To Some Jerusalemites, the Secular vs. Haredi Paradigm Is Passe

Non-religious residents of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods say that while living amongst Haredim poses challenges, it also has its advantages.

In November 2011 translator and literary critic Azka Zvi passed away. In addition to her cultural activity, Zvi was known in Jerusalem as the last of secular resident in the ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim neighborhood. She lived on Yoel Street, in the heart of the capital's Haredi compound. Across the street from her home is a study hall belonging to the Satmar Hasidic community.

"She really liked the situation, she liked the neighbors. There was a Haredi family who adopted her and would invite her for meals and holidays," says her friend Yonadov Kaplan. She called that family "the people with warmth," says another friend, Gila Lahav-Snir. "She always said that she wouldn't want different neighbors."

Zvi's friends say that she did not adapt herself to her surroundings. "She didn't dress in a way that they approved. Sometimes there were men who would cross the street only because she was a woman, but that would amuse her," says Kaplan. "Living there suited her overall philosophy. She refused to relate to people according to categories. She didn't see people as members of ethnic groups; she wanted to see every person as a human being, no matter what he wore."

With Zvi's death, Mea She'arim has now become 100% Haredi. There are also two or three other purely ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem. But the others, although considered Haredi, still have islands of secular residents - here a student who is benefiting from a low-cost rental apartment, there a family that remained behind when all their friends left, or an older couple who refuse to give up their home even as their surroundings have completely evolved.

Entomologist Pini Amita is very familiar to many children in Jerusalem from his laboratory in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. The children from the Bayit Vegan neighborhood where he lives with his wife also know him well. "Every year in the spring they come to take silkworms, although they are insects," he says. Amita is apparently the last secular person left in his area.

For the most part, he says, he and his neighbors get along well enough. But there have been several unpleasant encounters between them. "One day one of the young students from the yeshiva next to us stuck his head out of the window and shouted 'prutza' (whore ) to my wife because she was wearing khaki shorts," says Amita. "Nu, all right, what did we do? I told my wife, come with me and do what I do. We took stones and threw them and broke almost all the windows of the yeshiva, until the rabbi came down and asked us to end things peacefully. I told him that I always have to be refined and polite and they're allowed to do whatever they want."

According to a Jerusalem urban legend Amitai also once used a large python that he raised in his house in order to keep away unwanted Haredi visitors. Amitai does not deny the story, but refused to offer details. "From time to time they come to me and try to convince me to leave because the place isn't good and the value of the house is steadily declining, but we're already past the age of 84, in another 16 years we'll be 100. Because we're idealists we aren't giving up and we'll continue to live here until the moment when we are called."

Some of the common daily problems faced by secular people who live in Haredi areas include: long walks to the car on Shabbat, second thoughts about what to wear on the way out of the house and consideration for the neighbors when listening to music on weekends.

But there are also advantages. "For me it's part of my attraction to the neighborhood," says Shahar Fisher, 29, a sociology student who lives in the Mahaneh Yehuda neighborhood north of Jaffa Street, not far from the market. "I believe that an encounter with the other is productive. It means challenging yourself on a daily basis, experiencing Jerusalem all the way."

Slow process of secularization

Fisher is not the only secular person living in this area, which most Jerusalemites consider Haredi. In fact, residents speak hesitantly about the fact that the neighborhood is slowly undergoing a process of secularization, a phenomenon that is totally contrary to everything we tend to think about Jerusalem. Others are dismissive of this so-called trend, since in terms of numbers, the Haredim are still an absolute majority.

Still a combination of students, migrant workers and one secular family that has lived in the neighborhood for years gives the area different hues, at the very least. The phenomenon is undoubtedly related to the changes in the Mahaneh Yehuda market in the past decade, and the fact that it has become a magnet for young people.

Fisher's neighbor, Karen Brunwasser, 35, says what is happening to their area requires a more complex description than the way Jerusalem is usually described. "Something very special is happening here. The entire paradigm of secular vs. Haredi is passe. I don't see myself as a secular pioneer in a Haredi neighborhood, but as a Jerusalemite who appreciates the uniqueness of the city," she says.

She tries to explain the complexity through an incident that happened to her recently. "I boarded the light railway and without noticing I sat down to a religious man. He started shouting at me, but the person standing next to me was Haredi, a Hasid, who defended me and said that I was absolutely right. The pluralist community in Jerusalem includes not only secular people, but religious people and even Haredim who want to talk with us."

"The dichotomy that says that Haredim and secular people can't live together under any circumstances is a new development in recent years," claims Rachel Azaria, a city council member from the Yerushalmim party. "This dichotomy was adopted by Haredi wheeler-dealers along with the other aspects of extremism. What lies behind it is the fear of development and progress. For Haredim, the concept of a neighborhood has changed from a place where you live to a place that you conquer. The secular people who still live among them are the remainder that is left from the days before the attitude changed."

In the area where 30-year-old history student Alon Neeman lives, there are more familiar processes of increasing Haredization and a change in the status quo to the detriment of the secular public. His apartment in on Strauss Street in the center of Jerusalem, north of Hanevi'im Street, which is considered the undisputed border between the sectors. To the north of it, as every Jerusalemite knows, lies the Haredi kingdom.

In the past two years a battle has been waged over the closure of Hanevi'im Street to traffic on Shabbat. When Neeman moved there five years ago the Shabbat barrier was put up every weekend at the bottom of the street, not far from Hashabbat Square. About four years ago the Haredim moved the barrier close to the Hanevi'im-Strauss junction, and left Neeman and another handful of secular people inside the area closed on Shabbat.

"At first we would call the police station and the policemen would move the barrier, but at a certain point the police stopped coming and the barrier remained. That's how the status quo changed," says Neeman. On Shabbat he has to remember to park far away and not to overdo the music. A female roommate who used to live in the apartment sometimes overheard remarks about the way she dressed. "There was a neighbor who said 'Why does my daughter have to see those things,' and when my girlfriend comes here it goes through my mind," says Neeman.

Since Haredi residents who want to see the entire Hanevi'im Street closed on Saturdays began gathering there every Shabbat, Neeman says the situation has gotten worse. "Passing through a demonstration is unpleasant. You're tense because you're different."

But, on the other hand he says, it's not all bad. "It's close to the city center, not far from the university, and you don't really feel it on an everyday basis; it becomes part of life. When I leave the house I turn south."

Shahar Fisher, right, and Karen Brunwasser.
Emil Salman
City Council member Rachel Azaria
Emil Salman