Mea Shearim is a neighborhood five minutes walk north of the Old Walled City of Jerusalem. The name comes from Genesis 26:12 where the Lord blessed Isaac “100 fold” or mea shearim. It is populated almost entirely by Ultra-Orthodox Jews – you know the kind that wear all black including knee length black coats in the middle of July. And this was the neighborhood we went to for our trip #3.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take many picture of residents as there are frequent “confrontations” with residents and tourists with itchy camera fingers. We also followed a strict dress code to enter (and we still felt unwelcome pretty much every step of the journey.)
* Women have to wear ankle length dresses and long sleeves – NO bare shoulders or more revealing clothing!
* Men have to wear a head covering and no shorts.
* No signs of public affection like hand holding, etc.
* Preferrably no shirts with slogans on them, especially Christian.
Part of the reason we wanted to go this week was so that we could see the sukkot that they erect for the Feast of Sukkot (or Tabernacles). Of course many people put up sukkot in Jerusalem but we found that they take this VERY seriously in Mea Shearim. Where sukkot in most places of town are like fabric tents or pavillions to eat inside the ones in Mea Shearim were custom built wood pannelled structures. And EVERY apartment balcony had one as you can see in the pictures.
Founded in 1835, Mea Shearim was one of the first settlements outside the Old City walls. Keep in mind at this time there were still roving bands of Arab raiders that would sweep in steal crops and livestock and then retreat back into the desert waste. Not having those city walls made the residents quite tough. And this can still be seen today in the residents. There was no laughter, little talking at all and a lot of serious/somber faces.
One of the mind-benders of the Ultra-Orthodox is that they refuse to recognize the state of Israel as a legitimate government. They claim that the only true Israel will be ushered in the the Messiah; therefore, they want the current state dismantled. (In fact some are members of anti-zionist groups like the Neturei Karta.) They refuse to send their children to the mandatory military service for all Israeli youths – something which the military doesn’t get upset over. They have their own legal systems, don’t speak the national language – Hebrew – because it is too Holy for common speech so they often speak in Yiddish. Very often they choose not to work and -I believe- live off the charity of the very government they spurn.
Now it’s not like they are all beggars on the street. They are in fact engrossed in studying Torah, Mishnah and Talmud. Out of this comes their increased sensitivity to adhering to religious customs.
Walking through this neighborhood really made me think of slum neighborhoods in big cities back in the U.S. The streets are dirty – dirtier than the normal streets in this city/country. Everything was run down and not cared for. Entire buildings were falling apart. But the sukkot were amazing. And everyone’s clothes were spotless. There was just filth all around and it was like they don’t even see it.