I’m not proud of the divisions in our community. It’s clear to me that we are happier arguing with each other than working together, and given the increased noise from those who would criticise Jews from without, this seems to me a terrible shame.
What I find particularly unfortunate is the separation in every way between those who try to adapt their Judaism to the modern world and the ultra-orthodox communities who are attempting to hold on as much as possible to the values, lifestyle and culture of the “old country”. We may as well be from different galaxies so poor is the level of mutual understanding.
Sadly the differences between us are superficial and sustained by suspicion and unfamiliarity rather than anything of substance. As the following account shows, the potential for deeper understanding between both sides is not only possible, it is crucially important for the survival of future generations of British Jews.
Last Sunday with three friends packed into my car I drove to Stamford Hill and parked up outside a house that looked as if it may be home to a Jewish family; a three-foot high mezuzah was attached to the doorpost. We drew lots and, inevitably, I lost. I tentatively made my way up to the house and rang the doorbell. It buzzed tonelessly for a second or two before fading into dull indifference. Presently four boisterous children all under the age of six came bounding to the door. On opening it they were suddenly silenced as they regarded my shaven face and unusual garb (I was wearing a pair of chinos, an open necked checked shirt and a sports jacket).
“Is your daddy home?” I asked in my sweetest voice. They ran off shouting something in Yiddish. Eventually a man with a straggly grey beard, a tired white open neck shirt under a plain back suit and tsit-tsit to his knees came to the door. Rather than staring at me as if I had dropped by from the planet Zog as his children had done, he took to me with the suspicion of a man who had been mugged twice that morning. Not a bad assessment given what was about to take place.
“Can I help you?” he politely asked.
“I’m collecting for University College School,” I explained. “The fees are going up and there are many children from north-west London whose parents are struggling to make ends meet in these difficult economic times. Please help.”
“Vos is University College School? It’s a university? A college? A school? …It’s certainly not a yeshiva I know of.”
“It’s a private school where they teach the boys to be captains of industry and leaders of society. Half the pupils are Jewish. Only times are hard and if we are not helped by other Jews our boys will have to go to the local comprehensive school where they’ll suffer anti-semitic abuse and end up working in local government or something equally dreadful. Please,” I said, holding out my cupped hand while staring at his unpolished shoes, “Tsedakah.”
“Please help to pay for my son’s schooling.”
“Why? It’s not a Jewish school. They don’t spend all day davening and learning Kodesh. Why should I make a contribution? Hashem wants Jewish children to attend Jewish schools, not College University School.”
Rising to the challenge I responded sharply to his objection. “The reason you should help me is because when my son grows up you’ll be knocking on his door asking for money and if you don’t help him to get a good education he won’t be able to afford to give you anything for your schools and yeshivas. Think of it as an investment in your grandchildren’s future.”
“Fair enough. Here’s a fiver.”
“Is that all?”
“Is that all? Whenever you people come schnorrering in Hendon you look at whatever I give as if it’s been lining the cat litter tray for a week. Isn’t it de rigueur to hold out for more?
“De rigueur? Vos is de rigueur?”
“Oh never mind. See you next time,” and with that I turned on my heels.
I returned to the car giving the chaps the thumbs up. Five minutes later Melvin did the same thing, followed by Howard, and finally Stephen. We then moved on to the next house we could find with a big mezuzah which just happened to be next door, and so the afternoon continued.
As I sat in my armchair that evening I reflected on how my prejudice has determined my attitude to the ultra-orthodox. It’s time, I thought, to be much more accepting of these people. They may be bigoted and intolerant, but they only ask to be allowed to live their lives in their own way. Amongst the many things that Judaism has taught me is to love the stranger that sojourneth with me as myself, so how much more should I love a fellow Jew, even if he is stranger than most of the gentiles I know?
Now, forgive me but I must turn my attention a small local issue. A reform rabbi is visiting our shul for a simcha this Shabbat and the family has asked for him to be given an aliyah. What an utter outrage. I must write to my Rabbi to object.