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This is my latest column for the Jewish Chronicle:

The Hasidim might not be much interested in the mainstream media but that does not stop the mainstream media from being fascinated with the Hasidim. 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 Hasid 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 Hasid lured into corruption and crime – and once again drugs feature prominently.

It is nothing new for the media to portray Hasidim 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 Haredi attitudes to women and to secular music in Israel and America.

No wonder the Hasidim, never the most outward-looking in worldly terms, feel under attack. Some, of course, ascribe all this to antisemitism but that is sometimes 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 Hasidim’s own religious enclaves that does not yield to the temptation to accentuate the negative, because of its sensationalist potential. It is time the Hasidim were defended.

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 “Hasidic goy”. Though aware of the different strands within Hasidism, and of the dangers of generalisation (unlike some BBC and Hollywood film-makers), I am passionate in my admiration.

My interest in Hasidic history and traditions was sparked in New York several years ago. I kept randomly encountering groups of Hasidic 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 Hasidim 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 Hasidic 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 Hasidim 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 Hasidic 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 Hasidim 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 Hasidim. If I may assay a Hasidic answer: It has nothing to do with it, and everything to do with it.

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34 Responses to “How I came to be nicknamed 'Hasidic Goy'”

  1. David Graniewitz says:

    Hi Chas,
    I have just started reading your pieces and I am fascinated by the way that you involve yourselves in matters that I would have thought would only concern Jews. You certainly have made me think about some of the things that I have been taking for granted for the whole of my life.
    As for the Hassidim and the Haredim in general, I have to say that as I regard myself as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I can’t share your sympathetic attitude towards them. The struggle for people like me is to prove that Judaism and the modern world are compatible. In fact it could be said that Judaism has survived by adapting itself to changing circumstances.
    The ultra-orthodox attitude (I don’t think that it can be called a movement) developed as a reaction to the Emancipation and the Enlightenment. It believed (erroneously in my opinion) that anything new was to be forbidden by the Torah. It led to Halachic stagnation. When electricity was developed, the question arose as to whether its use would be permitted on the Sabbath. There were Halachic authorities who were in favour of allowing its use yet the majority of rabbis were against as no one wanted to be considered to be a reformist.
    I live in Israel, where there is much resentment towards the fact that they do not take an active part in the defence of the country. They do, however, have parties in the Knesset that manage to influence important decisions especially in the allocation of funds towards their sector.
    As a teacher, my main gripe is that in Haredi schools, secular subjects are not taught. This has many implications. It means that because many Haredi men are unqualified, they cannot find jobs and as they have large families they become dependent on state handouts.
    I am also concerned about the status of women in their society. Over the past few years, the segregation between the sexes within certain parts of that sector has reached psychotic proportions.
    I realise that to an outsider, they might seem quaint, much in the same way as the Amish are regarded in America yet as an observant Israeli Jew, I find the existence of these groups today to be problematic, especially in the way that they try to force some of the aspects of their way of life on the general public here.
    Sorry for the rant. I felt that I had to react to what you wrote. I understand that there is a lot appealing messages in the teachings of the Hassidic rabbis and there is no doubt that they had much positive influence on Jewish history, but there is another side to it too.
    David Graniewitz
    A member of the South Jerusalem Tottenham Hotspur Fan Club.

    • Chas Newkey-Burden says:

      Thanks, David. No need to apologise, and I do not feel your comment was a ‘rant’ at all. You should see some of the real rants I sometimes get here from Israel/Jew-hating stalkers!

      The particular branch/tradition that I am writing about did not develop as a reaction to the Emancipation and the Enlightenment. Also, if you look at the main groups I wrote about in the article (Chabad and the NaNachs) both enthusiastically use modern technology. Chabad’s website and online activity is huge, the NaNachs jump around to techno music.

      I appreciate the Israeli feelings to do with the Haredim. I read an Israeli book about these issues, which gave a powerful account of all sides of these controversies within Israeli society. I too have issues and concerns regarding the position and treatment of women, and as I acknowledged in the article, recent JC commentary on that issue must not be brushed aside.

      I can’t go as far as you and say that ‘the existence’ of the Hasidim is problematic, nor anywhere near such a sentiment. As you also say, though, there is much that is positive about them.

