Thoughts from the Holy Land 2

Let me start with a map. The distance from the Jordan river (border of Jordan) to the Mediterranean Sea in the center of Israel is just over 40 miles. Everything is compressed. There isn’t a lot of physical space. And that space holds a lot of history.

Almost anywhere you dig, literally anywhere, you will find layer upon layer of different cultures and civilizations. And that space holds a lot of different peoples. The distinction between Arabs and Jews doesn’t begin to express it. There are many kinds of each, including not only theological divisions but essentially ethnic divisions as well.

But it isn’t just different peoples. It is different worldviews and viewpoints. And these struggle with space and for space; social, psychological, and spiritual. We have heard about the difficulty for politicians to “remain within the consensus,” meaning the current multi-party government, when a large part of the constituency wants to break out over sometimes minute ideological issues. But issues critical to their sense of community identity. We have heard of how women struggle to stay within orthodoxy because they do not want to suffer the dual punishment of facing both misogyny and exile from their community and tradition.

And all of this takes place in actual spaces, neighborhoods in which some Jews want to stop all cars from disturbing the sabbath and others don’t want their freedom impinged by religious laws they find ridiculous. For example. Or at the Western Wall divided by gender, with women have less space and reformed and conservative Jews even less. Or in the head-space where Israeli Arab Muslims and Christians live when the national anthem, specifically Jewish, is sung.

And no place has all of this tension more compressed than Jerusalem, where a couple of hours walk can traverse them and encircle them.

And perhaps that is why our hosts expressed quite openly how the 30 mile trip to Tel Aviv is a million mile trip toward feeling relaxed. One said he went to Tel Aviv at least once a week “just to breath.” We all felt it as well. Jerusalem is a straight jacket in a padded cell, Tel Aviv a spacious garden. Both cells and gardens are features of a lunatic asylum, but I suspect the latter is the path to sanity.

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Let me start with a hat – or if you prefer a kippah (also called yarmulke – from the Aramaic). We had a little lecture today to wrap up our visits (over two days) to see the diversity of Jewish Jerusalem. At first glance men in Jerusalem seem to fall into three categories: broad brimmed hat wearers in black fedoras, narrower brimmed trilbies, and the kippah.

But if you watch out a bit, especially on the sabbath, you’ll see the eight types of hats (not including the kippah) worn by Hasidim, and those worn by the ultra-orthdox, and those worn by the Shephardic and Yemeni Jews, each according to his origin. But under those hats are kippahs, and these further delineate not merely which sect of orthodox Jew wears it, but also his political inclinations across a broad spectrum. Our guide gave us the rundown on the top 15 or so – fascinating but I won’t repeat it.

We had a chance to do some hat spotting yesterday by taking a very slow drive on the eve of the Sabbath through the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods north of the old city.

A different world, where a dozen or more costumes (along with hats) delineate the varying forms of ultra-orthodox sect, bound together by a determination to avoid corruption from negative outside influences and to maintain the purity of their varying interpretations of the law. (In many cases to also avoid recognizing Israel’s sovereignty and thus paying taxes and serving in the military.)

But what do we make of all those men in their varied hats, vests, pants, and locks of hair curling down in front of their ears? (cut or uncut makes a difference) What do we make of the women, all modestly dressed but with a variety of head coverings (including wigs) that denote just what constitutes public modesty in their particular sect? Of the large posters on the wall telling of the latest ruling of this or that rabbi – a means of communication that harkens to village squares in the 17th century and before? Of the great  busyness as all and sundry rush to complete their sabbath shopping before sundown. (Marked  by sirens, for from that point onward not only is it forbidden to buy and sell, but to even carry something in your pockets lest an accidental commercial exchange ensue.) And what to make of the fact that in this quest for purity and integrity tour buses are not welcome, so that here we took no pictures and our guide sat discreetly and spoke quietly as our bus pushed through the crowds.

It is understandable of course that people do not wish to live like animals in a zoo, or characters in a museum diorama. But there is more going on with a man wearing black knee britches over long socks and square toed buckled shoes. Or another in a gold and white stripped bathrobe over a white shirt and black pants. Or the young women with flowing hair alongside their mothers whose bald-shaved heads are tightly bound in a colored scarf.

