Walking the streets of Mea Shearim was daunting. Raysh Weiss’ article on the Haredim points to this area as one of the largest and most prominent Ultra Orthodox neighbourhoods of Israel. In this article, Weiss identifies haredim as the Hebrew term used to describe the Ultra Orthodox, detailing the rise of this Jewish group in the face of increased secularization in the Jewish world. As some Jews saw their friends and family members moving towards absorption of societal norms and customs, they began to push for an increase in Torah scholarship and increased removal from the customs of the secular world. Many of these religious groups moved to Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism though most members of this group oppose the state. The haredim are even represented by their own political party: Agudat Yisrael. As their numbers continue to grow, this demographic is a major force in shaping Israel’s future. I feel that I was unprepared for an encounter with this large and distinct group. We were only told that in order to meet the qualifications of modesty we had to cover our bodies reaching down to our ankles and out to our wrists. I fought the compulsion to roll up my sleeves the entire time. We emerged from the busy Mahane Yehuda market and cut across the path of the light rail, briefed in passing by our guide on the imperative of taking pictures very subtly should we wish to take any and being respectful of the neighbourhood’s residents. We had been told that the residents did not appreciate the high volume of non-Jewish visitors who come through their neighbourhood in order to observe their way of life and I was prepared to be discreet and respectful of the residents. I was not prepared for how different the space would feel. We were obviously a tour group. Our clump of twenty students and professors manoeuvred clumsily through the streets, calling attention to ourselves as a tour group by virtue of our number and due to the stops that our guide made at various places in order to explain certain aspects of the neighbourhood and the culture. I am so happy that I got to go through the neighbourhood because I very much enjoy learning about the traditions of Ultra Orthodox Judaism. I was thrilled to see so many men and women walking by in Orthodox dress and I loved having the chance to see the community and get a sense of the life that this group leads. What troubled me about the visit was that people passing our group would look away. Men held their black hats over their faces or concentrated on the ground. I never realized how accustomed I was to Canadian friendliness and polite smiles until that moment. I was incredibly insecure just because these people would not look at me! As we continued through the neighbourhood, I began to feel bad for even being there. As much as I loved having the chance to see the traditional dress and living space of the Ultra Orthodox, was it right for me to be in their neighbourhood just to see what it was like? I was very conscious of the fact that I was invading these people’s space and as more and more people turned away from our group, I was reminded of Barabara Kruger’s feminist work Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face). This work draws on Laura Mulvey’s theory on the gaze and its use in art. The “gaze” in the work represents the male gaze as an active force that renders the female viewed subject passive in its wake. As I walked through the streets of Mea Shearim, I felt like the violent male gaze that Kruger points to in her work. It was terrible. Some research on tznius soothed these feelings. I found a fantastic article by Yehuda Henkin called Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community. Henkin’s work defined tznius as the Hebrew term for modesty. Even more than modest dress though, this term implies humility and not calling attention to oneself. The dictates of tznius apply to both women and men. Women should not dress in a titillating manner so as to not attract unwanted attention, but men are also encouraged to dress respectably in order to not call undue attention to themselves or their appearance. Learning about tznius and its added connotation of humility enriched my comprehension of that word, which I had previously thought of as signifying only modesty. Further, I was reassured by the idea that the barrier of the hat over a man’s face did not really speak to the violence that I did against these people simply by looking at them, but their reluctance to see me and my dress which, to them, was not necessarily modest. I felt a bit more comfortable with being in Mea Shearim when I understood that the reluctance to see me was not about an issue that they had with me seeing them but more about their own desire to avoid seeing any person who does not necessarily correspond to their standards of modesty.
Though I felt better about having been in the neighbourhood after this research, I still had questions. If my ankles and wrists were covered, why was I still an immodest sight? In addition to this, I was still worried about having been in their neighbourhood. I couldn’t decide if it was right for me to indulge my interest in their lifestyle by putting myself in their space when it is common knowledge in Jerusalem that the residents do not like visitors. I found further solace in the work of professor of education and Jewish studies Simone Schweber. Her article Donning Wigs, Divining Feelings, and Other Dilemmas of Doing Research in Devoutly Religious Contexts details her work observing education in an evangelical Christian school and a women’s yeshiva. It was interesting to read about her research in very religious areas – I felt better for conducting “research” in Mea Shearim by observing the residents when I saw that this woman did it for a living. Her description of dressing modestly for her interview with the yeshiva was interesting in terms of elucidating an issue with modesty clothes that I noticed in Israel as well. She mentions that she felt uncomfortable at first in a long skirt and a modest blouse and that she stood out unbearably during her interview because her clothes were so different in style from those of the women working in the office. This is perhaps the key for me to understanding why so many men had trouble looking at us as we walked through the neighbourhood. We may have been dressed modestly, but we were clearly outsiders based on the style of our modest clothing. Orthodox women wore certain styles of shirt and skirt combinations. My favourite in this neighbourhood was that of a long black skirt and a dress shirt buttoned all the way up to the neck. Many girls wore this style and our group was easily recognizable due to our assortment of printed skirts and vibrant but modest shirts. This key explained to me my modest dress might not be enough for a neighbourhood that not only values tznius but also desires to keep away from greater secular society. My appearance was problematic not because it was revealing but because it was different. Schweber’s article was helpful in that she encountered many of the problems that I did in my short walk through Mea Shearim. She also felt uncomfortable at first in her modest clothing and was uneasy about the difference in style of clothing between her and the Chasidic women of the yeshiva. Schweber’s article, however, recounts the difficulty that she had in gaining access to the communities that she conducted her research in. This is where I felt uneasy. I am fairly certain that our group was not permitted by any authority to enter Mea Shearim. I am sure that if such an authority for this neighbourhood even existed, it would have refused us entry in the interest of preserving the residents’ privacy. The Many Faces of Jewishness in Israel, a detailed analysis of what it means to be Jewish in Israel byShlomit Levy, Hanna Levinsohn, Elihu Katz also recorded information about Ultra Orthodox communities but this information had been gleaned from willing survey respondents. Both of the religious studies templates that I read had involved a consultation with the community prior to the collection of any research. Our group wasn’t conducting any formal “research”. We just took in the community and its atmosphere. Does our lack of formal work on the community mean that it was right for us to enter the area as informally as we did? I would generally stick to the policy that if the residents did not want us there, we should not have been there. The implications of this approach are troubling though. This community is already so different from us. What would the alienating consequences be if we had absolutely no interactions with them? Complete isolation of the community could lead to a complete lack of sympathy or understanding that could have violent consequences. Unfortunately, these speculations leave me with more questions than answers. I was overjoyed to observe the neighbourhood as the Ultra Orthodox of Mea Shearim prepared for the Sabbath but deeply troubled as well.