Tuesday, April 30, 2024

A Man's Look at the Charedi world he loved and betrayed

Tuvia Tenenbom is seen among a group of Gur hassidim in Mea She'arim, Jerusalem.
Tuvia Tenenbom (center) is seen alongside some Charedi fans.

“Haredi women, like any other humans, want to look attractive. You can be modest, cover most of your body, and yet look sexier than any woman in a bikini.”

However, this is a problem for haredi men “because spillage of men’s seed is a great, great sin – the biggest sin ever.”

According to Tuvia Tenenbom, this explains why ultra-Orthodox men are taught not to look at women except for their wives. It also explains the title of his newest book, Careful, Beauties Ahead!

Scion of an ultra-Orthodox (haredi) family in Bnei Brak, Tenenbom left the milieu of the yeshiva as a young adult and has lived mainly in New York and Germany. In Germany, his fair looks and facility with the language enabled him to pass for a non-Jewish local.

That ability and his knack for gaining strangers’ trust and asking questions that elicit telling responses about deep-seated attitudes (particularly toward Jews and Israel), assured the success of his previous books: I Sleep in Hitler’s RoomCatch the Jew!Hello, RefugeesThe Lies They Tell; and The Taming of the Jew. I recommend all of them for both their entertainment value and shock value.

Disappointed after having plumbed the depths of humanity in Europe and the United States, Tenenbom came back after several decades to explore “the spiritual world that I ran away from; a world that I loved, and a world that I betrayed.”

Wearing his trademark suspenders and red eyeglasses, the avuncular journalist planted himself for several months in Mea She’arim, the quintessentially haredi Jerusalem neighborhood where signs warn female pedestrians not to walk around immodestly dressed.

Frequenting the neighborhood’s yeshivas, eateries, synagogues, and homes, joining its residents for Shabbat meals, accompanying them to the graves of holy rabbis and conversing in Yiddish, Tenenbom lobs probing questions at members and leaders of myriad hassidic (and some Litvak) groups, trying to understand what makes them tick.

“When I dig deep into their faith, the faith that forms them as a community and as individuals, they get stuck trying to explain what they really, deeply believe,” he writes.

He comes to understand that it doesn’t matter if his interviewees cannot answer his queries.

“Their faith is rock solid, and no questions are to be asked. They follow their ancestors’ path charted for them, giving them security and purpose. They are a tribe, a tribe on earth and in Heaven, and all their needs will be taken care of, in life and in death. Can anybody beat it?”

YET WHILE he sincerely admires that faith, he sees similarities between hassidim and “the Catholic movement, only in Yiddish and minus Jesus,” pointing out that both groups “believe in God, don’t read the Bible, reach God via an intermediary – the Rebbe, living or dead – and believe in miracles.” What’s more, the Litvak haredim he interviews “have adopted the Hasidic way of rabbi worship and created their own Rebbes, and don’t question anything,” concluding that “there is no difference between the two except... for the humor that the Litvaks are still lacking.”

Tenenbom’s observations are by turns witty, canny, snarky, and surprisingly tender because, for all his criticism of these people branded by many mainstream Israelis as primitive and parasitic, he admires and genuinely likes them – if not many aspects of their beliefs or behaviors.

Walking the streets of Mea She’arim, he’s bombarded with graffiti stating “Zionists are not Jews,” “Zionists are Nazis,” and “Zionists are terrorists.” One hassidic leader states that he would not desecrate the Sabbath to save the life of a secular Jew such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Tenenbom points up an anomaly in this thinking when anti-Zionist hassidim must depend on protection from “the Zionist police, otherwise known as the Nazi police,” to safely visit the grave of their rebbe. “The anti-Zionist Haredim, I suspect, are talking big, high, threatening words, but that’s just talk.”

Talk, significantly, is conducted in Yiddish and he claims that makes all the difference.

“Do haredim really, really have no smartphones? They say that they don’t have them. But they say it in Yiddish, and a ‘no’ sometimes means ‘yes’ in Yiddish. Yiddish is all about nuance, fine nuances, and if you don’t understand nuances, don’t speak this language,” he writes.

For all his caustic comments, the author heaps praise where it’s warranted. He is especially enchanted by the children of Mea She’arim. 

“The images of these sweeter than honey little kids – with white skullcaps that have chupchiks (pom-poms) on top, white shirts, rounded sidelocks, and the most heavenly of smiles – I won’t ever forget,” he writes. 

He is skeptical of an article in Haaretz alleging that sexual abuse is rampant in Mea Shearim. “If you happen to be in the habit of reading the secular media, all of them are victims of sexual abuse. Yes. There are those who believe what they read in Sabbath bulletins,” referring to dubious miracle stories distributed in the shuls, “and those who believe what they read in the secular media. These two are a perfect match, I think, and they should marry one another.”

ONE EVENING, a teenager invites him to a siyum, celebrating the completion of two Talmudic tractates. He is charmed by the joyous atmosphere enveloping the radiant students. “Be it in Germany or America, I’m often surrounded by people who declare to me and to everyone else in earshot their love for fellow humans and their devotion to the whole of humanity, climate, nature, and all other good causes. None of them – not even all of them combined – has exercised the love bursting out of each student here,” Tenenbom writes.

He also adores the food: “The engine that drives my neighbors is happiness, music, Rebbes, and kugels.” One meal at a female Reform rabbi’s house in a different part of Jerusalem leaves him sorely disappointed in the soulless food and ambience in comparison to Mea She’arim.

Tenenbom titles his short chapters in an irresistible style, such as “You Never Met a Woman in Your Life, and Then One Night, There Is a Woman in Your Bed. What Do You Do?” and “Shaved Heads Covered by $24,000 Hats.”

Ultimately, this insightful and fun-to-read page turner comes to the conclusion that the bubble of the Mea She’arim lifestyle, although “carefully constructed, can burst and die if one of its ingredients is missing. Look at a woman who is not your wife, spill that seed, ask one question, and it’s all over.”

But the intact bubble is a happy place filled with “kind, pleasant, warm and funny” people whose customs may not make much sense. And perhaps, he writes, the truth is that “none of us makes any sense,” not haredim nor cow-worshippers, nor mountain worshippers, nor LGBT people “who are in love with Gazans – the biggest enemies of the homosexual community.”

Tenenbom then departs Mea She’arim for his childhood city of Bnei Brak, where the apple strudel and potato kugel are second to none, and discovers more “foolish acts that became essential articles of faith” and other disturbing trends.

They say you cannot go home again, yet Tenenbom has done it – with intriguing results.

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