Category Archives: Jewish Life

The Ultra-Orthodox and National Service

Israel’s Jewish ultra-Orthodox community is up in arms as government plans to extend mandatory national military take shape.

Sign stating that the enlistment of the ultra-orthodox into the Israeli national service (civil or military) will NOT happen – Mea Shearim, Jerusalem.

It’s hard to think of an experience more surreal than wandering through the bustling streets and alleyways of Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods. It’s not only a step back in time, but entering a world so entirely detached from the rest of Israeli society.

On a recent trip through the neighbourhood I came across this large protest sign denouncing the government’s attempts to introduce new legislation forcing ultra-orthodox men into national service.

One of the ways this community remains so detached from the rest of Israel is the current and long-standing exemption young ultra-orthodox men and women receive from the mandatory national military service (two years for women, three years for men), a cornerstone of Israeli society. Whilst all other young Israeli men and women are enlisted to serve in the Israeli Defence Force, ultra-orthodox men are free to enter religious schools (known as yeshivas) where they pursue a life studying the bible, forever removed from the realities of modern-day Israel.

Needless to say the ultra-orthodox, often vocal against government attempts to interfere in their religious way of life, are likely to put up quite a fight. As one of the community’s leading rabbis bluntly put it, “We must give our lives against the drafting of yeshiva students [to the army]. In an issue that belongs to the heart of Israel, there are no compromises.” (Thousands of ultra-Orthodox protest in Jerusalem against Tal Law replacement, Haaretz, 25/06/2012).

Ultra-Orthodox protest against Haredi enlistment in the IDF, Jerusalem, June 25, 2012.

Ultra-Orthodox protest against Haredi enlistment in the IDF, Jerusalem, June 25, 2012. Photo by Shiran Granot (Haartez)

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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Jerusalem, Jewish Life


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Chanukkah 2010

Happy Chanukah 2010

Chanukah, the “Jewish Festival of Light” has come and gone. It’s one of the few Jewish holidays Asya and I make an effort to celebrate and given its closeness to Christmas the only holiday that I can really appreciate. And who wouldn’t want to celebrate a holiday that involves lighting lots of candles and eating over-the-top doughnuts.

This is the third year we’ve celebrated it together and as much as I enjoy the small traditions we try to keep for Chanukah it still underwhelms in comparison to what I am used to for Christmas. Surprising really, because back London (or at least in Golders Green) you really did get a sense that Chanukah was a big deal – standing in Trafalgar Square watching London mayor Boris Johnson fumbling with a flame thrower on top of a cherry picker trying to light the world’s largest Menorah being a particular highlight. You would have thought of all places to make a big deal of it, it would be here in Jerusalem. Alas. Although there seems to be menorahs (the nine-branched candlestick) dotted throughout the city, on top of public buildings or glistening from inside people’s home it still all feels a bit tame. But perhaps that’s just the view of someone who has grown up in a society addicted to its annual binge on bright (and commercialised) Christmas paraphernalia.

Like Christmas, Chanukah comes with its own set of songs. “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel” is the one that kept on sticking in my head this year, no thanks to this version from South Park:

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Posted by on December 9, 2010 in Jewish Life, Life in Israel


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My First Jewish Wedding

A few weeks back Asya and I were invited to our first wedding here in Israel and my first ever Jewish wedding. Needless to say it was quite an experience and very different from the few weddings I have been to back home in England and Denmark. I managed to catch some of the highlights of the religious ceremony on my camera, which I’ve pasted below.

Not quite your Church of England wedding, is it? Despite the presence of the rabbi and necessary religious overtones that are, by law, necessary at Jewish weddings here in Israel (civil marriages and inter-faith marriages are prohibited) the wedding ceremony had a very party-like atmosphere to it, with loud chanting, clapping and cheering accompanying the various stages of the ceremony.

I am used to weddings being long, drawn-out affairs that last the best part of the day, with ample time between the marriage ceremony, the meal, and dances etc. But here there was little more than an hour between the newly wed bridegroom was smashing the glass at the altar (the traditional way to end a Jewish wedding) and the couple finishing their meal and having their first dance. It all seemed a bit hasty and rushed. Still, I can’t complain as the food and drink was plentiful and  as always it was just nice to have an excuse and an occasion to dress up a bit and escape Jerusalem for the evening.

