My Word: Strange estrangement

When piety meets its match in Jerusalem, something goes up in flames.

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
There is a well-known psychiatric condition known as the Jerusalem Syndrome which affects certain visitors to the Israeli capital who lose themselves in the nonphysical sense, hear voices the other tourists don't hear and become convinced they are the reincarnation of some biblical character. Lately, those of us who live here - and are driven crazy in the less literal sense of the word - have been learning more than we really wanted to know about another syndrome, Munchausen-by-proxy, a condition in which a parent (nearly always the mother) constantly seeks medical care for a child or even tries to make a child sick as a means of getting attention. The case that grabbed the headlines - although it was the picture that spoke loudest - concerned a woman from Jerusalem's zealous Toldot Aharon ultra-Orthodox community, who is suspected of starving and abusing her three-year-old son. He apparently made a miraculous recovery as soon as she was barred from his bedside (where, according to the police and officials at Hadassah University Hospital, she was removing his feeding tube whenever she could, to make sure he didn't gain weight.) Most people I know feel tremendous pity for the child - who resembled a starving African refugee in a disease-ridden camp - and even a bit sorry for the evidently disturbed mother. That's very different from turning her into the victim. Nearly all the ultra-Orthodox I come in contact with, I meet due to my work or theirs (yes, they do work). There are also a few ultra-Orthodox Jews in my neighborhood - people willing for their offspring to grow up seeing that there are Jews of all types, who wear all sorts of clothing, and have sometimes greatly different lifestyles. Toldot Aharon, on the other hand, along with other residents of the strictly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Mea She'arim and Geula and parts of Ramat Beit Shemesh, rarely come in contact with anyone outside their own community. This not-so-splendid isolation comes with a price. Whoever said cleanliness is next to godliness has not walked through the streets of Mea She'arim - particularly after a demonstration. And there have been plenty of those lately, as if the Lag Ba'omer bonfires in May sparked a desire for more pyrotechnics that can be satisfied only by torching huge garbage dumpsters - and then attacking the police, firemen and city officials who are left to clean up the mess. The initial spark this year came from the mayor's decision to open a parking lot on Shabbat. This quickly became a burning issue with the inevitable riots and tires and trash cans set alight. By the time the Munchausen mother case came around, the smoke had got into the residents' eyes and stopped them from seeing the greater picture. While the secular, traditional and Orthodox saw a sick mother who'd harmed her own child, Toldot Aharon, Satmar, Neturei Karta and other sects saw an attack on a pious woman and a way of life. Everybody also had in mind what has become known as the Taliban Mom affair, named for her custom of covering her entire head and body, burka-style. The Jerusalem District Court on July 19 found the woman guilty of severely abusing her children. Most saw this as another case of piousness gone hellishly wrong. The minority perceived it, again, as an attack on a modest mother raising her children the way she saw fit. But it was the Munchausen mother, her swollen belly poignantly evident as she hid her face behind a book of psalms in court, who became the cause celebre. Her neighbors portrayed her as the innocent victim of some Zionist conspiracy, an image much easier to convey in a community which does not have television, radio, or Internet and whose restricted press won't even show pictures of women or mention the word "pregnancy." The woman herself has, it seems, tried to avoid a psychiatric examination. Probably she is less concerned at what a doctor might find than fearful of the repercussions for her children when they need to find a shidduch. A mother who is being victimized by the state is much less of a burden than one diagnosed as suffering from a mental disorder when you need to find a good match. In the background lurks the calls for segregated bus lines, in which the women would sit at the back, and the men in the front. Perhaps more than the other issues, this shows how the bumpy road to hell can be paved with good (or at least devout) intentions. Channel 1 last week interviewed some ultra-Orthodox women who call themselves feminist and fiercely support gender-separated seating: "The Queen of England always sits at the back of a vehicle, doesn't she?" said one in what she clearly thought was a clinching argument. The women also claimed that their children grow up separated girls from boys from the cradle on. This would explain why the shidduch system is so important: There is no opportunity for boy to meet girl, so marriages have to be arranged. I wonder what these women would make of the scene I witnessed on my local bus recently when a guy lent over and asked a young woman if he could borrow her prayer book. It was an unusual pick-up line (and apparently ineffective, as she handed it over with a roll of her eyes that said his prayers were not about to be answered.) It was a very Jerusalem picture. I've never quite fathomed the davening-on-the-bus phenomenon which seems to have spread from route to route in the city. Is piety catchy? Perhaps it's because Jerusalemites enjoy unique advantages when it comes to determining which direction to turn to face the Temple Mount. Or it could be just another means of balancing religious practice with the demands of a modern lifestyle (and Jerusalem's traffic jams, which can test faith and patience). As we approach Tisha Be'av, maybe we should all be looking towards the site where the two Temples fell and think about where we're heading. And then stop to think how to stop the collision.