So I made it today, for the first time, to Mea Sharim (lit, “100 Gates”), the ultra-notorious ultra-Orthodox part of Jerusalem, most famous for throwing rocks at cars who drive through on Shabbat and dumping bags of urine (and the like) on women who walk around with their licenteous knees showing. They are, however, also famous for good Judaica at very good prices, so there is, shall we say, an allure.

I tried to go there last time I was in Israel–clad, naturally, in my nice long skirt and long-sleeved shirt–to buy tefillin (which at the time I hadn’t started wearing, though I wanted to, desperately. Of course I was going to be buying them for my “brother”.) Not quite sure what happened, but somehow I never made it, and wound up buying my first kippah on Yafo street instead. It was a weird day.

Since then, I’ve had kind of a hangup about the place, scared that I’d quickly manage to reveal my uppity ambitions and somehow get the living daylights creamed out of me.

And yet one of my classmates has been coming back with mass quantities of seforim (holy books) and I couldn’t stand not getting in on the action.

So today I went with another classmate and her husband, dressed like a perfect bas yisroel (daughter of Israel; long long skirt, long sleeves, scarf in my hair that, though it “meant” kippah to me, read “nice married woman.”) It was fascinating walking over to meet them and feeling, for the first time since I’ve gotten here, really invisible. I was flagging “married” and “pious”(frum), and as such was of no particular interest to anybody–I didn’t appear to have Big American Money to spend, and I certainly wasn’t sexually available. This sort of neutrality is a lot of the argument I’ve heard Muslim and Jewish religious feminists make–dressing modestly allows people to focus on your mind, not your body, you can engage with someone in a way that’s clearly not about sexuality, etc. etc. Whiile I agree that this is an excellent goal, I can’t hold by any solution that seems to imply that women’s bodies themselves are the problem. What if we just worked on evolving as people and seeing each other more as people, rather than creating artificial boundaries in which sexuality is constatnly implied? If nothing else, it’s clear that most secular (straight) men don’t get sexually aroused by the sight of a woman’s elbow, because there isn’t this heavy taboo. Perhaps if religious men were more used to praying with women, seeing them act normal in mundane contexts, etc.–while continuing to NOT use women’s bikini-clad bodies to sell beer or cars or whatever–we could really get somewhere as a culture. Wishful thinking.

Anyway, it turns out Mea Sharim is not nearly as scary as I had made it out to be. It had narrow, winding streets, and yes, a lot of hareidim (ultra-Orthodox Jews of many stripes), including some married women who looked to be about 14 (sigh), and a lot of bookstores and Judaica shops. And the bookstores were uh-may-zing.

Just lots and lots and lots of yummy stuff, for really, dirt cheap. I got a top-of-the-line quality 2-volume set of Tanchuma (an important midrash collection) for like $15 US. Pomeranz, a bookstore more towards the town center–the one that also sells multi-denominational books (and some feminist ones! And said they’d order Yentl’s Revenge!) and gives discounts to Conservative yeshiva and rabbinical students–had comparable prices on some stuff, so I’m going to try to support them as much as possible.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t go to town today. I got a Mishna Brura, the Tanchuma, a Jastrow Talmud dictionary (I have one, but the printing on the ones you can get here is unbelievably better), this kiddie book on Shabbat laws that’s actually quite helpful for adult learners, and a BIG FAT book on–yes–modesty. I’m a little obsessed with the subject now, and I’d like to do some more formal writing on it, but need to bone up on the halakha (law) and history, first. It’s fabulous, from my twisted POV–entire chapters devoted to how many buttons one can have open at the neck and how one defines the upper arm. It turns out the Mea Sharim price for Midrash Rabba is the same as Pomeranz’, so I’m gonna get that there.

They also had some fabulous kids’ games–the kind that appeal simultaneously to my actual piety and my deeply-ingrained sense of kitch. Like, they had pictures of old, bearded, not-terribly-attractive famous rabbis that come in pairs to play that memory game (the one where you turn over the cards to try to match them). I passed this time, but I’m sure I’ll go back eventually for it.

Given all my perceptions about the gender thing, people were really much nicer than I thought. Nobody asked a lot of questions about why, say, I’d be needing the Jastrow–I suppose if they don’t ask, they can take my money more comfortably. I’ve heard that they give better discounts to men who come in and say that they’re yeshiva students (which clearly they wouldn’t for me–hi! I’m studying to be a rabbi! hah.) but I also felt comfortable enough to be able to go back and ask hard questions and have at least most of the booksellers be able to engage.

Best of all, I get to build my big happy Rabbinic library–and this is a lifetime investment. If I tried to do that from the States, I’d need to win the lottery to be able to afford this stuff.

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