Writer goes undercover in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim haredi community

Tuvia Tenenbom has gone into communities before for his books, like Catch the Jew!, The Lies they Tell and The Taming of the Jews. But this time he went as himself, not Toby the journalist.

 IN STREIMEL: Having grown up in Bnei Brak, Tenonbom speaks haredi Yiddish fluently. (photo credit: Izzy Tenonbom)
IN STREIMEL: Having grown up in Bnei Brak, Tenonbom speaks haredi Yiddish fluently.
(photo credit: Izzy Tenonbom)

It was just a matter of time before the German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag approached author and journalist Tuvia Tenenbom with a request to go live in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood under the guise of a journalist, as he did in numerous previous situations, where he went undercover into closed communities so that he could write about them. 

Tenenbom’s publisher once again wired him an advance payment, and he set out on his latest adventure with his wife, Isi, who serves as his photographer. 

Up until now, despite many nerve-wracking moments, this arrangement has worked smoothly, and led to four bestsellers, in addition to his most recent popular book, The Taming of the Jew (2020), in which Tenenbom writes about antisemitism in the UK and describes his numerous encounters with people living in Britain, including neo-Nazis and participants at the annual BDS conference. In his book Hello, Refugees! (2018), Tenenbom focuses on refugees who fled the Syrian civil war and why they were given such a warm welcome in Germany. 

In The Lies They Tell (2016), Tenenbom takes apart the veil of political correctness that is expanding in the US. He includes descriptions of encounters he experienced with people in 28 different US states. In Catch the Jew! (2014) Tenenbom focuses on the new antisemitism he experienced while traveling around Judea and Samaria. And in I Sleep in Hitler’s Room (2011), he writes about his encounters with intellectuals, artists, politicians, young Muslims and neo-Nazis in Germany. The book appeared on Der Spiegel’s bestseller list, and was later translated into Hebrew and Italian. 

“I never enter a new situation with a prepared agenda. Everywhere I go, I go in with an open mind and let conversations take me in whichever direction they lead,” Tenenbom explains. “My editor tells me, ‘Go to Germany and live among the refugees.’ Or ‘Go to the UK. You have X amount of time to bring us a completed book.’”

 AMONG THE black-hatted in Mea She’arim. (credit: Izzy Tenonbom) AMONG THE black-hatted in Mea She’arim. (credit: Izzy Tenonbom)

Tenenbom recently completed a five-month stint in Jerusalem’s ultra-haredi Mea She’arim neighborhood in preparation for an upcoming book. “When we reached Mea She’arim, my wife and I checked into the Tzefania Hotel, which is smack in the middle of the haredi neighborhood. I debated whether I should introduce myself as German to people on the street, like I usually do. So, we went out and began walking around the streets to get a feel for the area. 

“We passed by the Gur and Belz yeshivas, and I watched a protest taking place at the Tzefania-Yechezkel intersection. That evening, as we walked around and I was still vacillating what to do, five men approached me on the street and said in Yiddish, ‘Tuvia – How are you?’

“So, that was my answer – I knew I couldn’t use a fake identity here. So, for the first time, I am doing my research as Tuvia Tenenbom and not as Toby the German.”

Was it strange for you? Did you feel safer at least?

“Well, in some ways, it was even more challenging. I was surprised at how graciously the hassidim opened their doors to me and invited us to Shabbat dinner. I interviewed the most prominent rabbis, such as the Toldos Aharon Admor, who usually shies away from being interviewed by journalists. I hadn’t spoken Yiddish for so many years, but it came back to me quickly after arriving in Mea She’arim.

“The people here felt very comfortable talking to me in Yiddish, and that made it easier for them to open up to me and let me into their lives. One guy told me, ‘When you talk with us in Yiddish, we feel like it’s not just you and me talking, but our grandparents talking with each other.’ A man I met from the Lelov Hassidut sent me a picture from his synagogue’s newsletter that included a story about my great-grandfather. Is there anything more awesome than that?”

For Tenenbom, 64, who grew up in a mixed hassidic/Lithuanian family, living in Mea She’arim was sort of like going home. His father was a rosh yeshiva and his mother was a Holocaust survivor. 

“I was a good boy,” Tenenbom explains. “They pushed me ahead five grades in school, which means I finished school at the age of 14. I was the first one to arrive in the beis midrash (study hall) in the morning, and the last one there to turn off the lights at night.”

Then, Tenenbom moved over to a national religious yeshiva: Mercaz Harav in Jerusalem. “I had reached the conclusion that what the rabbis in haredi yeshivas were teaching us was erroneous, from how to dress, to how women are treated. I would point out to my haredi rabbi, saying ‘Here in this holy book it says such and such, which does not correspond with what you’re telling us.’ 

“Sometimes they’d have no idea how to respond to my questions. And if they responded by shrugging and saying ‘This is where Rabbi Shach holds,’ I would simply reply, ‘For me, he is just my dad’s friend Elazar.’”

Not long after, Tenenbom stopped wearing a kippah. “I enlisted in the IDF, and when I completed my service, I wanted to study at a university. But for a haredi family like mine, having a son go to university was a great embarrassment, so instead I boarded a plane and went to live in New York,” he recalls. 

