Stop picking on the Chasids

By Chas Newkey-Burden, June 6, 2011
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The Chasidim might not be much interested in the mainstream media but that does not stop the mainstream media from being fascinated with the Chasidim. The BBC's Stamford Hill documentary Wonderland: A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride has ignited new, negative headlines about the community. Many of the locals are outraged at the "unrepresentative" nature of the programme that featured at its heart a Chasid who had served time for money-laundering related to drugs.

A new movie, Holy Rollers, starring Jessie Eisenberg (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) is about a young Chasid lured into corruption and crime - and once again drugs feature prominently.

It is nothing new for the media to portray Chasidim in an unflattering light. Last year, Christina Patterson savaged them in The Independent and, in the past couple of weeks, two columns in these very JC Comment pages slammed Charedi attitudes to women and to secular music in Israel and America.

No wonder the Chasidim, never the most outward-looking in worldly terms, feel under attack. Some, of course, ascribe all this to antisemitism but that is often too simplistic. Criticism in the JC and across the Israeli press is clearly not motivated by this. But it is a shame that so little is broadcast beyond the Chasidim's own religious enclaves that does not yield to the temptation to accentuate the negative, because of its sensationalist potential. It is time the Chasidim were defended.

Who could fail to be inspired by this tradition?

As a gentile living in a Berkshire village, I might seem an unlikely person to attempt a defence, but one Chabad rabbi did once refer to me as a "Chasidic goy". Though aware of the different strands within Chasidism, and of the dangers of generalisation (unlike some BBC and Hollywood film-makers), I am passionate in my support for the whole movement.

My interest in Chasidic history and traditions was sparked in New York several years ago. I kept randomly encountering groups of Chasidic Jews in the airport, all of whom seemed fit to burst with joy. They danced, clapped and laughed as they raced each other up and down the terminal.

I liked what I saw, so I bought myself a copy of Martin Buber's Tales Of The Chasidim and read it on the plane home. By the time we touched down in Heathrow, I was wondering how I had ever got by without the wondrous tales of the founder of Chasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov. These stories bewitched and inspired me. They spoke to me more deeply than any other religious writing ever had.

I have since read much more. Elie Wiesel's memories of Chasidim praying in the death camps haunted and baffled me. I also wondered at the stories of the legendary Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and his astonishing feats of memory, insight and prediction. I wish I had met him.

I now attend Friday-night dinners with Chabad in London. They are joyful occasions and I am made very welcome, despite the fact I am not Jewish and have no immediate intentions to start any conversion process. Indeed, it was at one such dinner that the magnificent Rabbi Yisroel Lew casually said to me over challah: "Actually, I know another Chasidic goy - you two should meet".

This is of course unusual. More's the pity. Who could fail to feel inspired by connecting with this tradition? The media's determination to focus on the few bad apples would be easier to accept if it had offered even a glimpse of the plentiful good apples first.

And, yes, I have read that eyebrow-raising passage in the Tanya that seems to decry gentiles. It shook me when I first read it, but I will forever recall the loving way that a female Chabad friend of mine in Israel lovingly dropped everything the day before Pesach to explain to me what the passage really meant.

Another branch of the Chasidim I have enjoyed encountering are Israel's dancing devotees of Rabbi Nachman -the NaNachs. I love the stories of Rabbi Nachman, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. When I was shopping on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street last summer, and the NaNachs rolled up with their trance music and beaming smiles, my happiness was complete.

In fact, I am sometimes asked how much, if at all, my passion for Israel is connected to my love of the Chasidim. If I may assay a Chasidic answer: It has nothing to do with it, and everything to do with it.

Chas Newkey-Burden is an author and radio pundit. He is on the advisory board of StandWithUs UK. He will be speaking at the FZY's 'Aim Higher' day in London on Sunday. (Details at http://www.fzy.org.uk/)

    Last updated: 10:07am, June 6 2011