Jerusalem’s Orthodox Enclave
The neighborhood of Me’a She’arim, meaning “a hundred gates,” was settled in the nineteenth century outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem, as an enclave for orthodox Jews to flee oppression. It is now one of the oldest neighborhoods in the Israeli capital. The name expresses the hope of Me’a She’arim’s founders that the community would be blessed, and that God would grant its members – primarily eastern European Jews – one hundred times the religious freedom they desired.
The various orthodox groups represented in the neighborhood, collectively called haredim, wear the same traditional 18th century garb and hairstyles as Me’a She’arim’s founders. Signs at all entrances alternately beg and threaten visitors to don only modest clothing. The way of life for the haredim is strictly guided by religious law and shuns the modern world. Community leaders organize against computers and television within the home, claiming they encourage “immodest” or immoral behavior and distraction.
School curriculum within the neighborhood is strictly religious in nature – intense Bible, Talmud and kabbalist study — and rarely includes secular subjects, such as science, social studies, etc. As a result, adults who grow up in Me’a She’arim are typically not prepared to carry out professional careers outside their community, and many wish never to do so; adult men usually shun careers in favor of full-time, lifelong religious study. Women may take up a trade to earn income for their many children – the result of a religious ban on birth control – or may rely on Israel’s welfare system to provide basic needs.
Me’a She’arim was meant to be an enclave of ultra-orthodoxy from the very start; however, as less-conservative communities began to surround it and limit its housing, the neighborhood has recently stood out as a place of extremism and infighting. It is not uncommon for those unwelcome to Me’a She’arim to have stones thrown at their cars, and for women to be “chastised” in the street if they display immodest clothing or behavior. In addition, conflict exists between the neighborhood’s many Orthodox sects over beliefs and living space, which has not increased with the community’s population. But as great as the conflict is between orthodox sects, tension is even greater between the secular Israeli state and Me’a She’arim’s foundation in religious law.
Me’a She’arim identifies itself with traditional Judaism and not with Israeli nationalism. Because of the long history of Me’aShe’arim, which survived the rule of the Ottoman and British empires, many haredim refuse to acknowledge the authority of the Jewish state, even refusing to speak Hebrew because it is the official language of Israel. Most refuse to participate in Israel’s mandatory military service, and the battle over conscripted service has led to protests, often ending in imprisonment of the haredim.
Those who violate the customs of the haredi community, or the rules of their own religious sect, face a very real and present danger. Leaving the community altogether, however, may in some ways be more dangerous; families will often cut off their children, sit shiva for them, never speaking to them again. Like the character of Zvi in Hard Love, dissidents may face violence on their way out of the district. The suicide rate for ex-haredi teens and adults is high after their departure, due to a complete withdrawal of their emotional and communal support structures. The emotional danger and temptation associated with “the other side of the fence,” for both haredim living in Me’a She’arim and ex-haredim living a secular life, is perhaps more than one can intellectually grasp without having lived within such an insular religious community.