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Bnei Brak: A Glimpse into the Ultra-Orthodox World

Last month I joined a guided tour in Bnei Brak, the largest ultra-orthodox city in Israel. It’s right next door to Tel Aviv but feels miles away. Kids are walking alone in the streets, all the men are dressed in black and white, all the women wear skirts, and there are no coffee shops. Usually, secular people don’t go there unless they want to learn more about the Jewish ultra-orthodox community or taste the traditional Ashkenazi food. That is what we were doing on our tour.

The tour was led by Pini Gorelick, an orthodox Jew from the Hasidic dynasty of Chabad-Lubavitch. He doesn’t live in Bnei Brak but visits quite often. So, you can count on him to show you the most interesting places. He also has great stories to tell about the ultra-orthodox community. I booked the group tour in Hebrew, but you can try to book a private tour too. No matter how you plan to tour Bnei Brak, just make sure to come in modest clothing that will respect the place. By modest I mean long pants or skirts and sleeved shirts for the women, and long pants for the men.

We walked in the streets of Bnei Brak for four hours and talked about many aspects of the Jewish ultra-orthodox world. In this post, I’ll only touch a few.

Table of contents:

The history of Bnei Brak

Ashkenazi VS Sephardic Jews

The mikveh

Kosher internet

The difference between Rav and Rebbe

The obligation of giving

Matchmaking and marriage

Food!

The history of Bnei Brak:

We started our tour with a short overview of Bnei Brak. Today it is the largest ultra-orthodox city in Israel. It is also the 8th-most densely populated city in the world, with almost 28,000 people per square kilometer. But like many large cities in Israel, it started as an agricultural village.

It was established in 1924 by a group of religious Jewish people from Poland. They bought the land from an Arab family who lived in the nearby Al-Khayriyya village. The village was named Bnei Brak after an ancient city by the same name.

In the time of the Second Temple, ancient Bnei Brak was a Jewish city. After the First Jewish-Roman War, it became a center of Torah learning. Rabbi Akiva, one of the leading Jewish scholars, opened his yeshiva in Bnei Brak and taught many students there. A yeshiva is a Jewish educational institution focusing on the study of religious texts. The Haggadah of Passover mentions Bnei Brak as well: “It happened that Rabbis Eliezer, Joshua, Elazar ben Azaryah, Akiva and Tarfon were reclining at the seder table in Bnei Brak. They spent the whole night discussing the Exodus until their students came and said to them: “Rabbis, it is time for the recitation of the Shema.” The ruins of ancient Bnei Brak are found near the city, next to Mesubim (“reclining”) Junction.  

Bnei Brak was declared a city in 1950. From then on, it started expanding tremendously. When more and more people started arriving in the city, a question arose – should Bnei Brak continue as a religious-Zionist city or turn to an ultra-orthodox city? Eventually, the ultra-orthodox population dominated the city, and the other groups left to the surrounding cities.

The main street of Bnei Brak in 1928

Ashkenazi VS Sephardic Jews:

We walked on Rashi Street and stopped at the junction with Bertenura Street. Our guide pointed to the west and said: “See that huge building over there? That’s Ponevezh Yeshiva, the most famous yeshiva in the Lithuanian world. Sephardic Jews are not accepted there.”

Let’s leave the tour for a moment to talk about Sephardic Jews. To understand the different groups in the ultra-orthodox world, you first need to understand the difference between Ashkenazi Jews (which also include the Lithuanians) and Sephardic Jews. The difference is mainly connected to their historical origins. In the Middle Ages, “Ashkenaz” referred to the area along the Rhine River in Western Germany and Northern France. The Jews who lived there developed their own traditions and rites. Today, the term “Ashkenaz” has expanded to many parts of Europe. So, when we say Ashkenazi Jews, we mean Jews who have roots in those areas.  Sephardic means “Spain”, but Sephardic Jews are associated with many other countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of southeast Europe. For some reason, the Ashkenazi Jews saw themselves as superior to the Sephardic Jews, especially in the ultra-orthodox world.

