The first night I was in Bnai Brak – I had come for my niece’s wedding – my sister had to go to a PTA meeting for her daughters. It took her three hours to see two sets of teachers. It reminded me about how PTA meetings used to be in Baltimore about 10 years ago. I told her about the big change that the schools in Baltimore initiated and how we now all make appointments ahead of time, reducing the waiting time. “Maybe you can introduce that concept in Bnai Brak,” I suggested.
“It would be hard to change the way things have been for so many years,” she answered, reminding me as well that Bnai Brak has hundreds of school as compared to Baltimore’s four or five.
In the subsequent days of my stay, I had fun watching my nieces practice for a performance on Chanukah. It seems that the custom is for children as young as first grade to prepare a little performance for their classmates. My ten-year-old niece was busy teaching her first-grade sister a song, complete with motions, to perform at the Chanukah mesiba. “It is much easier this time around,” my sister explained. “Now we have our own home-grown Israeli big sister to help Leah prepare. When my older daughter was in first grade, I was at a loss of how to prepare her for the performance.”
These were just two interesting experiences I had on my trip. As a person who enjoys observing life, I was fascinated to notice the disparities between the city of Bnai Brak, where my sisters live, and the city of Baltimore, where I live. Encountering a society that functions differently from ours certainly challenges our perception of how things just have to be.
A Compact Town
Bnai Brak is a small but crowded city that looks very different from Park Heights or Greenspring, although it is probably similar to Boro Park or Williamsburg. Except for a few parks scattered around town, there is very little greenery. Everyone lives in apartment buildings; there are some freestanding houses on the outskirts of Bnai Brak, I was told, but I did not see any. People do not even blink an eye at climbing 35 steps to get into their front door. (Actually, my sister says she does blink an eye but has no choice.) One of my nieces lives on the fourth floor of a building without an elevator. It is 75 steps up, and another family lives one floor above her!
The residential areas in Bnai Brak are very close to the commercial areas, so you can step out your front door and buy food, clothing, books, Judaica, toys, and whatever your heart desires. The multitudes of people on the streets day and night are striking. The streets are so crowded that you have to maneuver around others when you take a walk. Even rain does not stop people from going about their business – walking to school, kollel, shopping, or work. Each child or adult just carries an umbrella in case it rains on the way. After the sun sets, the streets are just as busy and bustling as they were during the day. When we came home from the wedding, at 12:30 a.m., couples with strollers and crowds of people were standing around and talking on street corners.
Throngs of children walk home from school in the evening, chatting with each other in the dark. They do not hesitate to ask a complete stranger to use his or her cell phone or whether it is safe to cross the street. Many children have been taught that they should wait quietly at the corner and ask an adult to cross them. I noticed that even adults are punctilious about waiting at a red light until the light turns green, even if no cars are coming.
Intercity buses leave frequently from the street corners near people’s homes, and since many people lack a car, everyone uses them. Whole families carrying suitcases and pushing strollers arrive in Bnai Brak by bus for Shabbos and return home on motzei Shabbos. We had a sheva brachos in Beitar, quite a distance from Bnai Brak, and even the chasan and kalla traveled there by bus. We had to finish the sheva brachos quickly to catch the last bus leaving Beitar at 10:45 p.m. My ten- and twelve-year-old nieces travel on the bus from one city to another on their own, arriving late at night and walking home from the bus stop.
Children have much more independence than they do in Baltimore. Children of nine, ten, or eleven, here in Baltimore, are completely dependent on their parents for anywhere they have to go. In Bnai Brak, children hop on and off buses, paying with their bus cards, to go to school or activities. In Baltimore, it is the responsibility of the parents, who drive carpool, to make sure that the children are on time for school.
A ten-year-old child in Baltimore might have to pick up his pajamas and make his bed, but he has few responsibilities that are crucial to the family. For example, parents are in charge of shopping for whatever the family needs. In Bnai Brak, I saw very young children take a shopping cart and go to the store to buy food. The classic joke is that, in Bnai Brak, if a five-year-old loses the pacifier he likes to sleep with, he can go to the makolet to buy himself a new one!
Because of shemita this year, my sister purchases her fruits and vegetables in a special shemita store. It is open just one hour per week (half-an-hour for men and half-an-hour for women), making it hard for my sister to go. Her ten-year-old daughter told me proudly that it is her job to go to the store every week. She chooses the vegetables her mother requests, puts them in the shopping cart, and shleps them up the stairs into the house.
The homes in Bnai Brak are much smaller than in Baltimore, and the furniture is built to maximize the space. I was amazed to find that I could sleep comfortably on a bed half the width of the one I have at home. Rooms that we would think are too small to be used as a bedroom can accommodate a narrow bunk bed and sleep two or three children. A narrow bed in the corner opens up at night to accommodate four children in a row. This kind of furniture allows the bedroom to double as a playroom during the day. In fact, bedrooms are often used for other purposes. At a sheva brachos in my sister’s apartment, the men sat in the living room, and the ladies sat in the children’s bedroom.
