“Being a man was about being tough, not backing down”: Rappers, Hasids, Sabras, and the Battle for the Future of Jewish Israeli Male Identity

Avi Blitz

From the Middle Ages, when Jewish men were accused of menstruating, to the nineteenth-century age of emancipation, when the Jews’ fitness for military service was a topic of serious public debate, the notion that Jewish men differ from Gentile men has deep roots in European history.

Zionism sought to alter forever the image of the Jewish male. Max Nordau (1849-1923) was an early Zionist and a proponent of muscular Judaism, the idea that Jews should be corporeally strong. He believed that antisemitism was in some way a blessing to the Jews: it would inspire them to go to Palestine, work the land, and become real men.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews reject the Zionist ideal of masculinity. Among the various sects of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in modern Israel, from staunchly anti-Zionist Neturei Karta Haredim to missionizing Lubavitch Hasidim, attitudes towards the Jewish State and its ideals range from out-and-out hatred to quiet tolerance. While Zionists chose to be Apollonian, the ultra-Orthodox remained Dionysian. But the borders between secular and religious attitudes towards masculinity are not clear cut. Modern secular Israeli literature is replete with male characters questioning their ability to live up to Zionist ideals. And in the Orthodox world, the close geographic proximity to mainstream Israeli society causes men to think about their identities in ways that threaten long-held beliefs and closely-guarded traditions.

Born in Bnei Barak, Yakov Eisental is a twenty-nine-year-old Slonim Hasid who works as an editor at Ha’aretz’s The Marker magazine on Schocken Street in south Tel Aviv. Every day he makes the five-mile journey between one world, that of Yiddish-speaking Israeli Hasidism, to another, the ultra-secular leftist oasis of the offices of Ha’aretz. Wearing a flat cap, with his peyes, or sidelocks, pinned behind his ears, Yakov politely refused to eat or drink anything at the café near his workplace where we met: he was concerned that they didn’t have the correct hekhsher, kosher certificate. Pale, blue-eyed, with a thick blonde beard that added several years to his youth, Yakov spoke to me in Hebrew about the differences between the ideal secular Israeli man and masculinity in the Hasidic world.

“There’s no ideal of the strong man in Hasidic circles,” Yakov began as he placed a cigarette between his lips, “The ideal Hasid is soft, gentle, he’s not a macho man. Men like that are not respected in our society,” he said. “For the Hasidim, the macho Israeli male is ugly and rude. There’s a lot of talk about eydlkeyt, dignity, in our community: se past nisht, se past yo, what you can do, and what you can’t do. Everything has to be eydl.”

Yakov described what eydlkeyt meant to him. Men in breeches and white socks constitute the height of male eydelkeyt. Yakov also talked about the concept of malkhesdikeyt, from the Hebrew word for royalty. While in the secular world, men are supposed to have a firm handshake, men in the Hasidic community press hands weakly when they meet. While a secular Israeli man is supposed to be sun-bronzed from outdoor work, the ideal Hasidic man is pale, as though he were a nobleman who’d been kept indoors his entire life.

“We generally don’t discuss definitions of masculinity,” said Yakov, “the differences are so well defined already. You don’t even need to talk about it. It’s a traditional community, and the roles of men and women are just different. It’s very clear what masculinity and femininity are. Labels and definitions, they’re things that come from the outside world, where you can choose. There is no choice in the Hasidic world. A woman needs to be modest, to be a mother, a wife, to bring up children; a man needs to learn Torah, and in many cases, earn the bread. Among the Hasidim, it’s quite clear that the man needs to work, unless he’s really good at studying.”

