A Friday afternoon in Jerusalem… as the sun starts to sink behind the crenellated walls of the old city, bathing the hot rocks, which in Arthur Koestler’s words ‘have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place’, in a pure, yellow light, I feel that strange sense of loneliness that infects the Gentile living in Jerusalem as the Jewish Sabbath is ushered in.
Dressed in an obligatory long skirt, headscarf and stockings which scorn the sweltering heat of a Jerusalem summer, I enter one of the small gateways that mark the territory of Jerusalem’s oldest ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, Mea She’arim, which literally means 100 gates. Sounds and smells compete for attention in the cramped, cloistered terraces built in faithful imitation of the ghettos of eighteenth-century eastern Europe. The smell of shabbat stew mingles with the soapy scent of the ritual bathhouse where the men are washing, and the pungency of the drains and uncollected rubbish curdling in the sun. The sound of children chattering away to each other in Yiddish as they play by the dozen on impossibly small balconies, gives way to the earnest conversation of two boys, on the cusp of adolescence, who hurry about their business, pausing only to read one of the innumerable hand-printed posters that cling to the old walls like moss. No childhood in the sun for these boys, with their ‘skin tone a breath away from the morgue’, and spectacles inevitably accompanying the curled side-locks, black hats and frock coats. Their life is as disciplined in its devotion to God, and unsullied by contact with the secular, modem world, as that of their predecessors two centuries ago in the shtetls of Russia and Poland.
Theirs is not a tolerant society, and one of the rare consensuses in Israeli life is that the religious and the secular should live apart, as do Arab and Jew. Striving to ‘attain peace and equilibrium… by leaving people alone’, in the words of the veteran Jerusalem mayor, Teddy Kollek.