Mea Shearim: The Ultra Orthodox Of Jerusalem

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Mea Shearim, The Ultra Orthodox Of Jerusalem

“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” Jon Stewart

Walking into Mea Shearim is like walking into a shtetl (village) in pre World War Two Eastern Europe. When you walk through this community they expect you to be respectful of their way of life and dress appropriately. There are signs in English for that.

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Tzedakah boxes are posted all over to give money to the poor.

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For religious Jews, giving is not an option. It’s a law.

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Information is controlled by the chief rabbis of the different communities. The important information passes to the public, after being filtered, and hang as Pashkvil – street posters.

There are a couple of newspapers though not everybody purchases them. There is supposedly no internet and there are signs about that also.

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There was something nice about seeing the large families all together, the fresh bakery smells and hearing the language of my childhood. It was a simpler time.

Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts.

For men, traditions in dress code include black frock coats and black hats. Long, black beards cover their faces, and many grow side curls.

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Women and girls are urged to wear modest dress – knee-length or longer skirts, no sleeveless blouses or bare shoulders. Married women wear a variety of hair coverings, from wigs to head scarves.

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The residents speak Yiddish in their daily lives, as opposed to the Hebrew language spoken by the majority of Israel’s population. The only use of Hebrew for residents is in prayer and religious study, as they believe that Hebrew is a sacred language to be used only for religious purposes.

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Most of the men spend their days studying Torah, living off a meager stipend, government aid and sometimes their wives salaries. Some go to work. They are exempt from paying taxes and the mandatory army service that all Israelis have to do to.

As with all closed societies, the extremists set the tone. The gulf between secular Israelis and the ultra Orthodox is getting wider. There are more similarities between the extremist Islāmic and ultra Orthodox communities. Most stay in their community only leaving to go to the Arab Market and pray at the Wall.

The Orthodox have their own unregulated school system which does not prepare their children for the modern world. Religious schools don’t teach mathematics, science, or English; only the Bible. All day, every day. The men are expected to continue that Bible study for the rest of their lives. It’s all funded by the taxpayers. And the taxpayers are… secular Israelis.

It appears that secular Israelis are moving forward to global life into the modern world and the orthodox are moving backward to a more observant God driven one.

It looks like no one understands both sides and the situation seems to be getting worse.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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The Delicatessen – Growing Up In New York

The Delicatessen- Growing Up in New York

“As I see it, there are two kinds of people in this world; people who love delis and people you shouldn’t associate with.” Damon Runyon

I just saw Deli Man. a documentary film that chronicles the delicatessens that opened up in the twenties on the lower east side of New York City. . They started as German restaurants. As the Eastern European Jewish immigrants began coming to America they brought the foods of Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Poland and Russia. The film tells the stories of  the rise of the delis and the Jewish immigrants. Their success and technology erased the old traditional urban blocks with everything you need run by mom and pop storefronts and delis on every block. In the 1930s New York had fifteen hundred Jewish delis. Now there are about twenty left. As the Jewish population assimilates and we all become foodies, we don’t just eat Jewish food anymore.

In other cultures  such as Mexican, Italian and Asian, there are always new immigrants coming in and cooking and wanting the food from their countries. There is no more Eastern European Jewish culture. The ones who live here have assimilated and the Holocaust took care of the rest. The Deli Culture is dying out.

There were two or three small delis on a block where I was growing up. There were larger deli restaurants as well. The people who worked in the delis had been there forever. They were the old timers and warranted a certain amount of respect. There was a kind of familiarity that the waiters and waitresses had – like they knew you for your whole life, even if they didn’t. They could be funny, mildly insulting and roll their eyes while you ordered everything on the side or asked for the fat to be cut off the corn beef.

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I was brought up on natural and health foods at a time that no one was. People who ate like this and exercised regularly were called heath nuts. Now they are called normal. Everyone that I knew except my family was eating Wonder Bread, Hershey Bars, Frosted Flakes and drinking Cokes and lemonade.There was no Whole Foods or McDonald’s.