Lithuanians VS Hasidim:

Our guide said that today, most Ashkenazi communities no longer reject Sephardic Jews. But still, there’s the Lithuanian community. They are still racist towards the Sephardic community. Following this racism, the religious political party of Shas was established as a Sephardic-Lithuanian movement. They wanted to give space to Sephardic Jews who were not accepted to Ashkenazi educational institutions.

Aside from the Lithuanians, there are also the Hasidim.  About 300 years ago, the Ashkenazi community in eastern Europe believed that the most important thing is to study Torah. Whoever wasn’t capable of studying was rejected from the community. In some places, there were even separate synagogues for students and the rest of the public. This ended when the Baal Shem Tov, one of the greatest Jewish mystics, founded the Hasidic movement. He said: “Everyone is equal in the community and is measured by his effort and not his success.” So, in the Hasidic communities, Sephardic Jews can be accepted as long as they show effort. The most accepting Hasidic dynasty is Chabad.  

The mikveh:

To the west of the junction stood a huge house. “This is the house of the Rebbe of the Machnovka dynasty,” our guide said. It’s a huge house because it’s also where the Rebbe meets his Hasidim, consults them, and eats Shabbat dinner with them. It’s also where he studies. And besides all that, there’s also a mikveh in the building. Most secular Jews are only aware of mikvehs for women, but there are also mikvehs for men, and this is one of them.

In Judaism, a person can be in two states – impure and pure. In the time of the Jewish Temples, there was more significance to the impurity and purity, because many actions could not be performed during impurity. According to Jewish law, women need to go to the mikveh before their marriage. After they are married, women get impure every time they have menstruation. But after the period, they can get pure again by immersing in the water of a mikveh. Until she does that, her husband is not allowed to touch her.

So, what exactly is a mikveh? It’s a bath used for Jewish ritual immersion to achieve purity. The water in the mikveh is natural water, that comes from rainwater or a natural spring. A mikveh can also be a natural lake, river, or sea. When you immerse in the water, you must be completely naked and with no objects that might interfere the contact with your skin.

Men in the mikveh:

So why do men go to the mikveh? Our guide explained that the Hasidic men go to the mikveh every day. Why every day? Because they must immerse in the mikveh after every night they had an ejaculation. Of course, they don’t have an ejaculation every night. But to avoid discomfort, the Hasidic movement decided that everyone will go to the mikveh every morning.

Unlike mikvehs for women, in a mikveh for men there is no privacy. All the men immerse in the same space and can see one another. Because they are all naked, it is inappropriate to talk about the Torah. Instead, they gossip and spread rumors. “The hottest news is spread in the mikveh,” our guide told us.   

Kosher internet:

When we say “Kosher” in the secular world, we talk about food. If the food is kosher, it means that it is compliant with the Jewish dietary laws. But in the ultra-orthodox world, “kosher” is a much wider term that can refer to clothing, the internet, phones. All those must be compliant with the Jewish laws.

We stopped by a Lemehadrin Kosher internet café. The ultra-orthodox houses don’t have computers. If you work in the computer field, you can ask your Rebbe for permission to have internet at home. In any case, the internet must be kosher. What does it mean? It means there’s a software that scans all the websites and blocks inappropriate and unmodest content. That includes photos of women, abusive language, and so on.

Whoever wants to stay on the safe side, can use Lemehadrin Kosher internet. That’s the most strictly kosher internet. The supplier of the internet only shows websites that were reviewed and approved. If someone wants their website to appear on the Lemehadrin Kosher internet, they need to go to the supplier and ask him to check their site. Who checks the websites? People who have left the ultra-orthodox community. On one hand, there’s no problem that they will see inappropriate content because they aren’t ultra-orthodox anymore. On the other hand, they came from the ultra-orthodox world, so they know what’s not allowed.