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Posted by on December 5, 2010 in Jewish Life, Life in Israel


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Photos from the Western Wall

What a difference a week makes.

Last week winter pulled out all the stops: freezing temperatures and hail enveloped Jerusalem, while the north of Israel experienced large snow falls – the latter naturally causing much excitement throughout the land.

This week, however, normal service resumed with near 30°C temperatures accompanying the wonderfully sunny days. On days like these, moving here to Israel really does make so much more sense.

This great weather is all so reminiscence of the lovely weather that held sway over the land back in early January. Fortunately it coincided with my Mum’s first ever visit to Israel. Armed with her prized new camera she managed to capture her first impressions of this perplexing country through loads of lovely photos. Hopefully over the next couple of weeks I’ll post some of my favourite photos from our trips to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, The Dead Sea, Nazareth and Haifa.

For starters here’s her take on Judaism’s #1 religious site, The Western Wall. As the name suggests it literally is just a very large stone wall – it’s holiness derived from it being the only remaining section of the Second Temple, destroyed in AD 70. The Second Temple is no more having succumbed to the same fate as the First Temple – destruction by the latest conquerors of the Holy Land, in the this case by the Romans. Nowadays the large plaza in front of Western Hall plays host to large religious gatherings and national celebrations.

The Western Wall and Plaza

A prayer at the wall

The Western Wall up close.

Bar Mitzvah celebrations.

Because of the strict male-female divide in conservative Judaism, female relatives are forced to follow the Bar Mitzvah proceedings from behind a dividing fence.

Here you can clearly see the how the wall is divided into a men's section (left-hand side), and a woman's section (right-hand side). Note the difference in space...? That's conservative Judaism for you.

Overview of the the Western Wall with the Dome of the Rock in the background (one of Islam's most holy sites). Conveniently enough the Dome of the Rock stands on the same site Jews claim as the site of their original Holy Temple. The proximity of these holy sites to one another is a significant source of Jewish-Muslim tension here in Jerusalem... if not the the whole of the Middle East.


Posted by on February 20, 2010 in Jerusalem, Jewish Life, Travelling in Israel


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The Ultra-Orthodox and Shabbat

After the disappointment of not getting my visa application fully sorted last week, it was time to experience my first full weekend in Jerusalem, not that anything out of the ordinary happened this weekend. It’s just that it still takes time to adjust your days of the week to fit around a weekend where Thursday evenings here are like our Fridays, and Sunday mornings are as dreary and full of dread as our own Monday mornings; not to mention the Shabbat laws which are effectively in full enforcement from mid-afternoon on Friday until Saturday evening. The notion that the entire public transport apparatus along with the majority of shops, restaurants, businesses etc. shut up shop for the best part of 30 hours is something pretty alien for anyone who has become so accustomed to the 24 hours-a-day 7 days-a-week commercial life.

So yes, Shabbat is the supposed day of rest for all Jewish Israelis, especially those of the more ultra-orthodox leanings. Now I will leave it for another occasion to write about some of the more obscure rules that regulate what actions are considered permissible on Shabbat, but just to give you an idea it is pretty much forbidden for them to do literally anything, from turning on electrical appliances, making phone calls, turning on the TV etc.

However, this Saturday at the height of Shabbat, a group of ultra-orthodox men used their “day of rest” to converge en masse in front of the newly built Intel microchip plant to demonstrate against it operating on Shabbat as well as employing Jews to work on Shabbat. “Shabbas! Shabbas!” chants filled the air (the Yiddish work for Shabbat) and as tensions rose stones were thrown at journalists, while the deputy mayor was attacked upon his arrival to scene for not having intervened earlier on the side of the ultra-orthodox. This begs the question whether the ultra-orthodox are themselves violating their very own strict Shabbat rules when engaging in such violent activity?

