A stroll through the Me’ah She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem is a visual and culturally eye-opening highlight of many trips to Israel. The neighborhood serves as the primary hub of ultra-Orthodox life in Jerusalem, and the main drag, called Me’ah She’arim Street, is lined with Judaica shops, bookstores, kiosks and places to eat that evoke the home cooking of the shtetl.
In 1874, nearly 75 years before the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Me’ah She’arim was founded as one of the first neighborhoods outside the walls of the exceedingly overcrowded Old City of Jerusalem. The area’s name comes from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, from the weekly Torah portion that was read in synagogue at the time of the city’s founding. It refers to the hundred-fold crop that the patriarch Isaac reaped (me’ah she’arim means 100 portions).
The streets in Me’ah She’arim are narrow and full of activity; one cannot fail to notice the distinctive styles of religious dress of the local residents. The sights, sounds and smells of Me’ah She’arim are reminiscent of Eastern European village life in the 19th century. There are signs urging female visitors to dress modestly out of respect for the local population. Generally speaking, modest dress means skirts that are at least knee-length and shirts with modest necklines that cover the midriff, shoulders and upper arms. Photography of the locals is also discouraged.
While walking along Me’ah She’arim Street, be sure to check out the Olive Wood Factory. In this unassuming workshop, Judaica pieces such as kiddush cups, etrog boxes, spice boxes for havdalah ceremonies, Chanukah dreidels, mezuzah cases as well as door signs are crafted out of olive wood, decorated with hand-painted scenes of Jerusalem and can be personalized on the spot for yourself or for your friends and family back home.
Another highlight is the large and surprisingly modern Manny’s Judaica and Judaic Book Shop on the corner of Me’ah She’arim and Chavakuk Streets. Many North American Jewish students who come to Israel to study for a year after graduating from high school buy their required textbooks there, so you’ll always find English speaking clerks and customers at Manny’s.
Visitors who come on Thursday evenings or Friday mornings will experience additional hustle and bustle, and fabulous smells, as the local residents prepare for the weekly Sabbath, which arrives at sundown on Friday night.