Of all the things I was looking forward to seeing on my first day in Israel, the naked ass of half a dozen Orthodox Men was not one of them. It had been 30 hours since anyone in the group had slept, and while I’m sure our guide, Raz, was saying fascinating things about Tzfat, all I heard was, “Blah blah blah Maron. Blah blah blah Judaism…etc…Kabbalah.” I couldn’t quite keep the words straight as he took us from one seemingly random location to another in the city. I figured there was some significance to the places we stopped at until two strangers walked through our group to get to a door we were blocking and one of them muttered, ‘Why would anyone spend time in this alley?’
Everything was shut down because it was Friday afternoon. Instead, we walked past closed store after closed store as packs of ultra orthodox children kept running past us.
Eventually we reached Yoni, our personal guide into the world of Kabbalah. The guys in the group went with him and his cousin, as the girls went their separate way. Like most of the men in this city, he had a long beard, black hat and long black coat despite it being 90 degrees outside. It’s a brand of Judaism that I’m so far away from, I have a hard time even calling the same religion. He led us to a room slightly less interesting than most dining halls. We all sat down and he rambled for a while about his path to Judaism.
“I was like you. I grew up in Brooklyn. When I took off for Israel my parents told me one thing - don’t come back religious. So…I never came back. Now, some of you might have noticed a lot of others dressed like me, walking around carrying towels. Before Shabbat it is our tradition to head to the Mikveh. Now this is a wonderful, holy place. Before Shabbat we go there to immerse ourselves in water and make ourselves completely pure.”
After going on about the history of the Mikveh, he led us towards one. I talked with his cousin on the way there.
“So what do you do for a living?” I asked.
“I work at an anti-terrorist shooting range,” he said.
“Seriously?” I said, because that’s hilarious. Yoni quieted the group as we came to a stop.
“Now this door leads to a Mikveh. Not the main one, as that’s packed right now,” he said.
The place wreaked of spoiled fish and looked like a locker room with a small still pool at the end of it. The smell was so strong, I did all I could to not throw up as he talked. It was as if they’d never changed the water.
“This water was never touched by man in coming here,” Yoni said, “It came directly from rain to this pool by pipes. And not normal pipes, but special holy pipes that were built into the building,” he said.
“Does it circulate much?” Cory asked.
“I’m sure it does,” he said and then kept going about its holiness. “How about we go to the holiest Mikveh in Tzvat? I wasn’t going to because it’s full of people, but we should be all right. You don’t have to go in, but it’s truly an amazing experience.”
He led us another quarter mile until we passed through some arch that indicated the start of the locker room. It was outdoors and held dozens of Ultra Orthodox men either giving us dirty stares or consciously ignoring us. Only a couple were naked. An orthodox man sat at a folding table against one wall, offering towels for a 5 shekel suggested donation and lemonade for 1 shekel. The showers were in the next area. I peaked in and saw a line of 5 rather fat and completely naked men waiting at the far door.
Four of the people in our group stripped down as the rest of us stood around uncomfortably feeling a locker room is a terrible place to take a bunch of tourists.
After seven minutes watching ultra orthodox men give us dirty stares as they got naked, we took off. Just after leaving, I heard one of them call out, “Jeremy?”
I turned around. He was wearing all black. A black hat. A full beard.
“Mende?” I said. I’d known him back when he was 14, the son of the Chabad Rabbi at Syracuse. I hadn’t seen him in five years. We talked for a bit and traded numbers.
As I walked away, I thought, ‘Perhaps I’m closer to this world then I realized.’