A Group of Ultra-Orthodox Men Protesting Outside Intel (Haaretz, 14/12/09)

Now I am all for respecting the cultural and religious sensitivities of the ultra-orthodox, they have the right to live out their way of life as they see fit – even if many of their traditions and practices hark back to a bygone era (e.g. women must sit at the back of the buses while the men sit in the front). But surely there must be limits…

Although my sense of geography is still a bit sketchy I am pretty sure this Intel plant is nowhere near any of the ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods, but in an industrial park on one of the main roads leading out of Jerusalem. It’s not as if they if they’ve planted their factory in the heart of a religious neighbourhood. The ultra-orthodox complain that the mere opening of the plant on the Shabbat, not only violates their day of rest but also the sanctity of the holy city.

This is by no means the first incidence of the ultra-orthodox community exercising their outrage at the opening of buildings or public spaces on Shabbat. Over the summer the issue has been of a parking lot in central Jerusalem that was open on Shabbat – yes, violent riots ensued over a parking lot! These violent groups remain a minority within the ultra-orthodox community, but as acts carried about by Palestinians show, it only takes the violent actions of a few for a negative characteristic to be stamped upon a whole group.

Intel has since warned that they are ready to abandon their operations in Israel if these disruptions persist. Despite its huge symbolic importance, Jerusalem is one of Israel’s poorest cities and desperately needs to keep hold of the few multinational high-tech companies that choose to base themselves here.

The Arab/Israeli divide may be the most documented of divisions that exist in Jerusalem, but in the day-to-day running of the Jewish parts of the city it is the secular/ultra-orthodox divide that is most apparent. While the two communities tend to self-segregate themselves into separate neighbourhoods, the growing ultra-orthodox population has been able to use their growing political leverage to expand religious preferences into the municipal decision-making. This movement hit a snag in road last year when the city’s mayorship was wrestled back from the ultra-orthodox party by a more secular leadership. Hence the sudden rise this year in ultra-orthodox demonstrations.

It all makes for a very complicated, but intriguing city; the near-insurmountable Arab/Israeli divide alongside the equally intricate and divisive clefts between the ultra-orthodox and secular Jerusalemites. It’s only a surprise that tensions don’t overflow more often. It really does make good old London seem like the multicultural paradise.

Just before posting this I stumbled across a news article in the local Haartez newspaper that while the factory will continue to work on Saturdays they have decided to reach a compromise with the ultra-orthodox community by agreeing to employ only non-Jews on the Saturday (Intel to employ only non-Jews at Jerusalem plant on Shabbat) Perhaps I should send them a CV 🙂 – well that’s if I had work permit.

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Posted by on November 18, 2009 in Jerusalem, Jewish Life


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Sima’s Bat Mitzvah

It seems like such a long time ago now, but one of the first things I got to experience on my arrival back in Israel was Sima’s Bat Mitzvah-  Sima being Asya’s younger sister. Indeed, much of my first week on the kibbutz centred on the frantic preparations for this large outdoor party. Of the many jobs I was enlisted to, my favourite would probably have to be the afternoon spent sitting around a kitchen table with a group of middle-aged Russian ladies, churning out hundreds of Russian-style pasties. So yes, while I did move to Israel, there are many moments where I could just as well be in Russia – for those who don’t know Asya’s family is Russian and only immigrated to Israel in 1991.
Picture 001

It’s a little hard to explain what a bat mitzvah really entails, especially as a kibbutz bat mitzvah probably has very little in common with the more religious sort – no readings from the Torah here! Along with the mountains of food and hundreds of guests from far and wide, there were various speeches and a power point presentation of the Kovarsky family tree.

Perhaps most worryingly for me was the family tradition of all family members getting up and singing for the gathered audience culminating in one big family sing-a-long. As much as I have been welcomed into the Kovarsky family I am glad to say, at least on this occasion, this did not extend to me being obliged to join them on stage for my own little rendition. But next time round there may be no exemptions…


The Kovarsky Family Sing-a-Long

All the celebrations were held under an open sky, something which of course would be impossible back in the UK or Denmark. In fact, Israel was going through its own late summer heat-wave – the +35°C sort (any notions of wearing my suit for the occasion quickly evaporated!) However, unlike most Danish family celebrations where proceedings often head on well into the wee hours of the following morning, this bat mitzvah was rather short-lived with most people heading off home well before midnight. Hmm…I guess with the kibbutz being so far away from anywhere people must have needed to drive a long way to get here.

