi Germany. There is a little known, but important story that is relevant here. During the 1930’s there were instances of orthodox Jews that thought that Hitler had some good ideas. They supported his return to pure Germanic values. They thought his ideas on homosexuality, gypsies and ‘coloured’ people were not far off the mark. Many of them felt that the big enemy was atheist Marxism. Hitler would sort that out. Hitler would also act as a bulwark against the tide of capitalist values that was sweeping across Europe. Some even thought that Hitler could stem the tide against that ungodly thing called democracy. In short Hitler was right wing and so was Orthodox Jewry, and therefore why not support him. (For those of you who think that all this is too fantastic I invite you to read this book. It’s all in there)

I think it’s pretty sad that a right wing dogmatic worldview is the default perspective of a ‘choreid’. Its sadder that they have not learnt from the big mistakes of the past.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Some Advice for 'Also A Prat'

So also-a-prat reads Winston’s book and bursts a blood vessel. He stamps his foot and throws the toys out of the highchair. Next come the minced meatballs, mashed potatoes and mushy peas splattered all over the kitchen floor. Not very nice.

Oy! I have some advice for you young man. Get a grip. You’re yelling that loud, the whole world will soon know about your infantile temper-tantrums. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

Lets get things straight then. You as a Chosssid can spend the last six months doing nothing but telling us about the uncultured, unthinking and unstimulating community you live within. You put time and effort into posting all kinds of unflattering tales that reveal the stinking side of a Chassidic lifestyle. Week after week you take pride in portraying yourself as some chosen enlightened one. But when Winston dares writes a book, based on a sociological study she has undertaken as part of a doctorate, you have the chutzpah to accuse her of starting a ‘blood libel’. (You’re words not mine).

You then go on with a very silly critique of her book that tells us far more about your own lack of understanding, of the very community you yourself come from, than of any bias on Winston’s part. Oh yes suicide. I forgot that. You’re probably right there. But I can even explain that. Not now. I’m sorry; it’s not a subject I want to go into just yet, so you will have to wait.

You’re undisciplined outburst has shown us that you still have both feet firmly within an inward looking and narrow minded community. Yes you listen to the radio (in the car only, wow) but just like any member of these ‘close-knit ’ communities, you think criticsm is fine as long as it’s self-criticism, but lo-and-behold the outsider who dares express words of negativity. Those outsiders are perpetrators of a ‘blood libel’; they have an agenda, they are in there for the money.

I shall now tell you why you have attacked Winston with such venom. Listen carefully. It’s because she is a woman and Chassidim are sexist, because she is an academic and Chassidim are anti-knowledge and because she is a secular Jew and Chassidim hate the guts of (real) secular Jews.

Read that last paragraph a few times now. Breath deeply. Get over that initial urge to strike back. Then read it once a day for a couple of years. Think about it. Let it sink in slowly. Try and understand what it says. Bit by bit you might begin to appreciate that certain values are so ingrained within your system that it might take a generation (or two) to root out.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Allow Some Space For Criticism. Thanks.

Whenever I criticise the charedi community among friends and family someone will pipe up with the following "Why criticise? Why find fault? There are so many good things happening in the community; why not talk about those."

I find this attitude infuriating. Not because I disagree with the notion that many good and beautiful things happen in our communities. Of course I agree with that, how can one not? It infuriates me because when I am criticising I am focusing on those aspects that are not that good and not that beautiful. For heavens sake allow me a couple of minutes to do that; yes to criticise. When I criticise I am not denying the good and I am not denying the beautiful. But when I criticise I am criticising. Get it? Criticising. Do you not know what criticism means? Well look it up. Criticism is criticism and when I criticise I am criticising. Allow me to finish criticising and then we can go back to discussing the good and the beautiful.

Lots of bloggers are posting about Hella Winston's book Unchosen. I must admit I have not read the book. It is something I still have to do. But I have read book reviews and articles by the author. She does not sound to me as a person with an axe to grind. Rather she sounds (to me anyway) like an academic who has stumbled upon an interesting and unexplored topic as part of her doctorate in sociology. The subject is a difficult one to examine and she is giving it her best. Of course she will make the odd mistake, we all do, but broadly she is approaching the issue as an academic, not as journalist wanting to make a fast buck. (Yes I might change my mind once I actually read the book. Possible but not very probable. If I do you will be the first to know. I promise.)

