Experiencing Hackney downs

How a hospitable, well-organised community does not always practise what its newspaper preaches


I recently spent a pleasant morning in Jewish Hackney, visiting some of my old haunts and marvelling at the changes that have taken place in the borough since I married and moved away from the area some 36 years ago.

This day of nostalgia ended with refreshments at the Stamford Hill residence of one of the leading elder statesmen of Hackney's Charedi community. My host confessed to being a regular reader of this column and, what is more, to keeping a "file" of my articles. Why, he complained, did I feel it necessary from time to time to take the Charedi community to task, and to expose its faults and its foibles, as I saw them, in the media?

There are of course several answers to these questions. One is that none of us is perfect. Another is that none of us is above criticism. The Charedi communities of the UK have many fine attributes. As I said in a public forum last month, the Charedi community in Hackney "is very well organised, very hospitable and very successful. Its members may dress in ways we find peculiar, but you won't find its youngsters involved in gun and knife crime that is, alas, so rampant now in the Hackney I once knew."

But - and it is a very big "but" - the community suffers from serious, self-inflicted shortcomings. The truth of this statement has been neatly illustrated by two stories that have broken within the past fortnight.

This Charedi world is one with gossip and hypocrisy at its centre

Both of these stories concern the Jewish Tribune - the weekly newspaper published by the Agudas Yisroel organisation of Stamford Hill, whose rabbinical authorities act as censors for whatever its editor wants to publish.

This Anglo-Yiddish newspaper is an interesting organ. Its once near-monopoly of the Charedi readership has been broken through the publication of a UK version of Hamodia ("The Informer"). The latter is basically an Israeli-American newspaper catering for Israeli and American Charedim.

So, while its outlook is Torah-based, it has its feet firmly planted in the contemporary world. What is more, Hamodia publishes an internet edition, which must surely render it possul (unfit) for the Charedi public of Hackney, for the vast majority of whom the Tribune remains the only "safe" source of media-derived information on the present-day Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

In its edition of May 6, the Tribune published a letter from a correspondent whose name and address it withheld. The letter warned against the changing of any minhag (custom). The writer suggested that anyone thinking of changing a minhag ran the risk of incurring the homicidal wrath of the Almighty, and attempted to prove this by referring to the deaths in quick succession of the mother and father of "someone" who had apparently started to make changes in the minhagim of his synagogue.

In the first place there is absolutely no Torah-based justification for this assertion. In the second, the assertion is pure superstition, which is assur (forbidden). The Tribune clearly realised this, for the following week it published a profuse apology for the "offence and distress" that printing the letter had caused. But clearly someone in its editorial office must have thought that the letter merited publication and, more worryingly, the Tribune's "Rabbinic board" must have initially approved its public dissemination in this way.

The phrase "Rabbinic board" is taken from an email sent by the Tribune to the Likud-Herut organisation of the UK on May 4. Likud-Herut had wished to have published in the newspaper a display advertising a Yom Yerushalayim celebration at the Hendon United Synagogue the following week. The email announced that the advertisement had been rejected on the advice of the aforementioned "Rabbinic board."

Probing the composition and workings of this board has not been easy. What I think I can say is that - apparently - the board objected to the secular nature of the Hendon event, and the fact that the "special guest speaker" was a secular Jew.

Which is all very well until you realise that, in March, the Tribune's self-same "Rabbinic board" approved a whole-page advert for an "Israel property exhibition" at the Finchley United Synagogue. Or, as a non-Agudist but Yiddish-speaking rabbinic friend of mine remarked: "Handelschaft ist kein Briderschaft" - which can be figuratively translated as "Religion is one thing, business in another."

In other words, there is at the centre of this Charedi world a propensity (I put it no higher) to wicked gossip and a penchant (I put it no stronger) for unadulterated hypocrisy.

Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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