The other day I took a journey to another country - or maybe even another world. I didn't require a passport, nor some sort of time machine or any other means of transportation. I left my world at 17:00 and was back by 18:30 the same day. All this was done by taking a walk up towards the centre of Jerusalem and, having reached the junction of King George and Jaffa Streets, rather than turning left towards the Souk or right towards the pubs of Mamilla, I simply continued walking into a straight line.
As King George became Strauss, a magical transformation occurred; men, who in the world that I had left behind wore T-shirts and jeans, were dressed in suits and hats; women no longer showed their belly buttons, cleavage or even their wrists for that matter and children played together, totally unaware that the dictates of the modern world would have frowned on their lack of blonde hair dye, tattoos or multiple piercings.
Its been a long time since I had a wander around the black neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. Black here, refers not to the colour of skin but to the predominant colour of the dress code. Black bearded men, almost without exception, wear black suits, black hats and black shoes which I guess makes it fairly easy to decide what to wear in the morning. The neighbourhoods are fairly well defined with Jaffa and Nevi'im Roads being the border between Jerusalem's more open, secular society and the ultra orthodox areas.
As I continued along Strauss, the nature of the shops changed. Here was a world where chain stores didn't seem to exist, where consumerism was not rampant and lurid advertisements were non-existent - a case of "Sex doesn't sell"?
I reached Shabbat Square and turned into Malchei Yisrael Street, one of the main thoroughfares leading off it (the other being Mea Shearim Street). The street was packed and bustling in a way that I haven't seen in 'my' Jerusalem for a long time. Whole families with children immaculately dressed and behaved marched the streets. Mothers with their strollers thronged the pavements (some sort of road markings might be an idea to prevent crashes) with small children hanging onto their coat tails. A team of Bretslav Chasidim had parked two vans on opposite sides of the street, music joyfulling blaring as they danced on the pavements whilst pedestrians passed by as if it was the most natural thing in the world (which I guess it was).
As I revelled in what for me was a carnival like atmosphere it struck me that many of the values that I was witnessing in this often reviled section of the population, were those which I also hold dear. At the ripe old age of 29 (only just but enjoying it whilst it lasts), I have found myself joining the ranks of those who complain that "kids have no respect" and bemoaning the lack of importance placed in the family unit. I ascribe to my father's assertion that blatant suggestiveness is anything but sexy and stand amazed at the way in which parents indulge their kids with the latest computer game whilst not being overly concerned whether or not they ever pick up a book. Here I was - suddenly surrounded by kindred spirits!
I, like many other Israelis, am often guilty of making sweeping, mainly negative, generalisations regarding the religious community. By taking a short walk, I quickly disspelled my perception that I had absolutely nothing in common with an entire sector of Israel's population. Certainly the way in which I put my values into practice may be very different and on many basic issues I have absolutely nothing in common with the ultra-orthodox community. There is however an important undercurrent of similar values which remains once all else is stripped away. It is necessary now more than ever to seek out these shared ideas through interaction rather than demonisation if we are to stand any chance of reaching some sort of understanding which will go some way towards mending the fabric of our society.