The Tale of the Paunchy Hasidic Jew

There’s a paunchy Hasidic Jew in North London licking his wounds having been caught frolicking with a young blonde woman, whom it can safely be assumed is not his wife. It’s a warm day – gauging by what the woman is wearing – and she is toying with his large black hat. As he playfully tries to retrieve it, he also attempts a peck on her cheek, but is quickly rebuffed.  Ah, summer romance…

The woman’s friend is taking pictures of the adorable couple as they are joshing around, while at the next table, someone else is filming the proceedings. ‘Let’s have some fun,’ thinks the thoughtless, cruel Fellini wannabe, ‘and send this to some mates for a laugh.’ And hence, it arrived on my whatsapp via a third party – a 40 second clip to make a decent person cringe, wince and delete it immediately. Not as decent as I’d like to be, I laughed and simultaneously thought to myself ‘what an idiot,’ ‘how pathetic’ and ‘his poor wife.’

Predictably, Fellini’s masterpiece found its way to the media and last Friday’s Jewish Chronicle dedicated a few lines to the story. Titled ‘Suspended over a hug’ the journalist reports ‘The London Board of Shechita, the capital’s main kosher meat licensing body, has suspended one of its workers after the circulation of video footage of him socializing with young women at a rooftop bar.’

Are the London Board of Shechita  to be commended for taking a stance? Perhaps the unanswered questions are more relevant – does it mean the meat would no longer be kosher? And if it’s about the ethical standards of their workers, can they assure the kosher consumer that all their other staff and supervising rabbis are squeaky clean – or is it only about those who get caught? And what of Fellini – why does he remain unpunished? In any event, Ploni Almoni’s reputation is tarnished and he has lost his livelihood – can a kiss ever be worth so much?

This misdemeanor comes on the heels of much publicized and abominable behavior of select Haredi Orthodox individuals,  including baby trafficking, sexual abuse and run-of-the-mill financial corruption.  Our main protagonist is arguably a case of one man’s naive human foibles while the other instances cited reflect the perils of a closed system where centralized power, social approbation and economic vulnerability are pervasive.  However, they all share the accolade of denigrating Judaism and mocking religious behavior, all of which contributes to the growing dissatisfaction with, and defection from, the religious community by its youth. In turn, our youth want to see how we react to, and deal with, these deviations from civilized behavior, and from what Orthodox leaders proclaim to be their higher moral and ethical code.

Over the last few years, a growing number of advocacy groups have successfully lobbied for the removal of offenders in positions of power – offenders who were allowed to stay in power for too long and whose activities where either denied or knowingly protected.  Eventually, when the situation spiralled out of control, it became a government matter such as the recent welfare fraud case in Lakewood. While there is much hand-wringing about the damage done to the reputation of the Orthodox community, there is much less effective leadership taking responsibility for the underlying causes and problems.

The paunchy Hasidic Jew has been deleted from my  phone’s memory,  but he made me remember ‘Hasidic Kiss,’ the infamous 1993 New Yorker front cover by Art Spiegelman, in which a Hasidic man is kissing a black woman. It was a couple of years after the fatal race riots in Crown Heights and Tina Brown, the New Yorker editor at the time suggested that the picture draws on a ‘tradition of art as political and social commentary.’   I sort of hoped that the paunchy Hasidic Jew was in it for the political and social commentary, but unfortunately, he looked like he was having too much fun for that to be the case.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author Under My Hat, now available on Amazon.com. A mix of memoir, sociology, history, and acute observations focussing on Orthodoxy and feminism, this 2019 edition includes a new, 75-page introductory essay reviewing the extraordinary changes in Orthodox women’s lives since the book was first published in 1997. Her writings are on her site www.sallyberkovic.com
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