“Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold (mea shearim); God had blessed him” (Genesis 26:12).
Named for this symbol of abundance and blessings, according to tradition, the community of Mea Shearim is also said to have 100 gates. Located to the north of the old city, this insulated ultra-Orthodox community lies in the heart of Jerusalem though it feels more like a 19th century eastern European shtetl. Here women walk in long skirts, high necklines, long sleeves, tights and headscarves or wigs. Men dress in black coats, black or fur-trimmed hats, and kipot and have long beards and side curls.
The sidewalks are lined with announcements—a main form of communication without TV or the internet—including death notices, advertisements for streimel cleaning and kashrut courses, and changing daily prayer times. Signs in English urge modest dress and request that visitors refrain from visiting in large groups so as not to be conspicuous. Men and women walk apart. Groups of children parade through the streets while religious music plays from the shops.
Many different factions of Ultra-Orthodox Jews have made their home here, distinguishable by their style of dress based on their place of origin in eastern Europe. Perhaps the most notorious are the small minority Neturei Karta, known for their fiercely anti-Zionist agenda, calling for the dismantling of the Jewish state, or the “heretical Zionist regime,” as they call it. You may recognize them here, chillin with Ahmadinejad.
It is only a few blocks from the Old City and the heart of the Arab city, but Mea Shearim feels like a different world entirely. It is a world that feels almost completely disconnected from reality, a world that revolves around torah and prayer and halacha but in a restrictive way, not in a way that celebrates their wisdom. I revel in how different Judaism can be and feel an anthropologist’s excitement at finding oneself in a world apart. But I also feel a tightness in my chest from their almost tangible disapproval because my head is not covered, my skirt to my calves but not my ankles, because I talk to men. I feel the reproachful glances of the women and deliberate avoidance of the men. This may be the Judaism that has helped sustain us for thousands of years, but it is not my Judaism. My Judaism is of this world. I exit off the main street back toward the central bus station where the streets open up and I feel like I can breathe again.