Outside the fabled Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a Muslim tour guide reveals to a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews how the Virgin Mary learned she was about to conceive the son of God.
It sounds like the start of an off-color joke, but it’s not.
Nazareth, one of Christianity’s holiest cities, regularly hosts pilgrimage tours from far-flung corners of the earth – but rarely a group like this one.
Last Tuesday, 20 ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Jews took a break from their daily grind to venture far out of their comfort zone. Graduates of a new program that hopes to create a new cadre of Haredi leaders, they came to take in the sights and smells of Israel’s largest Arab city and meet with some of the locals.
Jointly funded by the Molad Institute, the Berl Katznelson Foundation and the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (all social democratic in orientation), the program is called Haredim l’Medina. Depending on which definition of “Haredi” is preferred, it can mean either “Ultra-Orthodox Jews for the State” or “Fearful for the State.” But as both definitions suggest, it’s a program that targets Israelis interested in affecting political and social change.
Learning a bit about Christianity is unavoidable on a trip to Jesus’ hometown, but that wasn’t the main point here. The aim was to gain insight into another group of society outsiders with whom ultra-Orthodox Jews have a surprising amount in common: Israel’s Arab minority.
Among the participants was an advocate for parents of disabled children; the founder of a Haredi-environmental organization; the manager of an equine-assisted therapy farm; a Communist Party voter; a Labor Party activist; and an importer of expensive whiskey labels. For almost all of them, it was a first-ever trip to Nazareth.
Men and women, most of them married with children, they represented a diverse cross section of Haredi society. But as self-proclaimed political leftists (some Zionists, others not), they are hardly representative of ultra-Orthodox society, which has veered increasingly to the right in recent decades — and they are the first to acknowledge that.
As is common among ultra-Orthodox Jews, the men and women sat separately on the bus. But there was lots of lively banter going on between them. The hot topic of the day was the recent Knesset decision to exempt Haredi schools from the requirement to teach core-curriculum subjects like math and English. A bad move, they all agree.
They presented some unique challenges for their tour guide, Ibrahim. For starters, as ultra-Orthodox Jews, they are prohibited from venturing into any of Nazareth’s Christian attractions. “No churches, but we’re allowed to go into the mosques,” a member of the group spells out, explaining to Ibrahim that Islam, like Judaism, is a monotheistic religion so there’s no prohibition against Jews entering and even praying in Muslim houses of worship. As for Christianity, he explains, trying to be diplomatic, there’s that issue with the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Ibrahim is even more confused by the rules of kashrut. “But you can’t come all the way to Nazareth and not try some local baklava,” he protests. “There’s nothing not kosher in it.” But try as they might to explain why bags of snacks from the supermarket are permissible, while baklava and falafel sold on the street are not, Ibrahim just doesn’t get it.
Ostracism from society
Today’s discussion with local representatives will be restricted to workplace issues, announces Pnina Pfeuffer, a political activist who arranged the itinerary. “Since this is the first time we’re meeting, we don’t want to get into anything too sensitive or contentious,” she says. “It’s a good topic, because the Haredi and Arab communities face many similar obstacles in the workforce.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs are known to be the two poorest sectors in Israeli society. In both cases, families tend to be very large and supported by only one breadwinner. In Arab families, that tends to be the man; in Haredi families, it’s more often than not the woman, as men tend to spend their days studying in yeshivas. Because ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs, for the most part, do not serve in the army, they are often ostracized and, as a result, frequently report prejudice in the workplace and barriers to promotion. But because Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to live in their own sheltered communities, they rarely meet and interact.
“I’ve always said we should gang up and form a political party together,” jokes Tareq Shehadeh, the long-standing director of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association, as he concludes the first formal discussion of the day.
Atop Mount Precipice, where Jesus is believed to have evaded an angry Jewish mob (Luke 4:16-30 in the New Testament), the group pauses for a midday picnic break. Someone has remembered to bring a washing cup so that those who are interested can make the traditional hand-washing blessing required before eating bread. Those who can’t be bothered suffice with prepared salads, cans of tuna, and crackers and dip brought from home. Ibrahim observes it all from the side, appearing increasingly mystified.
After a trip to the Church of the Annunciation (obviously not the interior, though a few curious participants do sneak away for a quick peek), Ibrahim and his entourage proceed through the Old City marketplace – attracting some curious stares along the way. After all, men in black yarmulkes with tzitzit on display are not a common sight in these parts. Neither are women in sheitels.
A sign in Hebrew and Arabic identifies the location of the local morgue. After receiving a quick lesson on Muslim death rituals from Ibrahim, a Haredi woman observes: “So you people also wash the bodies.” Yet another thing we have in common, she appears to be thinking.
After a brief stop to admire the majestic lobby of the Fauzi Azar Inn, the group sits down with Dr. Rana Zaher, a lecturer in linguistics and a representative of the Communist Party on Nazareth’s city council. She presents them with a long list of socioeconomic challenges facing Israeli Arabs: overcrowded neighborhoods and schools, corruption in local government and limited employment opportunities, just to name a few. Her Haredi interlocutors listen and nod knowingly.
“That was a great presentation about the Haredi community,” one of them remarks, tongue-in-cheek, as they get up to leave, “but I thought we came here to learn about Arab society.”
The trip wouldn’t be complete without a final stop at the local souvenir shops. As they reclaim their seats on the bus, one young man – about to get married – shows off a heart made out of olivewood he has just purchased for his betrothed. Everyone oohs and aahs.
Not to be outdone, a man dressed in classic Hasidic garb pulls a black-and-white kaffiyeh he has just purchased from his bag. The start of a new fashion trend in Bnei Brak?