Role Play| March 23, 2021
Mishpacha asked a professional actor to play two roles: that of an insular chareidi in secular Tel Aviv, and a stern policeman in Bnei Brak. What did he discover?
Photos: Menachem Kalish
Hello. My name is Oded Menaster, and I was a chareidi for a day.
I know the streets of Tel Aviv as well as any secular Israeli. But it was painfully unfamiliar to wander the city’s so-familiar streets in a strange and alien costume. Not the costume of a famous actor or superhero. Not even that of a politician, in honor of election season. I would have done fine with any of those. As a professional stage actor, I’m used to that.
Instead, I wandered the streets of Tel Aviv, the capital of liberal Israel, dressed as a chareidi.
I’m not particularly well-versed in all the nuanced subdivisions of the Orthodox community, but the magazine editor who arranged this charade warned me ahead of time that I was going to become a member of the most extreme sect on the spectrum. Someone my fellow Tel Avivians would associate with rock-throwing and cries of “Shabbes” and “Nazis.”
My clothes came from an authentic Yerushalmi home, and Aryeh, the editor, even showed me the right way to hold a cigarette. It took some practice, but soon I could properly pronounce the name of my adopted chassidus — “Toldoiss Aharen” — so that if I was asked where I was from, the answer would sound authentic.
I doubt many of my colleagues in the acting field would have been willing to undertake this mission. But I believe that awareness is the key to change and that stigmas are there for us to dispel. And I wanted to get a better feel for this very misunderstood, misrepresented sect through natural and spontaneous human contact, not through data on a screen.
It was tough. Very tough. But who said that life is easy? Sometimes you have to expose yourself to the more complicated and painful side of things if you want to help remedy a societal ill.
At least I tried.
It was a pleasant afternoon, the sun shining warmly with a light breeze. I walked in my chassidish garb to Habima Square in Tel Aviv. I’ve been here hundreds of times in my normal appearance, but to come to the square in full chassidish garb was an entirely different (and mortifying) experience.
Dozens of locals were nesting in the square, and they all purposefully, decidedly, and forcefully ignored me. Not one person made eye contact.
I climbed up the hill and plumped myself down next to a fellow absorbed in his phone. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that he had noticed me out of the corner of his eye. He raised an eyebrow, and I plucked up the courage to start a conversation.
“Got a match?” I asked, trying to get the Yerushalmi accent right. I pulled out a Time cigarette, which I had prepared especially for such an occasion.
“No sir, I don’t smoke,” he said in a tone that signaled the conversation was over.
“Thanks. Nice weather today, no?” I continued.
“Yes,” he answered briefly. But I sensed he was softening.
One or two formalities later, the conversation took a very unexpected turn. All his inner Tel Aviv soul burst out all at once, like he was starved for conversation:
“Tell me, what do you think you’re doing? The entire country is terrified of COVID while you dance at these mass weddings. Do you think that’s okay?”
“No. It’s not okay at all. But you need to realize that not everyone’s like that,” I said in defense of the community I was representing.
“Not everyone, but many are. You actually seem to be a very nice person. I can see you’re wearing that mask properly. If only all chareidim were like you.”
Later I learned from my chareidi companions that this refrain —”if only all chareidim were like you” — is a familiar one.
“You look like a nice person,” he went on. “It’s a pity not everyone’s like you. You chareidim need to find your way. You take care of yourselves, and we’ll take care of ourselves.”
My next encounter happened at a round table. Three people were sitting there, bags strewn carelessly at their feet. I slipped into the one unoccupied seat.
“Got a match?” I threw out the time-honored opening line. And what are the relations between the chareidim and the secular, if not a giant matchbox?
“Sure, bro, why not?” They shifted uncomfortably.
Then they noticed my full regalia — and the clearly religious photographer capturing our interaction.
“Hey, come over here,” they yelled at him hysterically, “delete all the pictures! Now! Or else we’ll throw this skateboard in your face!”
Wow, it isn’t easy being a chareidi, I reflected. Especially a chareidi with a camera. Especially in Habima Square.
I apologized for the disturbance and left hurriedly, my head swirling with thoughts.
I inwardly debated whether to approach two young men leaning on a tree trunk and inhaling an unidentified substance. I didn’t have to debate for long. They called out to me:
“We would offer you some, but you chareidim are always happy anyway, you don’t need any help with that.”
