Well before sunset on Friday, as Sabbath is about to start in the holy city of Jerusalem, the central bus station closes its doors to travelers. The last buses have long since departed and no bus seems to be coming. Even the taxis have gone. At the taxi station’s office a man sits talking on the phone while also watching TV when I enter. Multitasking, he stares at me but says not a word.
I listen to him talking, but the conversation sounds boring to me. I try watching the Friday TV program, but this is not interesting either. And so I decide to engage in a little conversation with the man.
“How do I get a taxi in this holy city?” I ask him.
“I can take you,” he says.
“But who will mind the office?”
He gets up, turns the TV off, locks the office, and off we go.
It is wonderful riding tonight in Jerusalem. The streets are almost empty and you can fly on the road. And on this very evening, there’s no cop in sight to stop you. These days, the cops seem to be busy with more important things: firebombs in the mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Abu Tor, stones and rocks on the Temple Mount, bullets in Silwan.
Before I finish my cigarette — some drivers in the holy city let me smoke in their cars — I reach my destination: Hillel.
Have you heard of it?
It is a unique organization, let me tell you, dedicated to helping ex-Haredi Jews. The people I’m about to meet, I think to myself, will no doubt be the happiest people on the planet. And I want to be with happy people today.
As I get out of the taxi, I cheerfully run to meet the happy souls.
A big room with a long table greets me. On the table there are many empty plastic plates and cups. The people, about 30 of them, are about to have a Sabbath meal, I’m told, and I can’t wait.
A young lady, wearing tight clothes that are famously forbidden in the Haredi world, approaches me.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“A journalist,” I say.
“You want to write about us?”
“Yes. Do you mind?”
“Okay with me.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“I used to be Haredi.”
“But no more?”
“Of course not,” she says, lighting up on Sabbath, another huge sin in the Haredi world.
“What made you leave?”
“I stopped believing.”
“Yes. And I left.”
“Just like that?”
“No. It wasn’t that easy.”
“I did ‘begging.’ You know what I mean?”
“For three years the street was my home. In the day I begged on the street for money and at night I slept on the street. It was hard, but I couldn’t stay in the Haredi world. I stopped believing. The street gave me freedom, because on the street nobody tells you what to do. I could do everything I wanted. Everything.”
“And what did you do?”
“What would you like to do when you grow up?”
“To live. And you?”
“I guess the same. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I had a few but not at the moment.”
“The Haredi world is known for its sexual inhibitions. Was this why you left it?”
“No. Not at all. I just stopped believing.”
“Would you like to get married at some point?”
“A nice Jewish boy?”
“I don’t care if the man is Jewish or not.”
Nearer to the table stands a man by the name of Yair, who is in charge of the place. The branch of Hillel in Jerusalem, he tells me, is presently helping 570 newly secular Jews, and the main event here is the Friday night meal. “Seventy percent of the people [the ex-Haredi],” he also tells me, “were sexually abused as children and that’s why they left the religious fold. But if you ask them, they will deny it.”
I ask them.
Not even one of them lists sexual abuse as a reason for leaving the Haredi fold. They are here, they all say, because they’ve stopped believing. But when I ask why they have stopped believing, not one of them is capable of coming up with a convincing theological or philosophical argument. The “I stopped believing,” I find out, is the strongest part of their argument.
“Are you going to have a Kiddush?” I ask the people.
Yair asks me if I would like to be the one who will make the Kiddush this evening.
I haven’t done the Kiddush in a long while, but why not do it now? I do, and they look at me. Some of them, I can tell, would rather I said the Fatiha.
The food, quite bland, arrives. If any of them changed their faith in order to have better food, the meal served here would be their biggest disappointment.
Why, then, did they come here? For the company: to talk with fellow deserters of faith and to share feelings.
Odel, 24 years of age, who studied in Mea Shearim, shares her feelings with me.
“I left the Haredi world,” she tells me, “but the Haredi world didn’t leave me.”
“Will it ever?”
“I don’t think so.”
“By now it’s already part of me.”
“Would you like it to leave you?”
“What’s in the Haredi world that you like?”
“Helping each other, respecting the elders.”
Odel’s attachment to religion is so strong, that even though she wouldn’t mind marrying a non-Jew, she insists that her future mate be a man “in touch with faith.” A Christian, for example, would be an excellent choice.
Interestingly, only two of the former Haredim who speak with me define themselves as Zionist. The rest are as ardently anti-Zionist as they were while in the Haredi fold.
As the evening moves on, the ones among them who don’t mind being photographed stand for a photo op. Some of them even smile at the camera, skillfully hiding the sad stories of their lives that they shared with me just moments before.
Hillel, I slowly find out, is the abode of very sad people.
After about two hours, I leave and catch a taxi back home. The cabbie is an Arab and he tells me how great his life is and how happy he is to live in Jerusalem. His wife, he tells me with pride, is German, and his family is very, very rich. Life is good, Allah is good, and Allah blesses him, his German wife, and the rest of the family now and forever. I have no idea if anything he tells me is true or not, but this man makes me laugh. Next Friday night, I think, I’m going to his family to make a Kiddush; I’m sure that it’ll be much more fun.
Tuvia Tenenbom is the author of “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room” and the new Der Spiegel bestseller “Alone Among Jews.”