Though everyone I interviewed for this article stressed the importance of ultra-Orthodox men working to provide for their families, the statistics tell a different story. Last year’s State of the Nation Report from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel showed rapidly growing unemployment among ultra-Orthodox men in Israel. While 15.9% of ultra-Orthodox men were unemployed in 1979, today the figure hovers around 64%, with the highest rates of unemployment in Jerusalem, where 70% of ultra-Orthodox men are without work. 1 1 Regev, Eitan, ‘Patterns of Haredi Integration into the Labor Market: An Inter- and Multi-Sector Analysis and Comparison’ in Avi Weiss (ed.), State of the Nation Report: Society, Economy and Policy in Israel, (Jerusalem: Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, 2017), p. 117 While employment rates among ultra-Orthodox men have been in constant decline over the past forty years, figures show more and more ultra-Orthodox women participating in the Israeli workforce. On the subject of employment, the gap between the ideal and the reality is broader than a Hasid’s brimmed hat.

I asked Yakov how gender roles are taught in the Israeli Hasidic community.

“In women’s seminaries, there are always lots of shi’urim, classes, on how women are supposed to behave,” he began, “They teach women that they have to fulfil their husbands’ needs. There are lots and lots of talks on this. But there are no such shi’urim on masculinity in the yeshivot, the boys’ schools.”

There are four state educational systems in Israel: secular, religious-nationalist, ultra-Orthodox, and Arab. Part of the legacy of the British Mandate period, during which time there was no centralized education authority, ramified schooling in Israel today poses obvious problems. While critics of the system have focused on differences in the ways national identity, citizenship, and preparedness for work are imparted in Israeli schools, there is also a dearth of oversight when it comes to teaching children interpersonal skills.

“Men are not prepared for relationships. Among Hasidic men, no one speaks about women at all. Women speak about their roles as women, but men don’t speak about their roles as men. For Hasidim, it’s forbidden to speak about women, about marriage, it’s forbidden to mention it because it isn’t modest.”

Yakov told me that speaking about sexuality in religious schools is a big no-no. “The moment you enter the yeshiva, you can feel the sexual energy,” Yakov said, “But nobody speaks about women, nobody speaks about sex, but all these kids are hitting puberty. They all hit puberty, and no one knows what to do with it. Not only that, no one tells them what they’re going through. No one even tells you what sex is.”

I asked Yakov when he first found out about sex.

“Usually there is someone, some kid who tells you at a certain age that such things exist. They told me at the age of nine. But when I got to yeshiva there were a lots of kids that didn’t know. The really pious Hasidim, the ones that live in really closed societies, they don’t know what sex is until the moment they get married. So they go through puberty without knowing anything.

“They tell you that there are lusts and that you have to avoid them. They tell you not to eat things that taste too nice, they tell you to protect your body, to stay away from girls. I had no idea why they were telling me to stay away from girls. My sisters-in-law were like my best friends. I didn’t feel that boys really understood me, but with girls it was different. I could talk to the girls about things that really interested me. I didn’t understand why I suddenly had to stay away from them. It’s strange, once you hit adulthood, you realize they were speaking to you in euphemisms the whole time.”

I asked Yakov if anyone ever rebels.

“It happens, of course. Everyone goes through teenage years. In really closed communities, children don’t really go through that stage. They might reach it later. They work hard in school, they get on well, and then, suddenly, at the age of twenty-five, they discover that there’s a world outside. Suddenly they go through their teenage-rebellion stage at the age of twenty-five when they have wives and children.”

Most people that leave the Hasidic community are in their early twenties, and are known in Hebrew as datlashim, an acronym of dati le-she-avar, previously religious. Twenty-six-year-old Eli Benedict grew up in the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic community in Bnei Barak and left religion six years ago. Eli has a broad smile and kind, bright eyes. We spoke in Yiddish, his mother tongue, about the challenges of coming into secular Israeli society from the Hasidic world. Eli is a gentle character, quite unlike the ideal Israeli warrior, a stereotype he recognizes well.

“That army bridershaft, fraternity,” he said, “it just doesn’t speak to me. Actually it repulses me. It seems like a lack of intelligence. Israeli men are not sensitive. They strike me as wild animals. And what is it that they do they do together? What do men do together? They go to the pub, they drink beer, they go to a game and watch people hitting each other, or people running up and down a field chasing a stupid ball. What do men do?”