But let us take the first man, who when Sabbath comes like a Queen to her Bridegroom will take off his black hat and long coat and put on a luxurious fur-covered hat shaped like a small tire. And will put on a long rich silk black coat bound at the waist with a wide black silk sash. And who will polish his shoes, or change them for something better, then wear or carry his prayer shawl (whose inventiveness and richness of decoration around the neck tell of status) and step out toward his synagogue for sabbath prayers.

It is said, and disputed, that this is aspirational dress from the 17th and 18th centuries when Jews imitated the local nobility. But if there was a pull there was also a push. Across Europe, but especially in the East Jews were forbidden to wear their traditional clothes. So they had little choice but to adjust (because their rules of dress made direct imitation impossible) to local styles.

But why not something more modern? If you could dress like a Polish nobleman on market day in 1736, or an German gentleman on his way to the University in Berlin in 1875, why not like a modern businessman in 2013? A good suit (less the tie-which may be forbidden by certain interpretations of the law) surely suits the demands of modesty. And of course this last is sabbath wear for some modern orthodox. It marks them as modern.

Why dress in what looks like a silk bathrobe with gold and white stripes over a similarly colored vest? Why wear a massive fur wheel on your head – especially since it set you back a lot of money you don’t really have?

Are they all crazy?

I think not.

First, of course, clothing is an identity marker, as well as a marker of power and prestige. The latter accounts for small variations in dress. We passed four young men on Saturday/Sabbath morning dressed in the highest of high style. They could have been four young noblemen on the streets of Vienna two centuries ago. No one could mistake that the silk hats, silk coats, and Italian cut shoes were expensive. And if we didn’t get it then certainly the prayer shawl the neck of which was lined with 7 long rows of large cut semi-precious stones told the story. “We have money to burn, and we are awesome.”

And identity accounts for the unique costumes – which for centuries have been the way that Jews identified themselves to each other by sect and place of origin. But pantaloons and knee socks? Fur hats?

Let me suggest a reason for hanging on to those old styles. It is a remembrance and reminder of something that should not be lost. It is a way of saying, in an alien place and alien era, that before the Nazis tried to exterminate Jews across the world, before the Crusaders and Czars and Cossacks emptied their villages and sent them fleeing to some slightly less unfriendly territory, that there was something good, something fine, something Godly that existed at the intersection of space and time and culture marked by those robes and hats.

Something that should not be forgotten, and which cannot be disentangled from the warp and woof of silk cloth shaped into a coat, or the lighting of the candles and aroma of the spices that lingers when the last oven fire is extinguished at sundown and the food is laid on the table. Something too deeply entwined in the old liturgies sung in the schul and the rabbis pouring over the Talmud to make their declarations and the swaying of locks of hair as men bow in prayer to be pulled out and reshaped into modern forms. Or at least too deeply entwined for mere humans to pull that sacred thread free. And anyway, stripped down to some essence – whether in law or theology or ethics – how does it shape us into a community? And how does it help us remember that the God of history is God in history?

Surely Christians don’t need to be told about incarnation.

Duncan Black MacDonald urged that his students, “love people in all their little peculiarities.” And we should honor those who love themselves the same way. To hold on that which is small and old, which sets them apart by the color of a buckle or the weave of a kippah, is to reject all claims to being universal that might compete with those of God.

No doubt I am reading into the ultra-orthodox motivations and self-understandings that most of them hardly consider. Still, how much better to look out a bus window on the masses of pre-sabbath shoppers and be reminded that although back in Belarus, or Poland, or Russian, or Ukraine bitter winds howl over the shifting snows that cover the ruins of a civilization, what was good was not lost.

When the angels of God come to separate the wheat from the tares perhaps they will also unravel the mystery of how God’s commands are woven into silk and satin and release them from that burden. Until then I tip my modern hat to those who wear the hats of their fathers, and stake for us all (however unwittingly) God’s claim on past and future.

The gold and white stripped robe was, it turns out, an adaptation of a common white and black djellaba worn by North African Jews in Jerusalem during the Ottoman era. The change in color an adaptation driven by laws forbidding that particular garment, substituting gold for black. It bowed to imperial power while poking it in the eye. The Ottomans are long gone from Jerusalem, the djellabas and their wearers remain.

I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet . . . .

Exodus 9:8-10 – from the Indigo Girls


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