What would you do to avoid debt collectors? There are lots of interesting stories of people and populations throughout the ages who changed some part of their identity to avoid debt but few who persisted in these changes after the debt was fulfilled. One such population still lives in Jerusalem today.
One striking thing that is noticed by many tourists in Jerusalem is that people in the holy city dress differently. Each group of people can be identified by their garb, whether one is a Franciscan monk, an religious hijab-wearing Moslem, or a Hasidic Jew, clothing serves to identify you. I often explain that everyone dresses to fit into a social group; even if you think you are sporting the most bland western fashion possible, you are fitting into a particular social group. Some Jerusalemites’ clothing, however, stems from a time when they wished to blend in to a different group.
Over 200 years ago, Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid travelled throughout his native Poland urging other Jews to join him to bring the redemption of the Jewish people through aliyah – moving to the Land of Israel. Throughout history, Jews have longed to return to Israel and the glorious days of old. The idea of redemption is a core principal of Judaism. How exactly that return and redemption will occur, however, has changed through time. Part of the new ideas espoused by Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid and others of his time was that the actions of people can have an impact in the divine plan.
Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid arrived in Jerusalem on October 14, 1700 with 1,000 Jews from Eastern Europe. They went about acquiring land for a synagogue and hiring local Arab builders. Jerusalem then housed 1,200 Jews, so the arrival of Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid and his loyal followers almost doubled the Jewish population of the city. Not only were they newcomers, the new arrivals were all Ashkenazim (from Western Europe) as opposed to the large majority of Sephardic Jews (from Arabic-speaking countries) who had different customs and outlooks.
Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid died on October 24, 1700, leaving behind a disenfranchised population and massive debt. Interest compounded and the Sephardic Jews refused to support or bail out the Ashkenazim. Finally, in 1720 the local Arab creditors broke into the synagogue, set it on fire and took over the area. (This led to the synagogue being known as the Hurva – ruin, a name which survives until today.) The Ashkenazi population of the city was collectively held responsible and driven out of town.
The idea of the redemption including resettling the ancient land did not die, but only gathered steam. Even in non-Hasidic groups in Europe, the idea took hold. The illustrious Rabbi from Vilna, Rabbi Elijah Solomon Zalman, known as HaGra, believed that redemption would not be a one-time event but rather a gradual process. He looked to the past, to the time of the return to Zion after the destruction of the First Temple, for inspiration and said that Jews should move to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem. He did not merit to leave Europe, but his disciples, inspired by his teachings, came in the early 19th century after HaGra died. They found the 100 year-old ban barring Ashkenazi Jews from Jerusalem still in effect.
Rabbi Abraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref, a student of HaGra was among those who came. In order not to be recognized as Ashkenazim, they wore striped kaftans “zebra coats”- like the Arabs and the Sefardim. They lived “undercover” in Jerusalem, posing as Sephardic Jews, until 1836 when Rabbi Tzoref succeeded in resolving the debt and opening the door for Ashkenazim to live in the city.
Sephardic Jews mostly abandoned the kaftan in modern times, reserving it only for high religious authorities. The followers of HaGra, however, kept the “traditional” gowns, even in light of the new reality. Even today, the Neturei Karta community in Jerusalem, who see themselves as followers of HaGra, as well as some Hasidic communities keep the traditional “zebra” coats as their daily dress. It seems that the debt-dodging garb, if worn long enough, has become part of their identity.