Taking Their Licks to Survive

A new ice-cream parlor in an ultra-Orthodox part of Jerusalem has provoked protests by religious zealots


Haredi children at a new ice cream parlor in Jerusalem
Alex Levac

Jerusalem's Geula Street, which has long been the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) community's thriving and lively shopping area, as well as a pilgrimage site for Haredi tourists, is relatively quiet at noon on a weekday. Several youngsters in Haredi garb, more smartly turned out than the norm in the surrounding yeshivas, are standing and chatting outside a new and controversial ice-cream parlor, Zisalek ("a sweet lick" in Yiddish), exchanging cheerful banter as they hold their ice-cream cones.

It is precisely against such gatherings that residents of the adjacent ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim have warned during the past six weeks, since the ice-cream parlor opened. "Pritzus" ("promiscuity" ), they declared in pashkevils (wall posters) at the entrance to their quarter. The sensational headlines in the mass and Orthodox media, on the eve of the parlor's opening, brought thousands of people there on opening day. Members of the Haredi community's most extreme factions, who belong to the Geula committee, responded as usual with protests in front of the shop and unmistakable messages to its owners.

Shops in which ice cream is sold, by weight, are no novelty in the Haredi streets. Pinat Haglida (the Ice-Cream Corner ) has existed for 30 years on Rabbi Akiva Street, the main street in the Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. These days, too, one can buy cones with different ice-cream flavors, in a fairly elegant sweetshop called Cherry on Jerusalem's Strauss Street, near the Geula neighborhood. It even offers red bar stools, where customers can sit and lick without interruption.

"At the beginning we maintained separation [between men and women]," says the storekeeper at Cherry, who covers her head in a kerchief. "Then we saw it was not necessary. No one said a word to us. It is not an easy neighborhood, but I think one must respect the residents and if we are okay with them, there are no problems."

As a rule, the Haredi community is very sensitive when it comes to any food business, big or small, that has chairs and tables, which can encourage idleness, loitering and, of course, dangerous mingling of men and women. Modi'in Ilit, for example, moved its pizzeria to its industrial zone, a drive out of town. Even so it is a hangout for groups of young men, and has prompted complaints by residents and close supervision by rabbis. Its two benches disappear from time to time, only to be reinstalled after a while, when the bans are lifted. In Bnei Brak there are no restaurants or other purveyors of food that offer customers the possibility of eating sitting down.

Geula has several falafel stands and small restaurants with traditional Jewish food. However, the extremists have imposed various restrictions on Zisalek's owners. They may not open the shop on Saturday nights, the windows must be covered, and they are to close the store no later than 11 P.M. On Fridays, the busiest business day, they may not sell ice cream in cones, but rather only in family-size containers, for consumption at home.

Zisalek's owners acceded to the demands. A spokesman for the extremist groups (including the Geula committee ), Yoel Krois, says that despite the shop's compliance, his children will not set foot in the new ice-cream parlor. In fact they may not even leave Mea Shearim because the atmosphere in neighboring Geula is too tempting and permissive for them.

"The worst thing is catching our yeshiva boys in Geula," says Krois. "We demonstrated because Zisalek is ruining the neighborhood. This ice-cream parlor attracts people who do not live in the neighborhood and who do not fit in with the atmosphere here. Besides that, it makes the ultra-Orthodox appear as though licking ice cream is what they're all about."

"There are things one does not do openly, in public, where anybody can see," says a Haredi public relations man who observed the commotion from a distance. "They seemed to institutionalize licking in public when they distributed free ice cream."

Snazzy storefront

At midday on Geula Street, a 12-year-old boy paces back and forth in front of Zisalek's refrigerator, a crumpled bill in his hand. Minutes pass as he tries to make up his mind and choose the one scoop allotted to him. Behind him is a female seminary student who is elated when she finds out there is no extra charge for a waffle cone. The storefront is snazzy, glass walls surround the shop, and red and green signs display its cutesy name.

In the closed world that is Geula, with the strict laws that Haredi zealots dictate, the store's shiny facade is a fundamental change. The shops on Geula generally look like stores in a shtetl, cramped and crowded, with no display windows. In many stores one has to descend from street level to the basement floor, and only there, concealed, is abundance permitted.

Yaakov Halperin, who owns the Halperin chain of eyeglass stores, is a partner in Zisalek and the driving force behind it. He talks of the new flavors designed especially for the Haredi palate, like honey cake dipped in wine. He is aware that the ice cream is not just a food item, but also an opportunity for entertainment and that that presents a problem. He will not open a shop in Bnei Brak. "The Jerusalem Haredim are more open than the Bnei Brak hinyuk [a stern-looking character who eschews earthly pleasures]," he says.

"A Haredi in Jerusalem is more exposed to foreign influences; he mixes more with American and French people, and therefore is more open to going out. In Bnei Brak, we will open something outside of town that will give residents an opportunity for a short outing - not a real night out - with their wives for ice cream. That is permitted."

Halperin says there were protests against his shop because "we introduced permissiveness into the street. It bothered them that the ice-cream parlor is on the main street, attracting people." Is there a danger that it could be closed? "We compromised," he says. "After all they did not harm us. They could have thrown paint at the window."

Many people in the Haredi community are sure that the real cause of the confrontation between Zisalek and Mea Shearim residents is the rivalry among the various groups that grant kosher certification. They are competing for business that entails lots of prestige and money.

"At one time the most prominent group issuing kosher certificates was the Haredi community's Badatz," says a salesman in one of the shops. "But during the past few years the certification of Rabbi Avraham Rubin, which most Haredi groups accept, has been used in several restaurants and pushed aside the Badatz certification. That is what the fighting is really about. The Badatz is up in arms against the decision [ to go with Rubin.]"

Krois emphatically denies it. "This has nothing to do with the certification," he says. Halperin also does not think this rivalry is the reason. "The residents represented by the Geula Committee have long been opposed to opening a business providing pleasure on Saturday night," he says. "Today, no business opens on Saturday night, and they did not want us to be the first ones to break those rules." He added that residents do not want an alien culture of entertainment seeping into their streets, but they "know there is no alternative. I think that if I don't bother them, they won't kick me out."