“You’re right,” I answered cheerfully, “where there’s emunah, there’s happiness.”
“Ashrecha, rabbeinu,” they laughed awkwardly.
What was it I heard dozens of times that day? “Not all chareidim are the same.” It turns out that not all the secular are, either.
Another positive moment came when a man named Gal approached me on his own initiative, on the other side of the square. He stopped me next to the statue of Menashe Kadishman and asked to put on tefillin. This put me on the spot.
“Sorry, I didn’t bring my tefillin,” I said.
A conversation developed. He told me that he was a veteran of the Second Lebanon War, in which he lost a number of comrades from his company.
“Since then, every time I see a ‘doss,’ a clearly religious Jew, I try to ask him for tefillin.”
Something in his gaze was very human and very encouraging. Not everything is dark.
My next stop was Rothschild Boulevard, where children were finally frolicking outside after months of isolation. I folded my hands behind my back — another Yerushalmi pose the Mishpacha staff had shown me before I set off — hunched my shoulders slightly and walked leisurely along the path. How did Aryeh put it? This is how you walk on Malchei Yisrael Street on Shabbos after the cholent. I took him at his word.
I met with penetrating glares from some, and total disregard from others. It was very black and white, no middle ground.
For some reason I had anticipated that Rothschild Boulevard would be calmer and gentler than Habima Square, even though the distance between them is just a few meters. But an unpleasant surprise waited me.
The boulevard is littered with low chairs with a reclining backrest, like on the beach. I sat down on the first empty chair I saw, intending to lean back and take in the enlightened and inclusive Tel Aviv air. But no sooner had I sat down than the guy with the long hair the next chair over, enjoying the tolerant, liberal atmosphere, suddenly jumped to his feet as if a Code Red had sounded. He walked away abruptly, as if I were a confirmed carrier of the plague.
I guess I was mistaken.
A 40-year-old man walked by me, holding a long leash in his hand. Attached to the leash was a small black dog. I waited for him to pass.
I called out to him. “Excuse me, how do you get to—?”
“Find it yourself,” he muttered as he walked, not even waiting for me to finish the sentence.
The boulevard ended, and I found myself in front of a large intersection.
The light was green. I started to step on the crosswalk that reminded me a little of the striped coat I was wearing. I narrowed my eyes, so that the people next to me wouldn’t realize I was observing them carefully. I could see at least three people from the corner of my eye.
From the moment they began to cross, they couldn’t take their eyes off me, and as they approached me their mouths twitched sort of dismissively. Maybe their minds had frozen at the sight of the chareidi alien who emerged from the TV screen in their living room to cast his terrifying shadow on law-abiding citizens.
I crossed the street and reached the finish line. Well, there wasn’t exactly a finish line, just the other side of the sidewalk. What’s more, there was no trophy and no winner. In fact, I felt a certain sense of loss. Two cities — Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv — that are no more than two kilometers and ten minutes apart, but they’re like two different worlds. So close and yet so distant.
Hello. My name is Oded Menaster, and I was a policeman for a day.
But I wasn’t a policeman just anywhere. The magazine editors who’d planned this experiment asked me to pose as an officer of the law in the chareidi stronghold of Bnei Brak.
It was dusk when I entered, but the city wasn’t anywhere near ready to wind down. I took in traffic jams, impatient honking, crowded sidewalks, motorcycles, bicycles and scooters, alongside baby strollers, shopping carts, and beggars.
Cars bearing loudspeakers were announcing the funeral of someone named Matan B’seter. He must have been an important person for the entire city to be called upon to join in his funeral. Or maybe I’ve mixed up a few different announcements.
I had entered Bnei Brak in the uniform of a policeman, complete with a motorcycle and grim expression. The jeers hurled at me when I stopped at some red traffic lights helped me get into character. I got off the motorcycle at the Itzkovich shtiblach. This, I’m given to understand, is the Bnei Brak equivalent of Habima Square in Tel Aviv. (The editor will probably add a “l’havdil.” So there, I saved him the trouble.)
“Don’t talk to him,” I heard whispers among the crowd of curious people gathering around me. “He has a photographer with him who’s filming everything.”
No doubt about it, Bnei Brakers are an alert bunch. I gained a new appreciation for a joke I once heard about Napoleon, who went to a mikveh in a chareidi city to put his finger on the pulse of the public, only for someone to whisper to him: “Watch out, Napoleon is here.”
