A Glimpse Into Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox Neighborhoods

There are two Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the center of Jerusalem – Geula and Mea Shearim – and I’ve been too nervous to venture in to them during my nearly three years in Jerusalem. Every new arrival to the city hears horror stories about unknowing motorists driving into these neighborhood during Shabbat and being met with rock-throwing. But now that our time in Jerusalem is winding down, I wanted more than ever to get a little glimpse into the lives of the Haredi, who live so very close to my apartment and make up about 12 percent of Israel’s population. The Haredim (in English, we’d refer to them as Ultra-Orthodox, although among the Haredim, Ultra-Orthodox means something different) are an everyday sight in all parts of the city, with the men in their their old-fashioned black and white clothes, side curls, and black hats, and giant fur hats on Shabbat for the married men. And for women, skirts below the knees, stockings and closed-toe shoes, and wigs or head scarves/knit hats if they’re married.

Signing up for a tour of these neighborhoods seemed to me a less intimidating way to learn a little about this closed society that shuns most aspects of modern, secular culture. The first tour I did of the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods was a food tour a few months back, where our Jerusalemite guide said she’d longed for the food of her Russian grandparents and couldn’t find it in Jerusalem, until she figured it must be in Mea Shearim, where many residents’ parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were from Eastern Europe. This guide seemed nervous to take our large group of Americans and Europeans into Mea Shearim. She worried about offending the residents and about the negative attention we’d get. That tour went okay, save for one woman, an American Haredi from the sounds of it, dumping her washing water from a balcony inches from our group. “I have to do laundry” she explained with a shrug. We were not wanted. We poked into a few restaurants and ate some things that were okay – like a vegetarian version of cholent, the stew that cooks for practically 24 hours and is eaten on Shabbat, some Jerusalem-style noodle kugel with lots of black pepper and cinnamon, and pastries. But what I most took away from that tour is there aren’t really restaurants and coffee shops in the Haredi neighborhoods because there is no chill-out culture. There’s no downtime, no stop-and-savor-a-meal mindset because they need to be studying the Torah or the Talmud (the book that explains the Torah) constantly. Some Haredi children are told that every moment not studying will result in a moment holding a hot coal in one’s mouth in the afterlife.

Last week, I went on another tour of the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. This was one different because our small group was led by an ex-Haredi. Alon’s South African parents moved to Jerusalem after the 1967 war and converted to Ultra-Orthodox. Alon was raised in Haredi community elsewhere in Israel, but attended Yeshiva (religious school) from the ages of 13-23 in Mea Shearim. He married, had three kids. He divorced and left the community when he was in his late 30s. Now and then, he takes people through the Haredi neighborhoods and explains the culture and customs.

The two main groups in Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhoods are the Hasidic and the Litvak. The Hasidic wear the more old-fashioned clothes, and the Litvik have slimmer cut black suits and more modern hats (still all black and white, though). There is also another group of men I’ve noticed in Jerusalem – ones who wear gold striped silk robes.  Alon explained that this group believe – like all the Ultra-Orthodox- that God used to speak to men and prophets 3,000 years ago and then God stopped, and then came slavery, the exodus from Egypt, the plagues, and we’re still living in that same time period. That period will end when the Messiah comes again, and the Third Temple is rebuilt on the grounds of what is now the Al Aqsa compound which includes the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site for Muslims. So, some members of this striped coat group think that Israel doesn’t have the right to be a state and potentially lay the the groundwork for the next coming. Only God can do that, they believe. Some in this group  support Palestine and we saw several Palestinian flags on the walls during our tour. So yes, there is an Ultra-Ultra-Orthodox Jewish group who support Palestine and decry Israel.

We walked in our small group – us women dressed in long skirts and loose shirts. I had mistakenly worn sandals and exposed feet are a no-no, so I had to buy a pair of white tube socks. If there’s any place I’d not mind breaking the cardinal no-socks-with-sandals rules, it’s probably in Mea Shearim where I certainly would not see someone I know. “The women here do have their own fashion, and that changes with the times,” Alon assured me, but he agreed that my feet looked ridiculous, but respectful.

