the naked truth about Orthodox men
by ND, as told to Rebecca, who types fast

It was Friday afternoon. We were getting ready for Shabbat, and our host Eliyahu turned to me and said, “do you want to go to the mikveh?” (ritual bath) There’s a common custom for Jewish men to go to the mikveh before Shabbat, which is a custom I observe when in Philadelphia. I responded with great enthusiasm. We hopped into the car and Eliyahu told me, “you’re in for a cultural experience.” We drove to Mea Shearim, a neighborhood famous for being the heart of Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic life in Jerusalem.

We walked into a building that looked like an apartment building, with no distinguishing features suggesting that it was a mikveh. A small corridor held the cashier, in a little booth. Behind him on the wall was a gold-plated chart with variety of prices. Eliyahu said, “get the 25 shekel ‘mikveh with sauna’.” I looked around at the grey painted walls, cracked ceilings, and fluorescent lights, all standing in stark contrast to the golden menu.

We walked up two flights of stairs and into the changing room. I looked around with amazement, realizing I had arrived at a huge place: there were benches and racks for hundreds of people. We took our clothes off and Eliyahu pointed towards a basket with black plastic flip-flops. “These are optional,” he said. I wasn’t sure what would be worse: who knows what kind of skin condition people might have here? Or, what could be on the floor? I decided to walk around barefoot. We went up another flight of stairs and opened the door.

We entered the shower section. From that point on, we were in a world of complete male nudity. Twenty or so men were standing in the showers; others were scrubbing themselves vigorously; others were sitting on plastic chairs chatting. One man was holding a bundle of fresh green carob branches, tied together, to use as a wet flogger. On the wall there was a selection of seaweed-looking and synthetic back scrubbers. We hung our towels and toiletries on a hook and Eliyahu waved me in toward another door. There were signs in Hebrew, which I paused to read. They included warnings (‘No Entry for Boys Under 14,’ ‘No Massage in the Sauna,’ ‘No Gatherings,’ ‘Behave Only in Appropriate Manners,’ ‘Eating and Drinking is Prohibited’) from the committee of rabbinic leaders. I later saw examples of violations of all these rules. I felt like the Big Rabbi Is Watching. Eliyahu said, “a few tight-ass folks think that exposing young boys to the sauna is inappropriate.” I grew more and more curious as to what lay ahead.

I walked through the sauna door. The steam was heavy and thick. My eyes were burning. We passed by the entrance to the first room. Eliyahu waved for me to move with him to the back room. I found myself standing in front of three tiers of marble seats, crowded with men sitting and lying down, many of whom were scrubbing and vigorously massaging each other with seaweedy brushes and frothy liquid soap. Between the anonymity of the steam and the massaging, there was a sense of men tending to each others’ bodies, in a physically pleasurable way.

In that setting of nudity, hairstyle became an important marker of identity and affiliation. Most men wore long beards and peyos (sidelocks, hair growing from the temples), with otherwise short hair, which marks them as Orthodox. Other men in the back room seemed to be in their twenties and had no facial hair and no peyos. I had the hunch that they might be secular young men who enjoyed the homoerotic environment. I was also looking to see if any men had tattoos, which are a big no-no among Jews who follow strict halacha (religious lifestyle law). I think I spotted a tattoo on the buttock of one of the young men, but I wasn’t sure. I was wondering what the response would be if an uncircumcised man showed up in this setting.

Considering the super-covered culture of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the sauna felt surprisingly intimate to me. However I do know that because of the community’s gender segregation, signs of physical affection between men are common and acceptable. Eliyahu would pour cold water on my head every once in a while, to keep me comfortable in the heat. After a few minutes I went out to the showers. Men leaving the steam room looked as pink as roasted pigs. It was very funny to see all those guys shvitzing (sweating hard) with pink faces and pink butts.

