Tuvia Tenenbom

Tuvia Tenenbom greets me sitting in the shady garden private garden off his suite at the landmark Tzefania Hotel (opened in 1947) in a secluded Mea She’arim street. He is wearing the regulatory haredi outfit of white shirt and black pants, but no jacket, his suspenders visible, and his signature red-rimmed glasses advertising that he is something of an outsider.

In lightly accented English, he engages me in conversation while his wife, Isi, makes me a “botz with hel” (Turkish coffee with cardamon) and breaks out the custard-filled and overly-delicious rugelach, the succulent grapes, and the Slivovitz which will go down among hearty l’chaims at the end of the interview. Isi not only makes great coffee, she also runs the business side of being an author, and is the entreprise’s official photographer and was second camera on the their movie, God Speaks Yiddish.

 “I always wondered what the secret of the French restaurant was,” Tenenbom remarks as we wait.

“Every French restaurant you go to, the food is amazing, and so I investigated the secret of French cuisine.”

Tuvia Tenenbom
Tuvia Tenenbom

“The secret,” he says, “is in the small portions. They give you very little, so you always want to go back for more.”

Tuvia Tenenbom (center) is seen alongside some haredi fans. (credit: ISI TENENBOM)

After recently spending an entire year living in Mea She’arim, where they found themselves on October 7, the Tenneboms are back in Jerusalem for the English publication of Careful, Beauties Ahead, a few weeks ahead of the US launch. His books are bestsellers in many countries, he says. “Sometimes, my books will be rejected ‘for ideological reasons,’ they want me to put down the Israelis or the haredim or whatever.

“The book about Britain, The Taming of the Jew, was not supposed to be about Jews,” he says. “It was supposed to be about Brexit and English theater, but it became about the Jews because you walk in the street and you ask young people what they think, and I expected them to say ‘Brexit, yes’ and ‘Brexit no,’ and they said: ‘Free Palestine!’”

“Everywhere you go, ‘Free Palestine.’ I go to the Apple store, and in front are big Palestine flags with people who stand there for hours – even before this war. 

“So at the end of the day, almost everyone talks about the Jews – almost all the time negatively, so in the end I found that my book was about antisemitism. 

“I find Britain to be one of the most antisemitic countries in the world.” With that pronouncement, he moves on geographically. 

“Like in Germany, I didn’t expect to write about antisemitism, I wanted to write about all the German ladies who go to the beach in their bikinis. I wanted very much to write that book because it would have been very interesting,” he says, dead pan. “But it turned into a book about antisemitism.”

The same thing, he says, “with the book about America. I did not expect to go around and see so much antisemitism. So these books basically tell you, and Catch the Jew obviously, these books are a lot about antisemitism, so for me and for Isi, since we met and talked to the people, all the things that are happening now, the antisemitism in the world is totally not new.”

Before, he says, “People talked about these things quietly, now it’s totally out in the open. Ordinarily, I would not have expected it. And it has driven me to write the books that I have ended up writing,

And what about this one?

“I said, if we are going to write a book about haredim, let’s live in Mea She’arim, so I asked some people, some of them religious, some even haredi: ‘Can you recommend a place in Mea She’arim?’

“And they said: ‘Tuvia, are you out of your mind?

‘If you go to Mea She’arim, the first evening they will come to your window and say, “Koifer, infidel! Get out!” and throw stones at you.’

“And I said to myself: ‘Ok, I am a journalist, I will make sure that the stones don’t get into my eyes; I have glasses, Baruch Hashem! Ok, it’s not comfortable to have stones thrown at you, but I will do it, and then I will really give it to the haredim! I will really put them down the way they deserve!’ Which will justify why I left them when I was quite, quite young  – of course I’m still young – when I was very young.

“And it ended up totally differently. Amazingly differently, so I ended up with a book that praises the haredim – of course there is awesome criticism also, it’s not a propaganda book. 

So, how did the haredi world respond to you?

“After my book was published, one of the rebbes told me, ‘You came here, you stayed a long time with us, and you told me that you liked us. And now your book came out and it turns out that not only do you like us, you also love us.’

“I go around here, everyone knows I am not religious, it’s not a secret here. And when I talk to people, not only do they answer me and talk to me, they also approach me, they invite us for Shabbat, they invite us for all sorts of occasions, we are totally ‘open house’ here.

“They feel that I treat them as normal people, I even interviewed rebbes! Probably, I am one of the first journalists that the rebbes have given interviews to. 

“I asked the Toildos [Toledot] Aharon Rebbe, who is very extreme: ‘What happens if a hiloni (secular Jew) comes to your shul?’

“The answer was: ‘If he comes to fight, then what can I do? But if he doesn’t come to fight, what kind of question is this? We are all Jews.’

“This is not what you would expect if you read the media. They have the worst PR,” Tenenbom says.

“You have to realize that when you say that something is ‘extreme’ or that something is ‘different,’ that this is a relationship measurement. When you say somebody is extreme this means that he is far removed from you. It also means that you are far removed from him since the distance between the two of you is the same. In other words: If he is extreme to you – you are extreme to him. This is the first thing we have to understand.

The day before, one of Tenenbom’s Mea She’arim acquaintances had invited him to go to Tel Aviv to have cholent. “And we went and had cholent in a little shul, and came back laughing all the way.” 

“The haredim don’t impose. They do say, ‘I am lucky that my neighbors are not a hiloni because otherwise they could have the music on, on Shabbat or be playing football in the patio on Shabbat, and I would like my children to grow up that Shabbes is Shabbes.

“I never heard anyone say, ‘I want everyone to be haredi.’ They are not missionaries,” concludes Tenenbom. 

An accidental side effect of his book, he says, is that people on the Left are starting to see the haredim in a different light.

Isi pours the Slivovitz from a glass bottle with a picture of a plum.

“L’chaim!”

“Gut Shabbes!”■



 





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