We had fruit and vegetable stores so we always had plates of fresh sliced fruit and vegetables after school – not that anyone wanted that, but it was there so we ate it. We made our own candy out of peanut butter, raw coconut and honey. It was definitely more fun to make it with our hands than eat it. Our package desserts included Fig Newtons and something inedible called halvah. (It wasn’t till I went to Turkey that I found out that when it was served fresh it was delicious.) I thought Fig Newtons were inedible also. I can’t believe they are still around. We had some green herbal thing in a salt shaker that they tried to pass off as salt. We drank orange juice and we could have had a V8 instead of the cokes we longed for. We ate meat that was very rare, sometimes it looked right off the cow – blood for the blood. I don’t think I ever ate brisket until I was much older and to this day I do not like potted meat (in Yiddish gedempte flaisch)

We did not eat out because the kitchens were dirty and unsanitary in most restaurants – according to my father. It was before the rating system and they probably were. We did not use aerosol sprays because he said there was a hole in the atmosphere – something only he knew about so I was sure it was untrue. We did not have a car because it caused pollution and had to ride our bikes everywhere or take public transportation. Everyone else had cars. I was sure he was wrong about that as well.

But for some reason, delis were ok. I never asked why. Maybe it was the food of their childhood, their parents who I never met, the lower East Side of Manhattan – food they knew. We could have knishes, blintzes, sour pickles from a barrel, frankfurters, muenster cheese, peppery roast beef and they would let us order a chocolate egg cream. Occasionally we would have pastrami and corned beef sandwiches on fresh rye bread.  We ate a lot of smoked fish. Those small smoked golden white fish  had a lot of bones but they tasted good and I guess they were cheap. We were not rich and lox was expensive even then. My mother would buy a ¼ lb of lox and could easily feed six people on bagel and lox sandwiches that were mostly cream cheese. I think those neighborhood delis probably kept me alive because there was not much I was eating at home. I stopped in one every day.

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We could not have salami or bologna because “we didn’t know what was in it and there were probably chemical additives”. I grew up bringing ham sandwiches to school for lunch and lying and saying it was bologna because the Jewish people in my neighborhood did not eat ham. We used to eat Lithuanian black pumpernickel bread. I dreamed about having white bread sandwiches like everyone else. I’m not much of a bread person now unless I see that black whole grain bread of my childhood and then I can eat the whole loaf. Mayonnaise on meat still grosses me out and I’ve lived in California for a long time.

The other foods in the delis were weird to me. “What is that?,” we would ask. Stuffed kishka – skin – ew really?), chopped liver–yuk, , gribenes – fried chicken skin -uh, schmaltz, -chicken fat – gross, borscht – beet soup, (I cannot eat beets in any form), kasha –buckwheat, kreplach – dough floating in soup with liver and onions in it, kugel -noodle pudding, matzoh balls – dumplings made from matzoh that were really big and heavy), tzimmes – root vegetables and varnishkes – pasta with kasha. It all sounded awful and I’ve never liked it. But when I see it and smell it now, it always reminds me of my mom and the stories she would tell of how her mother made those foods.

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When I turned thirteen years old,  I started having summer jobs and my own money. I began going to diners, coffee shops, Italian and Chinese restaurants. I drank cokes. I ate pistachio nuts with the red dye on them that got all over your fingers, red M and Ms (we grew up in fear of red dye #2 and BHA and BHT – which was a preservative in packaged sugar cereal),  Bonomo Turkish Taffy – the kind that was really bad for your teeth and Carvel swirl ice cream cones.  I was rebelling. But NY delis were always around. You could smell the food as you walked down the street. It was the comfortable smell of my childhood and I thought it would always be there.

With the demise of Delis and  the Yiddish language comes the loss of our Eastern European cultural roots. With the pursuit of complete assimilation into American culture, and the absence of new Eastern European Jewish immigrants, we lost our history and we are losing our food.

I did not pass on the cultural traditions and Yiddish phrases of their grandparents to my children. They don’t know about their life on the lower east side of NY in the thirties and forties. They don’t know the stories from Yiddish theatre and vaudeville that my mother used to tell or the Eastern European melodies I heard growing up.  They don’t know the old Jewish comedians, the Borscht Belt, the Catskills or that we were the people of the clarinet. But they do know a good pastrami sandwich and a black and white cookie and that Nate and Al’s Deli makes a delicious chicken soup when you are sick.

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Fly safe,

JAZ