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Op-Ed: Why Does Naftali Live in the Street?

There is a real threat to our youth.
Published: Tuesday, February 27, 2007 11:07 PM


"Naf" (short for Naftali) was quite young when he started to drift away from the Haredi (religious) world. He came from a typical Haredi family and neighborhood, a successful student in a Talmud Torah school, receiving prizes from his rabbi for memorizing volumes of Mishna. There was no Internet or TV at home, just an inner uneasiness that slowly pushed him into the "margins".

At the beginning, he was in and out of different yeshivas. Later, depression set in, followed by a few unsuccessful attempts to put an end to his confusion via suicide. During Naftali's metamorphosis from ultra-Orthodox to secular Jew, the straw that broke the camel's back, as far as his parents were concerned, was when he came home without the traditional Haredi uniform, earlocks shaved off, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. This was more than his father could deal with, fearing he might be a bad influence on his younger siblings. At only 14 years old, Naftali was beaten by his father and thrown out of his home, told not to return.

At only 14 years old, Naftali was beaten by his father and thrown out of his home, told not to return.

Naftali found himself living on the streets in and around Zion Square in the center of Jerusalem. Sometimes, he rented a place with other youth with money received from Christian missionaries. For pocket money, he stole from the pockets of others or earned cash from drug deals on the street.

Naf's life was filmed for over two years by filmmaker Moshe Alafi, who documented his life and made it into an 80-minute documentary called Naf: A Street Kid. The background music in the film is original music by Naf himself, who has become a bona fide rapper, rhyming simultaneously in both Hebrew, English and Yiddish. In his music, Naf tells the stories of his own misfortune and that of many other kids who live on the street in Jerusalem. They are tales about kids cut off from their families, tales of drug abuse, tales of their battles with the establishment social workers, courts and police, tales of rape and exploitation by sick individuals who take advantage of their miserable situation.

The story of Naf should serve as a wake-up call to parents and educators. Why is Naf and many others like him on the street? If it happened to them, could it not happen to us? He, of course, is just one example and his case shows certain characteristics that might be different in other cases. There are kids on the streets who had good relations with their families, who were successful at school, but for other reasons drifted to the gutter. Why? And what can be done to protect others from falling into the dark pit?

Moshe Alafi's film Naf was viewed by youth and adults in our town and in other towns nearby, in order to serve as an eye opener and to bring forth public debate on this difficult issue. It is not a nice scene - some parts are vulgar and offensive. But it is real and close to us. Some people in the community opposed the viewing of the film, and would rather not be exposed to the sights and voices of the "other side." But others hold that it is better that we and our youth know exactly what the dangers are, in order to protect ourselves from them.

I agree that this is not a fun issue to deal with. Sometimes, it is better to an ostrich that could put one's head in the ground when something scary lies ahead. But we are not ostriches. There is a real threat to our youth and we must deal with it. In order to fight the enemy, we must first acknowledge that there is a problem. In such a case, it is prudent to learn who and what the enemy is.