Dressing for Neighborhoods in Jerusalem

I have a 45 minute walk every day this summer, to and from class.  The walk is interesting because it takes me through three different neighborhoods, and as I pass through the neighborhoods, I have to adjust how I carry myself.

I’ll show you how it works chronologically, going from my flat to the university.

1) Nachlaot: an ancient neighborhood that mixes religious people and hippies, in the downtown area right next to the big open air market.

This is where I live, and it’s cool.  Most of the streets are winding, pedestrian walkways, and the buildings are so close together that you can hear your neighbors across the way scraping their dinner plates.

There used to be signs asking people to dress modestly in the neighborhood, but I think the hippies took them down.  I live next to a Yeshiva, but I can still basically wear whatever I want.  I go out in my running clothes relatively comfortably.  This is what’s great about downtown Jerusalem, you can wear whatever you want! You want to dress like Moses?  Nobody will look twice.  You want to dress like a slut?  No worries, you won’t be heckled.  You want to dress in tourist gear and/or typical American clothing and talk loudly and obnoxiously?  You’ll fit right in.  Want to dress like a religious Jew or Muslim?  You still fit in here.  Downtown, you’re free to be yourself!

2)  Mea Shearim:  an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where the extremists who aren’t busy living on the settlements live.

This neighborhood scares me more than any other neighborhood.  Here I have been shouted at (for wearing pants), attacked (for driving on a main road on a Saturday), and I’ve read/heard too many stories of stone-throwing and spitting.  They are not fond of outsiders in their neighborhood, and even have billboards warning against tour groups going through, and explanations of how women should be dressed.

There is one main road, Shivtei Israel, that connects downtown to the “other” side, and it’s a huge shortcut.  So, I take this shortcut every day, and every day I am nervous.  Today was a lovely 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so I decided to wear a dress.  This dress is fine for downtown, but I was nervous about walking through Mea Shearim wearing it, so when I approached the neighborhood I wrapped a scarf around my waist, adding an extra few inches to the length of my dress.

The scarf did the trick, I didn’t get spat on!  But my (lack of) clothing still got a reaction.  Every single male I crossed paths with shielded his eyes.  Most would entirely turn their heads away and cover their eyes and continue walking, and one who was guiding a man in a wheelchair turned to face the wall until I passed.  It’s not pleasant, but I will take being treated like a leper over being stoned.

3)  Sheikh Jarrah: an Arab neighborhood that contains what many consider the “downtown” of the Arab side.

Ok, this neighborhood isn’t as interesting as the others, because it’s relatively normal.  Most of the men wear long clothing and the women wear hijabs (headscarves), but if you look different, it’s not a big deal.  This neighborhood is used to expats because it’s where a lot of the aid workers hang out.

I mean, I wasn’t entirely comfortable walking through Sheikh Jarrah wearing my dress, but the only attention I received was stares.  And I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a girl, because I’m wearing less clothing than Muslim women, or because Arabs just stare, a lot.  It’s a cultural thing I guess.

I do have to be careful with my clothing in Arab neighborhoods, but unless you pass a group of young guys trying to be cool by saying, “How are you?” in a thick Arab accent, there isn’t any harassment.  Just weird staring.

And that, is my walk through three different neighborhoods every day.  I would love to take pictures to show you the different ‘hoods, but I’m too scared to take a picture of Mea Shearim.  So, either come visit or use your imagination!

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