When they spot a policeman in their environs, I found Bnei Brakers to be tense — much more so than Tel Avivians encountering a Toldos Aharon chassid on Rothschild Boulevard. Especially a policeman with a photographer. Here I encountered the triangle of conflicts that has plagued Israeli society for the past year — a triangle in which the media, the police, and the chareidim are all players. I’m there in the role of cop. The photographer behind me (despite his chareidi appearance) is in the role of the media. And Bnei Brak is in the role of the chareidi city at the epicenter of a national culture clash.
I put on my policeman’s hat and started walking. Where? Nowhere in particular. I just walked. Unlike in Tel Aviv, here I didn’t have to initiate conversations to gain people’s attention.
I passed by the shops and peeked inside. The proprietors immediately tensed. None of them let me complete the sentence: I just said, “Please put on your—” and the masks automatically shot up to cover their faces.
Even the falafel proprietor put down the pita he was filling and adjusted his mask. A minute later, when I approached the falafel store again, I heard him shout at one of the workers: “Don’t you understand that there’s a policeman here? Do you want us to get slapped with a 10,000 shekel fine? Put on the mask already and don’t be a smart-aleck!”
In all honesty, not everyone in Tel Aviv was wearing a mask either. But the attitude here felt more raw, more edgy. This was a city that had been demonized, attacked, and sidelined since the pandemic has begun, and its wounds were showing.
“Minchah, Minchah,” I heard outside Itzkovich. I went in — and was met with a wall of tension. Those who hadn’t noticed my entrance were hurriedly approached, and a whispered warning was shared. I couldn’t make out the exact words, but they elicited a uniform response: everyone adjusted their masks.
I wanted to stand and daven something from my heart about “sim shalom beinenu” or something like that, but the breathing on the back of my neck kept getting louder. I realized that the arm of the law wasn’t welcome here, not after so many months of antagonism and tension.
I went into one of the prayer rooms and opened a siddur, hoping to blend into the davening. By now I could actually hear the whispers.
“Watch out, there’s a cop here.” I can’t remember ever feeling so unwanted as I did then. My presence was clearly oppressive.
“Look, I just came here to daven,” I told someone who surveyed me with a half-frightened, half-hostile expression.
He leaned in and whispered to me conspiratorially: “You’d better leave. This isn’t the time to pray here in uniform. It’s too tense.”
Another fellow explained reasonably, if a bit resentfully, “You don’t belong here and it would be a pity if trouble started.”
Honestly? I felt hurt. To a certain extent, more than in Tel Aviv.
But the most disturbing moment was when a little boy yelled “Nazi!” at my passing back.
Look, I understand that to a chareidi, a cop represents a different world — an establishment that’s been portrayed as an enemy of their values and lifestyle. This no doubt comes from bad communication, bad decisions, and even worse optics. It’s sad.
But as someone who’s descended from Holocaust survivors and martyrs, I was appalled to be called a Nazi. Does he even know what a Nazi is? What the Nazis did? How can that accusation even come out of your mouth?
At the end of the day, we’re all in the same boat and we’re fighting the same battle — a life-and-death battle against COVID-19. I felt the same “othering” when that man in Tel Aviv ran away from me that I felt when the kid in Bnei Brak called me a Nazi. In Tel Aviv the response was muffled in a layer of quiet courtesy. In Bnei Brak it was vocal and blunt. But the two reactions came from the same place. The man who ran for his life the moment I sat down next to him also labeled me as Other, even though he didn’t say a word.
Can we bridge this divide? I hope so, but it will take work. And right now, neither side is really making a move toward peace and understanding. Everyone’s feeling attacked, and even worse, each sector is quarantined off in its own space.
Personally, I spent my childhood on the outskirts of Bnei Brak, and later, for a long period, lived in Tel Aviv. This costume charade might have seemed at first like a light-hearted exercise, but it ended up being a painful experience. I kept trying to step outside of my character and get a sense of how I looked and sounded to the people around me. My conclusion isn’t pretty or poetic. As a society, we have a lot to fix. Maybe when the pandemic is over, people will once again understand that we’re meant to live here together.
And maybe, if they only make the effort, they will find that with some generosity of spirit and goodwill, we have the capacity to see those people in their strange clothing not as Others, but as brothers.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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