Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Charedi (ultra-orthodox Jewish) identity

Chareydi identity - like many particular identities - is built on them vs us, self definition by negation rather than assertion....a straw man version of "the goy" is built up, someone who is physical, base, brawn more than brain, and possibly inclined to murder or theft or adultery or incest. Contrasted against this charicature is the Jew, spiritual, inherently pure, gentle and merciful, yoshev beohalim, ("a dweller of tents") able to comprehend delicate spiritual concepts that "the goy" cannot....that this breaks down at the level of individual variance is a truism....there are many Jewish goys and many goyish Jews, and even more nochlim bereshut HaTorah. (scoundrels with the Torah's permission - people who seem to follow the letter of the law but contravene its spirit at every turn.)

The way to enlightenment leads through the shadow of the valley of death, owning our own unconsciousness, owning the less attractive parts of ourselves, instead of living with some fabricated idealised version of self that clashes with reality every step of the way.

Don't get me wrong - to play with polarities - white/black/ gay straight, hindu/muslim, black hat/kipa sruga, male/female, goy/jew left/right can be fertile and generative....but to rigidify the play play roles can become a real bind..a meytzar, or place of constriction.

The Body's "Betrayal" - bringing it all back home

What kinds or aspects of sexuality get shunted to the margins and delegitimised in popular discourse, thus driving them underground where they fester? For example some victims/survivors/experiencers of incest, rape or other forms of sexual abuse are subtly encouraged to publicly own their pain, trauma, shock, ongoing resultant dysfunctionality and maladaptions, but are not so subtly discouraged (via social learning, the feedback we get from others) from publicly owning their body's pleasure response to the incident, They are thus left to wrestle on their own - or perhaps in therapy - with their own guilt about, bewilderment with, and possible rage at, let us call it, the body's betrayal. Fear driven approaches based on an imaginary future - slippery slope arguments - lead to unnuanced approaches which do not reflect or acknowledge complex realities. And this in turn promotes fragmented rather than integrated beings.

Kaddish for Kefilwe

On Shabes I decided to follow Jonas. After dropping off the fruit, he turned towards Doornfontein. The houses got poorer and shabbier and I saw fewer and fewer europeans Eventually he stopped at the end of Overbeek Street, a dead-end next to the railway line, and went into a corrugated iron house which looked like it was about to collapse. When he came out. after half an hour, he was riding all funny, zigzagging across the road, and drawing hoots and insults from the motor cars.

It was easy to catch up with him, because he was riding so badly, but I waited till we were almost across Harrow Road before I called his name from behind. He nearly fell off his bike.'Haahlow, Kleinbaas!' said Jonas. Wat doen jy hier?' 'You doing the fahfee round for the chinaman again?'I kept on questioning him, but could get nothing more except comments about the weather. I rode slowly next to him as he sang and burped his way up Observatory Ridge. It took us a long time to get home, but Jonas just parked his bike under the awning as if nothing had happened.

Jonas was the delivery boy, and had been with us for almost a year. He took orders in the basket of his bicycle with the broken left handlebar. I had been doing the deliveries, but they needed someone when I was at school. Martha the amawasha who lived in the back and paid us rent said her brother needed a job. So Jonas came and took over. He lived in Martindale location, but generally slept over on the floor of the shop, with an old blanket thrown over him. This suited both him and tate, especially on the days when deliveries had to be made early.

We stayed in Rockey Street, opposite the fruit shop. When we first came to dorem afrike we were in Doornfontein for six months, and then we moved to Yeoville, which tate said was a rise in the world. That was when I found Spotty. Someone had wrapped him up in a bag and left him amongst the weeds that grew in the empty stand where we met after school for a smoke. There were three tiny dogs in the bag, with swollen stomachs and ribs sticking out, dead, and one still shaking and whimpering and wet from his own piddle. I brought him home and mame said he could stay, but that, like Jonas, he must stay out of the house. Spotty recovered. We gave him milk with dissolved tennis biscuits and when he was stronger 1 went back to Doornfontein, to Wachenheimer's, and got some of the treyf parts they threw away. Spotty grew till he was the size of a large cat. I taught him to do tricks like jump into my arms when I said shpring! He wasn't the only dog who understood Yiddish in Yeoville, but he was certainly the cleverest.