I went over to the mikveh dunking pools. My mikveh in Philadelphia is a solitary contemplative space, with one person using a small pool by himself. However, this area was populated with dozens of men of all ages and body shapes, including young boys diving and playing around. It was also an opportunity to see the bare heads of people who always have their heads covered. By then I had lost track of Eliyahu but found him standing in the middle pool of three. I put my feet into the water and jumped right out because it was scorching hot. I moved to the lukewarm pool, the biggest of the three. The pool was crowded with seven or eight men. I stayed there briefly and then moved to the cold-water pool, where I planned to do my immersion.

Contrary to my expectation, it was hard to create a personal space in the water. My typical practice, inspired by the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism), is to use this time to review the week and do other introspective reflections. Other men who were immersing were doing very quick in-and-out dunkings. In order to make my own space, I faced the wall and created an imaginary bubble of silence in the midst of a very noisy and energetic environment.

I went back to the dressing room and began putting on my special Shabbat clothes. Nearby, two young boys, about six and ten, were staring at me. Eventually the older one quietly asked, “ata Amerikai?” (“Are you American?”). In hindsight I realized that I had been talking with Eliyahu both in English with an American accent and Hebrew with an Israeli accent. My answer was that I am an Israeli who lives in America, and Eliyahu is an American who lives in Israel. I asked the boy whether he had visited America or had relatives living there. He said no. The young one kept on staring. Eliyahu and I got up and headed towards the door. In parting, I said, “Shabbat shalom” (“Peaceful sabbath,” a typical wish and greeting), to which the young one responded by sticking his tongue out at me. Surprised and entertained by his gesture, I stuck my tongue out myself. He stuck his tongue out even more. We left.

Eliyahu told me that because the word ‘shalom’ is one of the names of G!d, there is a custom not to say it in a place that has bathrooms and nudity. I think the little boy might have been responding to that. Rebecca thinks this is a typical kid moment.

The Ultra-Orthodox community might appear to outsiders to have a body-negating, highly shameful culture. Visiting this very popular institution revealed to me another face of this culture, and an opportunity to peek into the nude life of the Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox men of Mea Shearim. I wonder what the women do, and whether there is an institution in this community that allows women a public domain in which nudity is acceptable.
“juicy booty”
gastronomy and piety in Jerusalem

I have in the past been accused of writing rather too much about food and not enough regarding matters of consequence. Guilty, says I, and I’ll probably never stop. Here’s some of each.

Today we had the most amazing figs ever. The ones earlier in the week were at that point the best ever, but they’ve been eclipsed. ND and Sarit (his sister) and I were at En Hemed, the beautiful park where her wedding will take place, scoping out the setting and making decoration plans, when we discovered a huge stand of fig trees, interspersed with grapevines and towering thorny raspberry bushes. All these plants were literally drooping with fat ripe fruits. ND got that crazed look in his eyes and starting grabbing with both hands, dancing up and down the row of trees and moaning with pleasure, his mouth crammed with juicy booty. Later, he could barely eat dinner.

As expected, I’ve eaten extremely well. One can hardly avoid it in Israel. ND's mother not only stuffed us (un-pushily) while in Haifa but loaded us up with Shabbat foods to bring to Jerusalem and share with Eliyahu and his other guests. We had homemade challahs (amazing), baba ganoush, spicy tomato salad, sprout salad, chocolate cake, and fruit. We stopped for lunch on Friday at the restaurant Sarit manages, which is part of a beautiful mountaintop goat farm, and augmented our Shabbat goodies with a bottle of yogurt and a wheel of mild herbed cheese.

However: I have had falafel only once. Shock and horror!

I’ve started a (lame) conversational poll: how much hummus is eaten in Israel per annum per capita? My guess is 50 pounds. I’ve convinced a few people, but mostly folks just laugh and say, a lot. If I lived here I would definitely do my share.

Writing about food is of course an easy out from writing about what’s really going on. I’ve been spaced out and sort of edgy the last few days, which is a paradoxical state in which I feel both calmly patient and emotionally fragile. Some of the tension comes, of course, from meeting ND’s family and new people generally.

