Let’s say we had to pick one single day as “The Funnest Day in the Jewish Calendar.” The obvious choice would be Purim or maybe Simchat Torah, followed by, in no particular order, the days of Hanukkah, Tu B’Av, and the like. But how about the day after Yom Kippur. That’s a biggie – at least in certain circles.
Many of us have gone through a period of, for wont of a better term, reflection or introspection, starting from the beginning of Elul and going through Yom Kippur. But think for a moment how all that plays out in Hareidi circles, where they take VERY SERIOUSLY the feeling that their actions during this period will determine their destiny for the next year, whether, in fact, they make it through the next year in one piece. So they spend, not a lot of time in shul as most of us do, but essentially all day in prayer on Yom Kippur. Imagine being in a room, which may or may not be air-conditioned, with a bunch of over-dressed and often under-washed men, and you’ve been there since the break of dawn and it’s now 5PM, and they will soon commence Neilah.
And then it’s over. Yom Kippur has come and gone. On to the next holiday! In Hareidi circles, it’s like being let out on the last day of school. The day after Yom Kippur is when the sukkahs go up lickety-split and it’s time to spend quality time with your buddies purchasing a lulav and etrog and whatever else you need. And that’s when every year I head out with my camera to photograph the goings-on.
But before I get on the bus heading into Jerusalem, I have done my homework. Our sukkah is up (the day before Yom Kippur), and my four species are safe and sound, either on the dining room table or in the refrigerator. Off to the Bukharin quarter, one of the go-to places for Hareidi men! (I should perhaps mention that this is really a guy thing, which is why the images are mostly without representation from the females of the species.)
Anyone looking for actual Bukharins in this part of Jerusalem would be mightily disappointed. These wealthy immigrants to the then Yishuv more than a century ago have long since gone elsewhere, leaving behind a neighborhood swallowed up into the amorphous Hareidi-ville. It’s not something that most of us would notice right off the bat, but there is one feature of this neighborhood that makes it unique. When the original Bukharin community arrived in Jerusalem well over a century ago, they were flush with money. When they built their neighborhood, instead of fitting their roads to the winding contours of the land (as is the practice elsewhere in the city) they made use of bulldozers to change the topography and create streets (GASP!) in a grid.
There is at the far end of the neighborhood a main drag (I think that’s Yoel) where most of the pre-Sukkot action takes place. If you want to people-watch Hareidi men going shopping, spending hours deciding which lulav and which etrog to choose from the thousands on display, this is the place to be. Most of us are fairly casual about selecting ours, but then we’re not spending mega-bucks to secure an etrog grown in an obscure region in Italy or one the size of a cannon ball. And if you’re going to spend the kind of money some Hareidim do, you’re not going to pick out the very first one you see; that would take away all the fun and excitement, wouldn’t it, and then, what would be the point?
If there’s one thing a Hareidi guy knows about, it’s the in’s and out’s of finding the very best lulav and etrog available; that’s why these guys come prepared, with all sorts of loops and magnifying glasses to scrutinize every last inch of an etrog’s skin, looking for the tiniest imperfection. At least, that’s what I always thought. But my teacher, Nachum, told me something that sort of burst my bubble. His son-in-law is in the “business” of selling lulavs and etrogs every year, which means working his heinie off 24/6 for an entire month before Sukkot. One year, he had in mind to “do good” for the community. He would sell everything at 10% above his cost, which was significantly less than the competition around him. Three days before the Hag, he realized that he had not sold one blessed thing, and time was running out. He obviously needed a new business model, so he moved his operation to a new location. Instead of offering everything for 40NIS, he started to charge 120! Lo and behold, within a day or two, he sold out his entire stock!
(I’m reminded of something similar back in The States. A woman we knew needed to sell her very nice house in a rural area so she could move back to Teaneck. The property was listed at $500,000, and nothing was happening. She was considering reducing the price, but a savvy real estate agent did just the opposite. He raised the offered price to a cool one million, and the house sold in no time flat! Go figure.)
Now that I had scrutinized every last inch of the Bukharin neighborhood, it was time to move on. My next scheduled station stop was the large tent set up on Yaffo, opposite the shuk, near the funny looking sculptures. If you would be intimidated by the throngs of Hareidim hanging out in other neighborhoods, but you still need to get your species, this is a good place to be. Plus, when you’re done, you can go across the street, do some shopping, get some coffee and something to eat, and you’re good to go.
However, I’m not done yet. For me, the best place to photograph is that hard-to-define area called “Serendipity,” which is located hither and yon on the streets of Jerusalem. There you’ll find men putting up sukkahs in all manner of places, kids playing in the streets, and lots of folks scurrying around, getting ready for the Hag. But you have to pay attention; otherwise, you’ll miss the action.
The best thing about this place called Serendipity is that it’s open for business all year round. Even if you don’t have a camera with you or you can’t get your smartphone out of your pocket in time, there is always something to see to brighten your day. You just have to look – which is what I try to do.
And then the holiday comes. Back in shul; back in your sukkah. On a good day, you’ll have family or friends with you to share some good food and wine. Maybe you’ll get to “walk the Land,” get out and go somewhere, see something of the country. Then more Hag. And then, it’s over. The decorations in your sukkah come down, the schach gets removed (in our case, rolled up), and the whole kit-and-caboodle gets put away. The party’s over. Although in a couple of months, there’ll be guys selling fancy Hanukkah candles by the shuk. Which reminds me…….