The photo series “Children of Mea Shearim” captures the daily lives of the children from the Mea Shearim neighborhood, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood located in the heart of Jerusalem, and I mean, right in the center of the city, just a few steps from the Bustling downtown.
The old neighborhood was built in 1874 and consists of various ultra-Orthodox sects that have chosen a life of seclusion and segregation. And most of them belong to the faction of Naturi Karta, which is perhaps the most famous faction among the ultra-Orthodox, known for its anti-Zionism. Here they can live by their faith, dominate their culture and uninterruptedly realize values that are important to them, and educate their children in their own way. Education is a central means and the transmission of their values from generation to generation. Children spend most of the day in educational institutions and do not come into contact with modern study material or with “secular” professions.
Walking in this neighborhood makes me forget that I am in my own country. An extraordinary life unfolding at the center of the permissiveness and technological advancement of the 21st century is revealed to me. The camera allows me to get closer, observe and reunite with this strange environment that makes me feel like I am traveling back in time. Suddenly I am exposed to the deepest and darkest shades of Judaism.
The commandment to procreate ( וַיְבָרֶ†אֹתָם†אֱלֹהִים†וַיֹּאמֶר†לָהֶם†אֱלֹהִים†פְּרוּ†וּרְבוּ״†”) is the first mitzvah written in the Torah. And there is no doubt at all that the people of Mea Shearim, practice the mitzvah. Each family has at least 8-10 children, so it is normal that the older child is responsible for all of his or her younger siblings, even if he or she is still a child. I am always amazed when I see a 7 year old girl taking her little brother in a stroller around the neighborhood, just like that.
Between the narrow streets built of special Jerusalem stones, that have been used in building since ancient times, children are constantly running around, with foreign looks in their eyes, and the power of faith guarding them from above. When our eyes cross, curiosity and fear suddenly spark. If I ask them “Who are you?” I’m pretty sure they would respond, “we are what we believe”. God is first and foremost, God is omnipotent. “Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh Ha’olam” (“Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the universe”). It is not surprising, when from the moment of birth, one’s life revolves around prayers, sacred texts, Jewish laws, traditions and Torah studies.
Like every year, during the Jewish holidays, the gray city comes to life. Walking on the main street feels like marching in a parade or like visiting an old street theater, with each holiday displayed in all its glory and color. On Purim holiday, for example, children are dressed up in traditional, colorful costumes, usually as figures from the Torah, such as the King David, or the High Priest. The kosher alternatives for Dora, Mickey Mouse or Anna and Elsa. Some like playing spinning tops, eating sweets or singing holiday songs. And while I’m documenting everything that is going on around me, suddenly, a smell of smoke emerges beneath. I notice a group of children, of all ages, taking a few puffs from a cigarette and passing it on. This tradition receives much criticism, as expected, just like the “atonement” custom (a practice in which a chicken is waved over a person’s head and the chicken is then slaughtered in accordance with halachic rules) which continues to exist in the neighborhood every year, although It was banned by the Israeli law a long time ago.
The special character of the neighborhood attracts groups of visitors and tourists from different places. These visits sometimes cause friction between the visitors and some of the residents, who are mainly opposed to the entry of women in clothing perceived by them as immodest.
When entering the neighborhood, it is impossible not to notice the big signs calling visitors to respect the modest dress code, with very clear instructions. For me, this moment, right before entering the neighborhood is always a moment of uncertainty. I usually take a quick look at myself and wonder, “Is my dress modest enough?”. It is important to follow the guidelines, believe me. Women and girls must wear a dress or skirt that goes below the knees, and clothing that covers the shoulders and neckline, and sleeves that go below the elbows. Married women shave their heads and use wigs, scarves and hats. Men and boys wear black frock coats, white shirt, and a big black hat. In their dress and customs they preserve a tradition that was practiced in Eastern European communities a few hundred years ago.
There is something addictive and unexpected, that makes me want to go back there again and again. Explore all the little details that I may have missed the previous time. Documenting the young ultra-Orthodox generation in its natural environment feels to me like creating fiction.
By Ofir Berman
Ofir Berman is a documentary photographer currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. She focuses on humanitarian, cultural and social stories.