For some time now, I’ve wanted to write a post about the Haredi (‘Orthodox’) Jewish population in Jerusalem. They make up a sizable part of the population and it feels like an omission not to mention them.
I’ve held back, afraid that I don’t know enough and will get the facts wrong. I also don’t know any Haredi Jews and it feels uncomfortable to write about them without having spoken to any directly.
Now here is the bind. I’ve lived in Jerusalem for well over a year already and I can only recall having one conversation with a Haredi person. He was a tour guide, so it was his job to speak!
What follows are my personal observations based on what I’ve seen and been told. My views are founded in complete respect for this way of life as much as any other culture or religion.
Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighbourhood is home to one of the largest Haredi communities in the world. I drive through this often to collect my children from school and turning off the main road into the neighbourhood is always like going back in time.
The Haredi dress code is uniform, and harks from an earlier time and a colder climate. Men wear black suits, white shirts and wide brimmed formal hats unless it is Shabbat or a special occasion. The men also have long ‘ringlets’ which I now know are called payot. Trousers are forbidden for women and skirts must go below the knee and be accompanied by thick tights. Short sleeves are not permitted, and married women must cover their hair.
I was desperate to learn more and jumped at the chance to do a tour of Mea She’arim. It was amazing and I would recommend it to anyone visiting or living in Jerusalem.
We met our tour guide at the HaDavidka tram stop on a Wednesday evening last autumn. The small group shuffled around, surreptitiously eying each other up to check if our clothes were conservative enough.
The tour guide introduced himself as ‘David’ and wore a kippeh (skullcap) but no hat or suit jacket. I wondered if he remained part of the Orthodox community or if this tour and the slightly more casual attire were evidence of his departure.
He said we could ask any questions we wanted, and I later kicked myself for not having probed more into his own background. This is unlike me and is testimony to the sombre respect I approached the tour with.
It was starting to get dark as we set out down a side street heading deeper into the community. I had seen some of the residential streets before, but nothing prepared me for the buzz and bustle of the main shopping street at this hour. This was the beating heart of Mea She’arim. Completely hidden from the outside world.
Men walked briskly along with determination and purpose. Their eyes cast straight ahead or down in a pocket-sized Torah. Women pushed buggies along with several smartly dressed children trailing behind. The streets were packed, and I couldn’t believe this whole world existed beyond my awareness of the city.
David zipped quickly between the throngs of people and we raced to keep up. I felt like a child, afraid to be lost or left behind in this foreign place. Over the next few hours, he took us into a hat shop, a clothes shop, a religious bookstore a Judaica shop all the while using the props around him to explain the Haredi lifestyle.
Sitting down in a café, the chairs behind us screeched back and the occupants abruptly left. Did our presence upset them? Had they simply finished their food? David exchanged a few words with them but refused to let us in on it.
The absence of the outside world was the thing that shocked me the most. The bookstore only carried books with religious morals and this was also true of the children’s section. I asked David if television was censored and he replied ‘Jews do not have time for TV, our lives are far too busy with study and other commitments’.
In the bookstore he showed us a simple slide and projector toy for entertaining children. There were some DVDs but they all came with the caveat that they had been approved for Jewish audiences. This included heavy censoring including to seemingly benign content such as National Geographic animal documentaries. The commitment to learning was impressive if slightly oppressive. I couldn’t help but wonder what David would make of my children’s Netflix habit and un-educational toy collection.
Only mobile phones without internet capabilities were allowed. We were told that access to the internet was only permitted for work requirements and specific websites are checked and approved for individuals rather than free access being available.
I found the tour staggering, and I came home feeling like I’d had the sort of ‘culture shock’ one normally has to travel thousands of miles for.
Ironically, it is through my guilty Netflix habit that I have had my other main insight into Haredi life. The series Shtisel is based in the Mea She’arim neighbourhood and across two series it brings the audience into the twists and turns of a normal Haredi family.
The characters are endearing and the depiction of their relationships and aspirations puts a very soft side on what is sometimes considered a hard-edged community. There is barely any plot and yet I was still hooked.
One of the main stars in Shtisel, Shira Hass, has since achieved international acclaim for her leading role in Unorthdox which was released this March. It tells the story of a girl who escapes the Orthodox community in Brooklyn and it is also very worth watching.
I will remain a naïve outsider to the Haredi world which is how they would wish it to be. The growing Haredi population however, means they will play an ever greater role in determining the future of Jerusalem and of this country. I hope this will involve peaceful co-existence with the other populations that inhabit this city.