Wait, what? June? Yes. Time is truly out of control. The pace has picked up these last few weeks as I zero in on what now is, officially, my last month abroad. The weird funk I was in (of feeling uninspired, normal and somewhat bored) has morphed into a rollercoaster of nostalgia, appreciation, and desperation to check everything off the list. The past few weeks have been chalk full of holidays, activities and some new, fresh memories that we will carry home with us when the time comes. We’re determined to keep this ball rolling to the point that we have weekly (if not daily) conversations while staring at the calendar to go over what, exactly, we have planned for each of our remaining (now 24) days in this land.
As I mentioned, though, the past few weeks themselves have been packed. One of the most interesting experiences we had was a field trip to Bnei Brak, a city east of Tel Aviv with one of the largest concentrations of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. While there are ultra-Orthodox Jews in all areas of Israel, and I am in their presence frequently (especially in Jerusalem), I hadn’t visited an area as concentrated as Bnei Brak before.
In comparison to Tel Aviv, or even to Jerusalem, Bnei Brak is another world. While driving through the streets of the city’s center I was immediately struck by the uniformity within the population. Again, it is not uncommon to see traditionally dressed ultra-Orthodox Jews, but usually, they are one in a sea of many other traditionally dressed and modernly dressed people. In Bnei Brak, it was practically impossible to find someone not dressed according to the ultra-Orthodox dress code. For men this generally means black suits and white shirts (with no ties), wearing black hats, displaying payot (Hebrew word for sidekicks) and tzitzit (knotted fringes attached to undergarments). Women typically wear skirts past their knees, modest tops and cover their hair— whether that be with scarves, hats, or wigs. Needless to say, upon arrival seeing absolutely everyone dressed as such was a quick indicator that the community was just as insular, traditional and uniform as it was rumored to be.
We met with a variety of community figures during our trip— most fascinating, perhaps, was our meeting with the head rabbi of Bnei Brak’s hospital. Our group had a long dialogue with him about his role in the hospital, which is known to be the place to go to get ultra-Orthodox medical care within Israel (the hospital keeps Shabbat, serves kosher food, abides by Jewish law, etc.). We learned that the rabbi essentially serves as the highest power in the hospital— interpreting Jewish law (while also considering medical knowledge) to make the most difficult decisions between life and death. He had plenty of wild stories and appeared to be incredibly experienced— not to mention incredibly busy. His phone must have rung a dozen times during our conversation. In typical Israeli fashion, sometimes he silenced it and other times he picked it up with no hesitation and started speaking into the phone in front of us. #classic
After our time with the rabbi we wandered through the streets of Bnei Brak, stopping at stores selling Judaica and ultra-Orthodox items. Kippah shops, head shawl shops, bookstores, kosher butcheries…you name it— it was there. To get a sense of the perspective of the youth of the community we also made a stop at a yeshiva and spoke with a young American-Israeli who had made aliyah a few years ago and now is devoting his time to studying the Torah and Talmud. One of the great things about Israeli culture is that you are encouraged (and expected) to ask any question that comes to your mind at any time— no matter how absurd, blunt or (albeit) rude it may be. This is an especially beneficial part of the culture to have on your side when you interact with communities that appear, (at least externally) a little extreme and off-the-rocker. Thus, we felt comfortable asking him ALL the questions we could about why ultra-Orthodox youth don’t enter the army, what their perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are, how their dating world works (truly crazy), what a “typical” ultra-Orthodox marriage looks like, how some ultra-Orthodox gain satisfaction from studying religious texts all day and what drawbacks he sees in terms of his religion and way of life. His answers were thorough, and while I personally find the community for the most part un-relatable, I did walk away with a clearer understanding of the community’s logic, values, and beliefs. In a land as multifaceted as Israel I feel that this is always a HUGE plus.
A few days later the cultural pendulum swung in the entirely opposite direction when Maya, Mimi and I traveled to Kibbutz Sedah Mash’abei, south of Beer Sheva, to spend Shavuot with Maya’s friend Aviv. He had kindly invited us three American girls (I suppose we are a bit charming, eh?) to spend the holiday of Shavuot, the harvest holiday, with him on his kibbutz. We couldn’t resist the offer, especially because we had heard that kibbutzim are the place to be on Shavuot.
We arrived in the heat of the afternoon after bussing south from Beer Sheva through our beloved Mars-like-desert (which still somehow shocks me in its vastness each day). Aviv gave us a tour of the kibbutz as the temperature outside cooled, walking us through the winding paths that led to the pool, dining hall, schools, library, laundry room, workshed, and, most importantly, COWS. Obviously the best part of the tour. As the sun began to set (the signal of the beginning of the holiday) we gathered with other kibbutz members and their families in the dining hall for a Shavuot feast. Being the harvest holiday, the feast was extensive— olives, roasted vegetables, burekas, cured fish, wine, treats… The best part of the evening, however, was the hours-long Israeli folk dancing party that followed the feast. We sat on the sidelines for the first few dances but quickly joined in, embracing the Israeli shamelessness and confidence we’ve all acquired. Some of the songs sounded familiar (we ROCKED the Macarena) but most were new. We spent hours following in the footsteps of the dance instructor and the old kibbutz ladies who knew what was up. Truly, truly, such a blast. We were wiped out by the time the music ended and finished the night with a bowl of popcorn on Aviv’s back porch, taking in the silence and darkness of the desert. How lucky we are to call this land home.
