Other guides might begin a walking tour by pulling out a map to give their group members — presumably out-of-towners — a sense of orientation. Moty Barlev begins his by displaying pictures of ultra-Orthodox men: Some are dressed in long coats, others just in jackets; some have long side curls, others simply sideburns; some sport long beards, others are clean-shaven.
The point, he explains, is that by the end of this English-language tour in Jerusalem, every member of the group should be able to identify different subsets of ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Jews just by looking at them.
That is, they should be able to tell a Hasid from an ultra-Orthodox “Lithuanian” Jew. (Hint: The latter usually don’t wear long coats or sport side curls.) And they should be able to tell members of both these Ashkenazi groups — which have roots in Eastern Europe — from the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Jews. (Clue: The latter tend to have somewhat darker skin, which Barlev apologizes in advance for having to point out.)
“To outsiders, they all look alike in their black-and-white garb. But it’s the little differences like the type of socks they wear or the type of hats that set them apart,” he says. “You just need to know what to look for. Having grown up here, I’m able to look at a 7-year-old boy and tell you where in Europe his family came from and whether or not he’s part of a rabbinical dynasty. And that’s just by looking at how he’s dressed.”
Barlev also shares some tips for picking out the “foreigners” — not in the sense of being from a different country, but rather ba’alei tshuva (secularists who became believers later in life). As he explains, because they weren’t born into the ultra-Orthodox community, these newcomers tend to be viewed as outsiders, of a lower status than even the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Jews. Here again, he apologizes for phrasing things in a non-PC way.
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Our guide should know. As he reveals right at the outset of our tour, before leaving the ultra-Orthodox community altogether, he too was part of a family of ba’alei tshuva. Being both an insider with intimate knowledge of the community and an outsider with no qualms about criticizing it, he certainly brings a unique perspective to the job.
Barlev, 38, has been leading this weekly “Meet the Ultra-Orthodox Jews” tour for about a year now. The two-and-a-half-hour excursion, which meets every Thursday afternoon, is sponsored by Abraham Tours — an organization that runs several popular hostels around the country catering to independent travelers. Because participants spend most of the tour strolling through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Geula, they are asked to dress modestly. That means no shorts, and women are requested to bring along shawls.
For safety reasons, Barlev doesn’t take his groups through Mea She’arim, Jerusalem’s most famous ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Tourists in this section of the city have been known to suffer verbal and even physical attacks if they don’t conform to strict modesty rules. “I don’t want to take any risks,” he says.
About a dozen independent travelers have signed up for this mid-October tour, representing countries as diverse as Poland and Brazil, with several Americans and Brits on board too.
We begin our guided walk on a quiet residential street, where Barlev points out some of the trademarks of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood: Tzedakah (charity) boxes outside in the street and pashkevilim (street posters) bearing important community announcements and news.
Our guide points to a big yellow pashkevil and begins translating it into English for our benefit. It’s an urgent call to men in the community to repent for “sins that have destroyed the foundation.” This, he explains, is code for masturbation. “In some Haredi communities, masturbation is actually the worst sin possible,” he explains.
Let’s talk about sex
This provides a good segue for a lively discussion on the sexual practices of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Arranged marriages, Barlev explains, are still common in Haredi society, and very often husbands and wives will meet only once or twice before their wedding. Touching — not to mention holding hands, kissing and sexual intercourse — is absolutely prohibited before the wedding. Among certain groups of Hasidim, he notes, sex is discouraged even after marriage, unless it’s for the explicit purpose of making babies.
“Why do you think religious people have such a problem with sex?” he asks the group, and without waiting for an answer offers his own hypothesis.
“I think it’s because many men find it impossible to love both their wife and God, so they have to choose one of them.”
A pregnant ultra-Orthodox woman happens to be walking by as Barlev shares his thoughts on the matter. She does a quick about-face and apologizes for butting into the conversation.
“I’m sorry, but I really think you need to know that most religious people do not consider sex a bad thing,” she says.
“In fact, we are commanded in the Torah to be fruitful and multiply, and there’s only one way of doing that,” she adds, patting her protruding belly with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
As we make our way through the narrow streets, Barlev points out famous yeshivas and synagogues. And there are many. Every so often, he also points to a random man in the street and asks us to guess which ultra-Orthodox group he belongs to. Our Polish representative, Maria, is particularly on top of the game.
