Tag Archives: Satmar

New York’s hasidic Willy Wonka factory

29 Nov

Recently went to B&H electronics superstore, near Penn Station, courtesy of gadget-loving hubbie.

The place is a veritable riot of commercial activity, with vast ranges of camera equipment, computers, video, and swarms of excited customers pouring in in a never-ending flow.

What made me do a double take, though, had nothing to do with the vast excesses of electronica on display. It was the hundreds of smiling hasidic oompa loompas that caught my attention, darting about in every direction, all clad in identical B&H uniforms, all with large kippas on their heads and all, with only the rarest of exception, with long luscious beards adorning their faces.

It turns out that B&H, a real Manhattan institution,  is owned and run by Satmar hasidim. Turns out too that they have a mincha service (afternoon prayer service) attended by some 200 of these oompa loompas every afternoon.

Each oompa loompa had a name badge with an Anglicised version of a no-doubt more hasidic name – I saw  a Sam ( Shmulik at home) and a Ben (Binyumin or Benzi at home).

Never before have I seen my fellow Semites adhering so closely to the edicts of Torah With Work.

Of course, Jews being Jews, there was food everywhere (which made me, ever the Jewish muncher, very happy). On every counter, there were bowls of kosher sweets and everywhere you looked, customers were gobbling down the sugary treats. Downstairs, near the ringing cash tills, there was also a table set up with two women serving cups of coke and portions of pretzels to eager customers.

No chance of going hungry and losing the will to spend money then.

Finally, the most magical thing about the whole Wonka-ish enterprise was the zooming conveyor-belt- toy-train system whisking customers’ acquisitions from all corners of the superstore down to its epicentre – the pick-up point for customers located just beyond the cash tills.

Green crates whizzed along the conveyor belt system overhead, until they reached a goods lift, and then one by one, they descended to destination.

My eyes goggled with all the excitement.

No surprise then that I came out of the store somewhat lighter of pocket – and suffering the after-effects of a dazzling sugar high.

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Muslims and Jews united in…banning women from driving

6 Jun

Still mulling over my previous post about Jewish women not being allowed to drive in two hasidic communities in upstate New York, I decided to look to the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia for inspiration, they having “successfully” upheld a nationwide ban on women driving for the last 20 years.

I found out that the official ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia came about in 1990 in the aftermath of an audacious protest by a group of prominent Saudi women:

That was the day when 49 Saudi women from affluent families, grouped in 15 cars, took hold of the steering wheels in a silent protest for women’s rights. They drove on the streets of Riyadh until the local and religious police spotted them. Putting a stop to the audacity of these women proved a lot easier for the authorities than explaining what, exactly, they had done wrong.                  (source: Fahad Faruqui, guardian.co.uk)

What’s interesting to see is the wording of the ban:

The government announcement, carried on Saudi television, said that the ban on women driving was for “preserving sanctities and to prevent portents of evil, because it has been juridically proven that reasons for woman’s degeneration or for exposing her to temptation should be prevented.” (quoted in same article)

I smell a rat. Unlikely as it may sound, I’m starting to suspect strongly that the Jewish clerical leaders of New Square and Monroe in up-state New York are in cahoots with the Saudi Muslim clergy with the express aim of keeping their womenfolk down. A dubious kind of inter-faith unity. This prohibition on women driving is all to do with my Jewish and Muslim brothers’ joint fixation on the need to protect their sisters from slipping down that infamous slippery slope that leads straight to a life of harlotry and degeneration.

Well now that we’ve got that one sorted, here’s what I’d like to say to my Jewish brothers: You could do well to draw inspiration from the Saudis as to the intricacies of the ban. Think outside the box. Use your imagination. Don’t forget there are many kinds of vehicles you can ban women from driving other than the obvious automobile:

Saudi driving ban on women extends to golf carts

While we’re at it, I’d like to throw in my own suggestion too: I would argue that it would be wise to ban women from pushing shopping trolleys too. After all trolleys have four wheels and move licentiously fast. Plus they can lead women straight past inappropriate sections of a supermarket (e.g. where they sell immodest clothing, non-kosher food etc). No doubt there’s potential for a great deal of temptation and immorality in this the action of trolley-pushing. It would certainly be infinitely preferable for men to do any shopping that involved the use of this four-wheeled vehicle.

Well maybe I’m being a bit unfair. I confess that I’ve omitted to mention that the article I quoted above does read that the Saudis are now seriously considering lifting the ban on women drivers. So come on Satmar and New Square, surely if the Saudis are considering lifting the ban, you can too? What’s the worst that can happen? Your wives will drive to their places of work? To pick up your children from school? To run their errands? How bad can it really get?

What, didn’t you know Jewish women aren’t allowed to drive?

31 May

Mitzva no. 614 of the Torah (negative commandment)

  1. It is forbidden for a Jewish woman to drive a car for behold, it is stated that it is immodest for a Jewish woman to show herself in public in the driving seat of a four-wheeled motorized vehicle.
  2. If she is married, she may travel as a passenger in her husband’s car. However, she may not sit next to him in the front for this is deemed immodest. Instead, she must travel in the back seat (whether or not there are any other passengers in the car).
  3. A woman may travel in her father’s car, but only in the back seat.
  4. If a woman needs to get from Point A to Point B, she may take a taxi, where she should sit in the back seat. However our sages do not deem it problematic if the taxi driver is a male, whether Jewish or not.

