Among the ultra-Orthodox of Mea Shearìm

As a secular child I lived among ultra-Orthodox Jews, in Mea Shearìm, their modern ‘Shtelt’ in Jerusalem, a few steps from the Western Wall. The suffering of the Ukrainian people in recent days under the Russian bombs reminds me of the suffering of these ‘strange’ comrades from my childhood, all dressed in black, as if to testify to their perennial mourning condition under the pogroms in Odessa and Kiev, as well as throughout the Russian Empire.

Today I return to Mea Shearìm, accompanied by Mara, referring to an autobiographical passage from my novel “The Chinese of Maputo”1 (In English: The Shades of Meaning).

We turned into my street round the wide bend that I used to take returning from school. “There it is!” I pointed.  “That house with two floors, over there on the right. Can you see it? The one with the balcony.” Yet again, the curious feeling that everything had shrunk surprised me, my house, the street, the pavement, the whole area that awaited me just around that bend. It was all here, the center of my world at that time. I felt the impulse to run away. What if I turned round and took flight in order to avoid polluting my memories? I wondered.

“Mara, let’s stop here a moment.” I held her back and we hovered on the threshold. “I’m not sure I want to go on. In a certain sense, it seems like a violation.” Her silence appeared to be an expression of understanding.

Here it was, the street of Mea Shearìm. As a child, I was a foreigner in this district and I was proud of this difference. Together with my father, we were the only ones without the kippah or the grey hat on our heads, the side curls, the long beard and the tunic. My mother wore her dark blond hair naturally without ostentation. She was so kind towards the other married women with their shaved heads hidden by a dull-colored scarf, that they returned the courtesy or, at the worst, treated her with indifference. On the other hand, I was always cautious. Occasionally, for no reason at all, as in the adult world, war broke out among us children; the orthodox against the secular. We shielded ourselves from the stoning on the two sides of a mound of earth covered in bushes. As part of the lay battalion, I was usually alone. Sometimes my friend Shlomo, who lived in another area, amongst the Yemenites, took part as well. He was not a good shot, but he was an expert at finding stones of the right size and shape. Apart from a few stitches in hospital and many sticking plasters and reprimands at home, the battles were short and not too bloody. I believe no one really took aim. The purpose was mainly to underline the difference between us, as if the clothing alone was insufficient.

I lived among people I did not understand. Opposite my bedroom was a Yeshiva, a religious place where, at all hours of the day and night, I saw dark men and boys swaying back and forth and heard their chanting, melodious lullabies that brought on sleep, or noisy singsongs that drove it away. “They are praying to the Lord,” my father explained, “and they live in the same manner as their ancestors did in Eastern Europe. They dedicate their lives to serving God. They have brought their world to this district because they were unwanted in Europe and here they are close to the Wailing Wall, although it is in Jordanian hands and they have no access. They have suffered a great deal and you must show them respect, as you must to anyone else.” My father was firm over this, even when I pointed out that Shlomo had told me that those persons opposite did not recognize our State and were exonerated from military service. I could not possibly accept this, being the brave patriot I felt I was.

“Sorry Mara, I was walking along memory lane.”

“Don’t be silly. I know this is a special moment for you. Pretend I’m invisible and continue with your walk. If you can’t do it now, then when can you?” She smiled sweetly. I put off the desire to embrace her, considering our surroundings. She added, “I’m counting on the fact that, when the time is right, you will impart to me what lay behind the sparkle I saw in your eyes while you were looking into your past; it’s useful for my tales, but also, and above all, I’m curious about you, even as a child.”

“I was reliving some scenes from then… My friend Shlomo, a young boy from the Yemen appeared in them, too.”

I felt her grasp my wrists and I stared at her; she had become pale as if she were afraid. “The Yemen,” she whispered with closed eyes, “the Kingdom of Sabah.”

“Mara, are you all right?”

She did not answer. She remained like that for a while. She came back to normal, looked triumphantly at me and asked, “Well, are you going to show me your house, on the inside, I mean?”

“Yes, let’s go, it’s there awaiting us.”

A group of orthodox Jews were leaving the house of prayer. The tunics they wore were shiny and smart, the ones for the festive days. They stopped in the middle of the road. Some children stood watching us with expressions of curiosity and disapproval. That was due to Mara’s shoes, I thought, the only bright colour around here. The men were talking animatedly amongst themselves, finally free, outside the house of God, to discuss profane subjects with moderation.

The entrance to what used to be my home was through a side alley, which was just behind that human wall. There was no way to avoid passing close by. We walked towards them and the group opened up like the waters of the Red Sea and, in a moment, we were on the other side. We entered a sort of narrow, covered passage as if excavated in the rock, which led to the courtyard at the back. On the left, there was an ugly brick wall blocking the view that at one time gave onto the stone-throwers and beyond.