Barlev seems to get a real kick out of calling out common misperceptions about religious Jews. As we pause outside yet another famous yeshiva, he asks us to guess what religious book is being studied inside. The Bible, of course, most everybody answers.
“Wrong,” he says, “and I bet it will be a surprise if I tell you that most secular Israelis know the Bible better than the ultra-Orthodox. Ultra-Orthodox Jews spend much more time studying the Talmud. They’re really not all that familiar with the Bible, except when they read the weekly portion in synagogue on Shabbat.”
He has a theory to explain this phenomenon as well: “I believe they avoid the Bible because it contains many stories of love and lust, and that’s not something religious men should be thinking about.”
Jaws drop when Barlev reveals that certain extremist Hasidic sects not only don’t recognize the Jewish state, but actively collaborate with its enemies. “They would rather have non-Jews rule them than Jews they consider to be heretics,” he explains.
As we pass by a soup kitchen, our guide takes advantage of the opportunity to offer words of praise to Haredi society. “If you’re down and out, this is the community you want to belong to,” he says. “They spare nothing to help one another. No other society in Israel takes care of its own like this one.”
Comic book rabbis
On the main commercial drag, we stop at a bookstore — which, like almost all bookstores on this street, sells religious books almost exclusively. Barlev sneaks us to the back where we discover what appears to be a pile of comic books. These aren’t ordinary comic books, but special ones created especially for young Haredi boys: The heroes in these tales are all rabbis.
He proceeds to point out a shelf full of books with colorful jackets, very different from everything else on display. “These are novels,” he explains. “It’s a relatively new genre in Haredi society, and almost all of them are written by women. They pretty much all have the same plot: Something bad happens to a family; the members pray to God for help; God answers their prayers, and the crisis is resolved.”
One Haredi woman who dared show a little more creativity and have someone die at the end of her book was forced to change the ending under pressure from the community, Barlev tells us.
Next stop is a music shop, where we listen to Hasidic songs on the sound system and hear from Barlev about recent offshoots of this genre — like Hasidic rock and reggae — among the special contributions of the former hippies and musicians who have joined the ultra-Orthodox community.
Stands full of framed portraits of elderly rabbis are stationed on the sidewalks outside many of the shops. These portraits are classic wall decorations in ultra-Orthodox homes, Barlev explains.
Our group members have lots of questions, including: “Why do ultra-Orthodox men walk so fast?”
Barlev’s response: “They feel they are on a mission — to serve God. And they don’t want to waste even one minute that takes them away from this mission.”
“Is corruption allowed in the ultra-Orthodox community?”
Our guide hesitates. “Let’s put it this way,” he says finally. “They don’t necessarily see the laws of the State of Israel as binding, because they have their own set of laws — so that allows for lots of things.”
“What about women? Is it also possible to know what ultra-Orthodox group they belong to by the way they look and dress?”
Here’s Barlev’s opportunity to pull out his collection of photos again — this time featuring women with different hair coverings. He passes around pictures of women with kerchiefs wrapped around their heads, others with women in long-haired wigs, and still others featuring women with hats atop their wigs. After a brief explanation, he puts us to the test, pointing out random women in the street and having us figure out which group they belong to. Maria is once again ahead of the curve.
Haredi society, our guide points out, has undergone nothing short of a revolution in recent years, with growing numbers pursuing higher education and joining the workforce. Barlev credits the internet, which has provided Haredim not only with unprecedented access to the outside world but with the means to see their society for what it is. As a case in point, he refers to some of the new “underground” Haredi websites that expose corruption in the community and challenge the rabbinical leadership.
It is fitting, then, that our tour winds down on a street with back-to-back cellphone stores. “These smartphones are the essence of this revolution,” Barlev says.
And, naturally, the rebbes are fighting back. “With every revolution comes a counterrevolution, and this is true of Haredi society as well,” Barlev notes. As proof of the backlash, he points to a large sign advertising special rabbinical-certified “kosher cellphones” from which all sketchy content has been blocked.
Which is why, he adds, it is not unusual to find ultra-Orthodox Jews walking around with two cellphones: A “kosher” phone for appearance’s sake, and the old unblocked phone for their lifeline to the outside world.