Before we left for Israel, it seemed that one of our only modest days would be our visit to Mea Sherim, of course we had more modest days than days that we could wear shorts it seemed, but Mea Sherim was the most serious. In a meeting just before we left we went over it again and Professor Butler explained something like ‘we want to be respectful because they feel like sometimes people visit the neighbourhood for a spectacle- like a zoo’ and Professor Dolansky responded ‘well don’t they?’ The community’s discomfort with tourists in Jerusalem visiting their neighbourhood is one of the only things I feel like I really understand about the Ultra- Orthodox in Israel.

We visited on our first Friday in Israel. It was extremely uncomfortable as an outsider. Fenster explores some of the issues around the neighbourhood and why many people feel uncomfortable in it. “The residents of Mea Sherim seek to apply their religious dress codes to all women who enter their neighbourhood, whether they are orthodox or not. Women who fail to follow these codes are subject to verbal and physical abuse” (67-68). She interviewed some Israeli women and asked them why they were uncomfortable visiting the area, many women explained that they did not like to dress modestly and did not like the values of the community imposed onto them. One women said: “it’s hard for me to accept the authority of somebody who is extremist and rejects me from humanity” (quoted by Fenster, 68). These women explained that because of the discomfort, they simply did not visit. One of the things that the neighbourhood is known for are the signs. While Danny was very interested in the black and white plastered signs about military service (as far as Danny translated), the signs that asked women to be dressed modestly and not offend the community are best known. We came across one and it scared me. Fenster explains that “the signs are illegal, as they were not approved or licensed by the municipality, the city does not enforce the law” (69). Fenster seems to believe that the municipality does not enforce the law “because of the relative power that this group has in the municipality and the government as a whole” (69). I think the signs are unwelcoming to secular women, but the atmosphere of the neighbourhood was unfriendly to outsiders in general. The community likes to be as isolated as possible and like Fenster explains, they were established far from the city centre, but as the city expanded they found themselves within the city and they are trying to protect their culture and community- whether that is a good idea is not for me to say.

Part of the reason tourists are interested in their neighbourhood is they are a spectacle. Another reason people are interested in visiting the neighbourhood is because Orthodox Judaism is considered by some as the authentic Judaism. I struggle with what we were doing there, what were we hoping to learn? We were being respectful observers but why? Just to experience the discomfort? We certainly did that. Our perspective, no matter what each individual in the group’s was, was different than Danny’s. Danny was upset with the Orthodox avoiding military service. From Danny’s explanation the Orthodox stayed clear of military service because the men needed to study, a position he did not respect. In reading Cohen’s article however, it seems that the IDF does not align with the values of the Orthodox community and service can be difficult for them. Not only is the idea of war a conflict with their values, once in the military they have difficulty practising, even when the IDF tries to make accommodations.

Orthodox men and women serving in the IDF have the option to work in segregated groups. Young Orthodox Jews in the IDF often consult rabbis and read responsas for guidance during their time serving. “Most contemporary responsa on military matters are written by rabbis who have personally served in the IDF, often in field formations and sometimes fairly senior ranks” (Cohen, 115). While Cohen is concerned with the Orthodox and religious response to orders to battle, many enquiries are simply about how to practice while serving “–religious troops in the IDF lies an existential tension between “the scroll” (i.e. religious obligations) and “the sword” (military service)” (Cohen, 117). Some of the concerns are outlined by Cohen: “how can they avoid unnecessarily desecrating the sabbath? How can they harmonize military life with the observance of traditional laws of “modesty”? And– perhaps most encompassing of all– how can they best preserve their distinctive identities in a military environment?” (Cohen, 120). The soldier’s concerns are not overwhelmingly about the morality of war.

While Danny’s loud explanations of posters perhaps made our visit to Mea Sherim more uncomfortable, but the issue of the Orthodox serving in the IDF is much more complicated than he made it out to be. Of course, I am not willing to make a judgement, I admit I do not understand all of the complications.

Cohen, Stuart.  “Tensions Between Military Service and Jewish Orthodoxy In Israel: Implications Imagined and Real.”  Israel Studies 12.  Spring 2007.  PROJECT MUSE.

Fenster, Tovi.  “Bodies and Places in Jerusalem: Gendered feelings and urban policies.”  HAGAR Studies in Culture, Policy and Identities 11.  2013.  PRINT.