Saturday, November 11, 2006

TWAJ: Aished!

Last week, Freedmansister and I went to an Aish Indian-themed dinner, with Geordie Boy, his housemate Geordwegie, and Phill the Greek. It was some experience.

After carefully disinviting himself for a home-cooked Friday night dinner at Freedmansister's Hendon residence by suggesting there was an Aish dinner on, Geordie Boy gave me the time and number to call to book tickets (paid for by Freedmansmum, who has a habit of shtipping for the right occasion). We showed up on time but he was nowhere to be seen - was it a clever ploy to make us go but then bunk off somewhere else?

So we tucked into the Indian reception snacks (onion pakoras, somosas and such like), washed down by sickly Bartenura (think Lambrini for yids), pausing only to laugh inwardly at the South African bwah who was delighted at the offering ("are heaven't head sommooossas four satch uh long tarm") and to escape the big scary intense people coming to introduce themselves, and chat loudly about the wonders of Aish.

Eventually Geordie Boy showed up, and we also bumped into Michael Gee (apparently this is now pronounced "Ghee"), who did a little magic show despite the impediment of a hostile section of the crowd, who have yet to get to the bit in their Aish curriculum about showing respect and carrying yourself with a mind to the impression you make as a Jew, even amongst Jews.

We moved onto an excellent dinner of chicken soup and chicken tikka, during which time we sat through a brief drasha from the Chabad rabbi of Dharamsala on "redemping ourselves", and noted the Aish version of the macher/JP crowd. It doesn't quite work with velvet kippot and tsniut-compliant skirts...

After dinner, we were scoffing ice cream and lychees when we were accosted by the sweet new Aish rabbi, who clearly had no idea that Freedman and Freedmansister were unlikely converts to the cult and were really just there because of the food. Still, nice chap, so he is exonerated from what I am about to say...

I categorise Aishniks into 4 groupings:

1. The semi-frummers for whom Aish is a social club, more interesting than the United Synagogue, less restrictive on looking at girls than the JLE, Ner Yisroel etc, slightly less intellectual (ie more suitable), and a good way of feeling quite cool when university jsoc never quite let them in. These are the backbone of the macher/JP in-crowd.

2. The canny occasional visitors like Freedmansister, Geordie Boy and I, who don't believe the rhetoric, are traditional enough to understand proceedings, and really just come for the cheap or free food, drink, entertainment and possibly the odd educational event because it's easier than organising it ourselves.

3. The transients who are sucked in, learn something about Judaism, perhaps even follow it Aish-zombie-like in the short term, before learning to think for themselves. They go away enlightened and enriched by the things they have found, but crave the need to go on their own journey, even if it is not a subsidised trip to Israel, South Africa or whatever the latest Aish marketing gem is. They might well keep less than in their "Aished" days but certainly much more than before.

4. The never-done-anythings who need to find solace in a colour-by-numbers form of Judaism where they can be spoon-fed superficial answers and rules to regurgitate later. These are the true "Aished", the brainwashed ones whose depth of knowledge is likely to remain so scant that, in his own immortal words, Freedmansdad has "forgotten more than they will ever know".

I have no general problem with kiruv work, and think groups 1-3 are all totally great. The issue I have is that fourth group of intellectually and emotionally vulnerable people, and unfortunately, these are really Aish's prime goal and constituency. The other groups boost numbers, bring funds, and act as useful conduits and committee members, so they are acceptable, but little has persuaded me so far that there is long-term good to be had in the existing approach to the last group.

In fact I know of several people who have come out of this state of Aished tunnel-vision with a bump - among others I know those who are now repulsed by organised Judaism, those who had a breakdown in relationships with family and friends (the classic being refusing to eat in their parents' house), and those who became obsessed with it all and went so meshugge that even Aish was no longer enough.

We spend enough time bitching about how Madonna's Kabbalah does not represent authentic Judaism, but I am not convinced that the overall Aish concept does either. Individual events and speakers, yes. General intensive kiruv sugar-coated with with slick marketing, big subsidies and a minimal requirement for independent thought, no. And I have been to enough events, seen enough of their educational work, visited the Aish yeshiva in Jerusalem, had enough anecdotal evidence from friends at various stages of the process, to make a judgement.

The worst part is, I think it is lazy kiruv. Getting people to sign up for orthodox Judaism should be tough, and it should be personal. It is about each individual's spiritual journey, and more often than not, another individual or a single moment that influences it. The Aish mentality is a constant bombardment of glitzy events, speakers and trips, which has the effect of being a mass conversion, hence the regular accusations of brainwashing and cultish behaviour, from which I do not demur.

So I would like to encourage Aish to continue their activities without that slightly too earnest, intense edge. Trust people to make their own minds up, and they can slip into the first three of those four groups. If they are in that final set, let their individuality come through, and don't be offended if it leads them somewhere else - most likely it will be into those other three crowds anyway. Forcing the issue makes an unnatural thing out of an evolutionary process.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't say I totally agree with you on the Aish 'thang'. Put this way, no-one is putting a gun to anyone's head and saying that they have to come. It's an open house, cool if you come, ok, if you don't. No guilt, no pressure.

People love to nitpick and find fault. They put down their Jewish school education as 'too dry', 'unengaging', 'dull' etc etc. Along comes an organisation that makes it fun to be Jewish suddenly there's a problem.

Just what exactly are you afraid of. I've seen these people that you speak of who get 'Aished'. I've spent time with them, I've slept in dorms with them, gone on trips with them and seen them before and after. These people are looking for this thing to turn their lives around. You're right, they are unhappy, they do have their problems and they WANT something to happen to their lives and make it change. You may not like, heck, I may not like it, but they go into it with their eyes open.

Personally, Aish did get me more involved because I had a shitty time being Jewish growing up and they showed me that actually there is something beautiful and cool and fun about that I had missed out on and went on my own journey.

Far from being a frummer I at least recognise where I'm at and where I want to be. Change ain't easy but ultimatly it has its rewards because it makes you a better person in all sorts of way.

I used to have a very negative view of them from my peers etc until I actually took part in a programme. I think Aish does great work - if it means young kids have an entertaining Friday night dinner instead of going clubbing so sue me I think it's great.

The great thing about Aish is this relaxed atmosphere they have and the inclusivity they promote which means people like you turn up (whatever your motive) and people in your categories turn up too. Open house is a very Jewish concept, Abraham was the forerunner in this. Let's not knock Aish, for every 'horror' story I hear when I actually speak to the parties involved I get a very different understanding.

In the spirit of ahavas yisroel, let's all be nice and not speak badly about fellow Jews (unless they're Neturei Karta in which case they're fair game!).

Still love the blog