“And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:2-3

After a busy week in Israel, we were finally able to take a break from our early wake-up calls to rest, reflect, and prepare for Shabbat. Undoubtedly, these preparations would be different for a non-Jew. On a practical level, this meant buying enough groceries and snacks to last me until stores and restaurants reopened on Sunday. On an emotional level, this meant preparing myself for what may have been the toughest and most fascinating experience of the whole course—exploring Mea Shearim.

In the hours leading up to our first Shabbat in Jerusalem, the Machane Yehuda market was bustling with people, both Israelis and tourists waiting in line at popular restaurants, indulging in pastries, and selecting various ingredients and spices for Shabbat dinner. Although some of my classmates felt overwhelmed by the crowds, I personally loved living and experiencing the daily activities of the locals, especially in a market where all sorts of social interactions are provoked and exchanged. I particularly enjoy hearing what locals have to say about the food, the sounds, and the cities I am exploring. The only real chance I had to do this was the night before the market tour in Jerusalem, where I met some Israelis at the campus bar. We talked about their experiences in the Israeli Defense Forces, their area of study, and their various encounters with friendly Canadians. What struck me most was their response when I told them I would be visiting Mea Shearim (a haredi neighbourhood founded in 1874 as part of their return to the sacred land of Israel). Yael, one of the girls I had met, said: “Mea Shearim!? Why would you go there? No one goes there!” In that moment, all apprehensions I told myself that I would not have about this experience immediately surfaced. Why was I going there? Was it really such a good idea, especially when there are clear rules “to maintain its religious identity and homogeneity” that do not include my presence? Needless to say, I had my qualms about visiting this neighbourhood, as did the secular Jews I encountered. Even driving through Mea Shearim on our tour bus made me uncomfortable. I knew that I did not belong there and I felt unwelcome by a seemingly hostile people who frowned as we passed on our bright orange bus. This encounter with secular Israelis provided me with some insight on how those who are not part of Mea Shearim feel about its presence in Jerusalem and how it affects their experience of the city. Despite these preconceptions, walking through the neighbourhood definitely opened my eyes to a way of life and a form of religious extremism that I have never been exposed to on such an intimate level.

Before I continue discussing this experience, I first want to qualify what I mean by extremism in the context of Mea Shearim. This is mainly the expression of religious or political views that fall out of the so-called mainstream attitudes of Jews in Israel. It therefore represents the strict observance of religious principles and the rejection of the modern world outside of the haredi community—particularly the state of Israel. These views are openly expressed throughout the neighbourhood and, with blogs like Miriam Woelke’s Mea Shearim, it is certainly no secret.

I fing it particularly interesting that the community maintains a strong sense of communication through the written word. Rather than distributing newspapers, matters of politics, religious ideology, and community news are printed onto posters that are then plastered all over neighbourhood walls for the residents to read as they pass. Based on the few posters that Danny translated for us, many of them address the tensions between haredi Jews and the “impure” secular Jews who wish to corrupt and disrupt their community by forcing their youth to join the army or to celebrate the state’s independence.

The most severe example of this rhetoric was a poster of illustrated cartoons that graphically depicted these tensions. One of the panels is of a young haredi boy crying as two older “secular Jews” hold him down, while one cuts off his peyos. To the right of this is an image of soldiers herding young haredi boys onto trains, which is reminiscent of the powerful images from the Holocaust. I am drawn to these cartoons for various reasons, but I especially wish to emphasize the power of the medium and its ability to evoke a strong reaction from the viewer. Through the juxtaposition of text and image, particularly those that are easily recognized by the viewer, one participates in the narrative, placing oneself in the panels and identifying with the images because there is some element of familiarity. That said, there is a participatory aspect of reading comics that is very effective when the medium is used for political propaganda. Theorists, such as Douglas Rushkoff, argue that this is what attracts writers and artists to comics. It is the ideal medium through which to express their narratives because of its ability to generate cultural iconography, or “modern mythology.” In a religious context, this mythology is authoritative, it participates in the construction of society, and it is the common denominator within religious systems, such as those that are held among the haredim of Mea Shearim.

That said, the mythology of the neighbourhood is depicted in one simple cartoon. It is of a haredi father in tears, distressed by the fact that his son received a letter of conscription. According to Danny’s translation, the son tells his father that he is willing to give his life to fight against his call to service. Stuart Cohen argues that the source of this tension between the secular and religious Jews in the IDF lies in ritual and behaviour, rather than a concern over who possesses the “Holy Land” and controls military strategy. It is a question of how one may continue to observe halakha and participate in the army? Or, how the state can ensure loyalty when some of its members are closely tied to religious institutions and the leadership of their rabbis who strongly oppose the IDF? Although these questions are not easily answered, Cohen highlights that the IDF continues to make accommodations in order to better integrate the “highly religious/strictly observant” members of Israeli society and to ease the fear of disobedience. It is important to note that the military is a major force of socialization in Israel, particularly among the youth, and it has therefore become necessary to find a way to integrate the “ultra-religious” and the “religious-nationalistic” communities into this process without forcing them to dishonour their precepts. This issue is definitely intensified, however, by the culture and attitudes that are absorbed by the youth of the haredi community. As seen in our walk through Mea Shearim, loathing the state and its army is common culture. These sentiments are plastered on the walls and presumably taught in the synagogues, with little to no encounter with alternative positions.

