I Live in a Ghetto Full of Light

I’m mesmerized by this photograph, feel a wetness on my cheeks, salty tears on my lips, as I stare at it, imprint it in my mind.

I gaze at the early morning sun rays filtering through the treetops, the way they bathe the forest in an ethereal light, as if the curtain covering G-d in the Heavens has been pulled aside momentarily. And I am captivated by the man wrapped in a prayer shawl, arms spread outward and upward, Heavenward, supplicating in the sunshine.

It’s not only the picture’s devastating backstory — it’s a snapshot of Pinchas Menachem Pashwazman, a young Haredi husband and father killed by a piece of shrapnel during a rocket attack on Ashdod — that makes me weep. It’s the feeling the photo evokes, the warm assurance it provides: That all is good and will be good despite the turbulence of our often-times tragic existence.

To me the exquisite beauty of this photo, its artistic genius, is the spirituality so tangible, you can touch it with your fingertips, savor the sweetness of it on your tongue, feel its warmth on your face, wrap the serenity of it around your heart. I look at the picture and I feel God’s embrace, sense that in His eyes, every person, little and big, has tremendous personal significance, is so loved.

It’s a powerful but ephemeral sensation, and I want more of it; it’s what I’ve been seeking all my life and I don’t want to let it go. I know in my heart that it’s precisely this feeling that religious people experience when they sit hunched over their Talmudic tomes, when they are immersed in commune with their Creator, when they submit to a life circumscribed by religious law and ritual.

Perhaps it’s a yearning for that feeling that drives all human action? Is that what we desire when we look for love, choose a profession; what we desperately seek when we lash out in fury, hiss and snarl, or hardheartedly manipulate and abuse others?

The day after Pinchas Menachem’s death, a ceasefire between Gaza and Jerusalem is announced, and journalist Merav Alozorov declares in the Hebrew edition of The Marker that even after this round of violence, “The greater strategic threat to Israel isn’t Hamas — it’s Haredi politics that keeps Haredim in closed ghettos, uneducated, unwilling to work, to study, to serve in the army, to make a civic contribution to a state fighting for its existence.”

Her words pierce me, sharp as arrows. They reflect the tired misconception that being religious, particularly Haredi, means squalor and ignorance, bound by primitive laws and the beliefs that form them; oppressed by a religious and political leadership hell-bent on keeping the grey stones of the ghetto walls forbiddingly high and unable to be scaled; conspiracies to fleece the enlightened, democratic, life-loving secular society.

As a Haredi woman, I can tell you that this is far from the truth. Our goal is the creation of a world of inner and outer peace, a universe of light and love, and we believe the aqueducts from Heaven are made, stone by stone, of our passionate prayers, our meticulous religious observance, our intensive Torah study.

That’s what motivates many of us to live on the cusp of poverty, a life of spiritual bliss in exchange for a car, Italian furniture, holiday resorts in Cyprus. It’s what enables women to juggle Excel spreadsheets and pots of chicken soup, endure too-late nights and too-early mornings that come along with having a job and raising a family, so that our husbands can experience eternity all day, every day.

Granted, our society is far from Utopian. There’s much work to be done so that every child, every adult, experiences religion as light, not darkness, enjoys emotional health and happiness instead of bleakness and blackness, is not cowered by threats of a hail of fire and brimstone, not from God, but the neighbors.

There’s a need for more acceptance of different religious models within the current framework — of people who want to crawl out of the cocoon and combine academic studies and careers with devotion to Torah study; of people whose intelligence is found in their hands and their feet rather than in their mind or their tongue, who struggle with Talmud study.

But like a blossoming flower unfurling in the direction of the sunshine, we, Haredi society, aspire toward a life of light, not darkness; love, not misery.

Just look at that magnificent photograph to get a taste of it.

Many thanks to Levy Davish for so graciously allowing me to use this picture

About the Author
Originally from Australia, Sara Bonchek now lives in Beit Shemesh with her husband and five children, where she writes, edits and keeps house.
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