A Journey Through Mea Shearim

4 Jun

Today began much like any other day in Jerusalem. After waking up early in the morning and having some breakfast, we ventured out of our Rehavia apartments to Hadassah College. However on this sunny Israeli morning, our group was modestly dressed from head to toe. Women wore maxi-dresses and cardigans; men wore hats and kippas. We were all prepared to venture into one of the most conservative neighborhoods in all of Jerusalem, Mea Shearim.
In class today, we discussed areas of tension in Israeli society and politics. Although Israel claims to be a Jewish state with a common heritage, the country is fragmented along different categories of personal identity. For example, if two Israelis self-identify as Jewish, it may seem that they would have a lot in common. However, one must consider many factors when talking about Israeli Jewish identity. For example, are they Ashkenzai (a Jew of European family origin) or Mizrahi (a Jew of Middle Eastern family origin)? This question really surprised me because it has been something that I have been almost completely oblivious to during my time in Jerusalem. I really can’t tell the difference, but for some Israeli Jews this distinction is something that causes division and discrimination. Now let’s say they’re both Ashkenazi, are they conservative, practicing Jews, or are they secular Jews who are only really ‘culturally Jewish?’ Do they follow a certain dress code? What area of the country are they from? After a few minutes of this dizzying conversation it was clear that Israeli religious identity was not as simple as it would seem.
Moving to the political realm, our class discussed the tensions between leftist liberals and rightist realists in Israel, especially concerning the Palestinian conflict. The political right believes that security of the Israeli state and preservation of its autonomy is the ultimate priority. On the other hand, the left advocates for a two-state solution for the peace and harmony of Israeli society. The tension is further compounded by the fact that not all Israelis are Jews. Some Arabs and Jews obviously have their own conflicts among each other, and furthermore, not all Arabs are in political harmony either. “Israel and its Complexities,” indeed!
After our lecture, Elan spoke to us about what we could expect for our next portion of morning classes, a visit to the Mea Shearim neighborhood. Elan gave us a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Ultra Orthodox in Jerusalem. Before we walked through the neighborhood, we discussed the relationship between time and progress. Many of us Americans believe that time and progress have a positive correlation. As time passes, we think that nearly everything that is new and innovative is beneficial to our society. The Ultra Orthodox community in Mea Shearim widely believes that progress after a certain point became a detriment to their religious lifestyle. The political and social trends of a post-industrialist world became a threat to their ability to live according to Judaic Law. Because of this, the Ultra Orthodox community has largely isolated itself geographically, socially, and economically to preserve the values of a time when the Jewish people were more in touch with God.
As we approached the neighborhood, we were told to stick to small same-gender groups while walking down the main street. I understood this point. As much as I was eager to see how this community lived, I also wanted to respect their lifestyle. If I lived in an unconventional community, I wouldn’t appreciate large tourist groups walking together and taking pictures of me and my neighbors like we were in a zoo. At the same time, I was taken aback by the large signs in English and Hebrew compelling women to dress modestly if they wanted to enter the neighborhood. Of course, I was fine dressing in a long skirt and long sleeves to make sure both I and the residents were comfortable, but it was strange to see such a sign only blocks away from Haddasah College. It seems that this neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem represented the clash of cultures in Israel that we were discussing this morning.
We were told to look out for the following things as we walked through the neighborhood: dress code, how people walked, gender, economy, institutions, walls, and architecture. As we strolled down the street, it seemed as if we had entered a completely different city. Modest apartment-style residences lined the street with clothes hanging from balconies to dry. At street level, there were small shops to meet the needs of the residents. The majority of the shops sold Jewish religious items. There were stores for kippas, prayer shawls, framed pictures of famous rabbis, head coverings for women, and general Judaica. I noticed how there were very few secular stores aside from a few convenience and grocery stores. The walls were made of the familiar Jerusalem stone, but were plastered with large black and white posters in Hebrew that displayed political or religious messages and community announcements.
I never saw men and women walking together down the street. Many of the men kept their eyes to the ground as they walked passed women. Obviously everyone within the neighborhood was very modestly dressed. Men wore black suits, black shoes, white shirts, hats, and had long beards with peyot. Women had high necklines, covered arms, long skirts, covered hair, and usually a baby or two on their hip. It seemed that the dress code was meant not only to maintain personal modesty, but also as an equalizing uniform to prevent showing off personal wealth. There was nothing flashy about the appearance of the residents. It seemed like they appreciated the simplicity and constraint of their way of life.
After a quick debriefing session, we were free for the day. Many of us headed back to the apartments to rest and relax. During this time I was able to reflect on how the Jews of Mea Shearim fit into spectrum of Israeli society. It seems as if that this journey from the cosmopolitan commercial neighborhood near our college to this isolated conservative community represented some of the interesting areas of tension among Israelis. For example, although Israel was founded by the New Jews who were largely liberal and secular, this small community is very religiously conservative even to the point of being opposed to the Zionist cause. However, despite the myriad of differences between the two groups socially, politically, and religiously, both of them would consider their primary identity to be Jewish.
This clash between secular, liberal Jews and Ultra Orthodox Jews brings to mind the famous poem “Tefellin” by Yona Wallach. While the content of the poem is extremely graphic and controversial, it seems that Wallach was discussing this tension of Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jewish identity in Israel and the struggle some Israeli Jews have reconciling the two.

Panneau_mea_shearim

Sarah Sullivan

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