Anyway, luckily us  the local kibbutz pub provided idyllic late night entertainment with its very own outdoor sing-a-long to old Israeli “classics”. Whilst one poor fellow strummed his guitar along to countless old Israeli “classics”, I could just sit back, wine in hand, and yet again ponder the weird and wonderful ways of the world that had brought me here, of all places…

PS: For more Bat Mitvah photos click on the Flikr link in the right hand column of this blog. Hopefully along the way I’ll be adding more photos along the way from life here in Israel. Until next time then.


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Posted by on October 30, 2009 in Jewish Life, Life in Israel


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(It could have been so much easier) Had I Been Jewish…

As mentioned in my previous post we’re pretty fortunate that there even exists a visa that will allow me to live and work here in Israel. No such benefits were ever available to Asya when she was living and working in the UK. But even with the possibility of an Israeli work visa, moving to Israel is no mean task – I neither speak the language nor possess the funds to afford myself the luxury of spending my first 6 months simply attending Hebrew language lessons. Still, I’m already reading the Hebrew alphabet okay, stringing together basic sentences and understanding snippets of conversation here and there. Not bad progress at all, given that I am having to teach myself with aid of a simple text book and audio podcasts.

Then there’s the fact that I’m not Jewish. The whole idea of moving to Israel as a non-Jew is a bit of an oddity in itself, but then so have been so many of my other global wanderings. Unless you’re Jewish, Israel is not a country you would typically relocate to out of choice. Okay, so I’m a bit of an outsider here in that sense. But as neither Asya nor her family move in religious circles the fact that I’m not Jewish has so far meant not one iota; and I don’t think it ever will do. No, the biggest factor so far has been not being able to benefit from the all the rights and privileges that are bestowed upon all newly arrived Jewish immigrants. Let me explain…

As you may well know, the foundation of the state of Israel was based upon numerous waves of Aliyah (the immigration of Jews to Israel). Since 1950, the “Law of Return” has meant that all Jews have the right to migrate to and settle in Israel and gain immediate Israeli citizenship. I can’t speak for previous generations of migrants, but present-day migrants are not only given automatic citizenship but a whole package of integration goodies: a 6 month intensive language course, temporary initial accommodation, employment guidance, tax credits, and well…you name it. In fact, here on the kibbutz there are a handful of South African olim (the name given to newly arrived Jewish migrants), who are all enjoying the securities and benefits given to them by the Israeli state. Do I feel a bit left out? Not really. I wouldn’t ever expect free hand-outs from whatever new country I had chosen to temporarily call home.

However, the other week in Jerusalem, I did feel my first real, albeit fleeting, tinge of apprehension of what I had gotten myself into. For one reason or another we had to pass by the central offices of the Jewish Agency – the Jewish Agency coordinate and promote Jewish immigration to Israel, and more importantly thanks to the Jewish Agency Asya’s parents were asked to work in Buenos Aires and so are the cause of…well you know the rest of that happy story. Anyway, arriving at their offices we could see the entire front yard of the building was full of new Jewish arrivals from abroad, all making Aliyah. So while Asya popped into their offices for a few moments, there I stood alone on the other side of this cornered off yard – tough-looking guards and barriers ensuring that I nor anyone else could crash this invite-only party – looking in on these new arrivals enjoying the red carpet reception laid out for them.

The Jewish Agency

The Jewish Agency

Listening in on the welcoming speech, which, amongst other things implored them all to learn Hebrew as fast as possible, I did ponder how ironic it was that already after a week in Israel I should be standing on the wrong side of the cordons looking in on the “true” new immigrants; once again in a new country and already the feeling of being a bit of an outsider. But that’s alright, I never came here to be an Israeli, living with one is plentiful :). And what with my secular/liberal/pacifist outlook, I can’t say Israel and, in particular, Jerusalem is the perfect match for my personality, outlook on life and so on. But hey…that’s the very reason why coming here encapsulates everything I relish about living abroad. And besides, with Asya by my side, and vice-versa, I think we’re pretty much ready to take on whatever this maddening but rewarding country and society can throw at us.

I’ll keep you posted…

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Posted by on October 25, 2009 in Jewish Life, Life in Israel


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