As a sucker for Jewish history, I often find myself romanticizing about the
past, the way things were – yearning for the alte heim (old home). I’m not quite
sure what that connotes, but if some aspects of modern day ultra-Orthodox
religious fervor are part of the picture, maybe I ought to leave it in my memory
rather than attempt to revisit it.
In an estimated 5,000 footsteps, this
past weekend my husband and I traveled through Jewish time and space.
were transported from southern Jerusalem, home to cutting-edge, progressive
Jewish centers such as Kol Haneshama and Shira Hadasha, to Ramat Eshkol,
crossing through areas reminiscent of 18th-century-Poland, such as Shivtei
Yisrael and Mea She’arim, where the insular shtetl mentality is seemingly alive
Southern Jerusalem is rainbow colored: its inhabitants are
affiliates of everything from neo-hippy Carlebach, to Reform, to “Conservadox,”
to National Religious, to secular, to hassidic (the notable Erlau yeshiva is
based in Katamon).
In this melting pot one gets the sense that all are
As we stepped into Shivtei Yisrael the change is demography was
reflected by a new, less fragmented rainbow, bound together by a strict
understanding of the word of God: sects of Hassidim, Lithuanians and Mizrahi
Jews filled the streets, making their way home from synagogue. We were about to
enter an old world – but not a lost world. The stark scenery contrast from our
starting point was shocking – many of the yards completely covered in waste, the
sidewalks a neglected dumping ground.
But the real waste hung from
decrepit balconies, namely, the obsessively offensive signs warning: To women
and girls who pass through our neighborhood, we beg you with all our hearts,
please do not pass through our neighborhoods in immodest clothes. Modest clothes
include: closed blouse with long sleeves, long skirt, no trousers, no
Clearly, the famous commandment from Deuteronomy
to “love the stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in the land of
Egypt” is lost on those who have chosen to hang this sign. I tightened my grip
around my husband’s arm afraid of getting stoned for failing to meet the
standards. The next sign was new to me: this is an Internet-free home, as well
as a home without any devices on which a movie can be watched or recorded.
Signed by the Rabbinical Council of Communications.
In an area where
unemployment and poverty are rampant, it is comical if not painful that the
rabbinic leadership has chosen to focus its attention on issues such as
Continuing on, we noticed a group of roughly 10 exceptionally short
nuns racing through the streets of Mea She’arim.
The scene was curious,
especially since their habits, wimples and veils were each a different shade of
blue instead of the usual black and white.
What would they be doing in
this part of town? As we approached them, we realized that they were not nuns
but little girls, some as young as three, presumably members of a Jewish
burqa-wearing sect. I prayed to God that these girls were not members of the
same Beit Shemesh burka cult that recently made headlines for physically and
sexually assaulting children.
Further on, a more modern-looking stone
building has a small blue painted sign on a door, which reads “women’s
entrance,” and several meters away, around the corner, on another door is a sign
for the men. I assumed it was a synagogue, until noticing the Meuchedet Bank
A wise financial move on the bank’s part, but another lonely
loss for those of us opposed to forced gender segregation in public
Entering Sanhedria, we heard frantic shouts of “Shabbos!” and
turned around, thinking the locals were wishing us a Shabbat shalom – only to
find a group of men calling out to passing cars, chastising them for driving on
the holy day.
I am not really sure what shtetl life was like – there
isn’t one single picture either, each one and each era had its own unique
circumstances that cannot be generalized. What I do know is that the zealots of
Shivtei Yisrael who hang signs barring others from entering public space are
actually perverting the tradition they so desperately claim to cling
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel claimed that “Religion declined not
because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and
insipid.... [W]hen religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than
with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”
there is nothing less compassionate than a sign warning others against
If Abraham’s tent is said to be the paradigm of the Jewish
home, open to all visitors, then they have hijacked his tent, along with its
binding principles. And as for me, when I need a taste of the alte heim, I’ll
delve into Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim; where I am free enough to let my
imagination run wild and far enough from a stone’s throw.
The author is a
freelance writer living in Ra’anana.