The internet cafe. One door for women, one door for men

The difference between Rav and Rebbe:

We wandered a bit in the streets of Bnei Brak and then stopped next to a synagogue on Rabenu Tam Street. Next to the synagogue was a room called House of Teaching. This is where our guide told us the difference between a Rav and a Rebbe.

The Rav teaches Halakha, which are the Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah. So, people come to him to ask what to do according to the religious laws. “But we are raised in a world full of protocols. Everything is written. So why do we need someone to ask about the laws?” our guide said, “It’s because some of the laws are connected to personal judgment. When there’s room for personal judgment, many people prefer that the Rav will use his judgment.” People believe that the Rav is wiser and has more experience, so it’s better that he’ll take the call.

The fact that there is personal judgment means that someone can go to one Rav, get an answer, and then go to another Rav and get a different answer on the same question. That’s why people choose which Rav to go to depending on what they want to hear. Sometimes, a Rav will even give a different answer to two different people on the same question.

The Rebbe, on the other hand, is not a teacher of Halakha. He is the spiritual leader of his community. His people come to him to ask daily life questions. For example, they ask if they should do a driving lesson, which profession to learn, what school to send their children to, and so on. Usually, the Rebbe is very charismatic and often considered a sage.

The obligation of giving:

During the tour, we visited the Rabbanit of the Machnovka dynasty, the wife of the Rebbe. She told us: “Both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea get their water from the Jordan River. The difference between them is that the Sea of Galilee receives the water from the north and releases water from the south. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, only receives water. Maybe that is why the Sea of Galilee is so full of life and the Dead Sea so dead.”

Giving tzedakah:

While touring Bnei Brak, we discovered that giving is one of the most important things in ultra-orthodox life. “The people here always want to be the ones who give and not the ones who are needy. Sometimes they will buy less food just so they will have enough money to give charity. They’ll say: ‘My condition isn’t that bad. There are people who need this money more than me,'” said our guide.

We stood in the busy junction of Rashi Street and Rabbi Akiva Street. All around us, we could see charity boxes. Well, not exactly “charity” but rather “tzedakah boxes.” Unlike charity, which is usually done as a spontaneous act of goodwill, tzedakah is something you do because of ethical obligation. We learned that the ultra-orthodox give tzedakah every day, even a small sum. Most of them know the people behind each tzedakah box, so they know who they trust and put their money in the relevant box. 

A tzedakah box on the street

Opening gemachim:

We also learned about the gemachim (gemach in plural). In Hebrew, the word “gemach” is an acronym for the Jewish term “gemilut chasidim”, which means the giving of lovingkindness. Traditionally, a gemach was a money-lending fund, free of interest. Today, a gemach is a place where you can borrow useful items free of charge. And everyone can open a gemach. If you have a lot of household tools that you don’t use all the time, you can open a gemach for tools. People who need to fix something in their house don’t have to go buy a tool. They can simply come to you, take it for a while, and return it when they’re done.

Our guide told us that before the plastic dishes became common, one of the most needed gemachim were dishware gemachim. The ultra-orthodox families usually have many children, but sometimes they also host people from outside their family, and then they need more dishware. Instead of buying dozens of dishware, they can borrow some dishes, and return them after the meal. Some gemachim don’t even ask you to clean the dishes because they do it anyway.

How do you find the gemachim? In the phone book. “There is even a gemach for lost children,” our guide told us. “If you find a lost child on the street, you take him or her to the gemach, and the parents know to look for them there.”

Matchmaking and marriage:

Near the end of the tour, we stopped to talk about matchmaking and marriage. In Bnei Brak, there is no such thing as meeting your second half by chance. Every relationship begins with a matchmaker. During high school, the teenagers perform a DNA test through an organization, which keeps the results for the matchmaker. They never see the results. When the time comes, the matchmaker thinks of a match, contacts the organization, and checks if there is any genetic problem with the match.  If it’s ok, he or she goes to the parents to ask them if they think it’s a good idea. They don’t even ask the young couple.