Under the economically liberalizing policies of recent governments, Israel has certainly become far more of an individualistic society than it traditionally was, but the image of military fraternity, immortalized in the photography of Adi Nes, remains strong in the collective subconscious. For Israeli ex-Hasidim, who typically haven’t served in the military, entering a society of Israeli army alumni can be daunting at best. Eli clings to a specific stereotype of secular Israeli men. He avoids them and finds friends in other circles.

“In the secular world, men who seem interested in different things are often gay. Gay men speak about interesting things, they speak about fashion, they speak about movies, they’re a little bit like girls... So with girls and gay men, there’s always something to talk about.”

Eli explained that his attitude towards secular Israeli men comes from his upbringing: “The sabra,” he said, referring to the image of the prickly pear that is so often used to describe the typical Israeli, hard on the outside and soft on the inside, “that image comes from secular society. We don’t have that ideal in the religious world. I grew up with a different image of men. When men are strong, they study texts. Strength is in the mind.”

I asked Eli if he still feels Hasidic, even though he left the Hasidic world.

“I am a Hasid. Even today. I don’t believe that hasidut is a religious thing. Hasidut is also something psychological. It’s spiritual. It has nothing to do with keeping the mitzvot and studying Torah. There are Hasidim who don’t follow halakhah, Jewish law, but they still go to the rebbe, the Hasidic spiritual leader, once a year. I think hasidut can be separated from religion.”

Though Eli strives to integrate his Hasidic history into his new, secular identity, he remains an outsider in his home community.

“My mother always says, ‘You haven’t changed. You’re still the same Eli. One day you’ll come back’. That’s what my mother always says.” He paused before adding, “My father doesn’t speak to me.”

Eli left a wife and child in the Hasidic world. There is little separation between religion and the state in Israel, and the law often favors religious parents in custody proceedings. Eli hesitated before talking to me about his son. It was clearly an extremely painful subject for him.

“I don’t see him,” he told me when I asked if he has any contact. “It’s painful, yes, but maybe it’s better that the whole thing is far away from my heart. It’s better for him this way, better than fighting with his mother all the time. It’s better for both sides—for him and for me.” Eli paused. He looked pensive. “He’s growing up so far away from me, in such a different world to the one I inhabit. He’s frum and I’m fray,” said Eli, “He’s religious and I’m not. He wouldn’t be able to have a normal childhood if there was contact. His mother would persuade him against me, and he wouldn’t want to come and see me anyway. It would be so problematic. It’s better he doesn’t know that he has a second father. When he’s a bit older,” Eli said, “When he’s 18. Maybe he’ll understand. Maybe.”

I asked Eli what the biggest challenges were for him, coming from the Hasidic world and entering the Israeli one.

“Friends,” Eli said, without hesitation. “In the first two or three years after leaving, you have no one. You have to leave everyone behind. If you stay in touch, people try to bring you back. They call you, they message you, they come and see you. There’s a lot of pressure. If you leave, you have to leave everyone, you have to cut everyone off. When you do that, you’re absolutely alone. You don’t know anyone.”

In Israel, the journey from religion to secularism is a solitary one. Wayfarers find themselves walking a tightrope over a pit of drugs, prostitution, and other social dangers. Though there are success stories, like Eli’s, others, who are not mentioned here, are not so lucky. Not-for-profit organizations like Uvaharta, Yotsey Leshinui, and Hillel (ha-irgun leyotsim le-she’ela), try to help ex-religious people transition into secular society. There are also smaller organizations that deal in more niche areas: Shirat ha-lev, for instance, provides housing for young unmarried girls in Jerusalem. Generally, however, there is far more assistance for people moving towards religion than away from it, and a lot more work needs to be done to protect vulnerable young people leaving the Hasidic world.

I asked Eli what he hoped to find in secular Tel Aviv.

“I don’t know what I was looking for. But I wanted to look for something. And in the frum world, I couldn’t look for anything. I am just interested in everything. If I discover something that interests me, I’ll pursue it to the ends of the earth. We only live once.”

