Five thousand footsteps to Jewish fanaticism

In an estimated 5,000 footsteps, this past weekend my husband and I traveled through Jewish time and space.

Mea Shearim 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mea Shearim 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
We 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 and well.
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 welcome.
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 tight-fitting clothes.
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 this.
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 logo above.
A wise financial move on the bank’s part, but another lonely loss for those of us opposed to forced gender segregation in public spaces.
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 to.
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.”
To me, there is nothing less compassionate than a sign warning others against entering.
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.