“Look, a shiksa!” That was the early-morning greeting I received from the sweet, chubby two-year-old hanging over a gate. He seemed to find me fascinating, as did his older sister, as they stood, both laughing and pointing at me as if I were Tim Peake returning from the International Space Station.
If I weren’t running for my bus (which according to TfL was due any minute), I would certainly have stopped to educate them. But the disillusioned part of me wondered whether it would have made any difference.
As a modern Orthodox woman who until recently lived in Stamford Hill, I received my fair share of stares and questions. The chief question was usually ‘Are you from Golders Green?’ When I said no, the reply was usually ‘That’s interesting’. I then informed whoever’s asking that my family have actually lived in Stamford Hill for the past 20 years.’ The Chassidic population is swelling and overtaking our sort who are dying out, or at least moving out in my case. They are either emigrating to Israel or other parts of the UK where the more modern are welcomed.
At the moment, there are either the strictly-Orthodox or traditionally-religious Sephardim living in Stamford Hill and there’s not much in between.
A prime example of this change is Crowland Road United Synagogue, one of the last of its kind in Stamford Hill, which is teetering on its last legs. It is set to disappear in a few years, having been bought by the Chassidic community. As of 2011, there were around 90 members, a stark contrast to the 431 in 1960 when it became a district synagogue.
In the interim, the shul has been divided, with the Chassidic side by far outnumbering the US side. The interior of the US side is shabby and musty, paling in comparison to the ornate chandeliers on the Chassidic side.
The Chassidic bathroom is practically a palace, a far cry from the US’s cracked sinks and missing tiles.
The two sides have even been jokingly dubbed ‘the frummers’ and ‘the friers’ (Yiddish slang for non-religious Jews.) But that’s what it comes down to. If you aren’t or don’t seem religious enough for the Chassidic community of Stamford Hill, you are dubbed a ‘frier’ or, in my case a ‘shiksa.’
A certain type of superiority reigns. People are told they are instantly committing all types of sins, because ‘why wouldn’t you, you don’t have (our slant on) the Torah to guide you’. To which I point out that basic human respect is most definitely in the Torah.
The Torah would not condone crossing the street when a woman passes because her mere presence may be arousing. Or refusing to take money from her hand when you collect for charity.
The Torah does not like you talking to non-Jewish workers as if they were dirt without so much as a please or thank you. I’m sure it also looks down upon pushing your way through commuters on buses, hitting them in the face with your school backpack.
Stamford Hill has an unhealthy obsession with modesty, or the apparent lack of it, in the community. During Pesach, warnings are issued about ‘throwing away the chometz in your homes’ which apparently takes the form of black tights, with the wearer accused of following the way of the goyim. Letters by bored housewives are sent weekly to Your Write Lines in The News Update bemoaning other women’s lack of standards. I recall one letter which accused a ‘heimishe’ woman of ‘drinking an unknown cup of coffee, sitting in an immodest manner on the train and reading the Metro newspaper, which represents the utmost tuumah (filth) of our times.’
Many of the orthodox girls school in the area place a heavy emphasis on modesty. For example, special ‘tznius clubs’ are set up with exclusive memberships for those who prove themselves to be the most modest. An acquaintance of mine who worked in one of these schools told me that pupils are berated constantly for their skirts being too short (three inches over the knee instead of four).
However, the pupils were extremely disrespectful in class, especially to non-Jewish teachers. In 2010, non-Jew Christina Patterson was criticised heavily for her article in the Independent, detailing how rude many Charedi Jews were to non-Jews. One Jewish writer accusing her of “unrelenting unadulterated anti-Jewish bigotry”. Well I have lived in Stamford Hill most of my life and experienced much of what Patterson did.
The purpose of this piece is not to paint everyone in Stamford Hill as rude and socially inept. I have met some lovely people in the community – and enjoyed warm working relationships with some of them. Moreover, the acts of charity as well as charitable organizations are countless and reknowned and many other communities can learn from them.
Nevertheless, the above experiences I have described are sadly all too frequent. Education starts with the two-year-olds, but it certainly cannot come from parents who are ignorant themselves as to the niceties of modern social interaction.
What I believe the Stamford Hill community needs to learn is this: instead of worrying about the way you or others appear externally, worry about how you talk to others.