Gur Hasidim and sex: Haaretz spices it up

The "Beis Yisroel" with his Hasidim on vacation

They say that nothing sells newspapers like sex and Haaretz had a doozy last week: the second part in an expose (OK, just a spicy research study) on the sex lives of a particular group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel – the Gur Hasidim. The article was the talk of our table this past Shabbat.

As too often happens, stories in the media aim to titillate first, present the facts only secondary. But this article seems to have some meat to it. It’s based on the doctoral dissertation of Nava Wasserman, who conducted her research under the guidance of Prof. Kimmy Caplan, at Bar-Ilan University.

The parts of the study quoted in the Haaretz article focused mainly around the wedding night. Wasserman describes how Gur members are taught that sex – and any sexual thoughts – are a sin and how young men in the sect by and large know nothing of the subject…until two hours before the wedding.

At that point, a Gur “counselor” reveals to the groom what he must do on his wedding night. “There are grooms who throw up or faint when they hear these things,” Haaretz quotes Wasserman as saying. She cites an interview she conducted with a young Gur man who related that, “I saw black circles in front of my eyes and all of a sudden I found myself on the sofa,” Wasserman explains that “the sect is willing to pay this price, to receive the benefit of sanctity.” Girls, by the way, receive more extensive counseling, a few weeks before the wedding.

The rules of sex in the Gur society apparently stem from the late Rabbi Israel Alter (also known as the Beis Yisroel), who led Gur from 1948 to 1977 and wanted to unify the sect by distancing it from Western society which, Wasserman notes, the Gur felt “blew sexuality out of its natural and necessary proportions.”

“When my goals are spiritual, I must do everything to reduce my natural desires,” Wasserman continues in the article. “Gur Hasidism contend that it is possible to control sexual urges. When a Gur Hasid walks down the street, he will direct his gaze downward. On a bus, he might remove his glasses.”

With this in mind, it’s not too hard to understand how we’ve come to the separation of men and women on buses.

Wasserman is clear to emphasize that the Gur are a small group within the greater ulra-Orthodox community – no more than about 20,000 – and that stereotyping an entire population is unfair and incorrect. That was certainly the response at our Shabbat table where the kids didn’t want to hear from Abba’s presumably bigoted pontifications. I sent them the articles to read. Now you can too. Part one is here. And here’s a link to part two. You can draw your own conclusions.



Where we get our water

Israel's National Water Carrier

Two items were in the news this week concerning where Israelis get their drinking water.

The first is good news: the water crisis, which we’ve been suffering through for nearly a decade (this winter appears to be a welcome exception), may be coming to an end in the next year. And by 2020 or so, we may actually have a water surplus!

Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, told the Knesset Economics Committee this week that, due to increased desalination of seawater (Israel has six desalination facilities), by 2013, 75% of Israeli households will be using desalinated water, alleviated some of the two billion cubic meters of water the country is currently missing. All this extra water will allow for the rehabilitation of Israel’s Coastal Aquifer and may lead to a restoration of safe water levels in the Sea of Galilee.

Even better: by 2030, Mekorot predicts that Israel’s agricultural irrigation – which uses more water than households – will be completely based on desalinated and brackish water.

That covers water from the tap. But Israelis also get their water from bottles – mineral, spring and filtered water – and that’s the other piece of news that surfaced this week: the coming restaurant water wars.

Strauss Water plans to offer restaurants free purified water from its Tami 4 water filter systems if they serve the water in pitchers bearing the company’s brand and – more importantly – they stop selling mineral water from Strauss’s competitors: the companies that make Mei Eden, Neviot, San Pellegrino and Sam Benedetto. Strauss sees it as a way to sell more Tami 4 machines.

Strauss will pay the restaurants a premium, given that the new arrangement will cut into the eateries’ bottom lines (mineral water sales can make up to 2% of a restaurant’s sales). The bottled water industry in Israel is valued at $270 million; 38% of that is sold in restaurants.

The restaurant industry is skeptical. The Strauss premium would have to be pretty high to make up lost revenue. And an article in Ynet points out that Strauss has only concluded one restaurant deal so far, so it seems like the road to its marketing success will be a dry one for a while, but Strauss is one of Israel’s biggest food conglomerates, so it may not go thirsty for too long.


Israel now the second most educated country in the world

Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Photo by, under a GNU free documentation license

It seems like we only hear bad news when it comes to Israel’s educational rankings these days. Where once we were known for our prowess in math and science in particular, annual polls consistently put us near the bottom of the list for developed nations. Inside the country, we are warned that if educational budgets are not increased dramatically, there will be no next generation of hi-tech entrepreneurs.

So it’s refreshing to read that we are actually number two when it comes to how many Israelis have completed post-secondary education: 45%. We’re right after Canada and before Japan, the U.S., New Zealand, South Korea, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Finland.

