Do you live with the Answer or the Question?
There’s a street in Tel Aviv Shenkin street which is where all the young and fashionable go to pose and parade. It’s lined with clothing stores, jewellery stalls and hip cafes where everyone eyes each other up. I used to call it Lolita Street on account of all the aggressive sexuality of the young girls hitting the scene for the first time.
Shenkin is about as showy as Tel Aviv gets but it’s almost exclusively a young crowd, with the exception of a few older guys reinventing themselves as cool on the hunt for younger girls. Everyone is pretty, everyone is cool – and if you’re not you probably have no business being there.
All of which makes the presence of the orthodox religious so incongruous. Above the milling traffic of the pretty people the men in black rent an apartment with a balcony where they play folk guitar and sing songs to their favourite rabbi.
“Nachman, Nachman, oh oh Nachman…”
From beneath designer haircuts and too much cosmetics, the young and hip look up in belief at these curly haired, bearded guys all in Polish Aristocratic black, bouncing up and down in a way that could never be described as cool. Yet the religious keep it up all through Friday afternoon, the busiest day of the week on Shenkin and hand out leaflets to anyone who will take one, begging them to come and be a Jew.
In Hebrew, they describe someone who doesn’t have any strong faith as ‘living with the Question’. The born-again Jews are those who have ‘returned to the Answer’. The chances of converting the residents of Shenkin might seem slim at first sight – flapping black suits, silly beards and shaved head for women just isn’t in fashion right now – but the fact is that Israelis are converting in record numbers.
Returning from India with a headful of hallucinogenic experiences and startling realisations about life, many Israelis fall flat on their faces when they return home. They arrive back in Israel to face grief and nagging from all sides and no one cares to make sense of what they experienced when they were away. The religious, on the other hand, are more than ready to explain what’s going on. There’s no hallucination or mind-trip so intense as not to be covered in one of the pages of the Kabalah and they offer something of a map to trippers who got lost.
I had a friend called Gidi whom I’d introduced to LSD back in the Himalayas in 1998. We’d hung out a lot and a couple of years later we bumped into each other at a festival in the autumn. Around a camp fire we caught up on our travel stories and compared notes on the meaning of life. He was a bright, sensitive man who’d recently lost his mother and was looking to take his life in new directions.
The I left Israel and when I returned five years later I looked him up via a mutual friend.
“Oh, didn’t you hear?” She told me sadly, “He ‘returned to the answer’ and went to live in a settlement on the West Bank.”
There were also some who were just waiting to teeter over the edge into religious faith. There were those who were scarred by traumatic war experiences and also those who were always a little illuminated.
I met Lee’at at a festival in the Spring. I was dancing to some drums and my wild India moves for her attention. She was trained in ballet and pretty soon we were improvising a contact dance, our wrists interlocking and then springing free. Over the next couple of days she kept me company as I failed to sell incense on my stall and we talked about spirituality and life in Israel.
“It’s hard to live here, huh?” I remarked.
“You have no idea how hard.” She emphasised.
She let me read through a collection of quotes from the Rabbi Lybovitch, a celebrated teacher whom some thought to be the Messiah. As we talked over the teachings there was an air of romance in the air but she was a conservative girl who wouldn’t contemplate anything casual.
Her aspect of unattainability made her a perfect match for my tendency towards unrequited love and we stayed in touch by email over the next year, always chatting about the spiritual by which I hoped to win her heart. When I returned the next year she’d just ‘returned to the Answer’ but I didn’t grasp the significance of that until we met and I ran forwards to hug her.
“Oh no!” She winced, stepping back, “I can’t touch men now.” Instead she introduced me to a high five where the hands pull back a few inches short of contact. ‘It’s the best’, she assured me.
Whilst most people don’t realise how secular most of Israel is, religion is also never all that far in the background. Judaism is a very rich faith, particularly in the realm of the intellectual and, if there’s something troubling you in your life, you can bet some rabbi exhausted all the possibilities in some scripture. There’s also a strong mystic road map in Judaism and, if you’re Jewish, it’s all laid on for you.
Even on an existential level, if they don’t believe in the whole Promised Land story of the Torah then Israelis are hard pushed to explain what the fuck they’re doing in the Middle East. Sure, the present generation doesn’t have to justify where they were born and grew up but the entire idea of Israel itself is pretty absurd unless you believe in a Jewish nation who was given the country by God.
“We were here two thousand years ago!” Shopkeepers sometimes old me, “Then they threw us out. The Arabs weren’t here then.”
