Posted by: thedirtybaker | June 5, 2011

Better Her than Me!

I spent the weekend with my sister and her husband in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a religious community outside of Beit Shemesh.  It was really nice to spend time with my sister, and to get to know her husband a little bit.  But their lifestyle does not at all appeal to me, to the extent that I have to look at some of it as an anthropology project (participant observation)!!!  So I thought I’d describe/ explain it on here, since many of my friends don’t know anything about Orthodox Judaism.

In Jewish communities, a “religious” community is Orthodox, or possibly ultra-Orthodox.  They have very strong communities, provided you believe in abiding by their rules.  There are  a LOT of rules.  Orthodoxy begins with the assumption that all of the rabbinic religious rules are binding upon them.  This affects most, if not all, areas of life.  I, on the other hand, am completely non-religious, and only go to religious events that I have to go to for work or family reasons.

Orthodox Judaism finds 613 commandments in the Torah, a.k.a 5 books of Moses. They’re called Mitzvot(h) (sing.: mitzvah), and they are then expanded on in Rabbinic literature.  The rabbis interpreted the commandments and expanded on them, to make sure that people didn’t accidentally break the rules that were originally written down.  These additions are called “fences.”  Then they added additional layers of “fences” to prevent people from accidentally breaking the old ones. In one example, they went from “Do not cook a kid (baby goat!) in its  mother’s milk,” to “You need to have separate, dishes, silverware, pots, pans, counters, and refrigerator shelves for foods containing dairy or meat, and can’t eat them in the same meal.”

There are rules for what to wear, what to eat, what blessings to say at which times, and what people must do/ are forbidden to do at different times, especially related to both annual cycles and life cycles.  There are rules and/ or guidelines for almost everything, actually.  It’s a great system for people who like black and white rules, who don’t want to set their own boundaries.  (It would be a terribly way of life for a contrarian like me.)

Dress:  In Israel, different groups have very different dress codes.  Among the Ultra-Orthodox, women wear long skirts, and generally wear tights or stockings,  and closed shoes.  Some will go bare-legged and wear sandals.  They wear sleeves at least to their elbows, but more often 3/4- or long-sleeved tops with high necklines.  Married women must cover their hair – either with a cloth, a hat, or a wig.  (Yes, the wig is seen by some as defeating the purpose.)  Men wear black pants, white shirts, suit jackets, black velvet/ suede kippot (skullcaps/ yarmulkes/ beanies) and fedoras.  Among some of the U-O groups (the Hasidic ones), the men wear 18th century Polish noblemen’s clothing, at least on Sabbath and holidays.  This can be a robe or a long coat and knickers (think Colonial Williamsburg type, not the British meaning of the word!), and often is accessorized with a fur-trimmed hat (just what you want to wear in the Mediterranean region’s summer heat). All the Hasidim and some of the other men wear long beards and side-curls (1 long lock from just above each ear).

A key concept is tznius, or tzniut, meaning “modesty.”  People, especially women, are to behave modestly, and neither brag nor draw attention to themselves.  In addition, public events are segregated by sex, including services.  Women are not permitted to sing publicly, lest the men be too distracted from holy thoughts by the beauty and sexiness of a woman’s singing voice.  I’ve been to dinners where the man of the house won’t speak to female guests beyond saying hello.  I’ve also been to dinners where the men and women sit separately, but the man of the house made sure to chat with us, too.  Men and women don’t touch each other (even to shake hands) unless they are immediate family or married to each other (and married couples can’t even touch each other for half of each month).  This makes me want to walk up to U-O men to tap their shoulders or slap them on the back and say “Hey, how’s it going!”

They also keep strictly kosher, as in: no pork, no shellfish, no mixing dairy and meat at the same meal, and a long wait to eat dairy after eating meat.  All meat must be slaughtered in a strictly kosher manner, and the animals must have been completely unblemished.  In addition, they have separate dishes for dairy, meat, and pareve (neutral), and separate counters, sinks, and refrigerator shelves for dairy and meat as well.  In fact, my sister had to go get sugar for my coffee from a neighbor, because her sugar (which is inherently neutral), is classified with the meat ingredients right now.  All foods must also be approved of by a rabbinical authority.

Shabbat (Sabbath) is strictly observed as a day with no work.  “No work” has been defined in detail, but it does not necessarily correspond with what most people would consider to be “work.”  It includes not lighting a fire, therefore not lighting candles after the Sabbath starts, and not even turning on a car or using electricity (no computers).  They pre-rip their toilet paper, avoid writing, and block the entrances to their neighborhoods so that pedestrians can enter, but cars can’t.  They don’t shower, because they don’t want to cause more hot water to be heated up.  This, somehow, also applies to people with solar water heaters, event though I’m pretty sure that they aren’t turning the sun off and on.  If you want more details, here’s a link – I’ve only skimmed the surface:  http://www.ou.org/chagim/shabbat/thirtynine.htm.

Each Shabbat meal has rituals surrounding it, too.  The final part of the meal-ritual involves everyone bentching, or saying blessings after the meal.  In summer camp, we sang these in unison.  In the religious communities, people recite them after every meal, but do so individually and in a whisper.  It’s really weird to be in a room where everyone is whispering audibly to themselves.

Essentially, Shabbat activities are eating, sleeping, praying, studying religion, reading, and going for walks.  I skip the praying and studying religion, and stick with eating, reading, sleeping, and going for a walk.  While I enjoy those activities, I HATE being told that I can’t do things because of some arbitrary laws invented centuries ago and then applied in a series of fences.  If I spend too much time in that community, I start feeling a great urge to run around, scantily clad, and eat a bacon cheeseburger (or a Sonoran dog).

In spite of my dislike of this lifestyle and community, it was a nice visit, and I got to read a novel!  (Interred with their Bones – I recommend it.)  I hope you enjoyed this!  I’ll try to go back to the pictures of funny signs tomorrow.

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