On the opposite side, were two steps that, at one time, was the space belonging to the chickens and two geese. The two rumps of the outside staircase were at right angles to each other and gave onto a common balcony.

“Let’s go up,” I invited Mara, who was following on my faltering steps, speaking quietly to avoid disturbing the magic of my return. I wondered if, in the silence, she could also hear the thumping of my heart. “Let’s see if there’s anyone at home,” I said.

Having climbed the eighteen steps, one by one of those bent and cracked witnesses of my childish imprint, I recognized the door, the first on the left. I looked for the name in vain. I plucked up my courage and knocked on the door with Mara hiding behind me. I looked at my watch. “It’s lunch time; whoever lives here should be back home from the synagogue. It’s strange there’s no name,” I pondered aloud. I heard no noise inside. I began knocking again, harder than before. The door remained closed.

“Wait here, Mara, and I’ll try asking someone.” I went to the opposite end of the long balcony. On the brass nameplate, in slightly discolored elaborate Hebrew letters, was the name M. Rosenberg. Either old Rosenberg or his son was still here. The twinge in my stomach increased. I knocked. The door opened almost straight away, but slowly, with caution. A long whitish beard appeared, followed by the round face covered in wrinkles of an elderly man, who was observing me with eyes like an owl.

Shalom, Mr. Rosenberg?”

“Of course, who else?” he replied grumpily.

“You lived here thirty years ago, didn’t you?”

“Young man, you act like the tax collector and I’ve always paid in full. What’s more, today is the Shabbat. Anyway, seeing that you’re so curious and it’s a while since anyone asked me anything…Yes, I was born here, and here, if God wishes, I shall also die.” He noticed Mara and curiosity got the better of him. “From the way you destroy our sacred language, you must have just arrived from the diaspora,” he commented in Hebrew with a strong Yiddish accent.

“I’m Ariel Elkin, do you remember me? I lived here when I was young with my parents and two sisters, in that apartment over there.”

The door was wide open by now. The old man, tall and rather fat, was wrapped in a long dressing gown and wore the usual black hat. He slowly opened his eyes wide and there was recognition in them. I put my hand out to shake his.

“I saved your life when you came to sit on my bed during the bombardments at the time of the Suez crisis and you thanked me by breaking my nose.”

“Ah yes… Ariel… of course, that intelligent, presumptuous, unbelieving, runny-nosed kid. Like father, like son. No, your father was a good man, nothing to the contrary. God will be his judge. That time, I asked him for refuge… I knew the bomb was about to fall. God had decided I should live. He has taken from me my Rivka – may she rest in peace – many years ago. That my tongue may freeze – He could have waited a while longer so we could have departed together. I remember you very well… The Elkin family, the only ones without God in Mea Shearìm. The Lord has taken my Rivka – may God watch over her – but not a gram of my memory, unfortunately. She continues to buzz around me, grumbling, filling my head with the troubles of the world… I mean those of our district. How can one protect oneself from the crowd of memories?  I still hope that with His help, I will find the answer in our sacred texts. There, now… you returned to the land of our persecutors in Europe, to Italy, I believe. I could never understand why. Those who have the good fortune to live in the land of the Lord and just a few steps away from the Wall… well it’s none of my business. Come in, Ariel. Why are you standing out there, and call your wife as well.”

“Thank you Mr. Rosenberg. We don’t want to disturb you. We’re in rather a hurry. I wanted to show Mara my apartment, but it appears to be empty.”

“Quite empty, to be sure. It has been shut and barred like a tomb for some time. They departed for Heaven, both together the same night. A real miracle! Always well-mannered towards the Lord and me. A pious couple. May they rest in peace. The funeral was a long time ago. I also attended… A religious duty, you know, which makes the Minian possible – you remember what that is, don’t you? – Those poor souls lived such a withdrawn existence, they didn’t know anyone. You can imagine that finding ten male adults to recite the last prayer caused us a good deal of trouble for an hour or so. I don’t like funerals, except my own, of course – may the Almighty be deaf to my words. The keys to the house will probably be in the possession of their only son, but he lives in the warm, down in the Negev, I don’t know where. Maybe some agency here will have a copy, but I wouldn’t know… I’ve never seen anybody.”

Mara had come closer. She was listening to the old man with her eyes following his lips, as though she was preparing to verify later whether my translation was complete.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Rosenberg, it will be for some other time.”

“Come and see me, do come… perhaps I’ll still be here, if the Lord insists on forgetting me. Oh dear, may my tongue be punished! I shouldn’t say things like that, it’s blasphemous. But it isn’t easy.” He said this with no joy in his smile.

Shalom, Mr. Rosenberg, and thank you so much.”

Shalom,” Mara repeated.

Shalom to you both. You make a couple worthy of God. May you be under His protection forever.” He disappeared, closing the door behind him.

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  1. Nathan Levi. – La cinese di Maputo (The Shades of Meaning), Tresogni editor, 2014. Pages 148-53

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