A blustery day in late-August Bournemouth. The sky is grey. Damp humidity and tentative drizzle jostle for prominence. I stand on the East Cliff, observing the surf crashing on the deserted beach below.
Well, not quite deserted. A black coated, bearded figure carries a baby in a pushchair out across the sand and deposits it close to the sea. Stolidly he returns twice more with beach chairs. Then a modestly-dressed woman, undoubtedly his wife, joins him. They sit down together, gazing at the waves, occasionally checking on the sleeping baby. Wind howls, rain comes and goes, and yet they sit, contemplative, even relaxed.
It’s a curiously subversive sight. One that complicates a simple understanding of who Haredi Jews are and how they behave.
Haredi Jews are commonplace on the East Cliff of Bournemouth during August. It’s a popular place to spend Jewish festivals and the Yeshiva Ben Zmanim. The Normandie Hotel acts as the lodestar to a growing number of guest houses, holiday homes and self-catering apartments. There is a mikvah and minyanim. This year, along with indoor minyanim that may or may not be continuing to be held, there is a marquee erected in a hotel garden on the East Cliff, from which Hassidic melodies emanate morning and evening.
Manor Road and the East Overcliff Drive, which run in parallel, act as promenades, particularly on Shabbat. Aged couples, young family groups and lone bocherim stroll along, not doing very much but clearly enjoying the sea air and the space. The sense of innocent pleasures is magnified by the occasional knots of pre-teen kids, without obvious parental supervision, running and giggling but always conscious of the long parental leash.
The Overcliff is a place that feels safe and wholesome, a kind of shtetl amid the other holiday-makers, residents and day-trippers. In contrast, the Undercliff, which runs directly along the beach, parallel to the Overcliff and connected to it by a zig-zag path, is a more uncertain, ambivalent space.
Haredim stroll along the Undercliff too, but their relationship to it is more complicated. While one can look out over the beach from the Overcliff, the distance is sufficient to blur less welcome sights. In contrast, on the Under-cliff there is no hiding from the half-naked bodies, from things that both tempt and repel.
That isn’t to say that ‘Haredim don’t go to the beach’. It’s more complicated than that. Rather, there is a complex spatial politics that turns the Undercliff and the sand next to it into a zone of ambivalence. Some of those who aren’t walking with children will walk the Undercliff but not sit on the benches, some will sit on a bench a little back from the beach, some will interrupt the journey up the zig-zag path with a rest on the benches situated on the hairpins.
Those who are with their children will sometimes cross the boundary onto the sand itself. Often, it is older unmarried daughters who are delegated to shepherding younger kids. Teenage boys are rarer than teenage girls. Mothers are more common than fathers. Old people are almost unknown.
The boundary between sand and water is another zone of ambivalence. Some groups will confine themselves to playing with buckets and spades in the sand. Others will paddle. Few will swim. Smaller children may strip down to under layers, older ones will remain modestly covered.
Modest dress is, in this time and space, paradoxical. It seeks to both resist the gaze but also attracts it. For a pre-teen girl to wear tights and a skirt on the beach is inevitably a visible, noteworthy act on Bournemouth beach. And at the time time, this is not St Tropez, but one of Britain’s most inclusive and diverse beaches, where the display of perfectly toned, bronzed flesh would also seem absurdly incongruous.
The young Haredi family who braved the wind and rain to sit close to the surf, were simultaneously transgressors of the ambivalent zone and a perfect fit with their surroundings. They eschewed the unwritten Haredi boundaries between Undercliff, beach and sea and insouciantly staked their claim to the space. Yet what could be more British than defiantly gazing out to sea in the rain? At the same time, they were only able to do this because of the lack of British people doing the same. It is precisely because the once-lionhearted natives (grown soft on foreign sunshine) will no longer countenance drizzle, that this Haredi family could re-conquer the space they left behind.
Haredim are not often described as liminal boundary crossers. Rather, they are frequently viewed as absolutes, as defenders of borders between pure and impure. But in the Bournemouth wind and rain I glimpsed another way of understanding Haredi Jewishness: as paradox, as constantly negotiating and re-negotiating what it means to be Jewish, British, and modern.
Still, whatever Haredi Jews are they are visible, they are watched. And other Jews in particular constantly seek to interpret what they see. When my gaze landed on a family on a windswept beach was I seeing an otherness, an exoticism to be explained? Am I ‘Haredisplaining’? Certainly, although I have had many conversations with Haredi Jews, this short essay was written without any input from any of them (least of all with that nameless family).
I like to think that my vision of Haredim as liminal figures might be more faithful to the reality of their existence. In which case, might I be risking not exorcising them but colluding with them? And what might I not be seeing when I see Haredi Jews as unbounded, rather than as enforcers of boundaries?