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Press: Write, polish, polish again — and, finally, publish    

16 September 2022


READERS of last week’s Church Times saw nothing on the death of the Queen; by the time this one comes out, you may be feeling that there has been too much. So I will just make a couple of general points.

The first is about timescale: almost all the pieces worth reading will have been written some years ago and polished repeatedly since then. That is the opposite of the way in which most of the stuff online is filed — and printed newspapers are now an appendage to their websites. The second is that there is still a place for the traditional journalistic skill of writing considered pieces under real pressure; Martin Kettle, in The Guardian, is a fine example of that. The third is that the whole story was filed, on American websites, under “Entertainment”.

I thought the most profound observation was from, as you might expect, Matthew Parris, in The Times, on Queen Elizabeth II’s political influence: “Did she win an argument? I doubt it. Did she make monarchists out of republicans? A few, perhaps; not many. What she did was different. By winning personal respect, and by making monarchy work, she gently put the argument aside.” This is the way that evangelism works in real life.

MEANWHILE, the calendar rolls on. Winter is coming; picking up an abandoned Sunday Express magazine on a train, I noted that one quarter of the horoscopes were about money problems, and none about love.

had an extraordinary exposé of the Hasidic schools in Brooklyn. They have a syllabus that is almost unchanged from rural Galicia before the Holocaust: “Yeshivas that provide secular education now mostly hire only Hasidic men as teachers, regardless of whether they know English.

“One former student said he once had a secular teacher who doubled as the school cook. Another said one of his instructors repeatedly wrote the word ‘math’ on the blackboard as ‘mathe.’ Many young men said their English teachers spoke to them only in Yiddish.”

The children are beaten from an early age, and are given almost no instruction in English or mathematics; their textbooks have any illustrations of women scribbled out. The struggle against the modern age is unremitting: “As the internet has become more widely available, many schools have grown more restrictive, even barring students whose parents are caught with smartphones. . . some other schools now prohibit students from speaking English at home.”

Although these are private schools, they are thoroughly subsidised by the secular state government — just possibly, the paper suggests, because Hasidic leaders can deliver their followers’ votes wholesale.

It is an interesting side effect of the extremely patriarchal nature of these societies that the girls in such schools are less completely crippled for life in the outside world. I think this is partly because they are thought to matter less: they can’t spend their whole lives studying the Torah — and partly because every family is going to need an interpreter for the outside world. Someone has to be able to speak English, shop, if only occasionally, in secular stores, read the bills, and so on.

The second point is about the nature of prejudice. The Hasidim are treated as if they had nothing whatever in common with the secular, or even conventionally religious, Jews of America. This would never be the case in an exposé of madrasahs, either in the US or over here. It does represent an extraordinary turnaround in prejudice.

In 1943, W. H. Auden wrote from Pennsylvania to his friend Naomi Mitchison: “I never knew, even in Germany, what anti-Semitism meant till I came to this country. All the same I like it here just because it is the Great Void where you have to balance without handholds. . . ”

As late as the early ’60s, it is taken for granted in one of the Bond books that a fancy hotel would be “restricted” — closed to Jews. Woody Allen’s early comedy routines relied on the exclusion of Jews from the society around them. And all that now is completely forgotten, and gone as well. It’s rather cheering that such a widespread prejudice could be annihilated like that, even at a time when social media divide people more efficiently than ever before.

I HAVE been reading interviews with David Kemper, once Bob Dylan’s drummer, whose first gig was in front of Pope John Paul II. Dylan’s manager called him and said: “Well, we got a gig with the Pope in Bologna.”

“I said, ‘Say that again?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, the Pope. John Paul II invited us to a Eucharistic Congress.’

“So we fly to Bologna. We go to the gig. We walk on stage. We’re playing the first song, and I look and over to my left. In the back corner, I saw John Paul sitting there. He was resting his head on his hands. I was thinking, ‘Is this guy alive? Is he listening? He’s out there for everybody to see.’ But Bob was on good behaviour. I could tell.”

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