The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 2, 2007


No religion appears to have a deficit of extremist followers. Fundamentalists of every faith, it would appear to the bystander, are for all intents and purposes, identical in their thoughts and deeds. They are invariably patriarchal, frown upon the mixing of the sexes, disdain most forms of music, have rigid attitudes to attire and behaviour, have no truck with the sciences, believe themselves to be the chosen ones, have enormous broods of children, and detest everybody who is not of their own persuasion.

Fascinating, then, to find that there are subtle and not-so-subtle gradations within the fundamentalist ilk as well. Shades of nuance, no doubt. In other words, there are fundamentalists to whom other fundamentalists of their own faith are ignorant or blinkered or the Devil's spawn. Naturally, they don't consider themselves fundamentalist. They say they are the true believers whereas everybody else is not.

An article in today's New York Times describes the lives of some of the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. A small, poor community entirely at odds with the rest of the country in almost every sphere of activity, these people form a purchasing block that is uniform and lucrative. Thus we find companies tailoring products to meet exactly their demands, adhering to every religious stricture and providing excellent return on investment. This is interesting enough to marketing specialists and advertisers, no doubt, but what I found particularly intriguing is the following remark (and its ramifications) in the article:

Beit Shemesh is a good example, a modern, attractive town of 73,000 people. There is a more secular part, with a large mall, and an ultra-Orthodox district, Ramat Beit Shemesh, which is divided into two. Bet, or B, is very strict, with 15,700 people. Aleph, or A, up the hill, is somewhat more flexible and contains 17,100 people, including a growing number of North American and European Jews who wanted to join an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.
Picture that. Immigrant wannabe ultra-Orthodox Jews congregate in Ramat Beit Shemesh and find that they can't just walk into the Bet neighbourhood because the local ultra-Orthodox are even more ultra-Orthodox than them. Le plus ultra, in short. So they form another community up the hill where they live in constant tension with the Bets. Ilan Shmueli from Beit Shemesh Aleph opened a branch in the Bet section of his successful pizzeria chain. There were almost immediate riots. Why? Because he allowed women and men to sit within the same premises - it didn't even matter to the ultra-ultra-Orthodox that they were seated apart. When he went to the riotists' rabbi to try to resolve the situation, he was told that he might end up dead.



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