Between two worlds

Impressions from a trip to another Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the Orthodox Jews. So close and yet a completely different world.

By Anat Schneider |
A bookstore in Mea Shearim.

We began our tour at a crossroads that connects two different worlds.

Hellman Bakery, Strauss Street – A mix of non-religious and religious people in one place. We sampled the bakery’s famous crunch cake and immediately walked down the street to “Shabbat Square,” the heart of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood.

I felt like I had crossed a line, as if there was an imaginary barrier separating two completely different worlds. It was 5 p.m., the neighborhood was still fairly quiet and residents were nearing the end of the Esther Fast, that started earlier this year because of Shabbat. I gave thanks in my heart for being disciplined and coming here in a more “orthodox” outfit. A long dress and a scarf that could also serve as a head covering if necessary. And yet we stood out because of our differences. Shabbat Square divides Mea Shearim into the “lower city” and the “upper city.”

 

Mea Shearim

Esther, our tour guide, said: “First we go into the cellars, then we climb onto the roofs.” We turned right into the lower town and began our tour in a huge basement craft supply store. From the outside you couldn’t believe that such a store existed. You enter the store via a cluttered stairwell that serves as a parking space for dozens of strollers. Down the crowded stairs you reach a huge “basement.” The store is divided into different rooms depending on the theme and needs. Esther adds that every ultra-Orthodox mother, who on average has about ten children, actually has a small kindergarten and needs to fill the house with things that will help her keep the children busy. The prices were reasonable, very cheap. The selection was incredibly large. The store is the parallel counterpart to the store in “secular” Jerusalem called “Max Stock,” which contains perhaps an eighth of what we saw in that massive basement.

There is something for everyone here.

A very interesting part of the store was the birthday wishes room, which focuses on three ages of children.

  • At the age of 3, the son goes through the “Khalka,” i.e. his hair is cut off and he is sent to a “Cheder” (room) to study.
  • At the age of 5, children begin to learn “Chomes,” i.e. the Torah.
  • At the age of 13, they reach “mitzvot” age and must participate in Torah commandments.
Greeting cards.

Yes, those are the boys. It’s different with girls. I vowed to return to this store with my daughter Eden.

From there we continued to a hat shop where every hat was associated with Hasidism. To us they all look the same, but those who understand and know see how different the hats are. And the prices? It all depends on how much money the buyer wants to invest. It can start at a few hundred shekels and go up to several thousand shekels for a single hat. The hat’s biggest enemy is not the rain, but the sun. The sun bleaches the hat, and that’s why they are made so that you can turn them inside out when they are bleached, so the hat can be used twice. It’s hard to believe, but in honor of Passover, the hat undergoes special cleaning and shaping.

Hats.

Further down the road, at a parochot shop that makes Torah scroll covers, we met two young Hasidim who were coming to pick up a special parochet that a rabbi had ordered in memory of his wife, Broria, who died a year ago. The couple was married for 75 years and was unable to have children.

As a reminder, we arrived on the eve of Purim, and as the hour passed and people finished fasting, the street became busier and busier, with people running back and forth between shops preparing for the festival.

And so, along with the crowds, we arrived at a shop with a large selection of costumes.

The High Priest Aharon – it turned out to be the most popular costume, costing no less and no more than 300 NIS. A lot of money for a costume, but what wouldn’t you do for a mitzvah?

The truth is that we were amazed by the variety of colors and costumes offered in the store. I also decided to return to this store with my daughter.

There was a shop right next door that put together gift baskets. Esther pointed out to us that there is a fundamental difference between the gift basket shops in Jerusalem and those in Bnei Brak.

Jerusalemites forego almost everything material and focus on the spiritual, so the gift baskets tend to be simple in appearance (but not in content).

In contrast, in Bnei Brak a lot of emphasis is placed on material and appearance. In fact, we later entered a shop that offered products from Bnei Brak and it was impossible not to be amazed.

