Haredi Jews is the general term used today for extremely religious Jews who in one way or another continue to distance themselves from many aspects of modern life. Haredi is best translated as something like “God Fearing” although in English many use the term Ultra Orthodox to describe them. There are many different groups and sub-groups of Haredi Jews but their style of dress, largely black and white in colour, reflecting the dress styles of the pre-modern world, tends to mark them out as clearly distinct. Haredi Jews like to see themselves as the straight continuation of pre-modern Jews, continuing as much as possible a traditional unchanging way of life that they believe has characterized Jews for millennia. In fact, many historians and academic scholars tend to question this. They suggest that the Haredi is to a large extent a kind of Jew who developed in the last two centuries, continuing (as previously) an absolute commitment to Halacha but adding to this a defensive reaction against modernity which makes most Haredi Jews a more extreme version of the pre-modern Jews who were often tolerant and open to cultural aspects of the world around them.
There are three major kinds of Haredi Jews.
Hassidut was a mystical movement which attracted many thousands of followers from the early 19th century, mostly in the southern parts of the large Jewish community in Eastern Europe especially in Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine and Romania. It developed around a group of charismatic Rabbis, each of whom attracted his own following. These became defined groups within the Hassidic world and still tend to go by the names of the places where they developed in Europe. There are dozens of such groups today, some of them very big with tens of thousands of followers while other groups are relatively small. Hassidic Jews as a whole tend to emphasize joy in their attempt to experience God’s presence.
Also Known as Lithuanians or “Mitnagdim” (“Opponents” of Hassidi)
These are Haredim who originate in Eastern Europe but who were opposed to Hassidut. They believe(d) that Hassidim put too much emphasis on the mystical idea of trying to reach or experience God rather than learning through study what God demanded from them in terms of day to day practice; that is why one of their names is the “opponents”. The emphasis for all members of this group is traditional textual learning of God’s law (as transmitted by the Rabbinic tradition). Torah study (for men) is seen as a divinely mandated act of Judaism and as such plays a very central part of daily life. In Eastern Europe, where the big study centres (Yeshivot) developed, the central area of this outlook was Lithuania in the north. Thus they are often called Lithuanians. The truth is that with time, learning has become more central in most of the Hassidic movement so that some of what separated Hassidim from Mitnagdim is no longer so relevant. Nevertheless, they see themselves as very different groups who from one point of view are both part of the same Haredi world, with common interests, but from other points of view are quite separate from each other.
Sephardi (Spanish) Haredim
This is a relatively new phenomenon in the Haredi world which dates back only a generation or two. These are Jews whose families originate not in Europe but in different Arab countries in North Africa or Asia and who (mostly in Israel) were drawn to the Yeshivot of the Lithuanians and came under their influence, in so doing adopting a Jewish identity that drew as much from European Haredi tradition as from the communities in which they originated. Many call themselves “Sepharadim” or Spanish because their communities tended to come under the cultural influence, and often leadership, of Spanish Jewish scholars who made their home in Arab countries after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the Middle Ages. By no means all Sepharadi Jews are Haredi. Those that have taken on Haredi Judaism are only a minority of Jews from Arab countries but they are a recognizable sub group of the Haredi world. Maybe add a sentence or two about the political parties?
There are variations in dress codes between each of these groups, indeed within the groups themselves but colours are sober, and the dominant colours are black and white. This is especially for men, who will usually cover their heads with black cotton or velvet kippot (small round covers for the back part of the head) or with hats, while women will tend to cover all of their heads so that virtually none of their natural hair is showing.
Before the 2nd World War and the Holocaust, the centre of the Haredi world was Eastern Europe but those centres were almost completely destroyed by the combination of the Holocaust and Communism. Today Israel is the major centre of Haredi Judaism but there is another centre in parts of the United States and in addition there are smaller groups in a number of major western cities.
It is important to mention that parts of the Haredi world, still identifiable as Haredi and self-identifying as such, are moving towards a whole series of more open positions and have begun in the last few years to be called Modern Haredim. One of the mistakes that is often made by many observers, including many Israeli Jews, is a failure to recognize the considerable differences within the Haredi world and to identify all Haredim as similar (and to stereotype them according to the more extreme positions that are represented). The truth is that there is a great deal of change in the Haredi world and among the changes in parts of this world is the willingness of a considerable number of sub-groups, to open up to aspects of the modern world, each sub-group in its own way and at its own pace. However, it is also true to say that large numbers in the group which rapidly grows due to high birth rates, remain extremists in their attempts to keep modernity at bay and in so doing, to be prepared to confront the authorities of the modern Israeli state which many of them see as an illegitimate bastardization of the concept of a Jewish state.