Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The yidden of Yerushalayim

Newropeans-Magazine has a piece on "Jerusalem's Orthodox Jews":

While Israel Palestine is a land of conflict and injustice, it is important to acknowledge the funny side to life too. There are a variety of Orthodox Jewish groups living in Jerusalem.
They do not always see eye to eye. Once when an Orthodox leader was asked which religion was closest to Judaism he thought about it for a while, and replied it was one of the other Orthodox groups.
Jews are not supposed to convert other Jews. You can convert to Judaism but many Jews seem to believe it is their duty to talk you out of it first, to see if you really want to be like them. But at least some Orthodox are free to convert secular Jews into religious Jews.
This does not necessarily make sense until you realise that being "Jewish" refers to at least two different ways of living. You can be Jewish because you were born to a Jewish mother even if you do not believe in God and undertake no religious practices. In this sense it is like an ethnicity.
But you can also be Jewish in the sense that you follow Jewish religious traditions, of which there are more than a few to choose from. So tonight two guys were encouraging secular Jews to be like them.
A popular strategy for them is to hang out in the modern part of town, full of fashionable shops and lots of shoppers who do not dress anything like they do.
They were a friendly couple of guys. All of the Orthodox Jews I have talked with have been unhesitatingly friendly and inquisitive. Not far from the bright lights of downtown modern Jerusalem there is a tight-knit community of Ultra Orthodox Jews living in what look to be very modest conditions. Indeed in some respects their living conditions are reminiscent of a poor country - in barely lit streets one can easily see homes made of simple concrete with corrugated iron walls and flimsy balconies made from older timber. In comparison the religious schools nearby are full of light and there are people all around them, clustered together in earnest conversation. Unlike our two friends above, in this part of town they do not keep a long lock of hair by each ear, and their hats are different.
These places are full of men. There are no women to be found studying Judaism here. Their role is to stay at home, have children, raise them, and if possible earn an income too. Rumours have it that their men spend all the time studying the Talmud, which is Jewish religious law. Like any religion Judaism is constantly evolving and adapting to the times - as well as insisting that the times adapt to it - so there is plenty to study and a lot to pray for. These fellows can be pretty conservative. They have a huge sign at the entrance to their community pleading with women not to enter wearing what they consider to be immodest dress. Sorry ladies, no pants allowed.
Very recently an incident made the news which involved a bus that specifically serves a community of Orthodox Jews. In this bus women must sit at the back and men must sit at the front. This way the men will not have lustful thoughts about the women, since they will not see them (we will just have to assume that their thoughts are pure when women are boarding the bus while their wives sit in the rear). In this incident a woman who suffers from motion sickness sat at the front seat so she could look out the front window, alleviating her problem. She does this on the advice of her doctor. There was no problem when she hopped on the bus. It was largely empty and she explained to the driver what her medical condition was. But then later in the journey a bunch of men boarded, and a commotion ensued. They demanded she move to the back of the bus. She tried to explain what her problem was but they refused to listen. They demanded the driver move her, but he said what could he do - physically pick her up and place her at the back? The woman bravely sat in her seat, only to find one of the men had begun to pray loudly to God that she see the error of her ways and move to the back. All this barely days after Rosa Parks died, the woman who sparked the civil rights revolution in the U.S. for refusing to give up her seat on the bus.
Tonight there was a funky reggae band beside Zion square singing lyrics from the Hebrew Bible. Our two Orthodox friends above joined the crowd. They made a few feeble attempts at conversion but then simply had a good time listening and watching the band do their thing. It was good family entertainment for young and old alike. A broad cross-section of the community came to watch. Some in the crowd danced spectacularly well, spinning, leaping and clapping in rhythm to the deafeningly loud music. To help raise money and their profile, the band had a woman work the crowd selling their CD. She made plenty of sales. It was a bargain at just 20 sheqels, about $5 US. The crowd was having a great time.
Now while many Orthodox Jews might be conservative that does not mean they do not know how to have a good time. Far from it in fact! This one was really getting into the swing of things.
posted by Yeshiva Orthodoxy
at 1:51 PM

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