Eli’s first language is Yiddish, but in his day-to-day life he uses more Hebrew than mame-loshn. I asked Eli which language feels most his own.

“Both,” he said, “Until the age of nine I only spoke Yiddish. Hebrew came later. But in Hebrew I know a lot more words, miktso’ot words.” (Eli used the Hebrew word for ‘professional’). “Even now I use the word professional in Hebrew because I can’t think of the word in Yiddish. I’m sure there is one, and if I thought about it I’d find it, but it doesn’t come easily. When I speak about technical things, it’s easier to go into Hebrew because I know the language better. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about artistic things in Yiddish. I never spoke about artistic things in Yiddish when I was religious. I never had to think about how cars worked when I was frum. Today I can speak about those things.”

In Israel, Yiddish is only spoken by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the narrowness of their educational and professional Weltanschauung has clear consequences for the richness of their language. I wondered if Eli felt his vocabulary was smaller in Yiddish than in Hebrew.

“I understand everything I hear in Yiddish, but many times it’s easier to capture my thoughts in Hebrew. I can say more in Hebrew.”

Two years ago, Eli began dating a Canadian girl who recently graduated from a doctoral program in Yiddish linguistics at UCL. She and Eli communicate in Yiddish. I wondered what the differences were between dating in Hebrew and dating in Yiddish.

“I like it,” said Eli, “It’s warmer, more heymish. When I speak Yiddish I have nice feelings. It’s my mother tongue. I spoke it growing up. It’s connected to childhood memories. It’s closer to my heart. I think in Yiddish. I count in Yiddish. Sometimes I worry that she doesn’t know the side of me that speaks Hebrew. Sometimes I think there’s a part of me that she doesn’t know. For instance, I write poetry in Hebrew, and she can’t read it. I can translate it, but it won’t be the same.”

I asked Eli how his relationships were different with secular Israeli women.

“I was able to express myself better in Hebrew, and because of that my previous relationships were perhaps more sophisticated in a way. But they weren’t as warm. They were colder. I mean, I could speak about things in Hebrew that I can’t speak about in Yiddish. There was a certain meeting of minds with Hebrew-speaking women. When you’re deep in conversation and you just have the language to easily reach those crevices of the mind, it’s fun. It might not satisfy the heart, but it satisfies the intellect.”

As our meeting drew to a close, I asked Eli a final question: what does he miss about his old life?

“So many things,” he said wistfully, “the dancing, the shabes tishn, the Friday-night dinners, and the innocence.”

Innocence is very highly valued in the community. The strong man in the Hasidic world is the posheter yid, the simple Jew. It is always possible to ask questions, but for Hasidim, fortitude lies in controlling one’s curiosity.

“Once you begin to learn about the world,” said Eli, “you can never go back. You can never retrieve that innocence. An innocent person can stay innocent, but an educated man cannot unlearn everything he knows. The optimism, the naïveté, the togetherness, those are the ideals of Hasidic masculinity, knowing that everything will be OK in the end, trying to be strong, trying to be good, singing songs, striving to be happy. Trakht gut, vet zayn gut, think good thoughts and good things will happen, you don’t need any more than that. That’s something you lose when you leave.”

Eli was so candid about his life. I asked him if he really didn’t mind me using the stories he’d told me.

“This is who I am,” he concluded, “I’m not ashamed of who I am.”

Nissim Black made the opposite journey to that of Eli Benedict. Born in 1986 in Seward Park, a mixed African-American and Jewish neighborhood in the southern part of Seattle, Nissim grew up surrounded by the culture of gangster rap and hip-hop. In the early noughties, Nissim embarked on a career in music.

Nis­sim Black­’s rap career start­ed in the sec­u­lar world, with tracks like Get Loose” (2006).

In the late 2000s, Nissim discovered Judaism and, together with his wife, his sister-in-law, and his sister-in-law’s husband, Nissim’s best friend, he began the process of conversion. Nissim and his family moved to Israel in 2016. His wife’s sister and her husband followed soon after. Today he lives on Strauss, the road that runs between the Downtown Triangle, the center of the modern city of Jerusalem, and Mea She’arim Road, a hub of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life that bustles with black hats and brokhes. Much has been reported on Nissim’s fascinating life already, though he has never been asked to reflect on how masculinity is performed differently in the various worlds he’s inhabited.

