Trembling in the Snow of Jerusalem

If you trip on the ice while on a date with a Haredi rabbinical student, he won't extend his hand, but he might offer you his umbrella.

In Jerusalem, the snow falls delicately.

I glance anxiously at the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical student: son of an influential Jerusalemite family, secretly studying computer science. "Top of the yeshiva, the very top!" the matchmaker had insisted over the phone.

Almost all of Jerusalem is closed down in anticipation of the coming snowstorm. “Don’t worry, we’ll find something,” he reassures me in Hebrew. The only open restaurant doesn’t have a sufficient kashrut level, he explains, so we’ll have to simply order tea.

I’m tired, I struggle to keep my eyes open, and without thinking, I mention Israeli politics. I had spent the day wandering streets papered in election campaign posters; politicians and rabbis smiling on bus advertisements promising a future of absolutes. In a country supposedly torn apart by debates over state and religion, enemies and war, with television and radio shows replete with arguing anchors, the citizens themselves don’t seem to care anymore. “At this point, we don’t vote for, we vote against,” a journalist had told me that morning over coffee in Tel Aviv.

The waitress brings us our drinks. “So what do you think the elections will determine for the Haredi community?” I ask the rabbinical student. “Will the yeshivas really fold into the army?”

“Yeshiva students don’t care enough to go into the army,” he tells me calmly, stirring his tea. “This place, it’s not worth it for them. ‘Why live here, if it means I have to go into the army? I’ll live in Brooklyn instead.’”

I’m not sure if he’s serious. “But how can they say that?” I hear my American accent grow stronger. “They’re Israeli, they speak Hebrew, live here, vote --”
“No, they’re not Israeli. They’re Haredi. That’s another thing entirely.” A pause. “I’m not saying I agree with it,” he explains in a measured, articulate voice -- the kind of Hebrew I’ll never have. And then, “I don’t want to leave this community, but there’s nowhere to go.”

I continue arguing, faltering and sounding shamelessly naive, weak, Diaspora. I’m a thin-skinned foreigner here, I know that. While I’m Orthodox, I have yet to define my level of observance with a particular label, and as I travel in Israel, I realize that the distance between New York’s Orthodox Jewish community and that in Israel is vaster than a mere ocean.

At Shabbat tables and in the streets and grocery stores in Jerusalem, I find a certain fascinating subculture in the ultra-Orthodox world. It’s a growing and elite community that’s not rebellious, just undeniably Western -- Italian-made suits and imported wigs and restaurant outings, American hip hop music and foreign films and Internet access behind closed doors, secret university degrees attained without the elders knowing.

When my neighbors quote Dostoevsky or Kafka, I do a double take and they laugh, asking, “What, you think we don’t read?” And when I make a joke in response, saying something about enlightenment or modernity, they look offended. “No, no,” they protest nervously. “We’re Haredi. We’re not modern.” They tell me how they want to lead isolated lives, separated from anything modern; I’m amused and think about how they know more of American films than I do.

The duality here is dizzying, and tonight, when I argue with the rabbinical student, he tells me simply, “Listen, in this country, things are black and white. At the end of the day, I’m Haredi.”

But what does it mean to be "Haredi" anymore, I wonder. Is one truly isolated if one engages with the Western world, albeit in secret? If I simply put on the uniform, will that render me "Haredi"? And what differentiates one observant Jew from the next? "Haredi," that Hebrew word that my teachers explained means "to tremble" in fear of God. “To be Haredi means to be constantly aware of Hashem’s presence,” we were taught. “To constantly tremble.”

As we step out of the restaurant into a white Jerusalem, all I can think about is this trembling. Before whom are we trembling -- and is it a matter of God anymore? How rarely do I hear God actually invoked in these conversations? Perhaps now we are afraid only of each other, in this religion that we’ve created out of fear of the other and his shadow, in this culture in which we read Dostoevsky under our desks, but quickly hide it and adjust our hats when we hear footsteps approaching.

Jerusalem is silent, and there’s not a single taxi out. On a patch of ice, I lose my balance and gasp; the rabbinical student, ever aware of the prohibition against touching a member of the opposite sex, extends his umbrella to me and says kindly, “Hold on to this.” I burst out laughing, laughing uncontrollably on this dark Jerusalem street in a Middle Eastern snowstorm.

“What?” he’s grinning widely.

“It’s just... funny... the idea... to hold onto an -- ” I begin to say and then realize I’ve forgotten the Hebrew word for umbrella.

Suddenly, something hits my shoulder; several Russian boys nearby are aiming snowballs at my companion’s black hat. “Haredim!” they shout. “Haredim, Haredim!”

“Brothers, brothers, please,” he says calmly as we dodge the snowballs. He turns to me with a smile. “Are you really sure you want to move to this country, mademoiselle?”

When we finally find a taxi, he takes me to the Haredi neighborhood where I’m staying. “I’ll stay at a friend’s dormitory nearby,” he says. We thank each other for the adventure and part ways.

The next morning I awake to children shrieking and laughing below my window; if the Talmudic sages had seen this, they would have said that one has not seen true joy if one hasn’t seen a snow day in Jerusalem. My hostess is making breakfast and tells me to eat plenty of onion and garlic in this weather. “Look outside,” she says. “Look at the dormitory next door!”

The street is filled with bespectacled yeshiva students armed with snowballs, young men and boys ducking behind retaining walls and roof parapets. We pause our breakfast to watch, turning down the radio to laugh over the scene unfolding. In the corner of my eye, I see last night’s rabbinical student step outside of the neighboring building, watching the celebration with his friends on the side.

“Look at that one,” my hostess says, pointing to him. “He looks intelligent.”

I nod -- yes, certainly -- and then move behind the lace curtain before he sees me. Something about this moment makes me shiver: the snow falling, the yeshiva student under my window, this girl hiding behind the lace curtain, too, and this city, where all I see is snow and black coats, white and black and white and black, and only when I look to the heavens do I see grey. It’s then that I tremble.

Reuters