Speaking of which, do you know why Haredi women dress modestly? he asked. I said I had an idea of why this is a norm in all cultures that demand figure-obscuring clothes from women but I didn’t want to be rude. He said, no, go ahead. “Well, because in these cultures there is a feeling that all these sexual men are predators from which women must be protected.” That’s more or less true, he said. But he added that it is a mortal sin, akin to murder, that a Haredi man should “spill his seed” in a way that doesn’t create new Jewish life. By the women not showing much skin or wearing anything flashy, it supposedly keeps images out of the men’s mind that may lead to sexual thoughts and acts. (Same reasoning for why Haredi men can’t listen to music with female voices). But surely boys are boys, someone in the group said, and if you think they aren’t taking matters in to their own hands, you’re crazy. “No, it’s so indoctrinated that it [masterbation] is evil, that I really think it doesn’t happen much.” Alon lived in fairly close quarters among boys and young men for ten years at yeshiva, so he might know.

It seemed at times a difficult tour for Alon, because he’s conflicted, this taking outsiders through his old stomping grounds and telling us their secrets. I couldn’t help gasp or hang my mouth open at some of the things he told us. The “kosher” phones that have only Rabbi-approved apps. That Haredim believe that every night, you die a little, and that sleep is akin to 1/60th of death. This manifests in the fingertips and so each morning, each person pulls a little plastic two-handled container from beneath their bed – it’s been filled the night before with water – and wash his or her hands, six times on each side. Only then has the death been rinsed away and they can touch other things, like their face or their children. Alon works as a driver and once an Orthodox woman in his car called her daughter’s teacher and said that in the morning’s rush she’s just not sure if her daughter washed her hands six times on each side and so could the teacher please make sure she did so in class? Also, the society does not welcome anything from the secular world, including education about things like world events and science. He recalls overhearing a little Haredi boy ask his father about a sign advertising a science museum in Jerusalem. “What is science?” the kid asked his dad. His dad tried to avoid the question, but the boy kept asking, until his father replied “It’s nonsense.”

But there are so many things Alon valued about the community and he knows he’s given these up for good by leaving. It’s so safe. Very small children walk everywhere on their own. If someone has a problem, or needs money, the community has their back. You can hardly even imagine a tighter community, he said. Once, a well-known rabbi died at 9am. His funeral was held at noon and 3,000 people showed up. Imagine this, when there’s no texting or Internet. Alon said he has never seen happier people – not having fun happy but having joy happy – than the Haredim. The existential crisis implicit to living in the open world is being able to be anything and not knowing what to be, and that weighs on Alon in a way it did not for most of his life. He knew what he was before: A religious student, a husband, a father.

Alon looks back on all the rules, and the rules within the rules, and remembers how stifling they felt. When he was starting living in “real life,” he assumed he would be done with all the rules and he’d live free of any restrictions. People in real life were very attracted to this kind of openness, he said. Still are. But he found himself confronted with the fact that even in the free world, there are still so many rules. Seatbelts. How to talk to women. That you’re not supposed to tell everybody everything about you the moment you meet and expect the same in return. “What is with all these walls you have?” he asked his new friends. And then there are all the facts he does not know. He studied only Jewish religious texts from the age of 13, so he doesn’t understand many concepts and references his new friends make. (Most Haredi men study the Torah for life, and don’t have paying jobs, but this is starting to change. A greater number of Haredi women, compared to Haredi men, attend high school and have jobs outside the home). Alon’s friends think it’s funny when he misses something obvious to them. “You don’t know this!?” they marvel, then they remember the world in which he lived up until seven years ago.

It was an eye opening tour and I cannot stop thinking about it. I was so moved by Alon’s story and that he would share it with us, and hopefully someday  he’ll share it with a larger audience. He’s writing a book.

I didn’t feel comfortable taking out my big camera and photographing people on the tour, but I did snap a few shots with my iPhone, below.

Art must be religious in nature, and so paintings of famous Rabbis are popular home decor.
Gefilte fish and cholent from Geula Hadar restaurant.
Geula Hadar restaurant. Tourist note: You can and should visit here and try a few Eastern-European delicacies, but women must be wearing a long skirt and a long sleeved, high neck shirt.
Mr. Em in Jerusalem checking out the Boston shoe store. These neighborhoods have everything the residents need, so there’s not much need to venture out.
These collection boxes are a common site all over the Ultra-Orthodox areas. Proceeds from which are doled out among neighbors in need.
Sign in Mea Shearim urging (female) visitors to wear modest clothes.
A sign rejecting Zionism, and small Palestinian flags, in Mea Shearim. Below, there are many advertisements and announcements. The Haredi don’t use the Internet, so these posters are a major source of news in the neighborhood.

To learning about new cultures,

Em in Jerusalem

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