Anyway, last week I managed to download the Zev Brenner show (a New York based phone in hosted by Zev Brenner), the one in which he interviews Hella (Ester, Esti, whatever). And of course you get the inevitable call berating Hella for focusing on people leaving the community? Couldn't she focus on the many people who are joining the community, the Baal Teshuvah revolution? Isn't that a good enough story. Why focus on the less than good when you could have focused on the good?

My answer:

We must get out of the habit of equating criticsm of a given issue within our communities, to a complete disdain for everything chareidim stand for. I am pretty certain that Hella Winston could speak at length about the many good things that she has seen in our community, about the many happy people, and yes about the Baalei Teshuvah. The two are not mutually exclusive. And listen to the interview. Again and again she makes this point. In her academic life she is focusing on a real story that happens to be unflattering. This is not because she hates the chareidi community but because it is also an important story that needs to be told. In her book she is in the business of exposing the less than good bits of chareidi life. Just accept it. That she has written a book about the 'Unchosen', does not in any way imply that she sees none of the good and beautiful in the community. Of course she sees it. She might well have another book in lined up called 'The Chosen'.

Let me reiterate, the two are not mutually exclusive. One can see beauty but still discuss the less than beautiful. One can see good but still explain the less than good. It takes a brave person to do so.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

From The NY Times to Mandarin Chinese

I try hard to be as realistic as possible and therefore, besides for apologising to Dov Bear for ruining his breakfast, I will not be reading too much into being mentioned in The New York Times. But I think a little gloating might be permitted.

For as long as I remember I have been a man with opinions. The problem was that so often those opinions did not find favour with its recipients. From early on I learnt that one has to be careful when airing opinions. I realised that opinions have to be filtered and altered to suit ones audience else one can find oneself in all manner of trouble. I remember clearly one occasion, I must have been fourteen, when the adults around me were discussing how terrible it was that blacks were moving into the area. I piped up and suggested that black people, are well, people, and they should be allowed to live were they want. There was a stony silence and I just knew that I had said something that was wrong. I figured I would understand when I got older; and I did.

I recall doing a school exam. That particular test was to be marked externally. No one in the school would be seeing it. For the first time I was able to write what I wanted, opinions that went straight from mind to paper bypassing my self-imposed filter. I got the best mark of my school career.

During my teenage years I craved knowledge and ideas. I had this dream of spending years in a bookshop surrounded by atlases and dictionaries and books on history and philosophy and economics and geography. But in truth I had access to very little. It would be great to be able to report that I used to make clandestine visits to the library. This would be untrue. I was not brave enough. I was frightened. Subconsciously I was also afraid of reading something that would place me beyond the point of no-return; and I had to return, where would I sleep? On the street?

When I was home I used to listen to the radio and read any newspaper or book I could lay my hands on. In yeshiva I didn't even have access to that. Whenever I was able I would go into a newsagent to buy, say stamps, and on my way out steal a look at the front pages of the laid out papers. I remember one Friday doing that. I saw a picture of a plainly shocked young Chinese man. The headline said that he had been sentenced to death. Something to do with a student revolt. Tiananmen something. The photograph haunts me unto this day. I suppose that was something that I should have organised. A student revolt. But then again I don't think I would have achieved much more then those Peking students.

As yet I have not managed to fulfill my desire and go to university to study the ideas of great men and woman. I might never be able to materialise my fantasy of becoming an academic and specialising in an area of philosophy or history. The blogging revolution has allowed me though to have a space where I can express some of my thoughts. A space where I can practice at writing smallish articles and hopefully get better with time.

It is fantastic for me to know that I am being noticed. That some people (and yes lots of people probably hate my style) think that I write well and that I do a good job of expressing the subjects I choose to focus on. It certainly gives me the motivation to carry on. Not even necessarily on this blog. I have other interests and could start a blog on some other issue. Maybe I should discover what really went on those days in 'Tiananmem something'. I am sure there is yet lots to learn and discover. Let me dig out that book I once bought in a hurry, from a train station stall, entitled 'Learn Mandarin in 30 Days'.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Those Who Must Not Be Named

As everybody is no doubt well aware the chareidi community and the constitution of the United States of the Americas share a common value. A value that is the envy of many a people who until this day live in whole or quasi dictatorships. The value I speak of is, that all people should be free to express any idea and free to say anything they so wish. In the common parlance this is known as ‘freedom of expression’. President Bush goes on and on about it; admittedly Rav Eliashev a little less often.

Of course if one does opens ones mouth, or one does express a ‘wrong’ opinion one might find ones children getting kicked out of the school they attend. One might find oneself being asked to leave the shul/shteibel that one frequents. These are I suppose minor inconveniences.

