Ofir Barak —Mea Sharim
Mea Shearim was established in 1874 as the fifth settlement outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Its name is derived from a verse in the weekly Torah portion that was read the week the settlement was founded: "Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold (שערים מאה, Mea Shearim); God had blessed him" (Genesis 26:12). Today, Mea Shearim remains an insular neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem. With its overwhelmingly Hasidic population, the streets retain the flavor of an Eastern European shtetl. Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts. The sights that I witnessed during my initial visits to this area were different from anything that I’d ever seen, because the residents resembled one another so strongly. Traditions in dress code for men include black frock coats and black hats. Long, black beards cover their faces, and many grow side curls, called payots. Women and girls are urged to wear what is considered modest dress – knee-length or longer skirts, no plunging necklines or midriff tops, and no sleeveless blouses or bare shoulders. Some women wear thick black stockings all year long, even in summer, and married women wear a variety of hair coverings, from wigs to head scarves. The residents speak Yiddish in their daily lives, as opposed to the Hebrew language spoken by the majority of Israel’s population. The only use of Hebrew for residents is in prayer and religious study, as they believe that Hebrew is a sacred language to be used only for religious purposes.
I began to document Mea Shearim in early 2014.
Documentary photography is always a complex art. As I frequented the streets of the settlement, I realized that I would have to appear less like an outsider in order to properly capture the lives of this dynamic community – I would have to blend in. I began to alter my appearance and dress accordingly. While visiting Mea Shearim, whether in the daytime or at night, I wore only black. I also grew a long beard, and even began to eat in the settlement on a regular basis. Today, after having been a frequent visitor to the settlement for over a year, I am witnessing the accomplishments of my photographic research. I am beginning to see the uniqueness and appeal of this place. When I am visiting, I feel the wonder of the place. I developed a feeling of belonging, a feeling or relevance. Photography as an art form helps me document and chronicle the ongoing pursuit of the old versus the new, the past versus the present, the everyday life of a city within a city.