What Not to Wear in Jerusalem
While Israel is one of the most forward-thinking and innovative countries in the Middle East, sometimes life in Jerusalem can make it feel like you’ve been shot back in time. The presence of ultra-orthodox communities that operate under more conservative ideals is something to be aware of. In general, you don’t need to alter your daily routine as a non-orthodox person. But there are some necessary precautions one must take as a woman living in one of the most religious cities in the world, especially regarding what to wear in Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, people follow the understanding that if you enter the territory or company of more religious persons, you act and dress in accordance with their beliefs. For women, this means we must cover up completely in the presence of ultra-orthodox men. This may seem a little backwards, and at times it can be hard to reconcile as a woman who believes she should not have to edit her appearance or personality to appease a man. But here, abiding by the religious dress code in religious areas is a sign of respect. Jerusalemites consider it disrespectful to blatantly disregard the comfort and ideals of the ultra-orthodox communities. There are certain neighborhoods one must avoid if not dressed appropriately, and they’re usually labeled by signs. It’s extremely important for women in particular to be mindful of such areas.
Early on in my time in Israel, a friend and I accidentally got off at the wrong bus stop on the way home from Hebrew class. We ended up in an ultra-religious neighborhood, Mea She’arim, dressed like we were going to class or to the mall or something. Aside from the the fact that we stuck out like a sore thumb and the ensuing awkwardness, it’s a little risky to be a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time in Jerusalem. Ultra-orthodox men cannot touch women, so they won’t get too close, but some won’t hesitate to throw out verbal assaults. The ultra-orthodox women, on the other hand, will approach you.
Here, abiding by the religious dress code in religious areas is a sign of respect.
During our unplanned excursion in Mea She’arim, an ultra-orthodox woman came up to my friend and me on the street and told us we could not be there, dressed as we were. She told us, “Run for your lives!” as we walked away. While that seems a little dramatic, it’s not unheard of for the ultra-orthodox women to berate you in this way. Be polite, and continue on your way. The fact that a certain area is ultra-orthodox, however, is not a reason to avoid it. You should just plan ahead and make sure you are dressed appropriately before you travel there.
For the most part, Israel–Jerusalem included–is a place where you can express yourself freely through your personal style. But you must be mindful of where and when to do this. Be mindful of where you are traveling, and when. It’s reasonable to expect ultra-religious folks to give you a look or two during the high holidays if you aren’t dressed in a manner they deem appropriate. Still, looks are usually the worst you can expect.
The Old City is the most important place to dress appropriately. It is especially crucial to dress appropriately by societal standards if you visit the Western Wall, or Kotel. For women, this means having your chest, shoulders, knees, and toes covered (wearing closed-toe shoes). Traditionally, women are not allowed to wear pants. This has become more relaxed over the years, and now it’s socially acceptable to wear pants even to the Kotel, as long as you remain covered. People consider it extremely disrespectful to have your shoulders exposed at the Kotel, and you will get called out for it if you defy this rule. At most entrances there are women who rent out shawls for about ten shekels (a few dollars), should you need a last-minute covering.
She told us, “Run for your lives!” as we walked away. While that seemed a little dramatic, it’s not unheard of for the ultra-orthodox women to berate you in this way.
While I may live here now and share a similar background, I am still a visitor who grew up in another country. Even the culture I share with ultra-orthodox Jews here in Israel has evolved in different ways from how it has in the US. If you are a non-Jewish (or non-Muslim) tourist, dressing appropriately shows that you are willing to appreciate and respect the ways of other people, even if you don’t agree with them or understand. All of the ultra-religious groups in Jerusalem, not only the ultra-orthodox Jews, operate under very similar ideals. Many people here are upholding traditions and beliefs that have survived thousands of years, and it is important to them to hold their traditions and ideals sacred. It is not my place to argue with that or openly defy it, simply because I might prefer to wear a tank top.
I don’t think modesty here is about a reflection of one’s sense of self-respect, or lack thereof. Nor is it about passing judgment on how someone else chooses to dress. The dress code of religious Jerusalem truly comes from a place of love and respect for the Holy Land and G-d (for those who believe). To the religious people here who live among religiously and historically important sites like the Kotel, modesty is a means of showing that love and respect.
The people here are not trying to disrespect you by imposing their ideals. They are trying to show that perhaps you have misunderstood and disrespected them unintentionally. That, and the fact that all Israelis have a touch of that chutzpah that sometimes comes across as overly forward or rude. It’s really nothing personal.