My Visit to Me'ah Shearim
Pearl R. Cohen, Wednesday, June 14, 1989
This year Sam and I were in Israel for our two grandsons’ Bar Mitzvahs. No, it wasn’t at the Wall but in a Chabad Synagogue in Me'ah Shearim.
I know you all have visions of men in dark long coats with black hats – in fact some people call the Orthodox men “Black Hats”. The women, you are saying, are treated as second-class citizens. Well, I would like to take you with me on a visit to Me'ah Shearim.
First of all you have to be modestly dressed – no bare arms and dresses of a modest length and you will please the people living in this area if you could cover your hair. No one will say anything to you if your hair is uncovered. How is it that Jews are the ones who, if travelling in far off lands, follow the policies of these foreign people and complain about the policies of our own Jews?
Any way – Me'ah Shearim Street is loaded with small shops and what looks like a fortress wall-actually this is the back of houses -in front of the wall are houses with enclosed yards and narrow alley ways – also fruit, vegetables and other sundries displayed in the streets and outside on wooden counters. The market is a bustling place during morning and late afternoon.
Most of the shopping is done by the men. They get up as early as 5 a.m. to daven and shop. Among the little stores are shteibles (small rooms where people daven) – of course there are synagogues behind the wall as well as yeshivas. Boys as well as men attend these yeshivas (or schools). The girls go to girls’ schools where they learn to read, write and are also prepared for eventual marriage. The girls are first taught to embroider, knit, sew clothes and to cook.
Our granddaughter, aged 15, makes her own clothes and when I spoke to her on the phone last week, she said she made some clothes for their neighbor. I told her she could go in business.
The women clean and then attend classes – Yehudis took me to some lectures on Shabbos – also to a study group of young women who made Aliyah. On Mondays we attended 2 lectures. One had a movie about the marvelous work being done by the Lubavitch movement in California for drug addicts. The other lecture was about the Bible portion of the week. In the evenings there are classes in sewing, lectures, Yiddish etc.
The emphasis is on study – study – study. The children go to school until dinner time. Then they eat and go to special classes in the evening.
Another – or let me say – perhaps more important thing is mitzvoth. This takes the form of doing for others. Let me tell you how this is accomplished. Do you know that no one in Me’ah Shearim goes hungry? There are places where poor people are welcomed – While here I’ve been to a number of weddings and bar mitzvahs and the tables are set without designated seats and every affair is opened to anyone who wants to attend. Where but in Jerusalem can you get a hall for nothing to hold a wedding dinner or bar- mitzvah dinner? You supply the food but the hall is free – 2 rooms of course – one for men and one for the women – plus kitchen facilities. A poor bride was given a beautiful wedding, a beautiful dress and buses from various sections of Jerusalem came with guests. I was one of the guests. First we were served the usual appetizer – humous, pickled beets, salads and delicious rolls (just out of the oven). Soda flowed freely. This went on for an hour and then the bride came into the room – men were in another room. A chair was covered with a white cloth and bedecked with flowers. Everyone kissed the bride and danced around her. Then we all went into the courtyard where a chupah was set up and the ceremony performed. Then we came back to the room and a full chicken platter was served plus a variety of cakes for desert. I questioned my daughter-in-law as to how they know how much food to buy. She said she has never seen them run out of food. This affair had about 150 people.
Another mitzvah is to help the old and infirm. My granddaughter walks one elderly lady to Synagogue every day and takes her to the Wall when she wants to go. Our grandsons buy challah for some of the people who can’t go to the store. These children do not expect even a “thanks”, let alone to be paid.
One day Sam and I were on the bus and at Straus Street a policeman came on the bus and spoke in Hebrew. No one spoke English and we realized that everyone was getting off – well, so did we. On the street were police cars and ambulances blocking the path the bus was to turn in to. Well, we thought that there was a terrorist attack. We walked a block and saw thousands of people (I later read there were 3000 people standing on the street). This was on a high level street and on a lower level there were loud- speakers with messages being broadcast. Men and boys were congregated in the street and on the perimeter were girls and women.
At one point we could not get through so we found an opening in the center; I knew I didn’t belong there. Now here is a modern miracle: I looked to the side of where we were walking and saw our son! Remember! Everyone was dressed the same; only the hats were different. (Different Chassidim wear fur hats, felt hats etc.) I called “Moshe” and he turned around and asked what we were doing there. Besides, he said, that we didn’t belong in that area I told him we couldn’t get through to go to our apartment so he took us another way to our apartment, while explaining that a prominent Rabbi had passed away and this was the way they paid respect. After the eulogies a 1000 people walked behind the casket to the cemetery.