Ultra-Orthodox In Israel: Keeping Cool While Keeping Customs

Aug 21, 2015
Originally published on October 9, 2015 4:50 pm

In the hot sun of a Jerusalem afternoon, kids wait for a fountain to turn on.

When water spouts into the air, 9-year-old Tzipora Baranas jumps right in. She's wearing black tights, a black, below-the-knee skirt and a long-sleeved black shirt.

"It's fun when the water spritzes up in my face," she says.

She is Orthodox Jewish and her outfit is in deference to religious modesty. She says she's not hot at all, despite the temperature hitting the 90s and the dark clothes covering all but her face and hands.

Of course, she is dripping wet at the moment.

Nearby, in the shade, an Orthodox mother, Rinat Kuperman, says it's good that the city has a place where kids can get wet without having to wear a swimsuit in public.

"They understand that people like us want to be happy in the summer and still keep ourselves like we want," she says. "Covered and refreshed."

Her family swims only in pools with times separated by gender, in keeping with their religious custom of covering their bodies when away from home and in the presence of members of the opposite sex. Kuperman isn't dressed all in black, but her skirt brushes her ankles. She wears a long-sleeved blouse over a T-shirt and has wrapped a colorful scarf over her hair.

Most Israelis are secular, and this record-breaking summer heat means plenty of shorts and skimpy tops on the beaches and streets. Choices for modest dress — including those that keep people covered up even in the summer heat — draw on religious rules, community norms and personal beliefs.

Another mother at the park, Odhodya Sterenberg, says she wears sandals to keep cool.

"I'm not that insistent because I think feet aren't the parts of our bodies we need to keep modest," she says.

Not only religious Jews face the challenge of staying cool in dark dress. Christian monks walk the narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City in black cloaks and hats. Muslim women who wear dark abayas keep them on to play in the sea.

More than 10 percent of Israel's Jewish population is ultra-Orthodox. The Orthodox community includes the ultra-Orthodox as well as other diverse sects, but many men follow a dress code established in Eastern Europe, where their sects originated more than a century ago: black suits, white shirts and brimmed black hats.

Women's dress codes in these communities can allow a greater range of fabrics and styles, according to Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, who curated a museum exhibition on ultra-Orthodox dress. But black and white are predominant, and modesty before God is paramount.

They are generally overdressed for hot weather.

In the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Sharim, most men wear dark pants, long dark coats and black hats. Rafael Kruskal, a 40-year-old man coming out of a men's clothing store, wears three shirts under all that — a dress shirt, an undershirt, and a tallit, a thin cotton shirt with strings attached at each corner to remind him of God's will all the time.

All three are all white, but that doesn't help him stay cool.

"Once you have the layers underneath, I don't think it makes that much difference if it's white or black," he says.

What saves him is air conditioning, which of course never existed in old Europe.

"In the car, there's air conditioning; in my house, there's air conditioning; in the office, there's air conditioning."

For those without, "I think the body gets used to it," Kruskal says.

In a men's clothing shop, proprietor Yechiel Rubin says there are other tricks besides air conditioning. He opens a long black coat and points out that it has only a partial lining. That makes it cooler, he says, even though it is polyester.

Wool is best for the summer, Rubin says. Air passes through better, letting the body's natural cooling system do some of the work. But it's pricey — three times the cost of polyester — so not everyone has that option.

Rubin and his brother Simcha wear shirtsleeves inside their shop. But every Saturday, no matter how hot, Simcha dresses for synagogue in a long coat, a shawl and a grand fur hat called a shtreimel. This is again part of his religious tradition. There is nothing else permissible to wear to worship, he says.

And, yes, he sweats.

"You sweat, you go home, you take a shower and goodbye! That's it!" Rubin says cheerfully.

That's the way to beat the heat, no matter what you wear.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This summer's heat has broken records in many parts of the world, including Jerusalem. One particular population is known for clothing that makes it difficult to stay cool. NPR's Emily Harris asked ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city about the balance between comfort and tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken).

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: In the hot, afternoon Jerusalem sun, kids wait for a fountain to turn on. When water spouts shoot in the air, 9-year-old Tzipora Baranas jumps right in. She's wearing black tights, a black skirt and a long-sleeved black shirt.

TZIPORA BARANAS: (Foreign language spoken).

HARRIS: "It's fun when the water spritzes up in my face," she says. She is Orthodox Jewish, and her outfit is for religious modesty. But she says, she's not hot at all, despite the dark clothes covering all but her face and her hands. Of course, she is dripping wet right at this moment. Nearby, an Orthodox mom Rinat Kuperman says thank goodness the city has somewhere kids can get wet without getting into a swimsuit in public.

RINAT KUPERMAN: Because they understand that people like us want to be happy in the summer and still keep ourselves like we want.

HARRIS: Covered.

KUPERMAN: Covered and refreshed.

HARRIS: Muslim women in dark abayas, Christian monks in black cloaks and hats - in Jerusalem, many people face the summertime stay cool challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: In the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Sharim, men wear dark pants, long, dark coats and black hats - styles rooted in old Europe. And Rafael Kruskal has three shirts on under all that.

But they're all white, right?

RAFAEL KRUSKAL: They're all white.

HARRIS: Has there...

KRUSKAL: Once you have the layers on underneath, I don't think it makes that much difference if its white or black.

HARRIS: What saves him is AC.

KRUSKAL: In the car, there's air conditioning. In my house, there's air conditioning. In the office, there's air conditioning.

HARRIS: In an air conditioned men's clothing shop, proprietor Yechiel Rubin finds a coat cool for summer because it has just a partial lining.

But this is a polyester suit, I think.

YECHIEL RUBIN: This is a polyester suit.

HARRIS: So hot.

Y. RUBIN: And this is wool.

HARRIS: Yes, wool. That's the coolest, he says, but more expensive. Rubin and his brother Simcha Rubin wear shirtsleeves in their shop. But every Saturday, no matter how hot, Simcha Rubin dresses for synagogue in a long coat, a shawl and a fur hat. He sweats.

SIMCHA RUBIN: And you sweat, and you go home, you take a shower, and goodbye. That's it.

HARRIS: That's the way to beat the heat no matter what you wear. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.