There was a rotating box that played a tune that you could fill with all kinds of candy. I bought these boxes for all my family members and these were my gifts for this year.

Orthodox bookstore.

When I walked into a bookstore, I was very surprised. Who says there isn’t reading today? The shop was very large and full of books. The main shelf contained all the best sellers. Torah books and interpretations. What surprised me most was the religious prose.

My friend Aliza, who is a bookworm and has a religious brother, told me that she was given a prose book by her sister-in-law and tried to read it but couldn’t. For me it’s interesting to try to read a book like that.

Many shops on the street had huge bags of popcorn, and Esther said that the popcorn, which was parve and kosher, was very cheap and therefore suitable for any occasion. And a little boy who thinks more about quantity than quality is happy about such a big bag of popcorn.

We went back to Shabbat Square. As we were walking up the street we met a boy, maybe 10-years-old, who started shouting at us: “Get out”, “Go away”, “Don’t come here” and so on…

A 10-year-old boy screaming like that really surprised me. Esther added that most people who shout like that do not feel “zadik” (righteous) enough and have to prove themselves.

We arrived back at Shabbat Square, known for its demonstrations.

This square used to be the only route to Tnuva, the largest producer of dairy products in Israel.

Previously, in the 50s, when there were not refrigerators everywhere, the milk was transported to the refrigerators of Tnuva, and on Shabbat they drove around the square with the vehicles full of milk, and then the great resistance of the ultra-Orthodox who lived there began. After several violent demonstrations, the street was closed and since then the square has been called Shabbat Square, a square where Shabbat is strictly observed.

 

Protest Amalek

When we arrived in the “Upper Town” we went into a restaurant hungry and were asked to walk to the end of the premises and sit down. We were allowed to try “balls” in different flavors.

If you string together the first letters of all the flavors in Yiddish, you get the word “Amalek.”

“Aappal” – apples, “malt”, “Lokshen” – egg noodles, “potato noodles”.

And the mitzvah is to “protest against Amalek,” and that’s why you eat this kind of ball.

Actually, there was nothing in the restaurant that would entice me to sit down, let alone eat. I just wanted to turn around and leave, but it turns out that was intentional too, and why?

Sitting in a restaurant, having a conversation, smoking a cigarette, etc. – all of this is considered “abrogation of the Torah.”

Eating is simply an existential need, eat and go. And that’s why the restaurants are so disgusting that you just want to eat quickly and leave.

 

Cholent Bar

But this was not the case with Yosef of Netivot. He came to Mea Shearim and decided to open a “cholent bar” on the roof of a house in the streets of the upper town. Yosef believed in having fun while eating, too, and opened a restaurant that aligned with his faith. The Cholent Bar is the latest trend in Mea Shearim.

Cholent bar.

Every Thursday evening the restaurant is full of guests who want to relax and enjoy the cholent. The restaurant is only open on Thursday evenings, and sometimes people sit there until two in the morning.

When we came down from the roof, the streets of Mea Shearim were already busy and loud, full of colors, costumes and people celebrating.

We made our way out, but not before stopping by Avichail Bakery, known for their delicious cakes.

Shortly before we said goodbye, we had to visit Avraham, an ultra-Orthodox man who lives right at the transition between a secular and religious city. Avraham received us in his house and told us about the customs of the festival, especially about the “table,” a large communal meal on Purim.

Avraham

A pleasant man with a very large family who admits that he cannot remember all the names of his many grandchildren. I sensed from him that he really cares about bringing hearts together.

When I saw the Clal building on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem from a distance, I felt relieved. But it was also interesting to be on the move, and there was a feeling of excitement in the air, like traveling abroad to a new, unknown place. With strangers and a different language.

Even though my home, my office, and my entire childhood were within walking distance, there was a feeling of complete alienation. And returning home was a kind of relief for me.

Photos: Aliza Ashkenazi and Anat Schneider

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