What would you do if you were told what to think, what to say, what to read, who to socialize with?
This is not an idea lifted from George Orwell’s book “1984.” This Mind-Control is taking place in 2013, in some of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jewish communities. Israel is predominantly secular (75%), but if you were to go into Mea Shearim (One-Hundred Gates, in English), one of Jerusalem’s inner-neighborhoods – you step back in time and space. Jews there don’t live in the 21st century; they live in a world all their own. The men wear all black, the women are rarely seen or heard – they want nothing to do with the State of Israel.
They await the coming Messiah to redeem the “true” Israel. Until that day, they live in a separate state within a state. They spend their days in prayer. They don’t get involved with any of Israel’s citizens, and they refuse to enlist in the military. To many secular Israelis, this “Neturei Karta” sect (Guardians of the City) is a thorn in their side. And a pain in the rear.
Bella Mendel, age 24, and the mother of two, “escaped” from Mea Shearim. Bella appeared on a much-watched TV talk show this week. The moderator, Dan Shilon, asked her to share her story. The first thing you notice is her constant smile. She’s wearing a fashionable purple dress and knee-high boots. Her luscious brown hair hangs on her relaxed shoulders. “I grew up in Mea Shearim,” she starts, “I’m one of 14 brothers and sisters. I was told what to do and what not to do since I was little.”
The Neturie Karta Jews settled in Jerusalem some 200 years ago, originally from Hungary and Lithuania. To this day they speak Yiddish, not Hebrew. Bella Mendel didn’t know any Hebrew until age 10, when she secretly “smuggled” in a radio. The broadcasts opened her hears. And her eyes.
She was beaten.
At 15, a matchmaker “introduced” her to her husband-to-be. Bella says to the camera: “My family thought I was a trouble-maker. They sent us off to London, to my aunt, to the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Stamford Hill.”
I stare at the TV screen. That’s where I grew up as an eleven-year old, decades ago. I can still remember the black-clad men rushing off to synagogue. Even then, as a boy, I stepped off the sidewalk anytime I saw them coming my way. I can still smell the London bakery, the Kosher butcher.
Bella continues: “I ended up in London’s shelter for battered women. I couldn’t endure any more beatings from my husband.”
“What about your two children?”
“They were taken from me. But civil rights groups won them back for me.”
“Now that you broke away from the life you know, do you keep in touch with family?”
“They’re still in Jerusalem. I live in Tel Aviv – ‘City of Sins,’ according to them.”
“What do you want to do in the future?”
“I don’t have a university degree; I never went to high school. I was kept at home, underfoot. So I have a lot of catching up to do. Now I live every moment to its fullest.”
Do you still believe in the Torah (bible)?
“Yes. Only one verse: ‘Love your Neighbor as Yourself.'”
I switch off the TV. I can live with that.
What about you?
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com