A bigger contributor, though, is the experience of Shabbat in Jerusalem. It’s beautiful and oppressive, sometimes simultaneously, in a complex layering of identity and practice. It would take a long time to explain this fully, and believe me, I tried. I’ve just deleted a long-winded description of two religious rituals I attended this weekend and what everyone was wearing and what I was wearing and how they were looking at me and how I felt, blah blah blah. To dissect these messages is like explaining football to a Martian.

In any case, the central problem goes like this. I love the feeling of an omnipresent Shabbat spirit in Israel specifically and Jerusalem particularly, but I hate the lack of feminist/egalitarian communities and settings in which to celebrate. American Judaism is shockingly far to the left of Israeli Judaism on this account: here there aren’t “Conservative” or “Reconstructionist” synagogues, but only Orthodox communities of varying strictness. Secular-identified people can choose between no religious practice or one that is varyingly incongruent with their (my) personal beliefs.

I now find myself on a path of increasing observance, enjoying the feeling of a committed community and a city full of welcoming Shabbat tables, yet sickened by the knowledge that I have to basically swallow some of my dearest beliefs (notably, the right to full inclusion of women and queers and, hey, non-observant Jews, and non-Jews) in order to participate. Check your everything at the door, and you’ll have a good time.

I just read this to ND, and he protests! There are so many places we haven’t been yet! There are many pockets of subcultures, and counter-discourses. There are sincere people trying to live in the creative tension between these two compelling perspectives: egalitarian, feminist-inspired diversity and inclusivity, versus tightly-knit community bound by shared dedication to religious practice. Hopefully, he says, we’ll have the chance to encounter these folks and share notes on our struggles, pains, and triumphs.

Personally, I would like to meet more creative tensioneers. Sadly, I don't have the knowledge to properly engage in this kind of acrobatics: without an intellectual safety harness and emotional net of self-belief below, I am far too shaken by the chasm to attempt flight.


landing sites

When ND suggested on Monday night that we go see the “rocket landing sites” I was actually muddled and sleepy enough to imagine that he was referring to some kind of alien landing/launch places. I had fleeting visions of bug-eyed greenies mingling with the chilled-out Haifans. Not so, of course.

The bomb site (as I think of it) was surprisingly underwhelming. It hit in a tiny yard right between three buildings (amazing luck, to miss the buildings!) and the impact crater was about 2 yards across, if that. The damage to the site was limited to a destroyed section of metal fence and some shrapnel pockmarks on the building walls. Yoram got one of the hunter-kids to give him a souvenir. The collectible shrapnel bits were no bigger than ball bearings, and looked quite benign, like something you’d dig out of the dirt in any urban garden. Obviously, if someone had been standing nearby, the rocket would have killed them, but compared to the photos of sheared-away buildings in Beirut, this was nothing. A striking illustration of this war’s asymmetry.
here it is, my first ever blog entry. tarrrahh!
(by ND)

After lunch we went on a trip to the nearest rocket-landing site. The rocket, or ‘katyusha’ as they call it here (the sound of the word suggests the Russian origin of this weapon), went between two apartment buildings and hit the ground near a little shopping center less than a mile from my parents’ house. My parents were abroad in Spain when that happened but the neighbor from downstairs told us about the panic that ensued in the building’s bomb shelter on that day.

When we arrived, there were two boys digging in the ground searching for souvenirs. We heard that you can buy rocket shrapnel on line. We saw the damage on the walls all around. This is the shopping center where I spent good number of hours during my junior high school years.

Then we went to the Mediterranean beach. It was after sunset. The water was warm and creamy, approximately 78F / 27C. The surface looked like waves of a velvet dress worn by an invisible mermaid. We swam and floated on the waves, and as the night skies were turning black, many memories floated into my mind. The beach was my favorite place to go during summer vacations. It is on this sand that I walked with lovers; to here we escaped for private trysts. I came to these jetties to look at the sunset and cry when it was all over. Here a friend got sunburned when in her eagerness to get tanned fell asleep on the shore with baking oil on her skin, here I almost drowned when I got too deep on a stormy day, here I lost my first pair of glasses when I was eight.