“I immersed myself in academic study for 15 years, completing degrees in mathematics, computer science, English literature, journalism, theater and economics. In the mid-1990s, I founded the Jewish Theater of New York.” The theater hasn’t put on any shows over the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenenbom currently splits his time between New York and Germany. 

Since he grew up in Bnei Brak, Tenenbom speaks haredi Yiddish fluently. “I understand the language’s logic and the haredi mentality very well,” he explains. “While I was doing research for my latest book, I went to learn at the Ponevezh Yeshiva for a few hours. I watched as the young men studied in pairs, and I struck up a conversation with a few. Others immediately came over to listen. 

“Next, I went to Yeshivat Hevron in Jerusalem, where 1,500 young men study. I was surprised to hear that most of them had read my books. When I was young, yeshiva students didn’t read such books.”

Over the five months he spent in Mea She’arim, Tenenbom also managed to spend time with some of the most extreme haredi leaders of the Toldos Aharon and Shomrei Emunim sects. “These hassidim are extremely interesting, and in contrast to what most people think about them, they are actually very open, personable and real people,” Tenenbom continues. 

“During my time living in their community, I found that people were extremely hospitable. My wife and I were invited to Shabbat dinner almost every single Friday night, and we never felt like anyone was trying to alter our way of thinking.”

 TUVIA TENONBOM: No prepared agenda.  (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) TUVIA TENONBOM: No prepared agenda. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
But aren’t there also dangerous aspects of living in a haredi community?

“Yes, but mostly due to poor leadership. If the rebbe is good, and if the rosh yeshiva is good, then there’s no real danger. But when the leader of a community strays from the path and drags all of its members and yeshiva students along with him, then unpleasant things can result. Rabbi Eliezer Berland from Shuvu Banim is one example. Of course, there are problematic leaders outside of the haredi and Jewish communities, too.”

For years, Tenenbom has been introducing himself as “Toby, a German journalist.” “I’m not hiding behind a fake name,” Tenenbom explains vehemently, since he has been working for German media for years, including editorials in Die Ziet. “I truly am a German journalist – that’s the reality.”

Due to disagreements with Die Ziet management on the topic of antisemitism, Tenenbom’s articles only appear in the newspaper’s printed version.

It’s interesting that you do not say you are Jewish when you write about antisemitism. 

“Well, why should I have to say that I’m Jewish? Does a reporter who works for The New York Times preface what he has to say with, ‘Hi, I’m Christian’ or ‘Hi, I’m an atheist’? Germans see me as a fat German man who wears funny round red glasses and suspenders, and who speaks with a funny accent. For some reason, people trust me, and so often the first topic they begin talking about is Jews.”

German people are so obsessed with Jews?

“Yes, incredibly. That’s what’s so frightening. I never wanted to write a book about antisemitism. When I was working on my book, Catch the Jew!, I spent day and night with Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official, and we became besties. We did sport together, and even did a trek from Ramallah all the way to Jericho. We spoke in English and in Arabic. 

“When he found out I was Jewish, it was really uncomfortable. His honor had been tarnished, since he hadn’t been able to figure out that not only was I Jewish, but I was Israeli, too. He’d hosted me in his home, and we even watched Israeli TV together. I would ask him, ‘What are the Jews saying?’ and he would translate for me. He’s a funny and incredibly interesting guy. 

“Smart, cruel, evil, and kind-hearted. He was a true friend of mine, until he found out I was Jewish.”

How do you explain people’s obsessive preoccupation with a group that is such a small minority of the world’s population?

“Antisemitism is a very unique type of racism. You don’t need to have had any contact with a Jewish person in order to hate him. When I was working on my previous books, I would walk around the street and ask students questions about what bothered them in their daily lives. So many people would reply, ‘Free Palestine’, without even knowing where it was located on a map. All they know is that it’s the Jews who are oppressing the Palestinians. 

“I would ask people stupid questions, such as ‘What’s the distance between Palestine and Jerusalem?’ and they would take out their phones and start searching on Google. 

“The hardest thing for me was when I interviewed leaders of antisemitic groups who were themselves Jewish. There’s so much self-hatred. So many antisemitic NGOs are funded by Jews, or are run by Jews.”

According to Tenenbom, one of the most memorable moments of his life was when he participated in a neo-Nazi protest in Germany with over 900 people. For them, he was simply “Toby the curious German journalist.” Only when they saw their words and actions described in his book I Sleep in Hitler’s Room did they realize that Tenenbom was not in fact one of them.

 UNDERCOVER WITH neo-Nazis in Magdeburg, Germany, sporting a ‘Club 88’ cap – white supremacist numerical code for Heil Hitler. (credit: Izzy Tenonbom) UNDERCOVER WITH neo-Nazis in Magdeburg, Germany, sporting a ‘Club 88’ cap – white supremacist numerical code for Heil Hitler. (credit: Izzy Tenonbom)
Aren’t you scared?

“The moment I start being afraid, I will stop doing my work. I cannot allow myself the luxury of being afraid.” ■

Translated by Hannah Hochner.