      (Can’t agree with you on north London football at all. Come on you Gunners!)

    • Sarah Leah Lawent says:

      You are correct, David. We are not a “movement” — we are Jews. Just remember, while you are defending your right to live in the “modern world” – that we, too, live in the same world. But read Pirkei Avot – it will give you definitions as how to live – and what is a “chossid”. It is not for us to pick and choose which mitzvos we we want to do, and to also accept certain things upon ourselves, from the Raza”l, as D’oraisa. We, too, live in the same world. We use electricity and running water. We drive cars and trucks. We are not concerned with criticism from outsiders who don’t like how we dress or cover our heads, etc. We are not concerned with country clubs. Maybe give a little more learning, and take an experience in a “ultra orthodox” (as you would call it) household — take it as you would a trip to a foreign country and you are observing the natives and invited into a home to see their customs. Learn something. No one will lock you in a room in chains or water board you until you cannot make your own decisions – this I can promise. I realize this is scarier, because it might stand to shake foundations you feel are immovable to you, or threaten you personally, as you might feel you will change you stance and it will leave you in the air. But it isn’t so. Why not learn a little more – more than the press will give to you…more than you will ever gain except by personally trying it.

      • David Graniewitz says:

        Sara, I live in Israel. In Jerusalem as a matter of fact. I have been teaching in a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva High School in a haredi neighbourhood for 20 years. I think that I know the Haredi world quite well. Although I do know that there are many positive aspects of the haredi way of life, there are a great many things that I find disturbing as I pointed out in my original post. There has been a trend of growing extremism over the past few years especially in the field of segreagation between men and women — seperate buses, seperate pavements etc in certain areas of the city. There is no Halachic justification for any of this.
        I know that is unfair to tar a whole section of the community with the same brush, but it seems to me that religious leaders are too too scared to condemn the nurrishkeit (sp?) that parades itself as piety.

        Hag Sameach

        • CL says:

          charedi and chassidim are not necessarily one and the same. there are plently of chareidim who would be horrified to be identified as chassidic!
          thanks chas for this article. as a proud chabadnick who very much sees herself in the modern world i thank you for your support.

        • Sarah Leah Lawent says:

          David, without trying to enter a machlokes with you online, you do understand I don’t “hold” by anything less than keeping every mitzva b’hiddur, when possible. I don’t accept your viewpoint because of this. Kabalas ol doesn’t mean picking and choosing what is convenient to the self. So you can understand why I don’t hold by your present derech or your viewpoint on B’nai Torah. But have a gut shabbos. As a Yid, I always pray for other Yidden!

  2. Avi says:

    Chas, you say:
    ” Criticism in the JC and across the Israeli press is clearly not motivated by this (antisemitism).”
    Why do you assume that to be true?
    Using Natan Sharansky’s definition of the 3 D’s (demonisation, double standards and deligitimisation), I think you’ll find an enourmous amount of antisemitism in the JC and in the Israel press, where Charedim are concerned.

    • Chas Newkey-Burden says:

      Not for me to get involved with that, Avi. That wouldn’t be so much stepping over the line for a gentile, as galloping over it in a horse and carriage!

      (I was in Hendon on Sunday. I might have eaten in the same shawarma place you mentioned.)

      • Sarah Leah Lawent says:

        Chas, I admire how your replies are to the point, and very prudent. It is admirable. I also so appreciate how your piece covers your personal research and how it affected you, and your observations on the outside world’s viewpoint of us, and how they support or try to smear us based on personal agendas (as in the smearing by certain media outlets, like the JC and the BBC).

      • Avi says:

        My shwarma place, K Grill, is in Edgware and the invitation is still open.
        Lots to talk about…I think we’ll need one Israel shwarma, one Hassidim shwarma and of course, one Arsenal shwarma!

    • Sarah Leah Lawent says:

      Avi, I would redefine the Jewish anti-Hareidi press more as self-hate than “malshinim” or out and out anti-Semitism. If you will recall, the lower the state (of the soul) — the higher it can rise. Think that these souls who are fighting so very hard against their own identity – their own connections with their roots and their Source — after tshuvah, G-dwilling, could reach unfathomable heights. Some of our greatest Chochomim came from those who worshiped idols, r”l, and those who had turned their back on Torah and were ignorant. It is hurtful, mindboggling, and extremely challenging for us to maintain ahavas yisroel towards these folks, but that is our job.

