Ofir Berman offers a portal into one of Jerusalem’s oldest Jewish neighbourhoods, the Mea Shearim
In her project entitled Children of Mea Shearim, the Israeli documentary photographer provides a glimpse into the daily goings on here, perceived through the lives of the younger generation.
A young boy smokes a cigarette as he frowns warily into the lens; a girl hurriedly pushes a pram in a muted dress and headscarf; a group of children chase a chicken down a cobbled street; at first you might assume that these are scenes from hundreds of years ago, but in fact, they were taken only recently.
Shot in the neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox dwelling located in the heart of Israel, Jerusalem, these snapshot-in-style pictures were taken by Ofir Berman, an Israeli documentary photographer who stepped foot in the district for the first time in 2017. “Walking in this neighbourhood makes me forget that I’m in my hometown,” Ofir tells It’s Nice That. “In the middle of one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries lives a community that defies time and place – inhabitants of Mea Shearim resist 21st century human norms. This isolated community has invented its own rules.”
The Mea Shearim way of life is devoted to its past, preserved and kept intact as it pushes against modernisation and its increasing technologies – smartphones, internet, TikTok and any other digital gadgets you can think of. Originally built in 1874, the Mea Shearim is one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in the country. Time is frozen here. The familial roles are split between gender binaries; women and girls occupy themselves with housework and adhere to highly modest clothing, covering themselves in long skirts, high necks and sleeves; married women shave their heads and wear hair coverings, wigs, hats and scarves. Men and boys, on the other hand, wear black frock coats, white shirts and big hats. By wearing these garments, their tradition is kept alive.
Residents are so cut off from modern life that the Jerusalem emergency services, for instance, won’t operate through the district. Instead, the neighbourhood runs its own. “Here they can live by their faith, dominate their culture and uninterruptedly release values that are important to them, and educate their children in their own way,” explains Ofir. Even the school system is different, and children spend most of their days at institutions learning the Mea Shearim values that have been passed between generations; they by no means come into contact with modern studies or secular texts and professions. The residents – who mostly belong to Natura Karta, a group of Haredi Jews – are therefore left to abide by their own strict Jewish laws, with daily events evolving around prayer and the study of religious texts.
“I started questioning what ‘normal’ was and who should bear that word.”Ofir Berman
In this cobbled quarter of Jerusalem, modernised buildings are swapped for structures that date back hundreds of years. And between these narrow and historical streets, the children run constantly with “foreign looks in their eyes”, says Ofir, “and the power of faith guarding them from above”. Children and procreation are of high importance to the Mea Shearim. In fact, each family has on average around five to ten children, and it’s normal to have an older child bare responsibility for the younger siblings – “even if he or she is still a child”. Ofir adds, “I am always amazed when I see a seven-year-old girl taking her little brother in a stroller around the neighbourhood, just like that.”
When Ofir arrived in the area, she had her camera firmly affixed in hand – naturally. She’s spent her career telling the stories of social and cultural issues, presenting the lives of those living on the fringes of society and revealing an honest depiction of an event or place. Recently, she moved from Madrid back to her hometown of Israel to start work on her personal endeavours, turning her gaze onto subjects such as Palestinian refugees from Gaza; a devastating fire that broke out in the largest refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos; and the struggles faced by Palestinian farmers who needed permits from the Israeli army to harvest olives. So when it came to photographing the Mea Shearim, Ofir felt as if she found a credibly suitable subject for one of her photographic series. Yet to her surprise (or perhaps lack thereof), she was taken aback by the response she received as a woman, photographer and outsider. “I could not hide nor blend in with these surroundings,” she recalls. “I was afraid of getting noticed and the camera was my only connection with the world outside. I started questioning what ‘normal’ was and who should bear that word.”
Deciding to persevere amongst the stares – largely from the adult men and women – she found herself drawn to documenting the youth, or what she describes as “old” children or “young” adults, "as if adults were trapped in the bodies of children”. Her reasons for doing so are more than an aesthetic and conceptual decision, for it seemed that the children were far less interested in her presence and tended to avoid her camera more than anything; she was able to capture them in their day-to-day with less hassle. This is why you’ll find a lack of subject over the age of teen, but when you do, they’ll often be oblivious to Ofir’s lens. The children have a certain naivety and playfulness about them, where even if they dress the part of an adult (and act like one too), you’re still very much aware of their childish nature.
While out shooting, Ofir would catch the eye of her subjects – the children – and she would notice the “curiosity and fear” entrenched in their inner being. She’s more than just a stranger to them, and if she were to ask, “Who are you?” then she’s pretty sure they’d respond with something along the lines of: “We are what we believe”. She adds: “God is first and foremost, God is omnipotent. ‘Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh Ha’olam (Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the universe)’.”
For the Mea Shearim, it’s commonplace to spend a lifetime devoted to prayers, sacred texts, Jewish laws, traditions and Torah studies. To such lengths that, every year, the usually grey streets are brought to life as the neighbourhood celebrates the Jewish holidays. Ofir describes the feeling of walking through the area during this time as being similar to marching in a parade, “with each holiday displayed in all its glory and colour”. An example of which is Purim, where the children dress in traditional gear, colourful costumes and disguise themselves as figures from the Torah, like King David or the High Priest; the kosher alternatives to Dora, Mickey Mouse or Anna and Elsa. “Some play spinning tops, eat sweets or sing holiday songs,” adds Ofir. “And while I’m documenting everything that’s going on around me, suddenly a smell of smoke emerges beneath.” This is the moment she saw a group of children each puffing from a cigarette, a tradition that expectedly receives a lot of criticism. “Just like the ‘atonement’ custom (a practice in which a chicken is waved over a person’s head and the chicken is slaughtered in accordance with halachic rules).” The latter of which continues to exist in the neighbourhood each year, despite it being banned by the Israeli law.
“There is something addictive and unexpected that makes me want to go back there again and again.”Ofir Berman
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Ofir Berman: Children of Mea Shearim (Copyright © Ofir Berman, 2022)
Like Ofir, many tourists will regularly travel to the area to learn and experience the Mea Shearim. This, inevitably, causes friction amongst its residents and those peeking in at their way of life – the voyeurs who come to sponge and gawk at self-sufficient societies like this one. But in this case, the tension can be a little extreme. Habitants go as far as opposing entry for women if they are perceived to be “immodest”, explains Ofir. There’s even large signage peppered throughout the streets pinpointing rules of the dress code, causing an aura of uncertainty for those who enter, including Ofir. Whenever she visits, she usually has a quick look at herself and asks, “Is my dress modest enough? It’s important to follow the guidelines, believe me.”
Yet despite the uncompromising rules and stereotypes, Ofir finds the Mea Shearim to be utterly captivating. Through her work with Children of Mea Shearim, she hopes to raise awareness of the smaller, perhaps often missed, moments of their day-to-day lives. “There is something addictive and unexpected that makes me want to go back there again and again, to explore all the little details that I may have missed the previous time,” she concludes. “Documenting the young ultra-Orthodox generation in its natural environment feels to me like creating fiction. When I bring the repressed minority directly to the centre of attention, the exception becomes normal.”
Ofir Berman: Children of Mea Shearim (Copyright © Ofir Berman, 2022)
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.