At the beginning of our second winter in Rockey Street, when I was hardly a greenhorn any more, I was coming home from school and Spotty ran out to greet me and got smashed into by a motor car. He gave a terrible high squeal and then twitched and stopped moving. I called Sonia from downstairs and she came down and told me he was dead, and that I should he careful not to get blood on my school uniform. I waited to see if he would wake up but he didn't. We buried him in the back yard, just behind the washing line, and Sonia said a few words. I didn't say anything because it was my fault he was killed. I might have said  kaddish, but I only learnt the words properly later that winter. Jonas said I should have just thrown Spotty in the rubbish because dogs do not have souls. I got very cross with him because of that, and because he wouldn't tell me what he'd been doing in the house in Doornfontein. I was so upset I couldn't study and got an F for my English essay. Mame told me I could do better, but when I asked her how, she couldn't tell me because her English was worse than mine. Mame was not much taller than me, and she had short brown hair and tired puffy eyes. Her belly was swollen, as if she'd taken a watennelon from the shop and was hiding it under her skirt for safekeeping.
I asked her if it hurt to have a baby.
'Yes, it does.' she said, 'very much.'
Why can't people just hatch from eggs?' I asked.
'If the Eybeshter wanted us to lay eggs he would have given us more feathers and less sense.'
'But it's not dangerous?'Kevn evn-hore,' she answered - don't invoke the evil eye — which was her way of telling me to go and do something else.

Mame was always busy in the shop, making sure the things tate forgot to do got done. She would give him  list of things to get from the market in Bree Street. argue with Padayachee, the Indian trader, and together with Sonia make up the parcels for delivery while Jonas waited respectfully outside, cap in hand and barefoot. But when the watermelon under her skirt grew very big she spent less time in the shop. A month after Spotty was killed she told me she could have the baby any time now. I went to bed that night and mame went to the nursing home and never came back.
'Davn mame, said Aunty Zelda. who told me the next morning, iz avek tsum Ebershtn. Your mama's gone to God.'
They buried her standing up. like a sentry, because the Brixton-Braamfontein cemetery was already chock-a-block full with dead Jews, and there wasn't room for any more lengthways graves. Besides Spotty's, it was the only funeral I'd ever been to, so I thought that was the way everyone was buried, and started worrying we'd buried Spotty wrong.

After sitting shive I went to shul every day. Both because I had to say kaddish for mame, and because I had to learn the daily prayers for my barmitzve, only four months away. The Yeoville synagogue was big and smart. Everything was new and gleaming. It smelt of wood polish and of the deep red carpets and velvet covers on the bime. I learnt all the tunes and enjoyed singing along. When I was given the honour of opening the curtain in front of the Ark, before the Torah was taken out of it, the other men shook iny hand and said well done. I felt big and important. It was the same feeling I had as when my friends laughed at one ol my jokes when we were having smoke-ring competitions. But this was even better because this club was organised by the adults, and my father was part of it and Mr Weiler the gabe was part of it and now I was part of it as well.

Jonas said he was pleased I attended shul regularly. In fact, he took it upon himself -along with Mr Weiler - to ensure I mourned correctly. Now that Spotty and mame were gone, he and I spent more time together. We had several things in common. He liked a cigarette, and would roll his own from cheap, smelly leaf while I smoked my stompies. He also took a keen interest in gambling. Of course he couldn't play the horses like tate did, natives weren't allowed to, but he played dice. Although he had never been to school, Jonas enjoyed learning as much as I did. In exchange for me teaching him Jewish and basic civilisation, he taught me one or two words of kaffertaal.
'Ek's 'n Pedi.' he told me. 'Mv naam is nie Jonas nie, maar Kefilwe. Dit beteken "geskenk." My real name is Kefilwe - "gift".'

He also shared other secrets with me. Like the fact that good luck always comes in threes, as did bad. And that meant, he explained, that if there were two deaths in the family, the third would he quick to follow. I spent alot of time worrying who was going to be next - tate, my elder sister Sonia, my baby sister Reina, or myself. I also tried to find out if there was anything that could he done to prevent it.I thought perhaps saying kaddish every day might help. But Mr Weiler said the main purpose of kadish was to raise the souls of the deceased higher, and to publicly testify that the Eybershter's glory was not diminished by our deaths. I said I understood, but actually I thought a prayer which stopped people dying would be more useful than a prayer about God's glory.Another thing that wasn't clear to me why kaddish had to be said in shul. I missed mame most at night, when I was alone in my bed, and she didn't come to say shlof gezunt. That seemed to me to be the time to pray for her, and not in shul where I'd be daydreaming about a certain girl in my class. Night was also the time I had listened to mame singing Reina to sleep. Reina slept with tate and mane in their bedroom. and mame sang her the same songs she had sung to me when I was a baby: 'Raisins and Almonds';  'Sleep my Yankele'. and 'Tumbalalaika':

From where do you get a bit of mazl? 
From where a bit of glik?
The wheel will surely turn again
and bring my good luck tsurik.

the world is made for all people together
from where can I get
just a little bit, a little bit of glik?

