So far I’ve visited a few less tourist places, like self-proclaimed countries: Nagorno-Karabakh or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. However, if anyone ever asked me about a place where I felt uncomfortable and insecure, just one comes to my mind – Mea Shearim. Mea Shearim is one of the districts in Jerusalem, literally a stronghold of ultra-orthodox Jews. It was founded at the end of the 19th century and time has stopped here ever since.
It was Friday morning, Mea Shearim was our last point in Jerusalem. We had to hurry to visit it before Shabbat that starts in the afternoon. We didn’t want it to be our last point to visit in Israel. Then the district is cut off from the world, it is forbidden to use any electrical and mechanical devices, including cars. Those who decide to drive a car for sure will have it damaged with stones. The ban on the use of vehicles also regards ambulance or fire brigade.
Approaching the district, the streets became increasingly deserted. We finally reached the entrance gate. It can be recognised by the board informing about the Mea Shearim dress code.
We’re doing a quick quality check: dark baggy skirts, long sleeve blouses fastened to the neck, full shoes and head scarfs, maybe even there’s a chance to blend in? Maybe we can avoid being shouted at, which is highly probable according to the information on the Internet. We are going through a narrow passage, we have no illusions, there’s no chance to blend in the crowd because there’s no crowd. However, this is good news because every single passer-by makes us feel clearly that we are not welcome here.
How? They treat us like air, every time seeing us from far away they go to the other side of the road, when there’s no way they speed up as if they don’t want to have anything to do with us. It’s impossible to hide that we’re intruders here, representing this spoiled, disgusting outside world.
Only men can be seen on the main street. All dressed in characteristic long coats and hats from which side curls called “payots” stick out. They do shopping before Shabbat time, mainly in small shops. Outside there’re full boxes of traditional challah, which is consumed during the Sabbath.
This whole scene looks like it was taken straight from the late 19th century. From time to time you can see women wearing shapeless dark outfits and headscarves covering wigs. Women shave their heads just after the wedding, because according to tradition, it is the hair that makes them attractive.
Children are dressed very modest. They are taught to avoid contact with strangers. At the sight of a camera, they hide their faces. You’d think they had a lot of fun, but in fact their faces are very serious then.
How does life look like in Mea Shearim?
Some time ago, I used to wonder if it was possible to cut off from globalization and consumerism. Then it seemed impossible, but after seeing Mea Shearim, I completely changed my mind.
Mea Shearim reality is kind of reversed. Men don’t work in this community. They spend all day studying Torah and praying. Women take care of the house and children, they have to earn money for living, as well. However, most often they get unemployment doles and donations.
However, it’s against their beliefs. The people of Mea Shearim do not recognize the state of Israel. According to them, banishment from the Holy Land was a punishment for sins, and the state of Israel will not be reborn until the Messiah’s arrival. Consequently, until the Messiah arrives, they recognize the authority of the Islamic states which used to rule on the area where Israel was established. The delegation from Mea Shearim took part in Jaser Arafat’s funeral ceremony, the conference in Beirut organized in 2005 by Hezbollah. While the biggest scandal was their participation in the conference denying the Holocaust, organised by Iranian President – Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Residents are exempt from taxes and military service, which is taken very seriously in Israel.
They are cut off from the outside world. TV, radio and newspapers are forbidden in Mea Shearim. Some people have mobile phones, but supposedly with limited internet access. The main source of information are posters on the walls of houses.
Kids learn at local schools. Their education covers mainly religious issues, knowledge of subjects such as Mathematics, Chemistry or Geography is not passed. Actually, there is no escape from this place. Lack of basic education hold them back from working outside in the future.
All this leads to abject poverty. Dirty streets, ruined houses and hanging electric cables are common here. However, despite poverty, there is no social pathology here, everyone is perfectly clean and streets are safe.
During our visit, we didn’t encounter any problems, although I won’t hide that it was close to confrontation. As we were walking close to the school, the students started screaming. I didn’t see them trying to throw anything at us, but we didn’t want to risk and we just backed out. Therefore, when visiting Mea Shearim, you should remember to respect local customs and use a camera or cell phone discreetly.
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