Caught in a Demonstration

I was visiting a tailor shop yesterday in the Meah Shaarim section of chareidi Jerusalem. Neighborhoods here are known for their individuality, but Meah Shaarim is far beyond that. I once had a scion of the ultra-Orthodox in my car, who just happened to live down the street from my in-laws as well as frequenting the shul where I learned. He was telling me in Yiddish that Meah Shaarim is the frummest (most religious) place in Jerusalem. I don’t speak a lot of Yiddish, but I answered him by saying, “Meah Shaarim iz der frummer platz in gans velt (Meah Shaarim is the most religious place in the whole world)!” causing my rider to roar with laughter.

Actually, I have been going to Meah Shaarim quite a lot of late, given that I’ve had a number of fittings for this suit. The one before last, the tailor asked me to come back in half an hour. He wanted to sew a bit and them have me try the suit — still without sleeves and many padding and interfacing — on again to see if what he was going to try would make a difference.

It was the middle of the day and very hot, but just down the way was Masmidim, the most solidly ultra-Orthodox study hall in all of Jerusalem. I had, in fact, made use of their facilities before going in for a fitting, and washed my hands in the foyer. Checking back in there for the interim seemed like a good idea now, as they probably had a top notch air conditioner.

They did, but before I went in I stopped by door to call home and tell my wife not to wait lunch for me. It seemed the right thing to do, since a lot of study halls don’t allow cellphones on the premises. But someone came up to me just as I was hanging up and asked what I wanted here. I told him I wanted to sit down and learn, if that would be alright. He answered that there was a side room and the main hall, where ever I wanted.

I walked in and it certainly was cool. I’d been there about 20 yrs ago, but then it was crowded. There were only a couple of people around now, since most of them had gone home for the midday break to eat and sleep in the afternoon heat. I’d just taken off my hat and coat, when someone walked up and offered me a freshly poured, cold seltzer in a disposable cup. He was wearing knee-britches and a knitted white yarmulke with a tassel on the top.  He told me what blessing to make, as though I didn’t know. But it was very refreshing.

I couldn’t find the gemara that I wanted, so I settled for a Sefer Chazon Ish. After about 20 min of solid learning, I got up to use the restroom. On the way back, as I was washing my hands, the doorman asked me if I wouldn’t like a glass of tea. He told me where to find tea bags and sugar cubes (no less), while pointing to a hot water urn and glasses in the entrance. This was a sure sign of acceptance.

The Battle Call

This foray was a little bit different. I’d made use of the facilities again, but didn’t make it to the study hall. And when I got to the tailor, he was in a very good mood. He waved to a beautiful white brocade garment with a mandarin collar and white velvet placket covering where the buttons would have been except that there were only hooks at the closure and said, “Rabbi Fishel, here’s your suit. It’s ready.” Chassidim have special white suits just like their Shabbos clothes, but I’d never seen anything like this before. I asked the tailor what this was for. He answered, “Rebbis.”

After the fitting, during which I was constantly asked if this was right, if that was right, and getting talked into cutting 3 cm. off the skirt of my frock coat, plus receiving an inadvertent lesson on how high to wear my trousers, I was back in the sun-washed street again.

The inner courtyards of Meah Shaarim are very, very clean. Everything gives the appearance of having been hosed down at one point. Sure, there is a lot of dust, but that’s Jerusalem. Having been previously been shown upon request a short cut to the get to the light rail, I was walking through what looked to be a recently restored and updated area. A little girl, oblivious of me, was doing flips over a hand rail. A little later, two sisters with long braids came up from behind and ran past me. But as I reached the end of the walk-through through, I suddenly heard a hubbub of male voices, then someone perhaps several men yelling with their throats open.

When I stepped out on the street, there were groups of people being chased by policemen. I was standing by the wall, so no one noticed me. Then I saw the horses coming, so I ducked into the first stair well. Other men came after me, so I hopped up to the first landing. As I turned around, a tall policeman came up and closed the ironwork gate to the entrance, saying, “Don’t open the gate.” As soon as he was gone, a stout man about 46 yrs-old threw it open and took just one defiant step outside. The smell of fresh male sweat and lathered up horses was incredible.

There was a yeshiva boy standing next to me, so I asked him in Hebrew what was going on. He looked at me quizzically. I seemed friendly, but why was a speaking the language of the enemy? Last week when the doorman at Masmidim had asked me if I spoke Hebrew or Yiddish, I answered “Mein yiddish nicht gut,” which at the time seemed a sufficient answer.

The boy shrugged and answered that there were three boys in jail since last week, so they were making a hafganeh (demonstration). I told him I knew about that, but asked if they weren’t taking boys from houses now. He shook his head no.

Back near the entrance, I could see the horses galloping past, running the whole course of the street. An old man who seemed not to see well was making it to the other side as the horses brushed past him.  In a yard across the way, a young officer in a police T-shirt, flanked by policemen in full uniform, was having a confrontation with a square-built man in a big, round black hat. The officer put both hands on his interlocutor’s shoulders and abruptly pushed him. The man stumbled and regained his footing.

There was no way out of this. It was unsafe to go back to where I’d come from as any movement might be misconstrued. So I called my wife, who is Israeli, on my cellphone, which was running out of battery.

“Go to the train,” she said. I told her that the police were blocking the end of the road. I asked if I should just ask them if I could go through. She answered in the affirmative.

The Importance of Being Good Looking

The reality of things here in the Middle East is that if you are male and relatively good looking, you can get away with anything. I later told my live-at-home daughter what had happened and she laughed. “You mean you had your sunglasses on and you just walked up to the police line and casually asked if you could get through? They probably thought a movie star had been flown in by helicopter.”

But that was the way it went. The T-shirt wearer was in back of the line and the two horsemen with their mounts prancing were at the end closed off the entrance to the street at the other end. A tall, blonde guy in a striped Toldos Aaron suit shouted out in Hebrew, “We’ll go to jail, but not to the Army,” and the representatives of law and order all bared their teeth and fumed.

There was a short, young guy who looked like a rookie near my end. I kept my eye on him. His jaw dropped, and he looked at me like “what are you doing?” So I just asked him in an off-hand manner if I could get to the light rail. He looked past me, and cocking his thumb jerked his fist backward as a sign that I could go, then took one more amazed look at me as I walked through.

To tell you the truth, it was all I could do not to go up to the horses. I have horses in my blood. My grandfather was in horses in the old country and because of the oldest, and most Russian of my father’s five brothers, I had horses around me my whole childhood. When I’m near a horse, I become another person, just as I do when I go to the sea.

And it was wonderful, seriously wonderful to be around grown men with their chests out and their senses keen. On all sides there was a sense of defending something sacred. Just the police didn’t want the chareidim to go lay down on the railway tracks again or stop traffic on Route #1 in the middle of afternoon rush hour. And whether you believe it or not, there is no way that the ultra-Orthodox will ever do army service. Forget it.

Such a lot of nice guys, and all of them Jewish. A pity they can’t get on. Hashem yerachem (Heaven help us).

This post has been cross-posted from YB Fishel’s regular blog on

About the Author
Y.B. Fishel holds cum laude degrees from Princeton and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as written ordinations from members of Israel's highest, ultra-Orthodox authorities. His reason for being around ToI is to provide a chareidi insider's view of what's happening in Israel.