There’s not much point trying to reason with them as logic doesn’t come into it. Everyone needs to survive and they’ll believe what they have to guarantee that survival.
There’s a lot about religion in Israel that doesn’t make much sense. There are hundreds of different sects, traditions and streams of Judaism in the country but generally the men in black are referred to as ‘Haredim’, the ‘fearing ones’. Apparently their job is to fear for the future of Israel. They walk around in black suits that were all the rage back in Poland and some of them even still wear furry hats in the middle of summer.
It’s hard to imagine Moses and co in such garb under the desert sun but obstinacy is as close to the religious heart as is the love of argument and no doubt they feel sufficiently pious sweating in black. Generally their skin is a pallid white and glasses are the norm, indeed both these qualities indicate a pious nature, as they spend their lives indoors studying the Torah. Even at bus stops they pull out a religious book to nod over while they wait for the number 72.
The married Jewish women have their hair cut short to make them less attractive and indeed if they stick to their traditions they should by rights shave their heads and wear a wig. All in all, orthodox religious couples are amongst the ugliest and most unhealthy you’ll ever see.
The stiffness in dress sense often extends to their communication and education as well. Whilst in some respects Judaism is pretty evolved (it’s a religious duty for the man to give pleasure to his wife) sexuality and gender amongst the religious can be something of a taboo topic. Major religions have traditionally seen sex as a challenge to their own authority and whilst it can’t always be denied, repressed or persecuted, it can be ignored.
I had a flat mate in Tel Aviv who was taking a break from the religious life for a couple of years, He was still in touch with his devout friends and still believed in the sanctity of it all but he wanted to try living without for a while – he wanted to get laid.
He had very good luck at first, meeting an absolutely stunning girl who spent her last five days in the country with him before flying to the USA to work. Afterwards he told me it was more or less the first time in his life that he’d made love. He was twenty seven years old.
Then he sat down on a chair in the kitchen and with a sheepish grin on his face, he asked me:
“Tom, what is a woman’s period?”
It turned out that whilst he knew that babies didn’t come from the stork, he wasn’t quite sure what menstruation had to do with it all. I had to sit down with him and go through it all from the birds to the bees:
“Well, as far as I understand it, it’s something like this…”
The Haredim are not popular in Israel. Many of them don’t go to the army, their influence in parliament ensures that they get money from the government to continue their studies of the Torah and they throw stones at cars who drive into their neighbourhoods on Shabbat, the day of rest. On top of that they act with the moral superiority of those who know their calling in life better than you do. They are, literally, holier-than-thou.
Yet in the beginning none of the religious wanted to have anything to do with Israel. The Promised Land was only supposed to be recreated with the return of the Messiah and, that having yet to happen, the hardline religious don’t even recognize the state. Still, they’re quite happy to spearhead the settlement building and to oppress the local Arabs….
I had one friend, a girl called Noa, who particularly hated the Haredim on account of her sister ‘returning to the Answer’ and becoming an uptight freak. Yet she was a compassionate girl and whilst visiting her parents one Shabbat, a Hared came up to her in the street and asked if she was Jewish. She nodded uncertainly and the man in black frowned in disappointment. Suddenly she realised he was looking for a Shabbat Goy (a non Jew) to perform a task for him that the Torah forbade Jews to do on Saturdays. He confirmed her suspicion eagerly:
“I left my boiler on,” He explained, “And I’m worried it might burst unless it’s turned off.”
According to religious law it was out of the question for either of them to do it unless actual life was being risked but it wasn’t that serious yet. Noa suggested that they try at a nearby sea food restaurant in case there were any Filipinos working in the kitchen – shellfish and shrimp being, of course, non kosher. Sure enough they found a bright young man in the kitchen who spoke only broken English but who was happy to help.
The three of them then walked in Indian file and in silence to the Hared’s house. Noa had nothing to say to the worried Hared and communication was difficult with the bemused Filipino who trailed along, wondering what they wanted of him. They arrived at the house, climbed the steps to the bathroom and then Noa and the Hared tried to explain to the poor Filipino what was required of him.
“You see the red button there? You have to push it hard – push it! Yes, the red button, with you finger – push!”
With a face that suggested suspicious of being on Candid Camera, the Filipino slowly extended his index finger towards the red button, all the while being urged on by Noa and the Hared. His task being completed, they then smiled and wished him a good day. You can imagine him returning home to his wife that evening.
“You’ll never believe what happened to me today. These Jews are crazy…”