Nissim and I met at a bakery near his home. An old religious woman from South America served us coffee in a the narrow seating area at the back of the pastry shop. On the table next to us, a pale, young Ashkenazi woman in a sheytl, or wig, tended to her screaming toddler while her other children enjoyed rugelakh. Nissim looked larger than life, squeezed between our tiny table and the back wall. He wore a black suit, a black hat, and a white shirt, the same uniform he wears whether he’s strolling down the street or singing on a stage. He said a blessing in Hebrew before taking a sip of hot, black coffee, Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, by Whose word all things come to be. Nissim and I spoke in English.

“I think that the way we grew up, especially in the neighborhood I grew up in, being a man was about making money, and not always in a legal way. Being a man was about being tough, not backing down, you know? It was the street mentality.”

Typically, masculinity is concerned with power. In urban America, where diverse ethnic communities compete for economic, intellectual, or political dominance, prejudice often takes the form of violence or the formation of gangs. Subordination to the hegemony of white masculinity is frequently the cause of feelings of alienation among young black men. Concern with masculinity is at the root of rap music, which strives to “rebel against schools and institutions that represent standards of middle-class suburban propriety.” 2 2 Andrews, Matthew, ‘Gangs’ in Brett Carroll (ed.), American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia, (Thousand Oaks CA & London UK: Sage Publications LTD, 2003), p. 186

Nissim mentioned an exception: “There’s no one like Jay-Z. I never listened to Jay-Z and felt violent afterwards. I would listen to Jay-Z, and he would always take me to a place of, of thinking very big, you understand what I’m saying? Whether it was financial success, whether it was about getting out of the hood, mentally or whatever... Even today, from what I can see—and I don’t see a lot—it seems he’s even more that type of role model, at least for young African-American men.”

Nissim initially struggled to balance his faith with his music.

“For a long time my relationship to music was one of, you know, being famous, chasing the money, you know what I mean? It’s the tam, the taste of that culture: I was around friends, good people, with good intentions, but it’s a completely different life to the one I’m living now.” Nissim considered staying in the music scene, but worried about how to maintain his Jewishness: “It’s not an environment that’s conducive to living a Torah lifestyle. I was full of fear because of that. The women, you know? It was a very scary situation for me.”

Following his conversion, Nissim decided to take a hiatus from music.

“Eventually someone reached out to me, my friend, Elan Cohen. He asked about this Hashem Melech song, would I like to do a remix? I did it, and after that I discovered there’s a whole Jewish music industry,” Nissim laughed out loud, “So that’s where that went.”

The Hashem Melech” remix with which Nis­sim Black reen­tered the music industry. 

Fathers are integral to the socialization of men, yet Nissim chose to carve a masculine identity very different to the one he’d experienced as a child. I asked him about his father and about sort of role model he’d been.

“My father?” said Nissim, “I have a complicated situation. When I grew up, I had a biological father and a stepfather. My stepfather raised me since I was two, but at the same time I would never dismiss the love I have for my biological father. They’re my favorite guys in the world, you know what I’m saying? And I’m their favorite guy in the world. So it’s a very complicated situation to be in.”

Nissim told me he often felt torn between the relationships he had with his two fathers. “I remember, one time, my mother changed my name to my stepfather’s name, you know, my last name, but I never told my real father. By the time I was old enough to make my own decision, I went back to Black, which is my mother’s maiden name, because I thought it was most neutral.”

Nissim waxed lyrical about both his fathers. He told me that journalists frequently exaggerated the story of his childhood: “They want a really bad image so they can paint this good picture at the end,” he said, “Life just isn’t like that.”

