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Jun 16, 2024

Book Review: Careful Beauties Ahead! My Year With The Ultra-Orthodox

Tuvia Tenenbom Searching for Self

By Dr. Harold Goldmeier

Dr. Harold Goldmeier is an Instructor at Touro University, Jerusalem, a small business owner, and writes about finance, social, and political issues. He is a free public speaker for community groups and consults on matters of commerce and industry. He can be reached at harold.goldmeier@gmail.com.




            The crisis between the Ultra-Orthodox and Zionists has the makings of an existential threat to the Jewish state. My review of Tuvia Tenenbom's new book gives remarkable insight into the workings of this community. Tuvia explores and uncovers segments of the Ultra- Orthodox each following their own rabbi. He reveals the good and the bad, contributions to a civil society and narcissistic gangsterism. Tuvia focuses on individuals, one on one, as he seeks to revive memories of youth.


            Tuvia Tenenbom’s newly released book in English, Careful Beauties Ahead! My Year With The Ultra-Orthodox (Gefen Publishing House, 2024) is the latest in his oeuvre of witty creative nonfiction. The book is a mix of social anthropology and memoir. Throughout his labyrinthine storytelling, this reader was captivated by Tuvia’s encounters with clandestine Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects usually viewed as one large community. They are not all alike.  They do not observe Jewish law alike, share loyalties to the same rabbis, the women are not all Stepford wives, and some adults live on the brink of walking out of the community.

            Tuvia brashly encounters Ultra-Orthodox men and women on the streets, in their schools, synagogues, and homes to regenerate his youthful memories.  His roots are among the Ultra-Orthodox. Tuvia was born, raised, and educated as one of them for his first 17 years. He dressed in black and spent days and nights learning Torah. Tuvia left everything behind for adventures in the secular world; he forged a life in journalism and literature, watching the beauties on the streets while fressing in European and American cafés.  Tuvia achieved the renown and the pleasure he was after. But his fond memories from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, home to the Ultra-Orthodox, were indelible.

            Now he tries to go home in search of roots and community. Tuvia immerses himself for a year among the Ultra-Orthodox. The book is packed with Tuvia’s insights and revelations. We learn a lot about Tuvia but more about the lives and organization of the Ultra-Orthodox. Doors open for Tuvia because of his arcanum, affability, and fluency in ancient Yiddish, the first language of the Ultra-Orthodox. He finds the people friendly and generally happy with their lives; their bellies are full of delicious homemade traditional European Jewish foods made by grateful wives who get pleasure from their roles. Looking back, Tuvia ruminates, “These kids of Mea Shearim, who sometimes look like tough kids, are awesomely sweet.” 

Know They Enemy

            Angry secularists hate the Ultra-Orthodox but will gain insights from Tuvia’s 551-page book. Enemies see the Ultra-Orthodox as block voters who portray themselves as victims of the secularists (Zionists) trying to drive Godliness out of them. Ultra-Orthodox generally reject modernism, secular education, most technology, and any language other than old-world Yiddish. Independent thinking is forbidden.

            He explores how some in the community despise the government, the IDF, and the police. They fear a Satanic cabal is trying to persuade the Ultra-Orthodox to become secularists by threatening to cut off yeshiva subsidies, force religious children to spend time on secular studies, speak Hebrew, chastise religious men to work for a living where they will mix with non-religious people in workplaces, on trains, and buses and be enticed away from Torah study.

            Drafting Ultra-Orthodox students into the military is to force them to forsake their Godly ways and beliefs. They would rather die at the hands of Jew haters and the Zionists if that is God’s decree.

            Tuvia writes, “Jews have been saved from total annihilation, they taught me,” by not forsaking Yiddish, black and white clothes, keeping the Sabbath, and believing their rabbis speak with and sometimes holier than God’s word. While not everyone believes to the extreme of many Ultra-Orthodox that “Zionists are not Jews,” the larger community acquiesces and remains silent. Extreme believers garner gravitas and chutzpa from the silent majority who fear for their personal safety, ex-communication, having their children outcast from schools, and daughters and wives shunned.

            About 130 of Israel’s economists and 73 professors released a letter in May characterizing Haredim as an existential threat to Israel. Haredim scantily contribute to the nation’s economy and its military defense.  “There are no dogs…And no Progressives” in this community.

            It is important to understand the Ultra-Orthodox because they hold political sway, more or less, over the governments of Israel, the U. S., and the UK. They have extraordinary influence in Russia, Eastern European capitals, and several South American political machines.   Second, Haredim, the fur and black-hatted, white shirt, black coat, and black suit-wearing men, and their shadowy, enshrouded women are the fastest growing segment of the Jewish people in every country.     

            Are these the same people Tuvia left behind? Tuvia is amazed four decades later at the political noise and headlines from the Ultra-Orthodox. They launch street protests, turn out by the tens of thousands for funerals of their great rabbis, and are astute at raising millions of shekels to build elaborate houses of worship, live in splendorous homes, and operate an extensive, worldwide network of charitable and money-lending organizations. Nefarious acts Tuvia relates that happen in every community are covered up because “the media in Israel is very weak” and Haredim “have all the money in the world” to sue.



            His story in Careful Beauties Ahead! is to rejewvinate the sights, sounds, smells, and religious banter he loved as a child. Nostalgia is a desire but not enough of a motivator for Tuvia to live permanently among them. His book is laced with love even as he peels back some ugly and criminal sore spots given cover by the rabbis.     

            His waywardness, i.e., off the derech, was in part due to their sensible philosophies and arguments that led Ultra-Orthodox “to reach the most ridiculous of conclusions.”  For instance, as a teen, Tuvia “demanded to know (from his rabbis) why he was not allowed to look at women.” He was told only infidels look at women. Satan must be inside him; some sects believe that man’s desires are inspired by the Satanic wiles of females. One sect allows martial relations once a month, primarily to satisfy the wives and keep men’s focus on the Torah.   

            Tuvia’s greatest accomplishments come forward when he uses his knowledge of Torah and Talmud and Yiddish to get male and female Haredim to speak with him and answer his poignant intrusive questions. Quite a feat. But that is meaningless without Tuvia’s gift of great storytelling.


Despite the headwinds, “98 percent of Haredim report being satisfied with their lives, higher than any other segment of the society, and only 11 percent of them say that they feel lonely…” And this is true of the women as well.

            Tuvia is a Zionist but “The Haredim are my family, whether I want it or not, whether they want it or not. The umbilical cords of our grandmothers attach us, and we can’t separate.”

             “When I started the journey, I was filled with memories of the sweet boy I once was and thought he had died long ago, forever gone. Today, I know a little better. That boy has never gone…” nor is the sense of community. But now home is in the European cafés and the secular world.














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