One good side effect of the bombing is that apparently all the jellyfish disappeared. Many rockets fell in the Mediterranean and the shock waves scared them away. Jellyfish bites can be quite painful so everything has good and bad outcomes! We both thought we got over our jet leg but last night was difficult. As I am writing to you, in the early afternoon, Rebecca is napping in the living room.


figgy foraging

figgy foraging
Originally uploaded by Emmalen.

ba’aretz at last

Will try not to be too dull and travelogue-y here, but the jetlag-fog and family-meeting-stress are combining to stifle my wit and brevity. Sorry. I’m sitting in Yael and Yoram Mahanymi’s living room in Haifa, enjoying the gentle air conditioning. The beautiful view outside (clean-lined apartment buildings and the azure sea below) is matched by the view inside, where Yael is cooking up a storm: date-filled coffee cookies, mango sorbet, home-dried pineapple, sweet baby eggplant preserves, lunch. The fridge and counters are full of amazing Israeli fruit. ND promised I would be well-fed. As if there was some possibility otherwise.

Getting here was quite a drama. We nearly missed both the SEPTA and NJT trains to Newark from Philadelphia, and then volunteered (excitedly) to be bumped from our flight for a later plane and a free Continental voucher. As it turned out, they didn’t need the extra seats, so we (and all the other thrilled freebie-seekers) were disappointed. Too bad; we had a fun hour of speculating as to where we should go: Rome! Warsaw! St. Croix!

Airport security was moving well, even with the recent liquid-explosives plot. The new restrictions seem like far more hassle than they are worth. Banning water bottles isn’t going to stop any terrorists. If you want to carry liquids, just strap them to your leg or something. We saw a woman with two wheezy red-eyed little girls, trying to get the TSA honchos to let her take children’s cough syrup, with safety seals intact, and CVS receipts in hand. It didn’t look good. She begged that they were traveling to Moscow and it would be 24 hours before she could get more medicine. Oy, pobrecitas!

The flight to Israel, as I had forgotten, is a wacky microcosm of the country’s population. From the frumpy-preppy Orthodox, trailing gaggles of children, to the suntanned Eurotrash Tel Aviv set, Continental flight 84 was a perfect minisociety. Modern technology creates these stunning moments of disconnect—as when the head steward requested, via intercom, that the gangs of black-hats “please refrain from davvening (praying) in the aisles during the meal service, and we will notify you of the appropriate time and space for davvening.” How do you calculate sundown when you’re flying straight into it at 1000 kilometers per hour? Meanwhile the expensively coiffed secular folks are eating soggy airline shrimp salad, and watching Mission: Impossible III.

(Yes, I did watch it, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was wasted on that piece of junk. Tom Cruise’s very young beautiful helpless wife had nothing to do but smile, cry, and shoot a couple faceless goons. They could have had Katie Holmes play herself. The anti-Bush Doctrine denouement was great but totally underplayed, especially because Billy Crudup is a terrible villain. Plus, ‘the rabbit’s foot’ is a stupid name for a macguffin. They could just call it ‘the red herring.’)

Right, so we landed at 10am, and I smiled my way through Ben-Gurion’s cool marble hallways, enjoying the familiar-airport glow, then had a baggage-claim moment of panic. Went directly into shy mode for the rest of the day. That turned out to be fine. All the Mahanymis are really lovely people, and were very welcoming to me despite my lack of energy and of Hebrew. We went from the airport to (younger sister) Sarit’s airy, calming apartment outside Jerusalem, where we snacked, yakked, and showered. ND and his parents took Sarit to a meeting in the city while I collapsed into bed.

When they came back, we all drove out to a empty hilltop park and clambered down a wild rocky slope to an underground swimming hole. Against the dusty hot air outside, the water was pleasingly frigid and the air cool and wet. The swimming hole was quite gynecological. We reached the water via a narrow channel in the rock, with ridged steps, down into a dark elliptical chamber of about 10m across and 4m tall. ND said it felt like a spot for secret pledges and initiations. On the way home we scouted for fig trees along the road, stopping to jump out and strip off the ripe fruits in the favorite (much-reminisced: family foraging) Mahanymi activity. The sweetest, juiciest figs I’ve ever had.