Nissim told me that his step-father had completely turned his life around: “He was a major drug dealer, major, you know, and today he’s a Christian theologian, a professor, a doctor, he teaches at a Bible college, he’s a pastor of a church, he runs an addiction program for people. He did the same thing I did: he sacrificed everything, gave up everything he had. He chose a different path, a different religion, but I very much respect him for that.”

Religion had been on Nissim’s radar since he was child, but pulled between the two very strong male role models of his fathers, Nissim chose a name of his own, a name that gave him the space to carve out a unique Hasidic identity. I asked him what male role models he has today.

“The tsadikim,” Nissim said, without hesitating. He began listing names of different rabbis and rebbes. He’d met one of the two Satmar rebbes, Zalman Leib, and he spoke of his love for the joy and intention that the Satmar Hasidim put into their prayer. He told me how much he was drawn to the philosophies of the Slonim Hasidim, and how impressed he was with Lubavitch outreach work. He cited authors of books he’d read: Rabbi Shalom Arush was a name that came up a lot in our conversation. He spoke seriously and articulately, occasionally flashing a broad smile when he recalled his meetings with tsadikim.

“Every friend I have here is religious, I have some secular friends that live in Tel Aviv too, but I think that, for me, it’s very hard to find truly refined individuals, people who have really accepted on themselves the yoke of Torah, not only the outer, but also the inner, you understand what I mean? In terms of the way they treat people.”

Kindness towards others is something Nissim regards as central to his male Hasidic identity. He spoke to me about the concept of klal yisroel, an expression designating all Jews, regardless of their levels of religiosity or their political affiliations.

“This is Hashem’s land. It belongs to klal yisroel. But the infighting between Jews destroys me. You have to understand, from the outside looking in, I’m mean, now I’m on the inside. But from the outside, coming into this, you know, I ask myself, where is the shalom, where is the peace?”

Social disunity is everywhere in Israel. Though Nissim spoke about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during our conversation, he reserved his deepest frustration for the division between religious and secular Jews.

“I don’t care how religious you are. I don’t care how not-religious you are. Whatever you want. But whenever there’s that type of conflict, there’s an absence of Hashem. You could be the most religious, you could be the most whatever, but when there’s no grounds for discussion and finding out how we can find some way to meet in the middle, we’ve got a problem.”

Military service is the hinge upon which the conflict between ultra-Orthodox Judaism and secular Israel rests. Along Mea She’arim Road and through the narrow back streets and alleyways of Jerusalem’s religious neighborhoods, pashkevils, posters, constantly warn the faithful not to participate in the Israeli army. On Thursday nights, restless youths gather to protest against conscription in Shabbat Square, the point where the quarters of Mea She’arim, Geula, and Bukharim intersect. They burn trash, wave banners, and frequently hold stand-offs with the Israeli police and military.

“I just really wish that there was more dialogue, more compromise,” Nissim lamented, “I always say that if we daven, if we prayed for our brothers and sisters who are not really religious yet, there’d be more compromise. I can listen to a person when I feel that person loves me. But if I don’t feel that they love me, it’s very hard for me to listen to them. And if the person that doesn’t love me also claims to be a representative of God, a bearer of Torah, I’d be like, I don’t want you, and I don’t want your God neither, you understand what I’m saying?”

I asked Nissim what compromises he’d make and whether he’d be prepared to send his children to the Israeli army.

“I don’t know about that,” he said, “I just don’t know about that. I mean, I’m afraid for my kids to go to the army because I’m American and it just doesn’t feel normal.” Nissim laughed deeply. “There are other issues with the army though, the main one being that I don’t want my kids to be exposed to things I’ve shielded them from. That’s very frightening to me. Very, very frightening to me.”

Nissim told me that he’s known Hasidic men who’ve done military service: “In terms of Yidishkeyt, they felt like they took a hit. So that’s my biggest fear. And I think it’s a fair concern.” While Nissim didn’t seem completely opposed to military service for boys, the idea of female soldiers made no sense to him: “I don’t believe in sending girls to the army. That’s not even a question for me. I don’t believe in it.”

