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When in Mea Shearim, do as the Haredi do (Finding the balance between the custom of the place and imposing your beliefs on others)

Published: August 24, 2012
Section: Opinions


While in Israel in April, I spent a few days in Jerusalem with camp friends. We did all of the touristy stuff I’d done before, as well as going to a few places a tour guide never would have taken me.

Our day started at Machaneh Yehuda, an outdoor market. After some sweetened, dried pineapple sold by the pound and an absolutely delicious falafel and hummus spread for lunch, we began to plan the rest of our day.

As luck would have it, there was an Ice City across town—that’s right … an Ice City.

To walk there, we’d have to go through Mea Shearim.

“Maybe we should take a cab,” one friend said.

“Yeah, we can’t go through Mea Shearim,” the other said as her eyes flicked over my outfit, giving me a once-over worthy of the first day of eighth grade. “Especially dressed like that.”
Dressed like what? I looked down, taking a quick peek at my not-too-short denim shorts and the loose three-quarter-sleeve t-shirt. Sure, I wouldn’t have gone to synagogue in that, but I certainly felt adequately dressed to have left the house and to have been wandering around in public.

To clarify, she wasn’t just being judgmental. Both girls I was with were dressed similarly to me, but that just wasn’t going to work. As I quickly learned, Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, is an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood known for its strict adherence to traditional Jewish customs, including modesty for men and women. Signs posted at entrances to the neighborhood read in Hebrew and English: “Please do not pass through our neighborhood in immodest clothes.”

While I was completely satisfied with what I was wearing, I was also willing to spend 30 shekels (approximately 8 American dollars) to avoid making others uncomfortable. I like to think of myself as being an accommodating person, but it’s certainly possible that I just didn’t want to have to deal with anything getting in the way of my trip to the Ice City. Hearing a story about our former camp counselor driving through Mea Shearim on a Saturday (a violation of Shabbat) and the rocks that were thrown at her probably helped with the decision.

Thirty shekels, an American politics-aware but non-English speaking cab driver, and a hundred degrees later, we were in line for the Ice City. Half an hour and an Israeli mother who inexplicably felt comfortable leaving her son who didn’t speak English with three American girls (who could only ask him his name, his age, and how he was doing—Yahan, four, and very good) after that, we realized that we were supposed to preorder the tickets. They were sold out. What a bust. We spent the rest of the day enjoying the rest of Jerusalem, and I forgot about our conversation about Mea Shearim entirely.

In Judaism, there’s actually a name for this (sort of): “minhag hamakom,” or “custom of the place.” It’s sort of like “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It’s often applied to physical practices during prayer (sitting, standing, bowing, etc.) but can be used to describe any facet of life. If the minhag hamakom is significantly different than the standard custom (i.e., in a small Jewish community versus American culture), as Jews we are supposed to follow the former.

If you attend a house of worship, you may be expected to dress a certain way, and that’s fair. A restaurant can declare “no shirt, no shoes, no service.” That’s fair too. I understand entirely the purpose of modest dress—it can help to limit vanity, pride and sexual thoughts in inappropriate situations, and, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m more than happy to be cooperative when that’s what is expected of me.

Generally, the people of Mea Shearim follow a gender-equal model of modesty. Although modesty means slightly different things for men and women, they each keep themselves fully covered—in my opinion, a good quality that means the modesty is less damaging to the psyche of the community.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article about glasses sold to Mea Shearim men to blur out any unsavory sights—think my shorts and t-shirt. The article I read criticized critics of the glasses. Elad Nehorai explained that the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Mea Shearim are under constant scorn and judgment, usually because outsiders are “worrying about others’ welfare.” He listed examples of sex scandals in American ultra-Orthodox communities and the “gangs of Jews policing modesty” to an unfair extent in Mea Shearim. In this case, however, the glasses worn by Mea Shearim men are hurting no one. He argues that the glasses help men avoid temptation so that they will never see women as sex objects.

Well, Mr. Nehorai, I do not hate these men, but in their quest to make sure they don’t see me as a sex object, they inherently imply that the less religious women are just that. On a personal level, I know that I can look at a man and not immediately undress him with my eyes and think impure thoughts—why can’t I expect the same when a man looks at me?

As accommodating as I like to be, there comes a point when following the minhag hamakom can become emotionally damaging to both members of the community and outsiders. It’s unclear whether this was one person who sold these glasses to a few of his friends or whether it was more widespread, but I think it speaks to the self-control of the men of Mea Shearim. I agree with one comment on an article about the glasses: One Orthodox woman wrote that she resented being thought of as a “sexual stumbling block for pious men,” and I worry for the children being raised in a society where men literally blind themselves to women—how do they reconcile that with the relationships they will one day form with spouses?

What it comes down to is the toll actions take on others. Politely asking me to cover up is not at all damaging to me or others who venture into Mea Shearim. When extremist views on morality lead to inequality, however, a problem has already risen.

Morality should not be an enforceable aspect of life. While it has a strong basis in communal discovery, it is a highly personal path. A community like Mea Shearim is more than welcome to set their own standards—after all, that’s how standards come to pass. Visitors should be respectful of that. A small minority, however, shouldn’t be able to make their own rules based on their own morality, no matter how strongly they believe it.