OK story time. Two Jews go fishing together. A secular Jew and a chareidi. The chareidi catches nothing. The secular Jew catches more than enough to share among the members of his bridge club. When the chareidi Jew asks his colleague what is the secret of his success the secular Jew answers “ah well my fish are allowed to open their mouths”.

I find it very revealing that of the many blogs I read, which orthodox Jews own, the vast majority are written under pseudonym. How many of them reveal their real names? Almost none. Even a blog like DovBear who tries pretty hard to ride along a straight and narrow path finds it necessary to hide behind a cuddly (or is it grizzly?) pseudonym.

So lets ask some questions. Who is Frummer? Who was Mis-nagid? Who indeed is DovBear? Who is he that calls himself The Sheigetz? Who are all these people whose names must not be spoken? Why do all these people feel they must masquerade behind facades of many a kind? It is noteworthy that the only one who is upfront is Shlomo Leib Aranovitz, and he has completely left the community as those who read his blog will well know. Is this the price one has to pay for coming out?

I am not a ‘yachner’ (chatterbox) and its not that I really need to know who these people are in the flesh. I am noting the phenomenon. I am noting a pattern of non-disclosure, a pattern of deliberate attempts to put trackers off the scent.

Only a couple of weeks back he who sometimes is and at other times isn’t, The Godol Hador, went through several days of intense panic when he thought he was about to be ‘outed’. His normal rational, cool approach turned into something that was a lot less cool and a lot less rational. Behaviour well suited for one being persued. Why?

Let me put my sociological hat on and begin to analyse it. Yes it fits so here goes:

Why is this necessary? One could understand if some were doing it; but all of them are at it. Why? We have a pattern here. It must be saying something about the community they live in? Words like Stalinist and dictatorial spring to mind? Is that right. Hmm, I think I need to do some more research on this. Let me go back to those blogs and reread them critically; are there signs of fear, dissent? Wait, this might be a good subject for my doctoral dissertation. Yes it is a fantastic subject. But now I do need to meet these people. I am going to need to interview them clandestinely. So The Sheigetz when are you available? DovBear can I come over? I will be in a white car with tinted windows at the bottom of your street. Just get in.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

In the Footsteps of A Great Patriarch

Our great grandfather Avrohom Ovinu (our patriarch Abraham) as understood in the chareidi world was not a romantic. One might not want to go as far as calling him an empiricist, but he was certainly a man of logic, the original Maimonides.

So as three year olds listening to the parsha (bible portion of the week) we are taught how Avrohom, born into a pagan world, would engage those he met, in debating the veracity of the varied deities, that those ancient peoples respected and feared. We hear that Avrohoms father owned an idol shop; whether he had a small boutique or an emporium we are not told, but he definitely sold statues and graven images to those who required them. On occasion Avrohom would be asked to manage the business. A punter would enter. Avrohom would ask him penetrating questions. How can you justify serving a terracotta model? How can you pray to a stone statue that was fashioned but yesterday? The punter would be flummoxed by these questions and walk out with his head spinning but no idol.

One such day when Avrohom was in charge he smashed every idol in the shop except the very largest one. Avrohoms father was understandably furious and demanded an explanation. Avrohom told him that the biggest deity had demanded respect from all the lesser ones. When this respect hadn’t come the big one simply smashed all the others to smithereens. When his father angrily responded that statues neither speak nor move around, Avrohom retorted that if that was indeed the case why did he bother serving them?

And then we learn that Avrohom, with his phenomenal mind had, already by the age of three, deduced by a very simple logical method the existence of the one and true God. The reasoning is so simple that I feel that I can repeat it here. Initially Avrohom had thought the earth must be a diety. But no, the earth is not all-powerful; does it not depend on the heavens for rain? And so Avrohom decided he shall prostrate before the king of the firmament - the sun. But come the night and the sun vanishes to make way for the moon. Avrohom reasoned that the moon must therefore be divine. But the moon shines only by night. And so finally by observing the regular rhythm of day and night, of the seasons and all the natural laws, Avrohom inferred the presence of an omnipotent and wise creator. How do the Heavenly bodies rise and set at an appointed time? There has got to be a higher intelligence directing them.

And so to all you sceptics who question the basic tenets of chareidi Judaism I have the following message. Know that from the beginning our theology was born through a process of observation and deduction. Ours is not a religion based on raw emotion or primordial senses. Our way of life is rooted in a philosophical approach and logical thought. Any objective observer would agree that we are deserving descendants of our trail blazing patriarch.