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Manners, multiculturalism, and the battle of Stamford Hill

An 'Independent' columnist's attack on the alleged rudeness of the London suburb's Jewish residents has provoked a fevered debate. Was she right? Jerome Taylor reports

With just hours to go before the start of Shabbat, the Carmel Yiddish supermarket is doing a roaring trade. Shelves burst with rows of matzoh bread, tubs of pickled herring and potato salads, kneidlach dumplings, instant noodle soup mixes and borscht.

Large families of ultra-orthodox Jews hurry their way through the aisles, making sure they have all they need before the sun goes down. The soundtrack to their shopping spree is a mournful Yiddish lament playing in crackling tones over the store's tannoy.

For the next 24 hours most of Carmel's customers will come to a virtual standstill as they mark the Jewish holy day with quiet contemplation, prayer and family meals – all of which have to be cooked before sunset to avoid the prohibition on doing any work during the sabbath.

Carmel's is just one of the many Jewish supermarkets and bakeries in Stamford Hill, home to Europe's largest community of Charedi Jews.

The Charedis follow the most conservative interpretation of Orthodox Judaism and are as unmistakable on the streets of Stamford Hill as the mouth-watering smells of chicken soup wafting out of kitchen windows. The men dress in long black coats and hats, sport beards and twist their hair into curls that fall down the sides of their faces. Their wives usually opt for long dresses, hide their real hair behind wigs or headscarves and, with Charedi families having an average of six children, are rarely seen without at least one offspring in tow.

The community is proudly insular and eschews the trappings of modern life. But in the past week it has been uncomfortably thrust into the epicentre of a row over the nature of multi-culturalism and whether it is possible to be critical of Judaism without being accused of anti-Semitism.

On Wednesday, The Independent's columnist Christina Patterson wrote a column detailing how rude she believed many Charedi Jews were to non-Jews. A gentile resident of Stamford Hill for 12 years, she described how the ultra-orthodox community had made her feel "about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Ku Klux Klan convention".

"I didn't realise," she wrote, "that a purchase by a goy [a Yiddish phrase for a non-Jew] was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn't been chosen by God. And while none of this is a source of anything much more than irritation, when I see an eight-year-old boy recoiling from a normal-looking woman (because, presumably, he has been taught that she is dirty or dangerous, or, heaven forbid, dripping with menstrual blood) it makes me sad."

The article – headlined "The limits of multi-culturalism" – went on to criticise the Islamic veil and laments the lack of successful prosecutions for female genital mutilation, a form of female circumcision which is practised by a number of different cultures and faiths.

Within hours of the article appearing online The Independent's website Patterson's email account was inundated with emotional comments from readers who were either delighted that the author had dared to write about such a contentious subject, or were outraged by what they perceived to be a vicious attack on Judaism.

Jewish columnists rounded on Patterson in unison with Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, accusing her of "unrelenting unadulterated anti-Jewish bigotry".

Miriam Shaviv, one of the paper's most prolific columnists, waded in with her own response to the article which she said was "one of the ugliest, most vile pieces ever published in the British press". "You rather get the feeling that [Patterson] a) hates the Jews and Muslims really, seriously more than is necessary and b) feels they really ought to thank her for generously giving them permission to exist," she wrote.

Yet Damian Thompson, a well-known Catholic blogger who regularly defends Israel and Judaism in his writing, came to Patterson's defence and said it was right to highlight the sense of superiority some Jews have towards gentiles.

"Monosyllabic terseness towards goyim?" he wrote in a recent blog for the Daily Telegraph. "I've experienced it and it's maddening. Jewish hostility towards Christians isn't confined to the ultra-Orthodox... I could tell stories, of unbelievable haughtiness by leaders of Anglo-Jewry, which would have led to diplomatic incidents if the Christians involved weren't afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism. I suppose I'm afraid of that, too."

Thompson's blog has since prompted a further response from Ms Shaviv who said that Jews do need to recognise how they are sometimes perceived by friends, neighbours and strangers alike. "There is today no excuse for Jews holding racist attitudes," she wrote. "We need to make sure we all understand that the odd comment about "the goyim" is not just a joke; that there are consequences to treating non-Jews as if they are inferior."

None of these arguments were lost on one resident of Stamford Hill yesterday. Dave, a plumber who declined to give his second name but said he had lived in the area for 30 years, said he had read Patterson's article and found himself agreeing and disagreeing with it in equal measure.

"There is a sort of aloofness to my Jewish neighbours and they do like to keep themselves to themselves," he said. "I recognise that. But it's never in a hostile way. Most groups have some sort of superiority complex, we all like to think we've got it right and others haven't. For me I just abide by live and let live. You lose far too much sleep if you don't."

A Community Apart?

*Jews have been living in the London borough of Hackney since the early 18th century but the ultra-orthodox community first began settling en masse in Stamford Hill shortly before and during the Second World War.

*Followers of different schools of Judaism settled in different suburbs, with the Charedi choosing an area that, at the time, was relatively far removed from the more inner-city areas such as Brick Lane to where most Jewish immigrants had initially flocked.

*The numbers of Charedim in Stamford Hill are now thought to be close to 20,000 making it the largest community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Europe. The majority are Yiddish- speaking Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Germany and central Europe and most follow the Hasidic branch of Orthodox Judaism.

*Further congregations of ultra-orthodox Jews have also settled in the North-east around Sunderland and in Salford, Manchester. There is also a small community of Yemeni Jews living in Stamford Hill whose numbers have increased significantly in the past 10 years because of growing attacks on the few remaining Jews left in Yemen. Almost all Charedi children are privately educated in religious schools funded by the community.