True, that’s talking about the current rankings, and there’s no guarantee that young Israelis growing up in today’s system will maintain that level, but there’s no reason to spoil the party just yet.

The data is from a report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which also says that 78% of the money invested in education in Israel is taken directly from public funds.

History and Culture

Jerusalem’s ugliest building (hint: it’s not the Holyland)

The Amir Center in Jerusalem

For years, whenever I have driven down King George Street, near the Great Synagogue and the Leonardo (formerly Sheraton) Plaza Hotel, the building at the corner with Agron Street has pained me – a tremendously ugly, 7-story, dilapidated monstrosity that I have waited patiently for some announcement of its pending demolition that never comes.

And now I learn that the building was not only once considered a paradigm of daring optimism and ”modernity,” but the architect behind it has become one of the most celebrated in the country’s history.

That’s not to say that the Amir Center (as the building is officially called) won’t someday be torn down to build another luxury apartment tower; other high-rise buildings have already been approved in its immediate surroundings. But a retrospective, almost loving article in today’s Haaretz may temper those ambitions.

In 1958, architect David Resnick was asked to design a new residential building at the intersection in question. In an interview, he praised its innovations, which broke out of the classic Jerusalem Stone look and feel to splash a dose of modernist paint on the city. The Amir Center was built on a large 10 dunam plaza, its 7 floors propped up on stilts, with a Supersol supermarket (the first in Jerusalem) down below.

While Resnick was pleased with his creation (it even won an award in 1963 for technological innovation), the building was immediately dubbed “Jerusalem’s ugliest building” in street interviews that took place at the time, Haaretz reports.

That controversy, however, helped raise Resnick’s public visibility, and the architect went on design such more acclaimed Jerusalem landmarks as the dome shaped synagogue on Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, the Mormon Center on Mount Scopus and the Van Leer Institute, among many other always-modernist style projects.

That said, Resnick admits that the Amir Center has been “modified” beyond its original clean lines: residents have enclosed balconies, added unattractive air conditioning units. Indeed, Resnick says “When I walk past the building today, I look the other way. I can’t bear to see what they did to it.

The city is promoting a plan where a contractor is given the rights to build an extra floor or two at no cost provided the residents’ current living space is upgraded (including making it earthquake proof). But the building’s shell, apparently, isn’t strong enough to bear the additional weight, so for now, it’s either demolish or stay ugly.

While “to date no plan has been formulated or submitted,” according to a municipality spokesperson, Resnick would undoubtedly be opposed. “The question of nice or not nice is irrelevant,” he says. “I think that the Israeli establishment does not understand what architecture is and its importance to the state.”

In another 50 years, will they be talking this way about the Holyland project too?


Castration Clinic

Monty: before

At first glance, it looks like any other veterinarian’s office. Pictures of dogs and cats on the walls, efficient and busy animal doctors flitting around in blue cotton smocks. But the pets coming this morning to the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSPCA) in Jerusalem’s Talpiot Industrial Zone all had one thing in common: they were about to get snipped.

That’s because the JSPCA specializes in sterilization: spaying for females, neutering for males. It also has the lowest price in town, NIS 438, a good 25% less than our regular vet. You can get the job done for even cheaper if you want to schlep out to Atarot – only NIS 300. The Atarot facility also doubles as a rescue shelter.

The animal in question was our Maltese, Monty. “But he’s just a puppy,” the kids cried out when we told them of our plan to introduce Monty to the joys of sexual ambiguity. The kids were right about his age: Monty’s one-year birthday is coming up at the end of February. And there is a school of thought – dismissed by all the best selling dog trainers in their books – that a male dog should have the chance once in his life to copulate, while girl dogs should have at least one litter.

The problem is that the offspring of those unions more often than not end up at the pound where they’re likely to be put down. So, letting your dog sow his wild oats could be a death sentence for the resulting puppies.

For male dogs there are even better reasons. High testosterone levels lead to a greater chance of testicular cancer. Males also have a tendency of charging into the street to chase females in heat, another potentially fatal move. Plus neutering makes dogs less aggressive. The best age to neuter, the experts say, is between 5-7 months. Protestations from the children aside, our mind was made up.

Still, I was a bit put off by the vet’s first words to me. “He’s here for a castration?” he said in wobbly English. “Well, we prefer to call it ‘neutering,’” I replied somewhat testily (must have been the testosterone). “But he’s so young,” the doctor then added. Hey – are you reading the same books I am, dude?

“He should be done after noon. We’ll call you.”

A few hours later, we picked Monty up. He barely acknowledged us; the anesthesia was still wearing off. For the next couple of days, he dragged around the house looking pained, both physically and undoubtedly broken hearted for the breech of trust (OK, he’s a dog, he probably just didn’t feel well).

But then I had a thought. What about the royal eunuchs who worked the palaces in days gone by? Perhaps there might still be a bright future for Monty serving in the court of a golden retriever or a greyhound. In some cases, less could very well be more.