On the footsteps of the prophets

Mea ShearimLife in Mea ShearimProtest by Mea Shearim

One of the most fascinating wonders for many Christians and Jews is what it was like at the turn of the first millennium, at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, a time of immense activity religious and political activity.. We are fascinated by the Pharisees and scribes and all those antagonists of Jesus portrayed in the New Testament; who we can only imagine, gone, like the historical Jesus himself. My own fascination led me to pursue studies in the Second Temple period, a fascination that was kindled at the Swedish Theological Institute on the Street of the Prophets.

Mea Shearim, literally, “a hundred gates”, in Hebrew, and right on the backside of the Swedish Theological Institute, provides the closest glimpse to what Jewish life was like at the time of Jesus. It is one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem – and the poorest – but purely fascinating.

There are synagogues and yeshivot (Jewish seminaries) on every corner. (The saying is true, that where there are two Jews, there are three synagogues). The men, dressed as they did in the ghettos of Europe, spend their days studying the Torah. I must have been the first Tanzanian ever to witness what literal understanding of the Torah really means: men and boys with long peot,  tzitzit hanging around their waist, donning prayer shawls, or talith and mezuzot on their foreheads and arms. Nothing could make Deuteronomy 6:-9 more vivid.

Walking around the neighborhood, I was transported to the time of the scribes. Yes, I witnessed the tedious and meticulous process of copying Torah scrolls. One of the friends of the Swedish Theological Institute was actually a scribe. The only way to correct a mistake in copying was to discard the whole scroll and start all over again. Those scrolls are not cheap.

Then, of course, the kids were fascinated – may be even shocked or terrified – to see me and my African colleagues. We must have been their first sight of us. “Cush! Cush!”, they gasped as they took refuge behind their fathers’ legs. The adults in turn covered their mouths as they shielded them from us and hurried down the street in quick steps.

There was, of course, laundry hanging on every balcony, and what a colorful display it was. Some keen observers claimed to notice holes in the center of bed-sheets which suggested a religious discipline in marital relations but I cannot vouchsafe for that – I must not have been keen enough.

Being within a short walking distance to the entertainment establishments on Rehov Yafo, Mea Shearim residents occasionally tried to enforce Shabbat restrictions on secular West Jerusalem. Obviously driving in Mea Shearim on Shabbat would have been suicidal but cinemas and bars on Rehov Yafo and even as far as Tel Aviv often tasted the irk of the religious.

What seems to be most interesting though, is the people of Mea Shearim’s opposition to the State of Israel. As far as they are concerned, only the Messiah can re-establish the state and that is still to happen.

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