The people of Jerusalem (and elsewhere) Part I: The Hasids

I’ve been working through in my mind a new genre of the “Where Is?” books. The most famous of this genre is “Where’s Waldo?” where the astute observer tries to pick out the wiry, dorky guy in a horizontal red-and-white striped shirt, white ski cap, big round glasses, and blue pants from a sea of myriad objects and people, all of which and whom are similarly colored or attired. Waldo himself is at a packed beach, or at a busy train station, or in a park full of picnickers, or… For the uninitiated, you get it.

My new concept is “Where’s the Hasid?”

I once was in Jerusalem before this trip. I was 21. That was 24 years ago. I’d come for four days from Toulouse, France, where I was studying abroad, to visit my UCSB friends who were spending the year at Hebrew University. It is not precious to say the world was a different place then. It was. And much has changed for me in the nearly quarter century since I first got to dip my toe in the Middle East. Including my memory.

For example, I hadn’t recalled that the religious also are everywhere outside Jerusalem’s neighborhood specific to the ultra-Orthodox, the Mea She’arim, through which I’d taken a brief walk.

(Nor had I been aware of how religious Jewish women dress. I’m so much smarter now! But I’ll talk about them later.)

Men in the Hasidic community hit a certain (middle) age and then – poof! – morph into the same religious man. So you can imagine how one even slightly differently attired would be hard to find in a crowd.

Here’s how they all seem to look, from the top down:

Big black hat. The girls have been referring to these alternately as “cowboy hats” and “Lincoln’s hat.” Neither is an apt description. The round, flat-across-the-top hat is worn tilted slightly forward, revealing the bottom crescent of a black kippah (skull cap), seemingly well-secured to the back of the head.

Thick, gray beard. Worn long and fairly askew. Side curls, which fairly cover the ears, are called payot or paies. They’re a little scraggly.

Boxy black outer layer. Hayley is calling it a trench coat. It is decidedly not a trench coat. It’s like a robe. But not made of terry cloth. It’s like a jacket. But it’s not. They go down past the derriere and have the option of being cinched at the “waist.” That word is in air quotes because these portly men no longer have “waists”; many, thus, don’t bother to cinch their overcoat, so the tie just hangs limply. (Perhaps like another undergarment. …)

Four sets of white strings swish beneath the coat, over the tops of the black pant legs. These are tzitzit and are part of a white undergarment stating these folks’ religiosity. The modern Orthodox (men) wear them, too. But over jeans. Not black slacks over indeterminate waistlines.

Black slacks. I’ve already lambasted them enough, but I’ll add their bottom cuffs tend to be frayed.

Tennis shoes. Black. Not Nikes. That’s probably why the pants’ cuffs are so frayed.

Plastic bags. I don’t believe one must be religious to carry a plastic bag, nor must the religious carry one – or many – to demonstrate their belief in HaShem. But, just like Waldo wears glasses (and any schmoe – religious or not – can don glasses), the Hasids seems to have plastic bags tightly secured to the wrist opposite the hand carrying a cell phone or miniscule prayer book. What’s in those plastic bags? I haven’t been able to figure that one out. I don’t imagine they do the family grocery shopping; that’s for the wives to take care of. I also don’t believe they carry their tallit (prayer shawl) in them, for those have their own special bags. It’s likely they have their day’s lunch in them – prepared, of course, by the wife or an older daughter. Regardless, it’s clearly part of the uniform.

And these folks are everywhere. They dart onto and off of buses. They walk in a straight line with their heads buried in reading materials. (How do they do that?) They run across streets. They crisscross alleys. They stand in lines, prayer book in hand, like at the (heavily guarded) post office near our AirBnB. They scuttle out of tiny shops, carrying their plastic bags!

If I were of their movement, I’d want to live here, too. No one (save stupid American tourists) would stare and everyone can tell them apart instead of musing that their very existence should be a fun new “Where Is?” book series.

But I do enjoy having a waistline, so I guess I won’t make Jerusalem my home.

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