Other posters describe how the only true state is one lead by a messiah, the descendant of David. In response to modern Israel, the haredim “pray to god to stop this new order inflicted upon [them].” The posters also claim that the effort to rescue Jews after the Holocaust (by immigrating to the land of Israel) was an attempt by secularists to propose a just cause for the creation of a state and, ultimately, to force all Jews into secularism. Thus, the residents of Mea Shearim do not celebrate Israel’s independence, but are urged by community leaders to go to synagogue and pray instead. Others, particularly those involved with the Neturei Karta (a religious group that opposes Zionism and the legitimacy of the state), participate in flag burning while some simply ignore the festivities altogether. According to Miriam Woelke, religious groups act in this way because they feel that Israel is “losing…it’s Jewish character.” She suggests that Christian missionaries and Palestinians are to blame for this deterioration, along with the “leftist corrupt government.” Nonetheless, Woelke seems to be more focused on the positive. She is happy that “the Jews have their own state” and thus “a place to go to.” This demonstrates that although there is a dominant narrative portrayed in the news bulletins and cartoons of Mea Shearim, we cannot generalize and say these are the attitudes strictly held by every member of the community because variation is a likely possibility.

In terms of my personal experience, the first half of the walk was fairly relaxed. The streets were quiet, with mostly men and children wandering around while the women prepared for Shabbat. Danny provided us with some history about the area and stopped every couple of blocks to explain what we were seeing. The children stared and the men avoided our gaze as we passed. As a woman who was also part of a large tour group (knowing that we took many precautions to observe modesty out of respect for the residents), I found some of the signs and posters off-putting. There was one that read:

“Groups passing through our neighbourhood severely offend the residents. PLEASE STOP THIS.”

Below this it says that the sign was funded and written by neighbourhood rabbis, Torah and welfare institutions, and local resident councils. With these words, it is obvious that the community does not want to be treated like a tourist attraction, but incase people do decide to visit Mea Shearim, the sign also explains the proper form of dress that women should follow.

“To women and girls who pass through our neighbourhood we beg you with all our hearts PLEASE DO NOT PASS our neighbourhood in IMMODEST CLOTHES.”

It further states that “modest clothes include: closed blouse with long sleeves, long skirt, no trousers, no tight fitting clothes” and concludes with this statement: “please do not disturb the sanctity of our neighbourhood and our way of life as Jews committed to G-d and his Torah.” These messages clearly indicate an undesire for spectators, especially if women do not observe modesty. The idea is that women should cover in order to preserve the sanctity of the men who wish to keep their minds and wills clean and fully dedicated to god, the Torah, and the yeshiva. Tovi Fenster argues that this is exactly how women’s bodies become contextualized—by seeing them as “sites of temptation and potential sin” that should necessarily be “covered in a very specific way.”

From a feminist perspective, these signs create a sense of discomfort and disbelonging among women, which comes as a result of the patriarchal norms that dominate this area of Jerusalem. By contextualizing women’s bodies, we get a sense of how particular places, locations, and environments become sacred insofar as “emotive bonds and attachments, both positive and negative” are created there and must be maintained through distinct characteristics and communal expectations. Fenster further argues that “men and women define themselves through attachment to particular places” that become important to their individual and collective identity. As a result, many non-observant Israeli women avoid passing through Mea Shearim because of the discomfort and potential physical or verbal abuse they may face if they fail to modestly dress their bodies to the standards of the community. Like the posters and cartoons of Mea Shearim, women’s bodies become visible signifiers of the tension between Jews in Israel’s public life, particularly the “religious, strictly observant” Jews and the “non-religious, somewhat observant” secular Jews—to borrow terms from Katz, Levinsohn, and Levy. That said, Mea Shearim can be understood as the spatial expression of anti-state rhetoric, patriarchy, and, perhaps more importantly, the internal divide between the multiplicity of Israel’s Jews, their ethno-cultural differences, and their varying degrees of religious observance—realities that were brought to light in a short walk through “One Hundred Gates,” one of the oldest and most secluded neighbourhoods in Jerusalem.


Cohen, Stuart. “Tensions Between Military Service and Jewish Orthodoxy In Israel: Implications Imagined and Real.” Israel Studies 12 (2007): 103-126.

Fenster, Tovi. “Bodies and places in Jerusalem: Gendered feelings and urban policies.” Hagar 11 (2013): 63-81.

Katz, Elihu,  Hanna Levinsohn, and Shlomit Levy. “The Many Faces of Jewishness in Israel.” In Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns, edited by Uzi Rebhun and Chaim I. Waxman, 265-284. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2004.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Forward to Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Edited by A. David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer. New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

The Celebration of Israel’s Independence from the Orthodox and Haredi Perspective: