The Yishuv

By Sophie Schor

Originally posted at Sophie Schor's personal blog, Jerusalem Daily.

I'm not supposed to be writing this right now. 

It is Shabbat and I'm sitting in a room in my cousin's house. Not just any house, it is a Haredi house. Not just any Haredi house, it is in a settlement in the West Bank. Writing is not allowed, but it is nap time and everyone has disappeared for a few hours to hide from the afternoon heat. 

This weekend, I've donned my long black skirt (ankle length), my stockings (tan and modest), and my button up shirt (covers my collar bone and goes past my elbows). I've slipped into the role of the religious, modest, Jewish-law following young woman that they want me to be. 

My Aunt and Uncle are celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary, which in their tradition the number correlates to the word "lev" or "heart" in Hebrew. To celebrate, their entire family has gathered together this weekend in the "yishuv," a tiny circle of habitation on the top of a hill in the middle of the Judean desert. 50 families live here behind a chained fence. Yet when you look off into the distance, it feels as though  nothing separates us from the rolling hills which lead your eye all the way down to the Dead Sea. In the not so distant distance, we see Jordan. It feels completely isolated and quiet here. 

Yet along the hills wander Palestinian shepherds and their sheep. At the yellow gate, 2 Israeli soldiers sit. Bored. Gazing off at the quiet road and the single tree sitting on the hill in front of them. This life is not isolated.

We took a bus which cut through Palestinian areas and Israeli settlements. Double paned glass, so dirty between the layers you could barely see outside the window and discern whether we were now traipsing through Palestinian villages or Jewish ones. But the striking red placards which declare loudly "This is Area A, it is dangerous, Do Not Enter" or the red-tiles rooftops of homes in rich settlements were visible through the foggy windows. 

We arrived in a midst of dust, suitcases, children, black hats and strollers. Within seconds of stepping off the bus, I was hit by the complete silence out here. The fresh fresh desert air. The smell of dry plants and pine trees. 

And then began the bazaar: 11 kids—ages ranging from 2 months-8 years old—and 10 adults, all crammed into a living room turned into an epic dining room. My aunt's 4 kids, their spouses, and all the grandchildren arrived to honor their marriage while spending Shabbat together. 36 hours together. Slumber party for the children, a bit of a nightmare for the adults, never ending food, all with the backdrop of the Judean desert all around us. 

Each person in this house is a veritable character; the 9 month year old smiling baby David bangs on his high chair table along with the singing just like his father who is banging on the dining room table. Or the cherubic 2 year old Elisheva who seems to psychoanalyze everything happening around her with her brow furrowed only to announce that it is going to snow today. Or the three girls who spend an hour choreographing a dance in the kitchen to present to the group. Or the older boys who have a competition stacking the plastic chairs and sitting on them, proving once and for all who is tallest. Or the two year old who points at every cup, fork, and napkin and says, "That's mine." Or the 7 year old who lives here in the yishuv—a combination of Heidi and Pippi Long-Stocking, she isn't afraid of the centipedes or the stray cats and leads the way running through the neighborhood and yelling that she loves her home. Every little drop of air within it. Or the neighbor who, once he found out I was from Colorado, offered me a joint, to my own jaw dropping. 

My cousins are every bit as fascinating as the kids. They debate, they bless food, they recount stories from their childhood, they sing, they put food on the table, they take food away, they scold their kids, they praise their kids, they hold each others kids, they feed their kids, they ask their father for his approval, they laugh at their husbands for making a mistake. The familial support is incredible. 

One of my cousins is a real "modern woman": she has a job, she has a drivers license, she has an email account, a smartphone, and she even has birth control so as to not have more kids until she is ready. Her husband has on ongoing joke with his mother-in-law and they call each other kamtzan or "stingy" back and forth. My other cousin's husband is always hot—he has to sit by an open window or fan, and he vociferously engages in debates about people who are cold and people who are warm and what that says about their personality. At the head of the table sits my uncle, white beard tied in a knot under his chin so the babies won't pull on it, he sits silently and observes all that has come from his life—two capable, studious, smart sons with large families, two daughters who have found suitable husbands and now run their homes with control and care, and eleven grandchildren who all sit wide-eyed in silence as he tells them stories. I must admit, it's impressive. 

I began questioning my own life; by appearances they seem to have it all sorted out. They have the answers, anything that happens is because God has made it so, and it's all for the best. They know what role they play in this life; they are waiting and readying themselves for the arrival of the Messiah—who they are sure is here already. They live for their families and their children and God and the building of the Third Temple. I look around the table and while I see tired mothers chasing after their 6 children, I also see an inner peace that you don't find in a secular world. Politics? Not interesting to them. Why get mixed up in it if God will set it all right soon enough? Why lose sleep over problems you can't solve and do not have the power to solve? Leave it all in His hands, they say. Climate change and sustainable practices? Not even on the agenda; they alone can keep the plasticware industry in business. For them, it's easier to keep kosher and throw out plastic plates and cups and cutlery than wash 21 sets of dishes between each course. The stacks of plastic filled garbage bags would make even the most disillusioned hippie depressed. Feminism and equality and fights against injustice? Not even a conversation, to each individual there is a role for him/her. Mothers are mothers and husbands are husbands. Period. Their lives are planned out and with the lack of questioning, there seems to be peace and meaning. 

I am struck once again by how many separate worlds are simultaneously unfolding in this place. There's an entire world contained in this house, on this street, in this settlement that is completely separate from the village of Palestinians next door, or from my world as a student hanging out with artists and internationals and activists in the local bars of Jerusalem. I'm struck yet again by how delusional it seems to try to reconcile these realities and attempt to live together in one place that encompasses all these differences. 

And then you walk out the door and the wind catches your long black skirt and it almost feels as though there is nothing to catch you before you fall all the way to the Dead Sea and that really there's no conflict and nothing to be fighting against. 

The desert can make you crazy. 

I can't help thinking how next weekend I'll be back in the area, but for a very different reason and on the other side of the fence of a settlement like this one. Next weekend is the big actiowhich All That's Left has been organizing in the South Hebron Hills. I'll be reporting from the action--live on Twitter and writing about it later. So stay tuned.