L IKE The French vacance, when
the whole country seems to shut down, Israeli haredim have their summer break, too.
Bein Hazemanim, the three-week period following the fast of Tisha b’Av and culminating with the start of the penitential month of Elul (roughly late July through mid-August), is the time when everyone who can heads to the country. That means the north, the Galilee, which developed as a vacationers’ paradise in the ‘90s following the Israeli army’s withdrawal from South Lebanon. These days, the area is enjoying a blessed reprieve from Hezbollah rocket fire.
Bein Hazemanim translates as “between the times”; the zemanim meaning yeshiva semesters. Yeshivas are the heart and soul of the religious world, and the entire society, even non-students, moves to their rhythm.
This three-week break, the only vacation during the year that doesn’t coincide with a major holiday, was initiated in the interwar years at the behest of the Lithuanian yeshiva deans who felt that their students needed time to recharge.
In effect, Bein Hazemanim is a month of Sundays, and a silly season for a population that doesn’t allow much levity into its collective life.
Like bygone-era Borscht Belt vacationers, haredim flock to the Kinneret’s rocky beach. Families come laden with baby carriages, diapers and children, the average family having at least five kids, though many have twice that number or more.
Of course, accommodations vary according to budget. Yeshiva boys and the most financially strapped and/or adventuresome families camp out, pitching their tents along the lake’s shores. In the evening one can see them barbecuing meats on an open grill and forming impromptu outdoor minyanim to recite evening prayers.
For those with deeper pockets, there are hotels Lavie and Kinar, the Concord and Grossingers of Israel, with their sprawling grounds, all-you-can-eat banquets, swimming pools, tennis courts and state-of-the-art gyms.
Unlike the Borscht Belt, the style is casual and dressed-down, within the confines of modesty. It isn’t uncommon to see eminent rabbis in shirtsleeves, baseball caps and Crocs.
During the day the pools and the lake fill up with swimmers, the lake turning into a giant outdoor bathtub under the baking sun. For the adventuresome there is hiking along numerous woody trails, kayaking in the Jordan River (with this year’s drought a frustrating endeavor) or ATVing.
Sadly, there are always reports of accidents, occasionally ending in tragedy, which leads conservative elements of the haredi community to demand that this break be eliminated.
Despite this, Bein Hazemanim seems here to stay. For yeshiva students, whose days run from dawn until past midnight, it is a time to rest and build up strength for the next zman (semester). For extended families who live far away in a society in which owning a car is not a norm, a vacation together is precious bonding time when parents and children, grandchildren and children-in-law can enjoy each other’s company.
The hotels offer nightly entertainment — magic shows, jugglers and boys’ choirs, a staple in the Orthodox world where women sing only for other women.
And of course there are roving rabbis who pepper their homilies with stand-up comedy.
As the north was once the nerve center of ancient Israel, tourists flock to the graves of Talmudic-era scholars, including Rabbi Akiva, whose remains are here. Another popular destination is the Rambam’s grave in downtown Tiberias.
While Moses Maimonides died in ancient Fasstat, the Jewish suburb of ancient Cairo, his remains were transported to Tiberias on camelback. According to a legend inscribed on the walls of his gravesite, the camel made his journey in one day flat, shorter than the length of most haredi vacations.
Still, this isn’t France. In haredi circles, vacations are brief, two, three or four days at most — most people can’t afford to stay longer. And all too soon it’s over as a new yeshiva semester begins.