Zbigniew Kosc
Mea Shaerim 1981 - 2001
In the northern part of Jerusalem lies the shabby picturesque quarter of Mea Shearim, home of the Hasidim and other ultra-orthodox Jews. Begun in 1874 outside the walls of the Old City, it was built like a fortress, with its terraces and windows facing inwards. It is populated today almost entirely by east European Ashkenazi Jews. Retaining much of the dress, customs and speech of the 17th-Century ghetto, they are in theological conflict with the "blasphemous" life of the modern state of Israel. Here, in a community that does not tolerate disrespect for their traditions, daily life and the worship of God are intertwined and the precepts and rules of conduct outlined in the Torah and the Talmud, the ancient books of Law and learning, are strictly observed by all the members of the quarter, some to the point of fanaticism.

Entering beneath it we stepped back half a century into the ghettos of prewar eastern Europe. Its few shops were gathered round a desultory fruit market, and wide, lonely streets ran among silent houses. The beggar at the gate looked only as humble as everyone else. String of washing overhung the lanes, and from synagogues no grander than cottages came the half-moaning chant of the study and worship that never end.

Behind the courtyard walls the half-heard murmur of voices is usually in Yiddish, for to many Hasidim, Hebrew is to sacred for conversation: it is God's tongue. The whole quarter is like a vast monastery. Its life is devoted to waiting, learning and self-correction. Its people, mostly poor, are supported by relatives or friends in other parts of Israel and in far-away countries. Cowled in white prayer-shawls before the glimmering candles of the synagogues, or praying alone in the quiet of their houses, the people are a sacrifice, from birth to death, to their fathers' law.
The women have their heads shaven in accordance with the scriptures, and go about in wigs covered by heads carves. Most the man wear the black robes of eastern Europe, where their centuries-long exile was endured: black stockings, shin-length black coats, black shoes. Under their wide-brimmed hats the wan faces seem already to look on eternity. Long side-locks fondle their necks or fly out in tufts, forever uncut as the Book of Leviticus demands.
Many of them are Hasidim, followers of a mysticism that was founded in the 18th-Century Ukraine. "The Holy One, blessed be He, requires the heart," quoted their founder. Upon this text he built a faith that in his day all but ignored the traditional stress on learning and replaced it with a spiritual reverence for the universe. Man, he taught, is a wave on the sea of God, yet every one a unique and precious creation.
Some of the Hasidic leaders were known for their ecstatic visions and psychic powers; others probably were charlatans. Among many others in the Mea Shearim quarter are the Mitnagdim of Lithuania who restored the Hasidim to the letter of the Law. There are the Dead Hasidim, who have lost their leader; and the Gerer Hasidim who are inspected by their rabbi as if they are a shabby infantry. The fanatic Hungarian Neturei Karta, "the Guardian of the City", hurl stones at anyone who dares to bicycle in their quarter on the Sabbath; their rabbi has forbidden the to set eyes on the Wailing Wall until the coming of the Messiah.
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