Trendy and Traditional: Orthodox Homeowners in Israel Now Aspire to Both

They are more aware than ever of the latest styles in home décor, but they also have many special needs architects and decorators have to plan for.

What religious families want: Big living room space for many guests.

Shelves of religious texts and a sideboard laden with silverware and ritual objects like Shabbat candles, Kiddush cups and a spice box that were given to a couple as wedding gifts remain the hallmark of a religious family’s home. But the introduction of modern design into this sanctuary of conservatism has begun to change the face of the modern religious home.

The differences between secular and religious families have been closing in terms of home decoration, style and choice of materials in the last several years. If in the past heavy material such as wood was commonplace, religious Israelis today are influenced, like their secular peers, by fashion trends they see in magazines, on websites and in furniture showrooms.

“You can see a clear change, starting with fashion. Observant women wear the newest styles of clothing and their homes reflect their heightened fashion awareness as well. In Ra’anana, where I live, it’s hard to find differences in the houses of secular and religious people of the same socioeconomic status,” says Edith Ben-Ari, an interior decorator who is observant herself.

Shirley Dan, an architect, attributes the change to the fact that increasing numbers of religious women are joining the workforce. This has heightened their awareness of design and esthetics. Professionals qualify this, however, saying that the degree of openness is limited and that the more Orthodox the household, the less daring the choices are likely to be in terms of materials and colors. The more observant, the more likely the design will be solid and the hues quieter.

Colors schemes aside, there also remain significant differences between religious and secular families. In Orthodox homes, design and furnishings reflect a different lifestyle – they host guests more often, family events are centered on the dining room table rather than the living room, and families on average have more children.

“The differences in design are expressed much more in kitchens and living rooms than in bedrooms,” says interior designer Yifat Yerushalimi. “The rooms that serve most family members throughout the day, like the kitchen, dining corner and living room, are designed more spaciously, and make a statement more than the rest of the house.”

No dead space

Because Orthodox families are larger, they also have more belongings, so that every free square meter of space is dedicated to storage. “Secular families may have dead space that is less functional, which they may use for decoration, but Orthodox families will use these spaces for storage. An example of this is kitchen ‘islands’,” she says.

Interior designer Liora Niv-Fromchenko adds that in religious families it’s the parents who decide what the children’s rooms look like. Parents insist on study corners, even if these are small, which often come at the expense of space for beds. To make room, bunk beds are more often the norm for children.

What happens when the designer is asked to find solutions for families in which husband and wife, or the children, follows halacha (religious law) with different degrees of stringency? Architect Lilach Safran-Gorfung says a situation like this requires complex planning, especially in the kitchen, where the laws of kashrut are a major design factor for Orthodox homes. “This is especially the case with people who are in the process of becoming more observant than their spouses. Household conduct in other parts of the house doesn’t change much,” said Safran-Gorfung.

Here are some examples of the ways in which design elements are expressed in Orthodox homes:

In a religious home, the living and dining room are dominated by bookcases filled with religious texts and silver-plated ritual items. “For young people, these two items signal that you have entered an Orthodox household,” says Ben-Ari.

Relatively more space is devoted to the dining area, where most of the social interactions and hosting occur. Ben-Ari: “Secular homes sometimes don’t have a dining area, or they have one that is adapted to the living room in size. For religious families, this area is as important as the living room. In small apartments the dining area is often larger than the living room.”

Dining tables are important elements even for smaller families. Even people who don’t host much still prefer large tables that will testify to their strong sense of family and the ability to host large events, even if those don’t happen often, says Safran-Gorfung.

Furniture designer Yiftach Ben-Zvi says a table designed for a religious family should be able to seat 14 people when opened. “Tables are usually extendable wooden ones, rarely glass-topped ones. Chairs must be comfortable, and a chair with a hand rest at the head of the table, for the head of the family, is a must. One design I carry that has a leg at the end of the table is always rejected since the head of the family needs room for his legs.”

Because this area of the house is used so frequently, practical upholstery -- synthetic, durable and easy to clean – are usually the norm. The same goes for curtains in the living room – designers tend to go with synthetic material with a silk or flax look.

“In houses with a traditional look and a ‘heavy’ dining area, I choose material with some sheen, using two layers combining transparent material and taffeta, ending in tassels,” says Ben-Ari. “These houses are more daring in the color of prints and the range of textures, designed to give them a rich look. It’s different than the light colors and felts we see in less traditional homes.”

Safran-Gorfung usually designates reading areas in living rooms she designs. “The less TV they watch, the more intimate sitting areas I plan, with reading corners and bookcases for all types of books. I’ve learned that some books should be on display while others are kept in drawers. I plan spaces for both alternatives.”

The wide age range enables her to allow for play areas that allow parents “to maintain visual contact with the children while giving them space for growth and independence, whether the space is used for study, singing or delivering weekly drashot (sermons).”

Some families leave a small section of one wall unplastered or painted as a reminder of the Temple’s destruction. “This is an opportunity for introducing a design element that matches colors and other natural elements in the house, such as an industrial grey floor or modern industrial metal work, or colors that are appropriate for glass or natural wood,” she says.

Doubling up in the kitchen

People assume that the only aspect of an observant lifestyle in the kitchen is separate sinks for dairy and meat. But that is only the start of a complicated design process that often requires creative solutions.

For those who can afford it, an Orthodox kitchen will have two ovens, two refrigerators, two dishwashers and even two microwave ovens. Without separate ovens, thorough cleaning and a 24-hour wait or two hours of high heat are required after cooking meat. Some dishwashers come with a separate tray for meat and milk dishes. Very large kitchens often are divided into meat and milk sections, an issue that needs sorting out before designs are drawn up.

Antibacterial corian countertops are often used in religious homes, since they don’t absorb the materials placed on them. Safran-Gorfung explains that for those who observe Shabbat, electrical appliances can’t have lights that come on when doors are opened. Families require extra storage space for the extra amount of dishes and cookware. Kitchen islands will often have small sinks for ritual handwashing.

Indeed, the requirements are so many and so complicated that Safran-Gorfung usually inquires about the family’s expectations, levels of observance and culinary habits before designing a kitchen.

“I sometimes find that older girls do the cooking as a hobby, with many people becoming vegetarian or vegan. They may eat more dairy products out of convenience. If so, I will plan a main and subsidiary kitchen to accommodate for both types of diet. When a separate kitchen is required I recommend similar designs but keep some clearly marked differences to avoid unintended mixing of milk and meat dishes,” she says.

Halacha requires a married couple to avoid physical contact during some parts of the month, so that beds in the master bedroom of observant homes are designed to be easily separated. This requires that they be detached from the wall. Bedspreads need to have two sections that are easily separated while looking like one whole piece. In bedrooms with electrically-operated blinds, these are left open before the Sabbath begins and a manually operated shading device is used instead.

Guest bathrooms usually have attached sinks for ritual handwashing, although these may be in the kitchen area. “These corners are for presentation and are well-designed,” says Ben-Ari. “People invest a lot in this, rather than using the kitchen sink.” Good planning allows for quick and convenient handwashing. “I usually separate the sink from the toilet so hands can be washed even when toilets are occupied,” says Safran-Gorfung.