The old sign above the kiosk promises “shawarma, omelets, cigarettes and hot drinks,” but the closed iron shutter sends a message to passersby on this busy Bnei Brak street that they would be best advised to search for them elsewhere.
However, for the 40 or so yeshiva students gathered clandestinely at this site last Saturday night, the closed shutter was a defensive move that rivaled even the outstanding display of Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
The white soccer uniforms of the Real players, competing in the Champions League final against Liverpool in Paris, matched the shirt colors of most of the ultra-Orthodox (also known as Haredi) youngsters seated here. As soon as anyone enters, via a side door in the adjacent dark alley, a man who is apparently the landlord greets him. Twenty shekels (nearly $6) exchange hands and he points to the last empty seat. Security cameras recording the goings-on add another layer to the secretive mood.
Real Madrid left-winger Vinícius Júnior had just scored what will prove to be the only goal of the game, and the atmosphere in the room is rather despondent. That’s how it is when most of these yeshiva students are huge fans of Real’s archrival, Barcelona, remembering Argentine soccer superstar Leo Messi’s glory days on that team.
“When there’s a goal, everyone here shouts, of course. But I don’t think anyone is a fan of either of the teams – they just shout,” one of the young spectators explains to us.
As soon as we sit down, it is easy to see who is in the know: a young man – one of the few wearing the trademark Haredi black suit – sporting a beard and curled sidelocks. He reels off statistics about every player, sends precise instructions to the two coaches standing on the touchline at the Stade de France, and demonstrates considerable ability to predict the tactical switches.
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“He’s throwing on everything he has – he has nothing to lose,” he explains when Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp brings on two fresh players in search of a late equalizer.
But a Liverpool goal would ultimately prove as elusive as these young men if you were to wander the streets of this heavily ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb during the game.
Turning a blind eye
Four huge screens greet us in a large room adjacent to a kiosk in neighboring Ramat Gan. Although the place opened officially only about three months ago, there are over 50 yeshiva students sitting and waiting impatiently as the designated kick-off time of 10 P.M. passes and the game is delayed for 36 minutes. If only the heads of Europe’s soccer governing body could visit the kiosks of Ramat Gan and learn how to handle a mass event.
The strong light inside floods the plaza entrance. Here, they aren’t hiding anything. Well, not quite. “It’s a desecration of God’s name to write about it,” a young man of about 20 who came with his friend from a nearby yeshiva informs us. Another spectator, an older man with a baseball cap, interrupts and says it’s not such a terrible thing. “It may be bitul Torah [a waste of time that could be used for Torah study], but it’s not an abomination,” he says.
The young man isn’t convinced. “There’s a reason why the rabbis ban it.”
He reluctantly agrees with the older man after another discussion, before adding: “It’s still preferable if people don’t know about it.”
Another young man, who is a proud fan of Israeli soccer champion Maccabi Haifa, addresses us. “You’re better off dealing with other stories,” he suggests. “If guys knew you were writing an article, they wouldn’t come.”
He has no problem telling us his name and address, but draws the line at the yeshiva where he studies. “Now you’ve gone too far,” he says. Their roshei yeshiva (yeshiva heads) don’t know they’re here. Well, not quite.
“It’s not official, but they know the guys go to see games,” says another student who came to watch the game with three friends. “Today, they no longer throw you out of the yeshiva for that. The roshei yeshiva know and turn a blind eye.”
Elhanan’s rosh yeshiva is well aware that he’s a devout football fan. Elhanan, who is wearing a black capuchon that hides a bright red shirt that marks the celebrations of Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s recent victory in the Israel State Cup, stands out in this landscape comprising mainly white-shirted young men. He says none of his superiors at the yeshiva have a problem with his love of Hapoel. “On the contrary,” he says. “My rabbi asks me: ‘What did you do? Did you win? Did you lose?’”
The ethnic composition of the spectators here shows a clear majority of Mizrahim (Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin). “It’s like synagogues: every group has a place of its own,” says another spectator, laughing.
Elhanan concedes that many will look in a negative light on the fact that some yeshiva students are watching soccer games. “There’s something to that, because they want a yeshiva student to sit and study all day. If he’s exposed to sports, then he’ll be exposed to many things that are not ‘Haredi,’” he notes.
