Our shul recently marked the yahrzeit of Reb Nochum Zalman Gurewicz, on Tisha b'Av. Many people in the community have a diversity of memories about Reb Nochum, whether it was watching him say tehilim in almost every free moment, or his kadish and davening at the amud. In a great reflection, Isaac Balbin reminded us of a few of his attributes and lessons we can learn.
One that stuck out for me was that Reb Nochum was always impeccably dressed, with never a thread out of place. The same was true of a number of his peers, in particular my zeide Reb Zalman Serebryanski, and Reb Isser Kluwgant - they were all "dapper gentlemen". My zeide, in his role at Yeshivah Gedola, would insist that bochurim kept their lives neat and tidy - he used to say that if a boy's room at yeshivah is clean and organized, then one can be assured that his learning was also on track.
Was this manner of dress part of their identity as a chossid?
As a former talmid of Reb Nochum, I recall fondly many colourful incidents that too place when we were in class with him. While our class were generally a very conscientious group, many of us enjoyed stirring things up in Reb Nochum's class and watching him lose his temper. One day during class, a student from another class came in with something Reb Nochum had to sign: "Chuck your signature on this", he said as he plonked the documentation in front of Reb Nochum. Say no more! Reb Nochum flew into a rage: "What is 'chuck'? I do not 'chuck'! I am not an 'Aussie'!". On and on he went as we sat back and enjoyed the show.
Was this rejection of Australian coloqualism and culture part of his identity as a chossid?
The elter chassidim came from a different time, a different culture. Being transplanted as far away as possible from Russia, both physically and spiritually, would certainly have been a huge challenge for them. Part of their role was to represent Chabad in Melbourne to the outside world, often as fundraisers, so dressing well and looking clean and sharp was certainly necessary. But it's doubtful that they did this just for outsiders. They looked after their appearance because it was important to them. I don't know if this was chassidishkeit, or just menschlechkeit. To be sure, being a chossid did not mean they should not care about their appearance or look like a shloch. "A chossid as a soldat, a soldier", Reb Zalman would say. A soldier wears a uniform. The soldier metaphor is evident in the Tzivos Hashem campaign as well. A uniform is worn with pride. A uniform is kept immaculate. A farklempt, untucked shirt and a beaten-up hat that belongs in the bin is not a chassidish uniform.
From research I have done into other post-WW2 immigrants, the clash of cultures was very stark. Immigrants came with little or no money, and had to take whatever work was available. This exposed them to Australian co-workers, often from working-class backgrounds in factories. Whether they came from baalabatish families or were brought up from home with a strong work ethic, it was very clear to them that these local 'Aussies' were a different breed. The rejection of Australian culture and colloquialisms was likely a rejection of assimilation, and a need to retain and maintain the standards they were brought up with.
For our generation, this is far more difficult. While we may see a big difference between ourselves and beer-guzzling, foul-mouthed Aussies, many aspects of Australian culture are well embedded in our lifestyle. We drink beer and swear, so it's only a question of degree. We watch TV, we talk about sport, we go to the football and the cricket (indeed, part of the appeal of Rabbi Groner OBM back in the mid 1950s was that he could engage with younger people about sport). So as chassidim, to what extent should we reject the local culture? Indeed, to engage with the world around us, to be effective in outreach, we must be able to speak like a local. How easy is it to know all about Aussie culture, but not actually be a Aussie? Is it even possible?
I don't know the answer to this. Perhaps it is like an undercover police officer, who lives with drug dealers and users, and plays the part, but deep down knows that he doesn't belong.