Six Must-dos in Israel's ultra-Orthodox Hub: Bnei Brak

Matchmakers, a world-famous shul, traditional Jewish eats ... the 'Bnei Brak for Beginners' tour offers a glimpse into the life of a fascinating community.

Moti Milrod

In 1924, when a group of eight Hasidic families from Poland lay the cornerstone of what would become the modern-day, ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Dorit Barak’s grandparents, Zvi Nachman and Eeta Rachel, were among them.

This 54-year-old Bible and literature teacher-turned-tour guide has lived here her whole life. She dresses modestly, observes Shabbat and holidays, and seems to know everyone – from the greengrocers to the yeshiva students, to the women charging down the crowded streets with baby carriages and four or five tots in matching outfits in tow.

Still, Barak is something of an anomaly here. Divorced and without children, she sports six piercings in each earlobe, has a big Israeli flag flying from her porch and volunteers at Yad Labanim, the association of the families of fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers. 

So, yes, she stands out in a city not particularly known, to put it mildly, for its Zionist fervor or its feminism, for sending its 18-year-olds to the military (zero percent of the women here are drafted, and not many more of the men) or, for that matter, for celebration of any nonconformity.

But Barak is, at the same time, very much of this place, she attests, and was never tempted to move away as all her brothers did, to say, Tel Aviv, a mere 6 kilometers to the west.

“This is my home and it’s a community I respect and am endlessly fascinated by, and so – in honor of my father Yaacov, on whose lap I learned all my Bnei Brak stories – I decided to try and help outsiders understand it better,” she says, arranging her Madonna-style microphone headset, lacing up her no-nonsense walking shoes, and getting down to tour-guide business.

Barak offers Haaretz readers her top six suggestions for a quick peek into the life of the ultra-Orthodox (known as Haredim in Israel) community – what she calls “Bnei Brak for Beginners.”

Typically she arranges tours, which last about three hours, for groups, but she can accommodate individuals as well. So, should you be confused about the different Hasidic sects, wondering why there are big bright red-and-yellow charity boxes at every street corner, or still unsure what cholent is made of, Barak invites you to call her up and come on over for a tour of the place she calls home.

A date at the jungle gym

It definitely does not look like much. But in this poor and very crowded city – population around 170,000 – where families are big, birthrate is high, money is scarce and apartments are overflowing, this little park of jungle gyms and benches outside city hall on Jerusalem Street has become an oasis of sorts.

At the far end is a fountain, a serious gathering place at Rosh Hashanah when, for lack of a beachfront, thousands show up here to perform the Tashlich ritual – symbolically throwing their sins into the shallow water.

The park is particularly popular with young people who are going on a date. With no real cafes or bars in Bnei Brak, this is the place to bring your future honey, explains Barak, lowering her voice.

If you wander around here, especially at dusk, you will undoubtedly see many young couples, sitting a respectful distance apart – not touching of course – talking quietly about hobbies, friends, politics, family and any other subject that comes to mind – all the while sizing each other up for a potential lifetime together.

Matchmaker, matchmaker

The arrangement of such a date in this Tinder-less locale, involves, of course, a matchmaker. Meeting someone involved in this age-old, Orthodox line of business offers a whole world of insight into this society, explains Barak, as she buzzes into an apartment building directly across from the park.

There, Hinda, an artist, mother of seven, and grandmother of 22 – who has been doing pro-bono matchmaking for years in the community – explains how it’s done. “With God’s help I try and think logically, with my head before my heart, about who suits whom,” she explains.

Her husband Yosef once tried to set up a filing system for her, to help her organize and keep all the potential matches in order. “But it failed,” he shrugs. “It’s all in her head: the yeshiva boys, the neighbors’ children, the best families and the less-easy sells.”

Typically, Hinda and other matchmakers will suggest that their “clients” check out the potential match secretly; they might sneak a peek at them during synagogue services, or perhaps cop a look during someone else’s wedding. If that part works, the couple will then move on to a chaperoned house visit – and maybe soon after, to an actual date on the park benches across the way.

“Beyond all the logic of the match – there also has to be attraction” between the two sides, notes Barak, as she leaves. “But, of course, they are not allowed to act on it.”

Murmurs of prayer

The best pool of potential matches can be found down the way from here, at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, which is Barak’s next port of call. With over 20,000 of its graduates spread around the world, including top rabbis and scholars, this yeshiva – which Barak dubs the “Harvard of the ultra-Orthodox world” – has been in Bnei Brak since 1943, when it was relocated from Lithuania.

Today, Ponevezh has a chain of institutions and educational programs around the country, but its main campus, complete with a boarding school for its over 1,000 students, ages 16 to 23, remains here.

Male visitors, dressed modestly and with kippot on their heads, are welcome to walk into the building and get lost between the corridors of white shirts, black pants and the murmurs of prayer.

Women visitors have to make do with the enormous courtyard, where peeping eyes from every window peer out, and the young men can be seen mainly sneaking in a smoke outside the balconies.

Deli pit stop

This is a good time to stop for a snack, incidentally, as one of the more popular and newer neighborhood delis – the Chef Deli, on Ra’abad Street – is located right across from the stairs leading up to the Ponevezh Yeshiva. There, between the main stops on the tour, you can pick up some chopped liver and, while you're at it, some kugel (a baked casserole, commonly made of egg noodles or potatoes) or kishkes (stuffed sausage).

Shmulik and Sari Farkash, or one of their seven children, will sell you a fish’s head for just 16 shekels (about $4.20), or 23 shekels if you want it on a plate, and share some basics about what’s what in the world of Jewish Ashkenazi homemade cooking – before sending you on your way.

‘5th Avenue’ shul

Situated right off Rabbi Akiva Street – the “Haredi 5th Avenue,” as some call it – and at the corner of Rabbi Shach street, is the world-famous Itzkowitz synagogue. Open 24/7, it is basically the center of social and religious activity here in Bnei Brak, at least for men. Known as a “factory for minyans” (prayer quorums) and also as “the busiest synagogue in the world,” thousands of men congregate in and around the Itzkowitz, day and night. Prayer sessions get going every 15 minutes on average, in one of the six small sanctuaries within the dilapidated building.

Ladies, alas, are all but excluded from this scene – except for Shabbat and holidays, when they can go to a special walk-up section next door to the main building – from which they can either peer over and down at the men, or engage in their own praying and chatting sessions.

Challah heaven

Finally, no one can even think of visiting Bnei Brak without a challah stop.

They don’t do gluten-free here, nor do they mix in caraway seeds, but if you are looking for the authentic, soft-and-yet-also-crusty braided deal, Bnei Brak is the place for Shabbat challahs. The most famous of the bakeries here is undoubtedly the Viznitz bakery, located down an alley in the center of the city that’s called Shimshon Hagibor (Samson the Hero) – and frequented these days by as many enthusiastic secular customers who come from afar, as by locals. It’s open from Thursday afternoon, throughout the night and up until an hour before the Sabbath comes in.

Alternatively, suggests Barak, head to any of the six Zvi bakeries scattered around the city which bring out tray after tray of fresh, equally sumptuous challahs, which sell as fast as they come out of the ovens.

She likes to pop into the one on the corner of Rabbi Akiva and Rashi Streets, conveniently catty-corner to the Itzkowitz synagogue, where it’s all happening. Zvi bakeries also have fresh, and inexpensive chocolate rugelach and other pastries. A perfect way, says Barak – calling out a hello to a friend across the street, and removing her microphone – with which to end a sweet few hours in Bnei Brak.