Carly, one of Daniel’s classmate’s wives and also ironically Daniel’s senior prom date, and I attempted to go to the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens Thursday afternoon to practice using our insanely complicated cameras. We mapped it out on our iPhones and it seemed like a pretty easy trek. Halfway through our walk we approached the entrance sign to Me’a She’arim, an ultra orthodox Haredi neighborhood and also the second settlement outside the walls of the Old City. I was wearing jean shorts and a loose fitting top with sleeves that hit right above my elbow. Carly was wearing jeans, flip-flops and a short-sleeved shirt. I knew there was no way we could enter Me’a She’arim dressed like this out of respect for the inhabitants and for our own safety and that we would have to go around.
I had been to Me’a She’arim before with Daniel about two and half years ago. I was simply curious at how these people could live without being influenced by modern society. Despite my floor length skirt and long-sleeved shirt, I remember still feeling extremely uncomfortable traveling through the streets of this time warp.
To avoid Me’a She’arim, Carly and I walked away from the “modesty” sign until we felt that we could safely avoid the neighborhood entirely. I was under the impression (and Wikipedia seems to agree with me) that all of the entrances to Me’a She’arim had signs like the one pictured so there is no mistakenly entering their grounds. We both assumed that because a similar sign was nowhere in site, we were ok to make our way down one of the streets. Within seconds, Carly and I were stopped by an orthodox woman who, I would guess, was in her early 30’s. After we got passed the awkward “Do you speak English” moment, she asked us where we were headed and if we had any additional clothing in our bags. Of course we didn’t. The two of us were hot enough in what we were wearing and the thought of bringing a sweater in 95-degree weather never even crossed our minds. This woman was very kind and advised us not to continue walking through this orthodox neighborhood dressed the way we were. It was now clear that we had failed to avoid Me’a She’arim. This woman explained that she was headed home and would check and see if she had extra clothes for us to wear on our journey to the Botanical Gardens. Of course, Carly and I were very happy to turn around and kept insisting that she really did not need to give us clothes. Like many Jewish women, she was very persistent and wouldn’t take no for answer.
Coming from Los Angeles, I would have never ever even considered going into a strangers home. I weighed my options and decided that this woman definitely wasn’t a threat: she was an orthodox Jew living not only in Israel, but also in one of the oldest, most conservative neighborhoods in all of Jerusalem, pregnant and pushing a double stroller. The thought did cross my mind that a group of men could be waiting in her home to kidnap me and sell me on the black market. When I told this story to mom, she said the exact same thing. I wonder where I got it from? Anyways, despite my trepidations, Carly and I went into this women’s home, which was literally one door up from where she approached us. Immediately, this woman locked and then bolted her door and closed all of the drapes behind us. Her actions reiterated that we, as regular civilians, were not welcome here and that there could be dire consequences for her and her family if someone were to see us in her home.
She then gave us water and left us in the living room while she went to go find us some clothes. Feeling super uncomfortable, I started entertaining her baby and toddler. She came back with long skirts for each of us to wear and then mentioned that she didn’t know what her husband would do if he saw us there. After her comment, every voice Carly and I heard outside made us jump. We definitely didn’t want to be standing in the living room when her husband came home. After she came back with a long-sleeved shirt for Carly, we rushed out of there! The woman told us we could now enjoy Me’a She’arim and even do some shopping. We would fit right in! She then mentioned that she wished she had a camera to take a before and after photo of us! Carly and I asked if we could please bring the clothes back after we had reached our destination and she insisted they were under her bed waiting to be given away so to please just donate them to someone else when we were done. I felt a little awkward that we never got this women’s name, however I got the feeling she wanted to keep that way.
Disguised, Carly and I were on our way! We continued to use our iPhones to navigate to the Botanical Gardens, however tried to keep them hidden in our purses. I had heard that the people of Me’a She’arim don’t like the use of outside technology in their neighborhood. I do know they create their own video games and it is all the children are allowed to play. Talk about censorship! As we continued to walk we realized that the “safe” street we had originally chosen to walk down fed directly into the main street in Me’a She’arim. Oops! At this point we just wanted to get to our destination and didn’t feel like shopping much. The chances that the shopkeepers in Me’a She’arim knew English were slim to none and we were ready to see some flowers! No one really acknowledged us in Me’a She’arim however I still felt like it was obvious we didn’t belong. Who knows, maybe my red Toms were a giveaway or maybe it was all in my head!? After about an hour or so of walking, we finally approached our destination…a dirty, old building on the corner of a highway and the main road in Me’a She’arim. There were definitely no botanical gardens. I guess we have Google maps blame/thank for our adventure.