Katamon: A swamp or an egg?

While most of our politicians were busy last week considering the fallout from the Wikileaks revelations, and before the catastrophic fire on Mount Carmel temporarily distracted the entire country, a few Knesset members found time to discuss a matter of great urgency: the fact that young Orthodox men and women are marrying much later than their parents did.

Oddly, men are the worse offenders. There are 31,000 unmarried Orthodox men in the 25 to 40 age range, but only 21,000 such women. One of the explanations given in today’s report in Ha’aretz is that the women have already completed their first academic degree by the age of 23, and thus are miles ahead intellectually and professionally of their male compeers, who at that age are just completing their combined army service and yeshiva study, known by the Hebrew word for “arrangement,” hesder. The phenomenon even became the topic of a TV series called Srugim (referring to the crocheted kippot the men wear).

Because of the high concentration of unmarried Orthodox men and women in my Jerusalem neighborhood, Katamon (or Old Katamon, as the snobs and the real estate agents prefer to call it), it has come to be known in religious circles as the “big swamp.” Nahlaot, a string of tiny neighborhoods closer to the city center, is the “little swamp.”

I took a mental walk around Katamon to try to get a grasp of what it means to be living in a swamp, rather than in the overpriced neighborhood I thought I inhabited. A block to the west, where the Misgav Ladach maternity hospital once stood, is the popular Yakar Synagogue, also known as “the meat market.” After services the intersection is always blocked with young worshipers cruising in the only way that is not forbidden on Shabbat or festivals.

A few blocks to the southeast is Shira Hadasha, a relatively young and liberal congregation where women are allowed a role in the service. And there are other more or less egalitarian Orthodox congregations.

But I guess I hadn’t noticed how many swamp denizens I shared the neighborhood with, especially since a candidate for community council just last week said that the largest population sector in our neighborhood is young families.

Now, just as some commentators insist that Elijah was fed by Arabs, rather than by ravens, when he hid in a cave in the Judean Desert, because the original Hebrew has no vocalizations and the same consonants can be read as either ravens or Arabs, I saw the Hebrew letters in the newspaper that presumably mean “swamp” and read “egg,” because without vocalizations the two words look exactly the same. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that my reading makes more sense.

“Swamp” makes sense only if you are interested in denouncing the phenomenon rather than understanding it. But “egg” helps explain it. An egg has all the nutrients an embryo needs to develop. The young Orthodox people in our neighborhood have everything they need to live meaningful lives. They are studying or working, have a circle of like-minded friends, have a religious framework, and are protected from prying relatives and Knesset members. They even have sex (and the women go to the mikveh), because sex between unmarried men and women is not one of the categories of relations forbidden in the Bible.

They’re no more willing than my own children were to get married just because someone says they should. They want the right partner, at the right time, in the right place. I don’t see that as a problem requiring parliamentary intervention, and I wish them luck.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

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One Response to “Katamon: A swamp or an egg?”

  1. Tamara Colloff-Bennett Says:

    Great article, Esther!: I love the way you’ve woven in lots of history and linguistic points along with the current news of the neighborhood – along with your clever ‘swamp’ and ‘egg’ observations. Very well done indeed…

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