Puzzled? Yes, so was I when I first heard that women in two hasidic (ultra-orthodox) communities in upstate New York are forbidden from driving cars.

At first I thought I must have misheard. What, are you trying to tell me that there are women in 21st-Century, post-feminist American society who live in such closeted, fettered communities where their ‘modesty’ is called into question in such a dramatic way that they aren’t even allowed to drive a car, I asked in a state of near panic?

Yes indeed is the answer. In both Monroe, where a large Satmar community lives, and New Square, home to the Squarer hasidim (who famously have separate sides of the street for members of each sex to walk on), women are not permitted to drive.

I found this out through a frum relative of mine (let’s call her Tania) who is secretly teaching a wayward Satmar colleague of hers how to drive. She tells me that her colleague (let’s call her Suri) has slowly been coming to the mind-blowing realization that you can be a frum, halachic Jewish woman like Tania and also drive a car.

Let’s make things very clear: Suri still wants to lead an orthodox Jewish life. She covers her hair (but does not shave it) as halacha requires, she keeps Shabbat and kosher, she keeps all the laws of family purity, etc etc. Yet, as an apparently intelligent young woman, she’s realized that her community has extended Torah prohibition into the realm of pure societal customs and restrictions. And it is against these customs that she is now secretly waging her own personal war.

Indeed, it is the spurious conflation of these societal prohibitions or taboos – often involving dubious ways of repressing women in the name of modesty (women not driving, women having to shave their hair when they get married) – with real halachic prohibitions (such as not keeping Shabbat or kosher) that is the problem here. The women – and men – in these communities are not even taught the difference between real Torah prohibitions and community-specific interdictions. Thus, they grow into adulthood fully believing that if a woman learns to drive a car, she’s well-nigh breaking a Torah commandment.

So when you ask me what bothers me in this whole sorry story, it’s not just the feminist in me that protests (although believe you me, she’s raging mad), it’s also the Jew/person of religion in me that cries out against this insidious and entirely disingenuous slide within the orthodox Jewish world – and invariably in other faith communities too – that is allowing community leaders to create ever-more dazzling structures of power, control and prohibition under the guise of religious leadership.

Oh and a final word on Suri which really made me sink into despair. Apparently the hairband she’s been wearing on her sheitel (wig) which is two inches wide, as opposed to the standard community practice of four inches, is really rubbing people up the wrong way. Her mother reportedly called her up and asked her, in all seriousness: “Where have I gone wrong with you?”

A world overflowing with inter-faith love? Don’t worry, there’s still enough intolerance flying around…

19 Jan

Last night I went to shul* to see an Afro-American Baptist gospel choir bring the house down.

What’re the chances of having such a boast?

And yet, in the vibrant spiritual underbelly of New York City, this is exactly what happened to me last night.

For yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a public holiday in the US where concerts and events across the land commemorate the great civil rights leader’s legacy.

And here in the Bronx, NY, I wandered up the road to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), an open-minded, left-leaning Orthodox synagogue, to witness something quite remarkable – and the most un-shul-like experience you could possibly imagine.

view concert flyer here

Here was a truly uplifting evening of song starring a dead cool Reverend (Roger Hambrick) with his Green Pastures Baptist Choir singing their socks off (to quote Cheryl Cole) alongside Jewish spiritual singer Neshama Carlebach to a packed auditorium. It all just felt far too cool to be taking place in a shul.

(well, apart from a very sincere communal rendition of the American national anthem which nearly got me and another English friend into trouble as we nearly got the giggles – can you imagine British Jews being patriotic enough to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ in shul?)

Here were Rabbi and Reverend, Jew and Christian, Black and White, man and woman, old and young, all standing together, singing, dancing, cheering, committing to right the wrongs in the world. Here were Afro-American gospel singers putting their own spin on legendary Carlebach tunes, Rabbis pledging the Jewish community’s commitment to helping victims of the Haiti earthquake, to rebuilding post-Katrina New Orleans.

Here was Judaism actually getting off its insular, complacent backside and turning outwards to connect with other faiths, mobilising to fight injustice.

You simply couldn’t help getting carried away with all the upbeat energy floating around the room – it was positively infectious this positive energy thing. I was starting to get worried about myself – could this American ‘Yes We Can!’ upbeat optimism really be getting to cynical old European me?

Well, guess what, the first thing I did when I got home was send an email to a local NGO about volunteering possibilities…

…And then a new day began, and I came back down to earth with a bit of bang:  Apparently the world had not become perfect overnight after all. People still hated each other. Sigh.

I heard reports that today in Manchester, in the north of England, there were anti-riot police called in to watch over some Satmar** Hassidic demonstrators sparring with pro-Israel counter-demonstrators outside a hotel where a meeting was going on for Jewish people interested in moving to Israel.

Fractured inter-denominational Jewish communities? Business as usual?

* Shul – the common Yiddish term for “synagogue”

**Satmar is a Hassidic group extremely hostile to the idea of the modern secular State of Israel.

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