A PASSAGE IN TIME - MEA SHE'ARIM

A visit to the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem is a fascinating and extraordinary experience and without a doubt unforgettable.

Mea Shearim is one of the first neighborhoods to be built in the mid-19th century outside the Old City walls. Today it is the general name for many courtyards and newer satellite neighborhoods with lots of Orthodox Jews.

Many of the houses are built in the old style - stone houses next to neglected and ugly uniform buildings, where families with many children are crammed.  Walking through the narrow alleys of the neighborhood is a passage in time, traveling to Eastern Europe to the so-called Jewish neighborhoods - Shtetls.

 As a photographer the setting is perfect with lots of actors passing in and out of the frame. These daily activities are nostalgic and poetic for those who see beauty everywhere. Some of the buildings and stairways remind me the magic of the winding sketches by M.C Escher.   Scenes like you would see in the musical " A fiddler on the roof" are more common here than you would see in the city center a few minutes away.

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The ultra-Orthodox  is a society which tries to preserve its way of life under codes and restrictions, for which they prevent “distractions” from the parallel secular world. Television, smart phones and internet are all taboo, the concern of the conservative leaders is understandable, but it seems that  modernization cannot be stopped and is penetrating slowly. There is a constant struggle on both ends between the liberal and conservative like in every society since the beginning of mankind, The more modern influences penetrate the more the extreme parties will be more afraid of the change and try to defend their values with tougher measures, this is the reason why nowadays it more common to see  more women dressed like  Afghanistan women – fully draped and covered in black and on the other hand more women who wear hair styled wigs.

Come to think about it, is change always good? Sometimes we like to reflect and remember the olden time with a smile.

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At the entrance to the neighborhood there are big signs asking people to respect the codes and dress appropriately and those who want to visit must dress in a modest manner; head cover long sleeved shirt and dress for women.

Some residents strongly refuse to speak modern Hebrew because they claim Hebrew is a sacred language, and therefore they speak mainly Yiddish - the language spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe for generations

Another aspect is whether to be a citizen of the state of Israel and be faithful to its symbols and abiding the laws of the Israeli state which some believe is heresy, or to follow only - the law of the Torah – Halacha,  and take orders from the religious leaders. That is the reason sometime you will find graffiti signs against the Zionist state,  and the extreme ones even fly the flag of Palestine in order to show their resent for the state of Israel.   

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A visit to this neighborhood is definitely an anthropological experience, but beware of labels and stigmas. My worldview is that everyone should live according their choice, which it is said in Hebrew "a righteous man in his faith will live"  - as long as you do not hurt anyone with your beliefs, do whatever you want to do.

In my many visits to this neighborhood I have learned not to be judgmental, on the contrary, I look for the positive sides in every person I meet. The energy I pass to the people I meet opens doors and hearts as well.

It takes a bit of CHUTZSPAH/ dare  to interact with the locals but with the right approach, a smile  and some Yiddish slang, very interesting encounters occur, and as a result I have sometimes been invited to homes with warm hospitality. It seems that many people from the "other side" are also happy to learn and talk to their "lost brothers".

Happiness is not measured by the number of TV sets in the house or the size of your kitchen, so to see many children playing in the street, sisters guarding their little brothers. And great warmth in every corner.

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For many generations that information and sometimes what we call “feed on the  wall of Facebook”, is written on white plaque on real walls around the neighborhood. A common thing is to see groups of men standing together and reading the new feed on the wall.

These plaques which are called "Pashquil", transmit a lot of information in a dramatic language regarding, events, politics and even anonymous criticism etc., An interesting fact is that Pasquino is the name of a statue in Rome where in the past and still,  people would post anonymous messages.  Reading those messages is a good way to understand pulse of the neighborhood.

As part of my role as a photography teacher, I sometimes come to the neighborhood accompanied by other photographers, I explain to everyone that with the right approach it is possible to reach almost anyone and everyone while giving mutual respect.

One evening on the eve of Hanukkah, while we were photographing outdoors a family lighting candles in the window during the Feast of Lights. the owner of the house- Pinchas, came out and invited us to enter his house and celebrate the miracle. After entering his house, he said to us, "Do you know why I invited you inside ? To show you that everything that is thought and said about us in the city of Tel Aviv is not true."

Pinchas and I have been keeping in touch for 3 years and have very interesting conversations between us.

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My favorite day of the year is of course Purim – the Jewish equivalent to Halloween,It is amazing to see the beautiful costumes which most of them where done handmade with all a lot of care.

in the bible it is said that people should celebrate and be merry  “ad lo yada” – until you get wasted… from drinking wine. The atmosphere is like a south American carnival, on that day a lot of forbidden things are done, it is a day where it is allowed to behave silly.  My friend Pinchas invites me every year to his table with his family.  a very good opportunity to take pictures of the entire family.

 

Another thing which I love is to go on Fridays, a day when everyone is preparing themselves for the Shabbat feast,  There is the smell of cooking in the air, lots of bakeries sell delicious pastries and Gefilte fish and Cholent- meat and bean stew, and the star of a Shabbat feast is the sweet bread – Challa.

A very good line in Yiddish to start and end a conversation is: "Zei Gezunt" -be healthy or sometimes could be used to say farewell, So that’s it for, time to say goodbye,  Zei Gezunt. And in Hebrew slang we say "Yalla bye".

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SIMON BENI - JERUSALEM PHOTO TOUR .  ALL RIGHTS RESEREVED