I asked Nissim about language, whether he was learning Hebrew or Yiddish, or both. He told me it was important to him to know all the Jewish languages. He described languages as vehicles of culture and ways of communicating with diverse groups within the Hasidic world.

“People always talk to me in Yiddish, hoping I’m gonna say something back to them,” he said, “I’m learning it every day. I feel like it’s English, but, see, Yiddish reminds me, I mean, lehavdil, but it really reminds me of black slang. Everything in Yiddish is said with a swag, with a twang.

“Yiddish is called mame-loshn,” Nissim continued, “I grew up saying mama. It’s not a formal English word, it’s like, mama, you know what I’m saying? Mama—mame-loshn. Yiddish is code-talk, you understand what I’m saying? It’s something the Hasidim use among themselves. It has that exclusivity in common with black slang.”

I asked Nissim if he’d ever sing in Yiddish.

B’ezrat Hashem,” he answered, “God willing.”

Israel is changing. Two years ago, President Reuvin Rivlin gave an address to the annual Herzliya Conference that has come to be known as the “Four Tribes Speech.” Very soon, claimed Rivlin, Israel will not be made up of a secular majority with other minorities. Instead, four tribes of roughly equal size will inhabit the land: secular Jews, religious-nationalists, ultra-Orthodox, and Israeli Arabs. Rivlin’s message is not one of fear, but of hope. He believes in the Israeli mosaic, a place where we can learn to coöperate with one another by listening to each other’s stories.

Reuvin Rivlin’s Four Tribes” speech. 

Though Rivlin claims to be optimistic about Israel’s future, deep social divisions continue to dog Israeli democracy. The voices of Yakov, Eli, and Nissim—the Hasid, the ex-Hasid, and the newly-religious Hasid—constitute a qualitative exploration of the borderlands between some of those divisions. Both Eli and Yakov spoke about the ugliness of secular Israeli masculinity. Masculinity is about supremacy, and in the modern Jewish state, the power struggle between the new Israeli male and the traditional figure of the Hasidic Jew generates suspicion and resentment.

Historically, Zionism has always been more interested in the image of men than of women. Dalia Manor writes, “the Zionist revolution did not assign any new role for women, and the majority of trends in Zionist thought, even the most radical ones, demanded that women retain their traditional roles in the family. The idealization of masculinity as the foundation of the nation, while assigning to women passive roles, was typical of nationalism in Europe.” 3 3 Manor, Dalia, Art in Zion: The Genesis of Modern National Art in Jewish Palestine, (London & New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 163 From the Zionist art of Ephraim Moshe Lilien, which frequently juxtaposes images of strong secular men with hunched, aging religious Jews, to the sanctification of the male Jewish worker in the literary œuvre of Yosef Haim Brenner, the pressure on Israeli men to perform a hard, militaristic, alpha masculinity has always been at the center of the Zionist project.

Living up to the Zionist ideal of masculinity is a challenge for those entering mainstream Israeli society. At the same time, the lives of men in the Hasidic world illustrate just how wide the gap is between the various ways masculinity is performed in the Jewish state. Zionism tried to address a problem it saw with the Jewish male, but the state of Israel is only young, and its demographics are shifting. At one time it seemed that a new version of Jewish masculinity was emerging, a version captured on the cover of Life Magazine in the aftermath of the Six Day War. But the figure of the old Jew is in far from in retreat. As Israel enters the age of Four Tribes, the question remains, which version of masculinity will shape the country’s tomorrow?

Blitz, Avi. ““Being a man was about being tough, not backing down”: Rappers, Hasids, Sabras, and the Battle for the Future of Jewish Israeli Male Identity.” In geveb, February 2019:
Blitz, Avi. ““Being a man was about being tough, not backing down”: Rappers, Hasids, Sabras, and the Battle for the Future of Jewish Israeli Male Identity.” In geveb (February 2019): Accessed Apr 15, 2024.


Avi Blitz

Avi Blitz completed his PhD in Comparative Literature and Jewish Studies at Indiana University. He currently teaches Yiddish language, literature, and culture through the Argentinian branch of YIVO.