People with large families live in apartments with two or three bedrooms. Putting five children in one room is common. In fact, I had a conversation that I found ironic with one of my nieces, a mother of three young children. She was showing me around her apartment, which has a rental unit on its roof. She explained that the previous owners had finally decided to divide their living space and make a rental unit out of their large living space, because they found that no one wanted to buy their apartment. “Why would anybody want so much space?” my niece commented.
Many homes have something called an aron avir (an air closet). The door of the closet is flush with the wall of the house, so that the closet itself is actually outside the building and does not take up any of the living space. A common feature in many homes is a freestanding sink in the hallway or dining room, to allow people to wash their hands without going into the bathroom or the kitchen.
An Overseas Wedding
My niece’s wedding was similar in many ways to an American wedding: the picture session before the wedding, the long wait for the chassan and kalla to come out of the yichud room, and the leibidik dancing with very loud music. But some things were different. First of all, although invitations are sent, there were no return cards. The family had no idea how many people would actually come and eat at the wedding. Many people come in just to say mazal tov, not expecting to eat and do not sit down for the meal. I met a former Baltimorean who was in my sister’s class in Bais Yaakov of Baltimore. She came in by bus from Yerushalayim just to say mazal tov and was going to catch the bus back to Yerushalayim, arriving home after midnight. There was no food at the kabalas panim, but extra food was set up on the side during the meal for people who didn’t get a seat at a table. The wedding took place in a huge building that contained several halls. Five or six other weddings were going on at the same time. When we arrived, we noticed a huge billboard with the families’ names in flashing lights to direct guests to the right hall for their simcha.
When it came time for the chupa, the chassan and kalla were led down a flight of stairs to an outside courtyard. In the adjoining courtyard, a few yards away, another chupa was going on at the same time. There was no walking down the aisle with music playing; in fact, there was no aisle at all, and no microphone at the chupa. People just stood around the chupa, which was right next to a busy street corner, with horns honking, passersby strolling along, and the sounds of the other chupas on all sides. Afterwards, I took my mother to an elevator to go back upstairs, and I walked right through the men’s side of someone else’s wedding dinner. It’s a good thing nobody knows me in Bnai Brak!
Something else which was very noticeable is the absence of flies and mosquitoes. In Baltimore we would never leave a window open without a screen. A barbeque or a picnic is always accompanied by flies landing on the food and mosquitoes coming out at dusk. For some reason, that does not seem to be a problem in Bnai Brak. The windows are left wide open, and the only things that fly in sometimes are birds. The birds take a quick look around and fly right out again. Many apartments have porches which are used as rooms, giving the whole home an open airy feeling. At one of the sheva brachos, the table was set for all the children on the porch, the door was left open and everybody went back and forth at will. The weather, even in the winter, is mild, and many families do not have central heating. If it gets too cold, they use space heaters for a few days.
The School Day
The school day is structured very differently in Bnai Brak. My nieces were open-mouthed with astonishment to hear that my daughter comes home from school at 5:15, sometimes 6:15, if she stays late for practice or gemach. The latest the girls in Bnai Brak stay in school is about 2:00 p.m. Every day has a different schedule, but dismissal ranges from 11:45 on Friday to 2:30 on some days. The boys, on the other hand, come home at the same time but then go back in the afternoon. Boys, from about 10 years old, get up at about 6:30 a.m. to walk to school, come home at lunch time and then go back until about 6:30 or 7. I can imagine how difficult this schedule must be for a child who does not like school. Imagine getting him to leave for school twice in one day!
I had another unusual experience, which contributes to the feeling of achdus (unity) and the realization that Bnai Brak is a city of Jews. Very often, sometimes more than once a day, a car with a loudspeaker mounted on top circulates slowing through the streets announcing that someone died and when the funeral will take place. The name of the person and where he or she lived makes it clear whom they are talking about. The loudspeaker is so loud that it can be heard clearly inside apartments.
Getting Used to It
Not all of these differences between Bnai Brak and Baltimore are related to the fact that they are in different countries. People who live in big cities in the United States probably also live in small apartments and take public transportation. But some things are unique to Eretz Yisrael, like the funeral announcements, school schedules, and climate.
I had a wonderful time on my short visit. It was very refreshing to live in a different environment and to spend time with my sisters and nieces and nephews. No matter where you reside, I realized, you get used to the local ways. Each community has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, just because you are used to your independent nine-year-old son coming home from school alone does not mean that you don’t worry if he is a little late. Just because almost everyone trudges up flights of stairs to get to their front door doesn’t mean it is easy. Life in Bnai Brak has its challenges, but families learn to function within the system – just as we learn to live with our never-ending carpools. What seems unusual at first becomes natural if you live in a place long enough.