Monday, January 15, 2007

Jerusalem: Of Frum and Frei

John Dominic Crossan, in a book the name of which I forget, has argued that during the first 20-30 years after the Crucifixion, the Christian community of Jerusalem sought to live as an ideal Christian commune which Christians elsewhere supported financially as a means of registering their faith. Almost 2000 years later, during the 19th century, Jerusalem was home to Jewish community with a similar philosophy. The Old City's Jewish Quarter was economically depedant on Halukkah, the division of stipends from the Diaspora. Although many Jews were coming to the conclusion that their future economic security depended on self-sufficience, the Old City's conservative rabbis suppressed attempts at secular education, which was a necessary precursor for participating in a modern economy. Both to establish a base outside rabbinic control and to escape the Old City's increasingly crowded conditions, groups of Jerusalem Jews began purchasing land for new developments outside its walls. The first, founded in 1869, was Nahalat Shiva; the second, five years later, was Me'a She'arim.

My own apartment, high above a pedestrian mall centered on Ben Yehuda Street, is close to the former, and both are popular spots for tourists and expats to kick back in the evening when they're not seeing the sights, working at their NGO's, or doing whatever else they do. However, whereas Ben Yehuda is filled with souvenir shops, money changers, and felafel and sandwich joints, Nahalat Shiva is the place to find higher class restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Nahalat Shiva Street itself is a narrow pedestrian alleyway which is easier to identify by the sign on the small baked potato restaurant "Potato Guy" than the actual street sign. On either side are two slightly larger streets named after Yoel Moshe Solomon and Yosef Rivlin, the pair of rabbis who founded the neighborhood along with a bunch of other people now commemorated in the names of various tiny squares and alleyways. One of the city's ubiquitous historical plaques points you toward the site of the first synagogue outside the Old City, as well as noting the neighborhood's status as the third Jewish area outside the walls. (The first two were founded as charitable projects by the Diaspora.)

A staple of urban architecture in Israel at that time was the large courtyard house. Over time, parts of these came to be given over to different purposes - one called the Feingold House in Nahalat Shiva housed at different times administrative offices and Jerusalem's first movie theater. Today they are broken up into different bars and nightclubs; after passing through a bit of security at the gate you have an ample choice of establishments. The same is true of Moshe Solomon, where despite the added wideness you actually have less space to manuever through in the evenings, as to either side is a gamut of outside tables roped off by the different establishments' security lines. Rivlin has a different feel - this is where you see people with money to spend entering high-class restaurants the names of which I can't recall; at the far end you find, if memory serves, a shop called Kippah Man and an outlet of Big Apple Pizza, one of the pizza-by-the-slice joints that are another downtown staple.

One would be forgiven if after wandering around this neighborhood a few times you assumed it was mainly tourist-oriented, but there are Israelis around, especially on Thursday nights when they start the weekend, and to a lesser extent on Fridays, when many are busy not observing the Sabbath. Reform Judaism - and for that matter even Conservative Judaism - hardly exists in Israel. As with Islam in much of the Arab world, you simply fall somewhere along a religious/secular spectrum, with "religious" defined by the observance of traditional codes of conduct, while "secular" trends heavily toward agnosticism and atheism. Although most Israelis still keep certain aspects of traditional Judaism which they find valuable, such as the 2/3 who fast on Yom Kippur, most are also squarely secular, finding in Judaism primarily a heritage with the religion itself important mainly for its contribution to ethics. For most in Tel Aviv or Haifa, Judaism means speaking Hebrew, eating candied applies on Rosh Hoshanah or sufganayot, jelly donuts fried in oil, on Hanukkah, and most importantly, living in Israel. While Israel considers itself the protector of world Judaism, Diaspora Jews spend far more time thinking about Israel than the reverse, and I'm becoming increasingly sure the two groups don't really understand each other as much as they might think.