The next day was spent at the pool, followed by a ceremony in the afternoon where the kibbutz presented all the new things that had been added to the community since Shavuot in 2016. The ceremony was filled with dancing, songs, and poems, not to mention a parade of shiny new tractors, golf carts, and tools. Perhaps the most adorable part of the ceremony was the presentation of the new babies that had been born on the kibbutz in the past year. Think Simba and the Lion King but even cuter. Once the ceremony ended and the sun set we were back on a bus to Beer Sheva, exhausted, happy and with yet another kibbutz experience checked off our list.
Okay, first, if you’ve gotten this far in the post, congrats. Second, listen up, because I’m about to tell you about one of the most interesting communities I’ve visited since who knows when.
First, a little background. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some African Americans started establishing spiritual groups in the United States, labeling themselves as Black Hebrews. The Black Hebrews believed that the African Americans in the United States were descendants of the ancient Hebrew Israelites. They identified as neither Christian or Jewish, and focused on spirituality rather than religion, but held practices that mimicked both religions. In 1966 at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement a man named Ben Ammi, a Black Hebrew in Chicago, had a vision that the Black Hebrews needed to return to their homeland of Israel. The result was pretty astounding— over the next two decades nearly a thousand Black Hebrews made their way from the United States to Israel. Because they did not qualify for Israel’s Law of Return, they often stayed illegally in Israel after their tourist visas expired. And, because they didn’t have work visas, some participated in illegal activities as a means to support themselves. As our professor, Dr. Klein, put it: the Israeli government “doesn’t quite know what to do with them.” While many of the Black Hebrews’ immigration and work statuses are still in limbo today, over time they have managed to build a flourishing community in Dimona, a city south of Beer Sheva.
We visited the Black Hebrews last week as part of a field trip for our Lost and Isolated Jewish Communities course. Arriving at their main community in Dimona was bizarre. A large portion of the Black Hebrews live in one location, a renovated Russian and Moroccan immigrant absorption center that now functions somewhat like a kibbutz. The pathways of the community were filled with kids running around and yelling at each other in the most American accents I’ve heard since last July. English books sat on tables. Bob Marley played on big speakers. Basketball and horseshoe games were in full swing. Groups of ladies sat and gossiped on benches. The sound of English cut through the air. It was, indeed, the most American thing I’ve seen since America itself.
Make no mistake, though, the community is one of its own. We met with the Black Hebrews’ main PR representative to learn about their lives since moving to Israel. He was a bit out there, but very kind, peaceful and opinionated. He explained to us the reasoning behind many of their unique practices. For instance, the Black Hebrews are the ultimate yogis, embodying “your body is your temple” to the extreme. Thus, they are devout vegans, adhering to a strict vegan diet and wearing clothing only made from natural fibers (imagine a dozen kids running around in hemp suits, it’s freaking adorable). They have weekly “no salt” and “no sugar” days to assure that their consumption of either is not out of control. They drink no alcohol besides their own homemade wine. Furthermore, they are committed to exercising a certain number of times per week, keeping themselves in sound mental shape and performing no harm to their own bodies. They have a polygamist society that is ever-growing in size (the PR rep had 22 children himself), generally, marry within the community, celebrate holidays that are both included and not included in the Jewish calendar and frequently join together around song and dance. They are deeply connected to their pre-slavery African roots, particularly to communities in Ghana and Liberia. They have a predominantly peaceful outlook on life, emphasizing love and light and all those mushy gushy things…Anyways, I could go on and on about all the unique caveats of the community, but I’ll let you Google them if you’re interested in learning more. Ultimately, I found their whole backstory and culture fascinating (there is much debate over whether they are actually genetically linked to the Tribes of Israel), but found them admirable in many respects. Just goes to show you that you never know what kind of people you’ll come across in the world!
After all those exciting trips, we took Shabbat to recover here in Beer Sheva, laying out by the pool, cooking and going on evening walks in the city. Tomorrow Mimi and I are off to the West Bank for a few days to spend time in Bethlehem and Jericho. We are interested to see what the general sentiment is and security levels are, as today marks 50 years since the beginning of Israel’s occupation of Palestine/the territories/the West Bank/Judea/Samaria (call it whatever your politics drive you to call it). I’ve been hesitant to share political views on the blog (predominantly because I am all over the board on Israel and its actions), but I thought this New York Times Sunday Review piece highlighted the situation particularly well. I feel that it is accurate and reflects many of my opinions.
And with that, I wish you a fantastic week. Best of luck to everyone heading into finals! Counting down the days until I get to see all your shining faces again.
Thanks for my cultural update and education Cassidy….see you when you get home!