Friday, May 2, 2014

Ultra-Orthodox demonstration: Turning the street black in Jerusalem

By: Rebecca McKinsey
Based in Jerusalem, Israel

They promised that 1 million ultra-Orthodox Jews would be there. So I knew I had to go, too.

The announcement of a new draft law that would no longer exempt ultra-Orthodox Jews, also called Haredim, from Israel's mandatory army service brought the highly recognizable group of Jews — the men sporting long, black coats, black hats and curled sideburns and the women in long skirts — from all over Israel to the streets of Jerusalem in response.

I assumed there would be plenty of other journalists there, but since I was going rogue, people at my newspaper told me to wear a long skirt and make sure I blended in. I dressed in the most conservative getup I could put together and set out.

selfie. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
Once I got on the bus, there were several ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who were headed to the event as well. So of course, it had to be on that ride that a man — not one of the black-coated ones — decided he and I needed to become best friends.

He started speaking to me in Hebrew. I had to admit I don't speak Hebrew. Strike one.

He started drilling me on my life story in broken English and asked if I was Jewish. I panicked. What to do? No one else on the bus was talking, so everyone could hear us. I couldn't think of any reason that I'd be dressed like an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman and heading to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish celebration if I wasn't a Jew (other than the real answer, but it didn't occur to me to tell him I was a Christian American girl who was going to the demonstration to take pictures for a blog post for my school).

Yes, I know NOW I was overthinking it.

But, at the time — "Yes," I told the guy. I'm Jewish. Strike two.

He then started asking me all these questions that a Jewish girl from New York (I didn't say I was from New York; he just assumed) should know, but that I couldn't answer, prompting him to ask, bewildered, if I'd been taught anything at all about Judaism. Strike three.

Quickly discovering he wasn't going go get much out of me along that vein, he changed his tune and asked me to join him for a drink that evening. I told him I was too busy.

It got better (or worse, depending on your viewpoint) — he crooned a few lines of Lionel Richie's "Just To Be With You Again" to me as the rest of the bus stared.

Finally, he got off the bus, telling me effusively how nice American women are.

What I didn't realize was that the bus, which normally would have taken me right to where the demonstration was being held, had drastically changed its route because of the demonstration. By the time I clued in, I was more than a mile from where I needed to be and had no way to get there other than walking.

So that's what I did, and the closer I got, the more Haredim joined me on the walk. From a nearby shop's open door, Ke$ha and Pitbull incongruously belted out, "You better move, you better dance / Let's make a night you won't remember / I'll be the one you won't forget," as crowds of black-coated men and boys streamed out of the fog and made their way down the light rail track that had been closed down for the event.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
At one point, a woman walking hand in hand with a young girl asked me (after the "I-don't-speak-Hebrew" dance), "Do you know where the women and children are supposed to go? I only see men."

At that point, I hadn't realized that the only people actually participating in the demonstration were men; women and children would gather on the sidelines. But again, not wanting to admit I was a solo journalist with no clue what I was doing, I simply said, "I'm not sure; I'm just following."

She smiled at me. "That's what we do."

As I finally reached the site of the demonstration, I realized just how huge it was going to be.

I struggled through the women's section, with more arriving all the time,
to reach the center of the demonstration. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

With so many people spread out through several blocks in Jerusalem, vantage points were important — and people found them wherever they could.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Although I didn't find anything to climb, I did eventually make it to the point at the demonstration where the women's section met the men's. This was about as close as I was able to get — even in my conservative garb, I don't think I would have been permitted to mill around among the crowds of men at the demonstration. The male/female physical lines were very clearly marked.

Here, I was standing right up against the men's section of the demonstration.
Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

The demonstration itself was fascinating to watch — and difficult for me to follow, as it was all in Hebrew. But by observing, listening to those around me and asking questions, I was able to get a general idea of what was going on. Some pointed out that this wasn't a protest or a demonstration at all, despite the use of those terms in media coverage of the event — rather, they said, it was a gathering. The intent was not to make a violent point but rather for the group of ultra-Orthodox Jews to come together and pray, they said.

And, indeed, that is what they did, for more than an hour. A man's voice led the prayers, broadcast over loudspeakers and often full of tears. All around me, men, women and young children repeated him and joined in with the prayers. The man's voice also called out the attendees' protests against the draft law. Nearby, a woman roughly translated for me: "We can't join the army, because we need time to study the Torah." Although they weren't directly a part of the demonstration, the women on the sidelines were just as involved.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Although things didn't get violent, at least while I was standing, security and emergency services were available.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
The demonstration, although serious, wasn't without its quirky moments.

What is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstration
without a parrot? Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Especially among the men's section, young children were very active in the prayers and the demonstration. One boy in particular, less than 10 years old, was particularly noticeable as he screamed, "Amen!" at the top of his lungs after each line of a prayer was read. Attendees of all ages sported signs — a few that I could read.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
As the protest wound down, I was literally rooted to my spot. I was in the very center of the demonstration, and the crowds were so thick that I couldn't have left if I wanted — and those around me made it clear that the women were to stay put until the men had left. One woman reminded those around me that the men weren't supposed to touch or even make eye contact with us; she urged us to press back — an impossible task — to make sure we weren't in the way as the black-coated men streamed past.

As they passed, one young ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy, his sideburns almost longer than my own hair, took issue with my camera, shooting up a hand to cover my lens.

Living in Jerusalem, I saw ultra-Orthodox Jews every day, but this event, with its ceremony, regulations and sheer number of people, was fascinating to see. It gave me a glimpse into the fascinating beliefs and culture of this group, and I'm glad I was able to be in the middle of it.

Praying during the demonstration. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Their goal, I was told, was to turn the street black — and they succeeded.
Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

1 comment:

RoamingChile said...

You're not a bad photog. :) Good story.