The evening was a long blur of sleepy travel for me. Y&Y went off to Haifa in their car, and ND&I dropped Sarit with her fiancĂ© Tomer and drove off in her car. We meant to visit N’s friend Dror on his kibbutz, but when we got close he wasn’t answering his phone and so we continued on to Haifa. Arrived at the apartment building to find no one home, and of course ND has no key, so we visited the downstairs neighbor for bathroom, snacks, and Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer on TV. I was a smiling zombie by this point. Finally Y&Y returned and with amazing fortitude I managed not to dissolve onto the floor for another hour.

Sleep! From midnight until 11am. Glorious. Now we’ve lunched (on delicious roasted veg and lentils and salad and spiced beets and more, yum) and massaged the trip into shape. Typical, that we would come for three weeks with only a vague schedule. Now that we’ve eaten and planned everything seems clearer.

To wit:
This week, til Thursday, Haifa.
Friday (8/25) thru Sunday, Jerusalem.
Next week, Tel Aviv and visiting around with friends in the area.
Thursday (8/31) thru Saturday, Neve Ur (older sister Irit’s kibbutz).
Following week, Jerusalem: Sarit’s wedding on Thursday (9/7).
Last Shabbat, Rosh Pina, near Tzfat.
Fly home 9/10 from TLV!
It will speed by, I’m sure … off to the beach for now.


vroom vroom

...off to Israel tomorrow. This after a successful Boston trip, during which I subjected N to many, many relatives. Also my dear father and stepmother drove up from DC today, with equal motivation (I think) to see me (before I escape to the war zone) and to meet N.

So, right, stay tuned. If you're in Israel, drop me a line! Would love to see you.


taking the plunge
...back into the blog after a long dry spell.

I've been busy and working hard--theater, homelife, friends, money, you name it--and lacking the precious hi-speed line. No longer. And just in time as well, as I'm going a-travelling to Israel in two weeks and will have a lot to write about. For now I'm trying to wrap up some Philly things, as well as start new balls rolling (sounds great eh?) so that when I get back I have things waiting for me and don't have to start from scratch.

In any case, here's a little something: a letter that ND (my heavenly honey, if you haven't heard) and I wrote and sent to the Philly Inquirer after the recent Seattle shootings. Of course that event hasn't exploded into national ugliness, because of the much worse international ugliness in Lebanon and northern Israel, not to mention Iraq. Well, at least our fears about Jewish isolationism haven't come true...

Dear Editor,

Last Friday six workers at the Jewish Federation of Seattle were shot by a self-proclaimed Muslim American. We mourn the death of Pam Waechter, and pray for the speedy recovery of the other victims. This event has cut deeply into Seattle’s urban fabric.

Fearmongering voices within the Jewish community are now calling for increased security at Jewish institutions. Robert Sokolov, the Jewish Agency representative in Seattle, said in response, “Jews in the U.S. are not used to thinking in terms of security. I hope now people will wake up.” (Ha’aretz, July 31, 2006: “Security experts hope Seattle attack will shatter U.S. Jews’ illusion of safety”) These statements propagate fear and insecurity among American Jews, rather than proposing effective safeguards for all communities.

The Seattle shootings are a sociopathic hate crime committed by an individual. They are neither a political act, nor a representation of the Muslim American community’s views. The Seattle Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement saying, "we categorically condemn this and any similar acts of violence. […] We also hope that the perpetrator of this crime is brought to justice." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 28, 2006: “Six shot, one killed at Seattle Jewish federation”)

As Jews living in vibrantly multicultural neighborhoods, we know that security comes from strong diverse communities and social ties rather than from armed guards and locked doors. American civil society is based upon freedom of expression, and on public defense of diversity. Hate crimes threaten our freedom of expression, and should motivate public coalition-building.

As the people of Seattle recover from this tragedy, we must learn as a society not to drown in waves of fear. American communities must strengthen our commitment to a diverse, open, and safe public sphere.

Rebecca Ennen
Nachshon David Mahanymi