After the matchmaker comes to the parents, they usually hire a private investigator specializing in matchmaking inquiries. The investigator knows who to ask and how to ask to get all the information they need about the potential spouse. They ask about beauty, character, genetics, their family… Everything. If the parents are happy with the results of the investigation, they organize a meeting between the couple.

The couple sits together in a room and gets about 20 minutes to talk privately. Then, the father of the potential bride comes in and asks: “Well, ok?” If they say it’s ok, everyone comes into the room and bless the couple: “Mazal tov! Mazal tov!” which means “congratulations.” This means they’re going to be engaged. This is how things go in some of the stricter Hasidic dynasties. In others, they might get a few more meetings before they need to decide, but not more than 4-5 meetings. Anyway, “You don’t marry the one you fell in love with. You fall in love with the one you married,” our guide said.

Food!

All along the tour, we got to taste some of the delicacies of the Ashkenazi community of Bnei Brak. Because no cultural tour is complete without a taste of the local food!

Kugel:

Our first food stop was at Muchan U’mezuman Restaurant at 17 Chason Ish Street. There, we stopped to taste kugel, a kind of pudding made either from egg noodles or mashed potatoes. We got to taste both variations. It is a very popular dish during Shabbat because you can keep it on the heating surface from Friday evening. Some said that it was a bit spicy, but I felt it was a bit sweet. Anyway, it was my favorite dish!

Kugel from egg noodles and mashed potatoes

Galareta and gefilte fish:

Next, we stopped at Deliketes at 92 Rabbi Akiva Street. There, the highlight dishes were gefilte fish and galareta, also known as “calves’ foot jelly.” I know gefilte fish from my grandmother’s house, so it was familiar, but have never tasted galareta before. It looked like jelly but had such an awful taste that I just couldn’t eat it. The other people in the group ate it without any problems, so maybe my taste buds are too sensitive.

The galareta is made from the feet bones of calves or chickens. In times of shortage, families from eastern Europe used every bit of the meat, and that’s how the galareta was born. They cooked the bones for long hours on a small flame, added salt, pepper, and garlic, and waited for the bones to soften. After they softened, they grounded and crashed them, and placed them aside to cool down. While cooling down, the smashed bones turn to jelly.

The brownish jelly is the galareta

Gefilte fish are grounded fish balls usually made from carp. They were also invented in eastern Europe, where the majority of Jews were poor. On Shabbat, it is a religious commandment to eat meat, poultry, or fish. Because the fish were cheaper than the alternatives, many families chose to eat them during Shabbat dinner. To get the most out of the fish, they grounded and made fish balls out of it.

Both the galareta and the gefilte fish are popular Shabbat and holiday dishes. Personally, we eat gefilte fish every Passover.

Sliced gefilte fish and salads

Cholent:

Our last stop was at Shloimi’le on 4 HaRav Shach Street. This kiosk is located right next to a 24/7 synagogue. It has everything you can imagine, from cakes and pastries, through sandwiches, to cooked food. We came there to taste the cholent, also known as hamin. It is one of the most popular Shabbat morning dishes amongst many Jewish groups.

The basic ingredients include potatoes, beans, barley, and meat. But because Shloimi’le is a dairy kiosk, there was no meat in our cholent. The ingredients are put into a big pot on Friday, before the Shabbat begins, and are simmered overnight in a slow oven. Usually, they are simmered for about 12 hours. The slow overnight cooking strengthens and blends the flavors and produces the great taste of the traditional cholent.

Those were the main points of the tour. We finished with a warm dish of cholent, happy and insighted.

The pot of cholent in the kiosk

Have more questions about Jewish people in Israel?

Read my post – Jews in Israel: 8 Questions You Might Ask.

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Yours,

Lior

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