Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Israeli mosaic

Gabriella Liscko is a Hungarian immigrant who is an expert on the many different Jewish sects that live in Israel.  She is very well-informed and charismatic.  Her approach is that of a trained anthropologist with an MA in Jewish Studies and she is intimately familiar with all the different sects and how they distinguish themselves from each other, through dress, beliefs and religious customs.  She has been giving four talks at AACI Netanya on the subject and if you thought it was simply religious and secular, boy are you wrong. This is my summary of her talks, checked by Gabriella for accuracy.
There are many sects of ultra-orthodox haredim - Lithuanian (Litvak) and the hassidic sects (Satmar, Chabad, Sanz, Belz, Ger, etc.) usually named after the place where that particular sect originated in Eastern Europe.  And there are many splits and distinctions, for example, there are non-Zionist or anti-Zionist (Edah haredi), modernist or anti-modernist, strict or tolerant.  Haredim generally do not serve in the IDF but instead go to yeshivot or religious schools.The biggest sects also have their own yeshivot that cater to their specific customs.  Most sects follow a leading rabbi, the Rebbe, or the Rosh yeshiva. The most traditional speak Yiddish amongst themselves and the men wear black clothing and are referred to as "blacks" (shchorim) or penguins in Israel.  The Yerushalmi groups (the Yerushalmi hassidim and Litvaks, or prushim) originated in Eastern Europe and started to immigrate to the holyland in the 1780's, they adopted a "Sephardi-like" dress, consisting of a striped yellow coat and short trousers. 
After the Holocaust, those haredim who survived tended to turn inwards and become very strict in their religious observance.  They interpreted the catastrophe that befell them as the intrusion of the modern world into their lives and their lack of former strict adherence.  The hassidim who settled in Mea Shearim, that famous enclave of ultra-orthodoxy in Jerusalem, were largely groups from Hungary and central Europe, and this neighborhood became the symbol of extreme ultra-orthodoxy throughout the world.  Each of the sects has a strict dress code, and the women especially must keep their hems to a certain height (just below the knees) and usually don't wear anything colorful or modern.  Among the strictest group women are also supposed to shave their heads and wear special hats or scarves.  Some sects require the men to wear trousers tucked into their socks as they did during the 18th century. Also the head gear or shtreimels vary according to where the sect originated. 
The sephardim and Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) Jews who came after the establishment of Israel were many times treated innappropriately by the Israeli government who feared their Arab culture would infect Israeli-European culture, so when they immigrated they were first sent to tent-camps (ma'abarot) and then to the periphery (Kiryat Shmona, Mitzpe Ramon, Afula, etc.).  Although the sephardim had a traditional religious culture, they were more tolerant than ashkenazim, some of them smoke and watch soccer on TV on Shabbat, but they always make kiddush and remain traditional.  However, many of them were very poor and so often they sent their children to religious schools that were either cheap or free rather than the secular Israeli schools. This maintained a certian religious tradition and today many sephardi families are in the religious Zionist camp.  But, another group of religious sephardim grew up in Israel and adopted the manners and the dress code of the ashkenazi haredim, and became the sephardi haredim.  .In religious observance they are equivalent to the ashkenzi haredim, but in the haredi world they almost never inter-marry.  The sephardi haredim form the constituency of the political party Shas.
It is very easy to distinguish the traditional modern orthodox in Israel from the haredim because the modern orthodox wear normal dress (no black hats, shtreimels or black coats) and the most distinguishing feature is that the men wear knitted kipot and so they are called kipa sruga.  The women mainly wear long dresses and colorful hats that cover their hair.  However, whereas some haredi women shave their heads and wear wigs, modern orthodox women never shave their heads.  This group of modern orthodox is usually very Zionistic and they are also called dati leumi (or national religious) and their children serve in the IDF.
Then there is an intermediate group, the so-called modern haredim, who in all respects consider themselves haredi, yet they have adoped a modern life style.  Instead of living in poverty and studying 14 hours a day, the men work and the women too, they like stylish clothes and they drive cars.  However, the men always wear black kippot and maintain a strictly religious life-style.  They are not particularly Zionistic, but a growing number of them serve in the IDF.  This is a growing segment of the Israeli population which is likely to increase exponentially in the future. 
While the modern haredi are becoming more tolerant and open, there is a large group of young Israelis who are descended from modern orthodox or secular parentage who have become much more religious, but not in a traditional way.  They are called haredi dati leumi or hardal.  They are usually very nationalistic and Zionistic, they mostly reject modern secular culture as superficial.  Many of them embrace poverty and like to live in the territories and some groups within them dress in what they consider a biblical way, with long flowing garments in brown and earthy colors, never black, and the men usually wear large knitted kippot. 
Some of this group are the "hilltop youth" who go and live in caravans on remote hilltops in Judah and Shomron and seek to live a basic Jewish life as they imagined the forefathers did.  In doing so they reject the striving for material success that their grandparents and parents had when they were trying to develop this backward country into a modern technological state.  Some hardal youth appear like hippies and some are even anti-state because according to their beliefs no authentic Jewish state could withdraw from Jewish land.  From among the extreme hardalniks come the "price tag" group that destroy Arab property in order to hasten the transfer of the Arabs from Jewish land.
These are by no means the totality of the sects and divisions within Israeli society.  It's amazing that so far they have managed to live together in a relatively harmonious and peaceful way.    


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