A Short Background
Established in 1874, Mea Shearim is of the first Jewish neighborhoods that were built outside of the Old City. The name Mea Shearim means 100 gates and it’s based on a quote from the Bible taken from the weekly Torah portion of the week of the establishment.
The Haredim population of Jerusalem started concentrating in the neighborhoods of "Geula"(גאולה) and Mea Shearim (מאה שערים), the square that connects the 2 areas is called "kikar ha-Shabbat" (כיכר השבת) Shabbat Square. If Zion Square is the "modern" Jewish Jerusalem city center, this square is the Haredim city center. It's less than a kilometer away but as you'll walk here you'll feel a huge difference.
On the map
The man will be dressed in the "Haredim" traditional clothes. For most people, it might look like they all dress the same, but if you will take a careful look, you will see differences between the hat styles and the clothes. Each Hassidic movement has a different style of clothes, like uniforms. On Shabbat and holidays, most f the Hassidic people will wear a big rounded fur hat called Shtreimel.
Read more about the Ultra-orthodox Jews/Haredim here.
I wrote this one first not because this is what Haredim is about. just in case you don’t have time to read it all and just want to go there.
Modesty is a big issue with the religious communities, especially with the Haredi communities. Unlike the none Haredi religious Jewish men who can walk around with a T-shirts and shorts, in the Haredi communities, the man needs to keep the modest decent look.
As people who supposed to be completely spiritual and not dealing with this world of material any temptation is a deviation. Even if it is just a momentary deviation of the thought.
While for the man the clothes are almost like a uniform and have a standard form, the women are more flexible with their choices, most of the time will wear colorful beautiful clothes depends on their style.
The woman, more modest, more diverse
The modesty required for a woman varies between communities. By all the woman should be covering the shoulders and have a long skirt. How long the skirt, the length of the sleeves. That varies.
A married woman should be covering the hair. Some wear simple cloth, Some wear a hat and some wear a fig. you can see here different style of head covers. A small part of the eastern European Hassidim women solves the controversy of how much hair you should expose by removing the problem…. shave their hair.
There is a very small community in Mea Shearim area which is known by the locals as the "Taliban group" where took the modesty to the extreme and adopted the full body and face cover.
As you walk around one of the most distinctive things you'll notice is the posters on the walls. Those posters are called "pashkevilim" (פשקווילים)
A lot of the Ultra-orthodox people don’t use internet, television or even smartphones. It’s an old style tool used to spread the news about the neighborhood. If someone has passed out, latest Torah stuff or even shaming some business for lousy service, there are just on every topic possible. Some of them are serious, some funny and some are just weird…
Old school and modern Pashkeviles
There are the old school ones which are black and white and the new ones are colorful and some time will include cartoons. Some of the interesting cartoons are the ones against joining the military. Where they picturing the Haredi who want to join the military as light headed and not devoted to the religion.
Some of the Ultra-orthodox Jews in this neighborhood like Neturei Karta and Toldos Aharon are extremely Anti-Zionist, you can see their footprints in the neighborhood. In general, the Haredim community is not serving in the IDF. In recent years, there are some groups or individuals who want to join the IDF. You can see some Pashkevilim and stickers which oppose that.
(Don’t know what Zionism is? check here)
Way Of Life
It's easy and kind of wrong describing the Haredim just by these superficial things like their clothes, weird appearance, their funny posters and hysterical approach towards some exposed skin. Especially when we speak about people who declare themselves as spiritual. We were just talking about what they are not. However, what are the positive things they do? Why are people drawn to this lifestyle?
The Haredim lives in big communities. They know a lot of people and if they need a favor or help, the whole community can come and assist. If you need to borrow some things from a driller to a car, if you are sick, in troubles, need a babysitter or need to loan money. The community will help you solve everything.
The spiritual side:
Studying Torah and the Scriptures, the Jewish bookshelf is huge. You might familiar just with the Bible but there are much much more books and interpretations. The intellectual challenge of understanding the idea and logic behind it is big, I know some secular people who go studying it just for fun. It gives meaning to your life and a purpose which is a great thing for some people.
There are few Israeli celebrities and models who grew up as completely seculars and chose at the top of their success to transform to Haredi lifestyle. But all of those things, you can’t really see by just walking around....
Check this page. Traditional Eastern European Jewish music show.
In the Medieval times, many Jews settled in Germany and slowly developed their own language which was mostly German with
the combination of some words from Hebrew and Aramaic. Yiddish is a combination of 2 words "Judith-Deutsch" which means Jewish-German.
Later as Jews started to immigrate to Eastern Europe some Slavic words were added. It remained the language Jews spoke at home and in the community even generations after they left Germany and became the unofficial language of the European Jews.
A tale: Jews from Europe met a Jew from North Africa and as they spoke one of them turned to his friend and said: “are you sure he is Jewish? he doesn't speak Yiddish!"
Today some of the Haredim communities still speak Yiddish because they see Hebrew as the sacred language of the scriptures and also, they see the Modern Hebrew as a Zionist language.
By walking in Mea Shearim there is a good chance you will hear it. At the Klezmer show basement, you can see a whole Yiddish library.
On Thursdays evening some places serving "the cholent" which is a traditional Jewish dish for the Shabbat. It’s a hot dish that contains potatoes, meat, and legumes that were cooked for a couple of hours. On Thursdays evenings the young men are "going out" after their week of studies and some of their favorites gathering points are those places that serve cholent where they meet, eat and sing.
- If you are a big group of people or females travelers you can go to La Casa restaurant which is more open and welcoming to foreigners.
- Elise restaurant is deeper in the religious area and you will draw a lot of attention by walking around there. Try to feel the vibe and if you feel uncomfortable go to La Casa.
How do I get to Mea Shearim?
Mea Shearim is the name of the main street in the old neighborhood. Tthe Orthodox area is spread around to more areas of the city.
points of interest:
- Here you can see some pro-Palestinian posters.
- Here you can see an internal court which shows how the old neighborhood was designed.
- Next to this bank, it is the Shabbat Square. This is the "city center" of the Haredim community.
- Before you go to Mea Shearim know this, they don't really like tourists. Their whole world view is based on isolating themselves from the main/western society and focusing on the traditional and spiritual way of life.
- It's not touristy, they won't sell you tourist souvenir and probably will avoid conversation with you as a tourist. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try if you feel like, some of them are also curious about the big world. Although most of them don’t speak very good English. If you see young people speaking English with America accent they are probably visitors from the US and will be more open minded to foreigners.
- There are a lot of Haredim areas in Jerusalem, Mea Shearim is one of the oldest and closest to the city center. If you stay in Abraham hostel its just across the street.