But he doesn’t think watching soccer will make a person any less Haredi, and offers himself as an example. “I’m more open to the world,” he declares. “For instance, when I went to the Hapoel Be’er Sheva [cup] celebrations, [singers] Dudu Aharon and Raviv Kenar were there. But I didn’t see [female singer] Zehava Ben. Not because it’s bad, it’s just my ideology; I don’t have anything against women.”
Saturday’s pre-game performance of Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello also causes most of the youngsters to squirm awkwardly in their seats. Unlike Elhanan in Be’er Sheva, they can’t really leave.
“They’re afraid,” he says of those crowding together with their gazes fixed on the large screens on the wall. “When I went to an ordinary yeshiva – not like my one now, where they’re more open and attentive – I didn’t go to the stadium, because I was afraid I would be seen on television. And then a friend would tell someone, and then they would discover I was at the game and throw me out of the yeshiva. Today I’m not afraid. But there are many who are afraid, and they have good reason.”
Along with the great affection for Messi’s former club Barcelona, a sense of fear was common to all the places where we found yeshiva students watching the game.
The most prominent characteristic is the young age of the spectators: no more than 20. “The older boys have to worry about their reputation for shidduchim [matchmaking],” one of them explains. Two young Haredi women pass by and gawk at the shocking sight before their eyes. “I can’t believe it,” one says to the other and they continue on their way. It’s uncertain if most seminary students know what their future husbands get up to on a Saturday night.
When Courtois makes another brilliant save to deny Liverpool, the kiosk clerk immediately knows the reason. "That’s how it is when you have a Jewish partner"
A young man in shorts, an orange T-shirt and flip-flops arrives in the large room. A broad smile immediately reveals his past as a former yeshiva student. “It makes me very happy to see that life goes on,” he says, pulling out his cellphone to record the event. He is now 27 and says there were far fewer spectators watching games during his yeshiva years.
“For years you’re not in the community, then suddenly you return and have a sudden flashback,” he says. ”In my time, there were maybe 10 students who watched.” When he was the age of those present, he also looked for places to watch televised soccer games. “I would head down to the kiosk,” he recounts. “Ultimately, I would end up with five Russians and five bottles of beer.”
In the middle of our conversation, the manager arrives and is making sure everyone has paid to watch the game. “I didn’t order anything,” says the former yeshiva student. “It’s either 15 shekels to watch without anything, or 25 shekels with products,” the manager says, explaining the arrangement.
The Jewish connection
In a kiosk some 200 meters (655 feet) away, the screening is free of charge and far less crowded. Two or three yeshiva students are watching the screen placed above a shelf of snacks, in the company of several spectators who aren’t ultra-Orthodox.
When Courtois makes another brilliant save to deny Liverpool, the kiosk clerk immediately explains the reason: “That’s how it is when you have a Jewish partner,” he declares with pride about Israeli model Mishel Gerzig.
Like in the other places, a 24-year-old who lives nearby wants to make sure we’re not photographing or filming people. “If they see me, I’ll be thrown out of the yeshiva immediately,” he admits. He only watches the big games, he says, unlike some of his yeshiva friends who never miss a game. “In the yeshiva, we laugh and try to match every player to a yeshiva,” he says, smiling. Barcelona goalie Marc-André ter Stegen “is suited to Hebron. [Pierre-Emerick] Aubemeyang suits a mediocre Sephardi yeshiva.” If there was any doubt, his choice of soccer players shows that he too is a Barcelona fan.
Among the spectators here, there is also a student from one of Bnei Brak’s most highly regarded yeshivas. “It won’t be pleasant for me if they see me sitting here,” he says. Most of his friends watch in more discreet places. “There are some who make the effort and go as far as [secular] Tel Aviv,” he adds.
Although he may get into trouble if spotted, he too says the rosh yeshiva wouldn’t throw him out for watching a soccer game. “It’s not the way it used to be,” he says, echoing previous comments.
The game eventually ends at about 12:30 A.M. Israel time and the streets of Bnei Brak, featuring couples walking and even young children playing, confirm the assumption that Haredim go to sleep late.
Back at the site with the closed shutter, only three people are applauding Real’s narrow victory. The rest remain seated in silence. Two of the spectators rush to leave and get on their electric bicycles. The child seats attached to them suggest that the reason for their hasty departure is not necessarily Los Blancos’ victory celebrations but the need to return to their families. Those still watching must hope that this evening won’t disrupt their plans for having a family of their own.