Modesty sign, Mea Shearim
Mayn vayb Sutinee, Mea Shearim/ My Wife Sutinee, Mea Shearim
Mea Shearim corridor/alleyway
Baruch Haba and Dank tsu Got, I made it safely to Israel! As the plane touched down at Ben Gurion Airport our family was nervously excited. The last time I was in Israel I was a mere 12 years old and not very religious. Now I’m 34 years old and a Baal Teshuvah with a wife and daughter for whom this is their first time in Eretz Israel. We landed at 2 a.m. After a brief stopover in Amsterdam, we arrived at our accommodation in a beautiful part of East Jerusalem, a quaint terraced house on French Hill overlooking the Judean Hills and, far in the distance, the Dead Sea. With my parents, this will be home for the next month.
So what do religious Jews do on their first day in Jerusalem? I suspect most would make their way to the Old City and head straight for the Kotel. But I did not start my day at the Kotel. I took the opportunity to go and look at some religious Items.
For some time now I have wanted to purchase my first tallit katan (Tzitzit) – like Tebia described in Fiddler on the Roof , it is a small prayer shawl that religious Jews wear all day under their shirt to show their devotion to god. After much (many months) serious thought and self debate, I came to the realization that I want to fill the commandment of seeing and wearing fringes because I believe I’ll feel better spiritually when saying morning prayers especially without donning a large Tallit. Many Rabbis and other knowledgeable people say that one should not say the She’ma prayer without seeing fringes (wearing a tallit).
So, were did I go to purchase a tallit katan? I went to where I thought I would find the greatest selection of tallit, a religious neighbourhood called the Mea Shearim. First off, where and what kind of a neighbourhood is Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim? Well, it is conspicuously a very old entanglement of miscellaneous shops along winding, narrow streets just north of the main city. But this is lost in the frenetic hustle and bustle of men in long black coats (kapota, reikle etc…) and hats (fedoras and other bowler style hats…) swiftly moving about their day. And women and children clothed in stylistic clothing that emphasized modesty. My family and I stuck out like a sore thumb! We looked like by standers in a movie scene of life in a small, East European shtetl. Even thought I had on black dress pants a dress shirt, dress shoes, sported a bushy beard and a kippah, I felt as though I need a Kapota, just to blend in. And my wife’s long skirt and long sleeve shirt, that she wears everyday for modesty (tzunis), was just a bit too modern for this community.
I knew communication would present a challenge. My Hebrew is non-existent and I speak limited Yiddish, ikh redn a bisl Yiddish. I also thought my English would be limited in value in this community where Yiddish and Heberew are the predominant forms of communication. I always have 10,000 questions to ask when I buy religious Items, especially ones that have such importance in Jewish ritual life. Indeed, communication was a real challenge. I wanted answered questions like are there specific styles, shapes and colours (some have stripes)? And, what would be appropriate for me? What about Minhags (religious customs)? Are their minhags to do with tallit katan similar to what you find with large prayer shawls?
After looking in at quite a few shops in the Mea Shearim and getting ready to leave this neighborhood of Jerusalem, I returned to a previous retail establishment to again look at one style of Talit Katan that I had not seen at other store (t-shirt style). This style was much easier for me to put on (did not ride up as much at back). As luck would have it, outside the shop were two young Bochur (students) speaking English and with North American accents. They too entered the shop. Before reengaging the shop keeper, I thought it might be best to approach the bochurim and see if they could help me in my quest to find an appropriate Tallit Katan. They were more than happy to help me out. I politely told them I was trying to buy my first Talit Katan asked them many questions. They gladly gave me advice and offered their opinion on suitability as tried a few on.
Now I can visit Kotel. I am now proudly wearing my first Talit Katan and showing with pride my Tzitzit as I move about the holiest place in the world, Eretz Israel. PS. I find that one does blend in more with Tzitzit showing and I people just assume I know what I’m doing in terms of prayer etc..
As a side note, I have not been asked once to put on Tefillin since getting to Israel. I guess I look like I have put them on already, which I have done, and do put on, every morning.