With Divine Help and Flaxseed

Expensive natural foods and health products are penetrating the ultra-Orthodox sector, in part reflecting a lack of confidence in conventional medicine.

The image of health food stores in the secular sector is that of shops for those wealthy enough to afford organic vegetables, whole-grain breads, and expensive massage oils. However, health food stores are proliferating in ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) neighborhoods, too, which are among the poorest residential quarters in Israel. Dafna Laufer, owner of Zimrat Haaretz, a health foods store on Jerusalem Street in Bnei Brak, offers a possible explanation. "In this city, people are willing to give up a lot of things for the sake of good health," she says.

Further explanation is offered by Zvia Atik, who has been involved in marketing health foods and vitamins for the past 25 years, and now works at Bio-Vit, the best-known health foods store in ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, not far from Shabbat Square. Atik says that while secular Israelis are attracted to health foods due to a lack of trust in the food industry, the Haredim seek them from a lack of faith in conventional medicine.

The origins of Bio-Vit lie in the bread and matza bakery established by Rabbi Yaakov Weisel and his wife Maite, which stood in Jerusalem of the 1950s, in Tel Arza, a neighborhood north of the city center. The rabbi and his wife were naturalists, and they introduced the Haredi public to the principles of healthy nutrition.

"Their house was filled with sacks," recalls Mordechai, the current owner of Bio-Vit, "seeds, wheat germ, ground flax, whole flax. The Haredi Jerusalemite public knew them as people who were able to help a great deal with health problems. Maybe people simply believed, and were healed through their abundance of faith." Yaakov Weisel's son institutionalized his parent's doctrines in the store he established in the 1960s, which was subsequently sold to its current owners.

Another Jerusalem health food store that stands out in its ultra-Orthodox surroundings is Teva Beit Yisrael, a relatively new shop behind the large synagogue in the Bukharan Quarter. The adjacent housewares store sells lead - for use against the evil eye - and the local streets and lanes form one of the city's most picturesque scenes.

Unique advertisements are posted by the entrance to the shop. "Berel, have you had your piece of morning bread yet?" reads one, which offers "Wheat Bisks, a quick and healthy morning bread." Another ad recommends using "Symphonos 2000," a syrup for strengthening the vocal chords. The reader learns that the syrup has "put a lot of cantors back on their feet" and that it is even effective for reciting the Slichot prayers at daybreak. "The month of Elul will soon be hear," trumpets the ad, "and with Symphonos 2000, you'll have nothing to fear."

Teva Beit Yisrael offers several varieties of tofu, an infusion of the "Shepherd's Satchel" plant, a low-calorie halvah made of whole sesame and a carob spread. Stacked on the shelves furthest from the door are crackers and umeboshi plums, miso, nori seaweed, pickled ginger and sheets for maki rolls - all from Japan. All of which raises the inevitable question: Who in the Bukharan Quarter makes sushi?

The shopkeeper, Yitzhak H., who like the owner of Bio-Vit requested that his full name not appear in this article, may serve as an example of the typical Haredi sushi eater. H. grew up as a kibbutznik in the Arava and became religious about 10 years ago. Standing behind a mound of charity boxes and Ricola candies, he conveys his bitterness at the government's cutback in 2000 in the allowances paid to families with many children, which caused families in the neighborhood to slash their vitamin budgets.

H. admits that not every item in the shop adheres to the absolutely strictest standards of kashruth, going so far as to describe some of them as non-kosher, but he points out that since the Haredi public sees health foods as being preferred to the science of medicine, there are times that the various rabbis will recognize their consumption as being an act of saving lives. "I am very careful not to stock items that include non-kosher ingredients," he says. "For example, the Omega 6 has to be made from kosher fish, which have scales and fins."

On one point there is no genuine difference between ultra-Orthodox health foods stores and those in secular neighborhoods: prices. A half-liter of organic goat's milk yogurt, for example, costs NIS 11-13 is each of the shops that were surveyed - the same price as at Nitzat Haduvdedvan in Herzliya.