I used to listen and join in the chorus:  

tumbala tumbala  tumbala laika 
tumbala tumbala  tumbala laika 

Shul become a duty, then a chore, and finally, a punishment. If I went in the morning, I missed breakfast, and if I went in the late afternoon it meant leaving a game of soccer in the middle. Arid no matter how many times 1 reminded them at shul that my name was now Joe, they still called me Yossele. I grew to hate it so much I even started being angry with mame. If she hadn't died I wouldn't have had to go there. And I had to go. because if 1 didn't, Mr Weilerwould have reported it to tate. But all my complaints were forgotten when my worries about who the third fatality would be were ended. Together with his bicycle. srnile.a dozen eggs, a bagof tomatoes and a pumpkin, Jonas was knocked flying in a head-on collision with a truck and, they told me, killed instantly. Like mame, he never said goodbye, and I never saw him again.'He was a good man,' Martha told me. 'except ..: and she armed someone holding a bottle up to his lips and drinking thirstilv. 'I think the Eybeshter is trying to tell me something: said tate, 'Him and Robinson, what wants payment in full by next week.'

The shock of Jonas's death scared me back into shul. Once again I was first in the synagogue in the morning. 1 stopped telling jokes to the other barmitve boys during the parts we were supposed to be quiet, and I swayed and concentrated when I said kaddish. I thought there would be no harm in including Jonas among the growing number of people my daily prayer was having to guide on their final journey. Spotty, mame and now Jonas-Kefllwe-Gift who had gone to God riding on a bicycle. I did this for a few weeks, and one day, when tate said he'd noticed that I was being more conscientious about attending shul,  I explained that my kaddish had grown to include Jonas. Both he and Sonia looked at me as if I was mad.
'Jonas,' said tate, 'was an employee, not family. And Jonas wasn't Jewish.'
'In case you hadn't noticed,' said Sonia. 'he was a shvartse.
''So what?''
So kaddish is not for shvartses, shlemiel''
"But why is kuddish not for shvartses?''
Because each must stick to his own customs.' said tate, 'that's the way of the world.' Then he added, and because the Eybershter is Jewish'.
'And why is God Jewish?
''Why are shvartses black and toffees sweet? Am I responsible for the way things are?'

With mame and Jonas and Spotty gone, our bad luck was supposed to be over. But it seems Jonas only got it partly right. The grocery shop went mekhule, Sonia had to leave school and start working, and Reina was sent to the orphanage.
'Your tate,' said Aunty Zelda. 'never was a businessman. What he really wants is a big win at the races, so that he can sleep the afternoons with a newspaper over his face.'

I had my barmitsve in November, but my shul attendance didn't last. My visits slipped to once every two weeks, and then to even less than that. I knew I was letting mame down when I stayed away, but when I went I felt even worse. My heart was no longer in it. It bothered me that I wasn't supposed to include Jonas, and anyway, there were more important things to do than looking after the dead with a lot of old men who were close to death themselves. About a week before tate and I moved back to a boarding-house in Doornfontein I got up early to go to shakhres. I don't know why 1 decided to go that particular morning. Perhaps it was to say goodbye to the Yeoville synagogue. I didn't hear much of the service, I was thinking about other things the whole way through. I only woke up when Mr Weiler cleared his throat to let me know they were all waiting for me.

'Yisgodol veyiskodosh ...' I began, automatically.
My lips knew the words, but inside my head things were getting jumbled up. The old men looked at me expectantly.
"Shemei rabah" one of them prompted me. Sanctified and extolled be His great name,
I saw Jonas bicycling up the hill, and in his delivery basket sat Spotty, eagerly sniffing the air. 
bealmah divarah chivrutei
in the world He has made  for all people together
Mame hovered over Jonas and Spotty, with her watermelon stomach, and with each turn of the wheel they all said kaddish together with me. 
in the lifetime of all of the house of  Israel, speedily and soon
the wheel will surely turn again
beyond all the praises and consolations that are uttered
I want my mame back 
and let us say

(Based on incidents in Joe Slovo's autobiography, first published in Jewish Affairs circa 1996)