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.