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.