  3. Duvid Crockett, King of DeLancey Street/Home of gefilte fish and kosher meat says:

    “… the legendary Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and his astonishing feats of memory, insight and prediction. I wish I had met him.”

    Duvidl met him, may he rest in peace, in New York on the fortieth anniverary of his becoming Rebbe. He seemed a very nice man and gave Duvid a blessing, a copy of the Tanya and a dollar bill to put in a charity box when Duvid returned to London. Alas, he was not the Messiah, as some Lubavitchers were beginning to claim before he passed away.

    Duvidl feels it worth noting that he has heard the word “jewboy” from London goyim he has been accompanying three times in his life, twice when Lubavitchers have been passing by.

    • Chas Newkey-Burden says:

      Next time I see you, I’d love to hear more about your experience with the Rebbe!

      • Duvid Crockett, King of DeLancey Street/Home of gefilte fish and kosher meat says:

        Chas. Hope to see you soon to discuss a very heartwarming time with the Rebbe, including being one of the congregation during the morning service in his house.

    • Sarah Leah Lawent says:

      Duvid – I don’t recall anything in this article describing my Rebbe as “the Messiah” – why do you try to bring this machlokes into something nice, and so prudently stated, as Chas did?

      • Sandra says:

        Credit to you Chas for keeping out of any potential divide in this issue. I am “modern Orthodox,” but have Chassidishe friends in Stamford Hill. They are NOT Nachman or Lubavitch. They wear the clothes and live the life of the “ultra Orthodox.” Unsurprisingly to me, they are open to discussion, warm, friendly and welcoming. They are Jews like me, who just dress differently. They work and pay taxes like all of us and are deserving of great respect and friendship in return. They set a standard of Behaviour and Living/Loving their religion that is amazing!

  4. Emma Stone says:

    I consider myself modern orthodox however am highly interested by Chassidic teachings especially Rebbe Nachman, and I also have many charedi friends. Therefore can see all sides – and I believe there has been some confusion between charedi and chassidism. Moreover there are many ideologies contained within that. Ultimately it’s different expressions of Judaism all under the banner of orthodoxy. To be a religious Jew is to be a good person following the laws of G-d.. If these are iterpreted in different ways within Halacha then what’s the problem. If one wants to engage more with the modern world great and if others don’t then also great- they are concentrating on different things. Also difference is not a bad thing. There where 12 different Tribes of Jews- from the start there are differences. The challenge is to look beyond that.
    In relation to the state of Israel, the IDF has many different religious units. It’s not just a problem with some religious people not joining the army also many russians and imgrants. The problem of division began with the creation of the state between the rabbonim and politicians like David Ben Gurion. However rather point a finger at the problem help programs like cross communal schools bringing all together by Rabbi Melchior- Mayor of Modi’in.
    Finding differences between Jews is not the answer, we need to find what unites us.

  5. Chas Newkey-Burden says:

    Re the sentence about the Tanya, I’d also like to thank the two UK rabbis who took time out of their schedule to help me understand the passage in question.

  6. Harry says:

    Excellent post, Chas. You inspire me.

  7. Eleanor Segall says:

    Hi chas :)
    re: the passage in the tanya regarding gentiles, please could you tell me what it says and how it was explained to you? It is of interest to me as there are so many jewish texts that I have yet to explore!
    loving the blog as always

    • Rob in Madison says:

      Chas, I’ll second Eleanor’s request: what is the passage and what was the explanation you were given? I’ve a copy of Tanya, but have only read a very small portion of it so far.

      Rob in Madison

  8. Mel in Israel says:

    What really concerns me is that the great majority of ultra orthodox in Israel refuse to defend there country, they say that studying torah will defend the country.
    It is about time that that Israel should tell them that if they will not serve in the Israeli army then they will be no payout for them.
    Why should I myself and my children who have served long periods in Israel Defence Forces have to risk our lives while these cowards rock back and forth in there shtekels all day long?