It is, of course, mostly these secular Jews whom you'll see hanging out at nightclubs on a Friday night (though diversity is greater Thursdays), and probably quite dressed up. Israelis seem to be some of the most fashion-conscious people in the world, especially the women, a majority of whom seem to wander the world in fancy belts, skirts, and boots. This perception might be skewed somewhat because I've been told my neighborhood is one where you go to deliberately show off your fashionable and cool side; however, things don't seem that radically different at the campuses of Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus and Givat Ram. You also have plenty of people in military uniforms, serving their mandatory national service time, often toting large guns with them everywhere they go. I should also mention that there are people who actually live along these streets, as well - the Jerusalem Post recently had a story about their complaints regarding the noise. As most Israelis "go out" from about midnight to 5 a.m., I can see how this might be a problem, but at some point you just need to accept that the neighborhood has changed over the past 20 years and look elsewhere.

The story of their origins is perhaps all that links Nahalat Shiva with Me'a She'arim, a surprisingly short distance away down Heleni HaMalka and another street I've never learned the name of. Me'a She'arim is Jerusalem's, and probably Israel's, most famous Haredi (ultra-orthodox) neighborhood. At its edges are giant signs in several languages warning visitors against offensive behavior and dress. There has occasionally been violence against those who did not pass muster with often self-appointed morality police. There are also posters in Hebrew all over the place, which I've read warn people against various forms of debauchery such as co-ed swimming pools. You could say that residents here are fashion-conscious, too, in this case about traditional dress, as the men invariably wear the black hats, long black coats, and white shirts with extra bits like forelocks for the Hasidim; the women wear long skirts and when married have their hair covered.

Me'a She'arim has the same style of courtyard buildings as Nahalat Shiva, though here they're still mostly residences, and you can see laundry drying through the gates. The area is densely populated and poorer than most other Jerusalem neighborhoods, and the shutters to many of the windows are now mostly rust. Along the north edge is Me'a She'arim Street, a busy market street; businesses are also found along the east side where it all but abuts Arab East Jerusalem. Walking in that area gives you an odd feel of two different communities existing in the same physical space without really interacting, though there are economic contacts, as with an Arab teenager unloading crates at a Me'a She'arim vegetable shop or a pair of Haredi showing their car to an Arab mechanic in Wadi al-Jauz. (There's a bit more anti-Arab racism in Israel than I expected, but aside from many associated with the setterl movement, a lot comes from recent immigrants.) The biggest buildings in Me'a She'arim are generally the yeshivas, Jewish religious schools, which are often state -funded; Haredis get an exemption from mandatory service for studying in them.

There are various subgroups within the Haredi world - and it's closed off enough that I do think that term fits - but to the outsider what attracts notice is the tensions with Israeli society between its religious and secular components. Most Israelis have little interest in observing the Sabbath, but Haredi recently boycotted El Al, Israel's national airline, because it allowed some flights to take off on a Friday night when it was trying to catch up from delays. Civil marriage, for Jews within Israel, is non-existent. Most glaringly, back in November Gay Pride planned a parade here in Jerusalem, setting off several days of rioting in neighborhoods like Me'a She'arim. The police tried to quell the riots, and soon even downtown had posters labelling the Israeli police as the new Nazis for their oppression of Jews.

Jerusalem is a city that is gradually becoming more religious, albeit more in standard Orthodox form than Haredi. This is a self-reinforcing trend, as with the rise of a more conservative climate there has been a steady exodus of seculars, which adds to the numerical preponderance of the religious. This is not to say that there aren't points of contact between the different groups - part of what makes Israel interesting is how so many different groups meet in different ways in forming a coherent society. However, it's been said that Jerusalem is a city of neighborhoods, and people want neighborhoods that reflect their familar way of life. (One girl told me that in many parts of Jerusalem, people really only accepted you if you were born there.) A corollary to this is that for many Israelis, their countrymen represent an existential threat almost as great as maximalist demands from the more militant Palestinians. These issues have mainly been deferred rather than truly negotiated.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that a lot of visitors treat Me'a She'arim as a tourist attraction. "Let's go look at the really traditional Jews!" Their annoyance with such treatment is understandable.



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