Two wedding photographs that capture the joy and emotion of a special day. In the first a young bride and her mother share a private moment as mum dabs a tear. In the second, mum proudly escorts her daughter towards the marriage canopy between crowds of women to the left and men to the right.
These images, commonplace before the pandemic paralysed our planet, now seem as alien to most of us as Nasa’s latest pictures from Mars. Alien to most, but not all. Some people, it seems, really do live on another planet.
They were taken during the current lockdown and sent to my newspaper, Jewish News, by a source who helped us expose a litany of lockdown breaches in the secret strictly-Orthodox Jewish world of Stamford Hill.
This north London nook, home to some 20,000 Charedi Jews, has one of the world’s highest Covid rates. In 2020, when less than eight percent of the general UK population tested positive, StamfordHill was Stamford ill, with infections at 65 percent according to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Why so high? Three reasons. First, the sinful outside world is shunned (no internet, television or Zoom), so there’s a collective ignorance of this ever-changing health crisis. Second, birth-rates of seven per family and daily religious gatherings means party time for a pandemic. Third, Stamford Hilltakes its orders from heaven, not Hancock.
Many residents are scared and angry that N16 has become Britain’s pandemic postcode. As one put it: “Jews don’t hold weddings at certain times because of plagues that happened 2,000 years ago, yet the plague we’re living through now doesn’t appear reason to postpone.” But a very significant minority – including senior rabbis – view lockdown lawbreaking (nudge nudge, wink wink) as a badge of honour. To stop spreading “Yiddishkeit”, Jewish customs and practices, would, for them, be a fate worse than coronavirus. It’s in this context that the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations made its daft decision to put a rabbi who said “as many guests as one likes” can attend events in lockdown in charge of Covid coordination.
Lockdown events in Stamford Hill are arranged with all the cloak-and-dagger choreography of a 1990s illegal rave. Windows are covered, lookouts hired and money set aside for fines. Police time is wasted on fake wedding tip-offs to put the authorities off the scent of genuine calls. There’s video footage of a wedding band, in the middle of a police raid, improvising a song in Yiddish telling guests to relocate to a nearby hall in 30 minutes. Guests are bussed in and out to avoid crowds and told to dress inside the venue.
In normal times Stamford Hill is a shining example to other minority communities. Organisations such as neighbourhood watch group Shomrim and emergency volunteer service Hatzola are outstanding social care success stories. It’s not that some have suddenly swapped Torah life for thug life. Rather, human law can’t hold a Shabbat candle to divine law. Who needs Boris when you’ve got the Bible?
Local MP Diane Abbott may think she has influence on The Hill, but it’s the rabbis whose word is final. If they banned flip flops, overnight no one would dare wear flip flops. Even in the shower. If they banned lockdown weddings, there would be no lockdown weddings. Or, indeed, lockdown wedding showers.
This time last year the social festival of Purim fast-tracked the virus’ early spread. Fears that this year’s celebrations, held late last week, would again raise the local R-rate – days after the government revealed its roadmap for lifting restrictions – were largely unfounded. The streets of Stamford Hill, usually packed with Purim party buses and kids in costume, were kept mercifully quiet.
When this crisis is finally under control, Stamford Hill’s leadership would do well to reflect on hard lessons learned. Shameless defiance of lockdown, especially during these last two months in Tier 4, has caused deep and lasting damage. And death. They must answer for their dreadful decisions.
Last week Sir David Attenborough’s gave an emotional speech on climate change to the UN Security Council. It could just as easily have been written about the past 12 months in Stamford Hillor, indeed, about any other group that has acted with impunity: “The last year has proved we are not separate nations best served by looking after our own. We are a single global species whose greatest threats are shared and whose security must come from acting together.”
First published in The Times