  9. I think Mel raises an important issue, even if it is in rather strong language (!). Israel must come up with a way to solve the problem that is getting more serious by the year – more people to protect and fewer ready to serve – it is a security concern for Israel. What gives me some hope is the new Shin Bet chief being a religious Jew for the first time, I know he isn’t Haredi, but it is encouraging to see observant, Yeshiva-going Jews playing an important role in the Israeli security structure.

    • Sarah Leah Lawent says:

      To you and Mel – it is the opposite. You have no concept of the growing hareidi involvement in all aspects of protecting Jews and our Land. Those who dwell only on the YNet and Ha’aretz pages remain with skewed views.

    • From Israel says:

      Phil, the issue of Hareidim not serving is more of a social issue than a security issue. The army does not need more people, it has plenty. And if tomorrow morning all the eligible hareidim turned up at the enlistment office, the army would not know what to do with them. The social issue is much more problematic, ie the resentment caused by the fact that there are classes of people who en masse do not serve in the army. (Although there does not seem to be ill feeling towards the Arabs who aren’t obliged to serve, or the Tsafon Telavivniks, many of whom get out of serving. Think Aviv Geffen, Bar Rafaeli, some of the more famous shirkers). And of course it is not all hareidim who don’t serve. There are exceptions.

      Also, you seem to mix up chareidim and national religious. The proportion of national religious who serve, especially as officers is more than twice as high as the general population. This is true to the extent that the army is scared of a religious “takeover”.

  10. mel says:

    Sarah,firstly I do not dwell only on the internet but have information first hand about the cowardly people that don’t serve either in national service or in the Israeli Defence Forces, the Charadim are a very large percent of the ones that don’t serve.
    I only hope that you are right when you state that they have a growing involvement in protecting our only country, of course this has to be not only in prayer.
    By the way Ha’aretz views are not mine so i would like an apology here,lol.

  11. Jeff says:

    Chas – I’m here in response to your comment on Failed Messiah.

    Briefly, you’ve bought into a romantic fantasy. Buber’s Tales, in fact, comprised one of the earliest efforts in that direction. Your article above gives every indication of having been written by a man who is seeing what he wants to see. Case in point:

    “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.”

    Chas, it “really means” precisely what it appears to. I’m not at all surprised that your acquaintance went out of her way to “explain” it to you; rationalization of the morally unacceptable is the fundamentalist’s stock in trade. The Rebbe’s statement regarding gentiles was a reaction to centuries of persecution, and has become a ubiquitous belief among Hasidim. Many (probably most) will tell you it’s part and parcel of normative Judaism. It isn’t; it’s only part and parcel of their warped belief system.

    The condescending tone of the comments posted above by Sarah Leah Lawent are reflective of the attitude prevalent among them. They regard liberal and secular Jews as, at best, misguided children (and that’s at its very best; many truly believe we’ll spend eternity in hell, Christian-style – and don’t allow anyone to tell you that belief isn’t a part of historical Judaism).

    Many of us on Failed Messiah (myself included) will argue that Haredism can no longer be considered a legitimate expression of Judaism. It’s idolatry; their rabbis are considered infallible and have become objects of devotion in their own right. The Messianist strain in Chabad is likewise ubiquitous; many (I maintain it’s most) believe it to one extent or another. The Messianists are merely those who are the most vocal about it and who attempt to impose that belief upon others. In any case, the Rebbe has undergone a sort of apotheosis and is now regarded as being quasi-divine (we have one lunatic troll on FM, a rabid Messianist, who continually argues that he is fully divine.)

    Furthermore, David Graniewitz is right to be concerned; Israeli economists are predicting national bankruptcy within a generation if they don’t get the majority of Haredim off the social service rolls – which they will never do, because the politicians (particularly reactionary conservative pols like Netanyahu who share much of their worldview) have become dependent upon their support. They’re completely incapable of independent thought; they’re brought up to do whatever their rabbis tell them to do, and they prove it every time they vote as a bloc (in elections held by a country whose right to exist they stubbornly refuse to recognize, while availing themselves prodigiously of all of its monetary benefits).

    It’s right there in front of you, Chas. Open your eyes.

    (Dollars to doughnuts that if Sarah Leah Lawent sees this comment, she’ll respond by telling me that I’m the one who needs to have his eyes opened.)

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