Ultra-Orthodoxy, Made in Israel

Gershom Gorenberg

I have a new piece in Hadassah magazine describing how Israel created the ultra-Orthodox community as we see it today, with its life-time students, large families and poverty:

I’m standing in the Kerem Avraham neighborhood of Jerusalem. Across the street is the stone building where Amos Oz, Israel’s most famous novelist, grew up in a small apartment. Back then, in the 1940s, Kerem Avraham was home to “petty clerks, small retailers, bank tellers or cinema ticketsellers, schoolteachers or dispensers of private lessons,” as Oz writes in his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. They observed the last vestiges of Judaism—candles on Friday night, services on Yom Kippur—and avidly argued fine points of Zionist ideology.

When it was time for Amos to start school, his father faced a dilemma. Party-linked school systems educated the Jewish children of Manda­tory Palestine. One school within walk­ing distance belonged to the socialists of Labor Zionism, the other to the Orthodox Zionists of the Mizrahi movement. Oz’s father, however, was a right-wing secularist. He chose the Mizrahi school because the “red tide was on the upsurge in our land” and the socialist school might turn the boy into a Bolshevik. He felt the religious school posed no parallel risk because “religious Jews…with their synagogues would disappear off the face of the earth in a few years.”

While I stand on the street, a flock of teenage girls pass, all wearing blue blouses buttoned to the neck, pleated black skirts and high socks. I hear laughter and Yiddish. A poster glued to a wall tells married women they will be judged before the heavenly court for the licentious practice of wearing wigs, which makes them look as if their hair is uncovered. On a cross street, I pass a shop selling religious texts and a Hasidic kollel—a yeshiva where married men receive a stipend to study full-time.

These days, Kerem Avraham is an extension of the nearby ultra-Orthodox Meah She’a­rim neighborhood. It’s part of the haredi belt of northern Jerusalem, a land of righteous wall posters de­nouncing television, the Internet and rival religious factions; of life-long Torah study for men and countless pregnancies for women; of piety and widespread poverty. The neighborhood began changing in the 1950s. (The rebellious young Oz had al­ready moved to a kibbutz, which he left many years later.) Socialism, not religion, is now a historical memory in Israel. Haredi parties have more seats in the Knesset than does the once-dominant Labor Party.

Here’s a more contemporary error about haredi society: I once attended a meeting at my daughter’s high school in preparation for the standard 12th-grade tour of Poland. The headmistress told me that the students wouldn’t just learn about death camps. Before their trip, she said, they’d visit Meah She’arim, to see what Jewish life was like in Poland before the Holocaust.

Her nostalgic view of Meah She’a­rim is a common one, but mistaken. It’s not just that prewar Jewish Warsaw, with its Yiddish secularists, Zionists and assimilationists didn’t match Jerusalem’s haredi belt. Even Eastern European ultra-Orthodoxy did not look the same as today’s.

Despite ultra-Orthodoxy’s opposition to Zionism, Israel’s version of haredi Judaism is a creation of the Jewish state.

Read the rest here, and return to pluralistic South Jerusalem to comment.

6 thoughts on “Ultra-Orthodoxy, Made in Israel”

  1. I just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Your account of the ultra-orthodox reminds me of the isolated way of life that Ali fled in Somalia, not in specific practices but in the removal of all that might act to counter the force of a culture on individuals. She is well known for speaking out against cultural groups living only among themselves, rejecting the culture around them.

    In Europe, there is resistance to immigrant communities that do not wish to be part of the larger culture or even to speak the language of the country in which they reside. Isolation allows this to happen. Even so, as the fuss over the Danish cartoons showed, fear of causing offense can bring many to cower before the demands of a minority.

    It would seem that in Israel, the minority has worked its magic as well, growing with the assistance (at one remove – by way of the government) of those who would not support it on their own.

    I’m reminded also of the history related in your book – where the settlements grew and prospered by hook or by crook to the point that now there is no turning around those facts on the ground. It wasn’t necessary to have popular support as long as key people in positions of authority could be counted on to, at the very least, look the other way.

    It appears that once a certain threshold is passed there can be a tyranny of the minority.

  2. Excellent article and needed- and a lot to think about. I have been thinking for years that this culture is not supportable or sustainable- and that it contains the seeds of it’s own demise. Now I think also possibly Israel’s.

    Years ago the Haredim were a very small part of the whole of Israeli society and the Jewish community here in the US- and of course it was not a problem to support them then– even a duty perhaps.

    On the local level I have watched this change in my own orthodox family which started out as “modern orthodox” here in the USA. My aunts never covered their heads ( and wore shorts in the summer!) and my uncles had professions. But cousins, their children went to the yeshivot here and they have had many children, many who have left for Israel to have many children of their own there, also living in more affordable settlements.

    It’s not a reversion to the old culture (impossible in this modern day)- it’s an evolved new one and (yes) parasitical, dependent on the ability and willingness ( guilt?) of others to support it. The women raise many children and are expected to earn money in addition- while the men study.

  3. This was an excellent article. It explains concisely how we got to where we are today. I have a query that is sort of a non-sequitur: Is there any reason that a woman cannot be a kashrut supervisor? Or a *mohelet*?

  4. I’d love to see the yeshivot treated the same as college or technical school — you do your army or national service time, and qualify for 3 years of education in a yeshiva, a university or post-secondary school, and after that, publish or perish. If you’re not an academic, you’re out of the yeshiva and looking for work. Every sociological study here and elsewhere shows when people have to earn the money to feed and clothe their children, instead of being on the dole (ok, to me child allowances are a form of being on the dole–switch instead to tax deductions from income for each child instead of subsidizing many children you can’t afford) and having your wife and my taxes and tzedakkah support you.

    I know this isn’t true of all chareidim. I know lawyers and doctors and accountants and hi-tech guys in Israel who all WORK and work hard to support their 9 children and put those children through school. I also know a couple of guys who use being ‘religious’ as a dodge to avoid conscription, national service and working for a living….

    The system has to be changed. I don’t care how many children someone has as long as he can support them.

    I don’t see much hope of changing the system as long as the religious parties are the swing votes, however.

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