How ‘Shabab­nikim’ Ex­plains Is­raeli So­ci­ety

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Avi­tal Chizhik-Gold­schmidt

If you’ve spent any time in Jerusalem, you’ve seen these young men be­fore.

Some­times, they ap­pear in the Mamilla Mall, ec­static to be out on the town. You’ll see them on the pub­lic bus, or at a ‘ mehadrin’- kosher pizza shop, wear­ing iden­ti­cal black hats and holding the ubiq­ui­tous Is­raeli plas­tic bag.

Fi­nally, the Is­raeli TV viewer is get­ting a glimpse into the life of the Haredi yeshiva boy in the show “Shabab­nikim” (slang for “yeshiva dropout”) writ­ten by Eli­ran Malka and Daniel Paran.

The four pro­tag­o­nists are room­mates in a Jerusalem yeshiva: Avi­noam is the suave son of a pow­er­ful Sephardic Knesset mem­ber; Dov Laizer is the caus­tic-tongued son of a wealthy Ashke­nazi busi­ness­man; Meir is the bright-eyed son of a Sephardic store­keeper; and then there is Gedalya, the nerdy scholar among these bad boys, plagued with a pho­to­graphic mem­ory and a des­per­ate sex­ual de­sire.

The four young men strug­gle with the ten­sions be­tween the yeshiva’s safe in­su­lar­ity

The Haredi sys­tem is a relic of an Old Word or­der. It’s Edith Whar­ton, ex­cept in He­brew.

and the real world of tur­moil out­side in sce­nar­ios that are ex­tremely im­prob­a­ble: The boys set fire to a bill­board pic­tur­ing a scant­ily clad model; the Haredi son of an MK is see­ing a sec­u­lar wait­ress on the sly.

But per­haps what’s most fas­ci­nat­ing — more than any other re­cent Is­raeli cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Haredi cul­ture — is the por­trait of the yeshiva world’s so­cial hi­er­ar­chy in all of its com­plex­ity, some­thing rarely, if ever, por­trayed on the Is­raeli screen.

Gone are the monas­tic apart­ments, the harsh light­ing, the dirty streets of Mea Shearim, the ratty suits, the aw­ful wigs.

The drama of the un­en­light­ened ul­tra­Ortho­dox — and the sec­u­lar viewer’s schaden­freude in watch­ing it — is passé.

This is the “Haredi HaHadash,” the New Haredi.

Here is the lux­ury SUV. The fit­ted Brooks Brothers suits. The lively cafés and the iPhones. Here is the cool yeshiva stu­dent dat­ing the hote­lier’s daugh­ter; the wealthy kid tak­ing his friend out for steaks on his dad’s bill. The yeshiva stu­dent is no longer an “other”; we see a group of young men, just like any oth­ers, search­ing for them­selves.

And there, lurk­ing un­der­neath those Bor­salino hats, is a rigidly tiered so­ci­ety — a caste sys­tem that fol­lows un­spo­ken rules.

The Haredi sys­tem is a relic of an Old World or­der, of hard-lined gen­der roles and clearly de­fined classes. It’s a He­brew Edith Whar­ton, where the ro­mance takes place not in the As­tor ball­room but in the King David Ho­tel lobby in 2018.

The first tier of the so­ci­ety is what I call “To­rah U’Gedu­lah,” or the elite: These are the real “gedolim,” the great rabbis; the very wealthy busi­ness­men, whom we call bal­a­ba­tim (lit­er­ally, “house­hold­ers”), who bankroll the sys­tem; and the politi­cians — Knesset mem­bers and heads of ma­jor po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Their chil­dren will marry within this tier; a wealthy in-law will sup­port the young cou­ple, en­abling the hus­band to study in yeshiva full time. The bal­a­ba­tim have free­dom to do as they please, pretty much, as long as they write a reg­u­lar check to the yeshivas; they are per­mit­ted earthly plea­sures like long blonde wigs and luxe Euro­pean ho­tels, and their sons do not have to be es­pe­cially bright to be ac­cepted to the yeshiva.

The next tier is the lo­cal lead­er­ship — the ed­u­ca­tors; the vil­lage mach­ers and fundrais­ers; the news­pa­per edi­tors and bloggers; the ones who in­flu­ence the masses; who ap­point them­selves to speak on be­half of the gedolim (who lead more clois­tered lives, por­ing over books day and night), many times es­pous­ing even more con­ser­va­tive views than the ac­tual lead­ers. For ex­am­ple, on “Shabab­nikim,” the char­ac­ter of Sh­pitzer — the head of the yeshiva — is a stick­ler ad­min­is­tra­tor de­ter­mined to make the boys into se­ri­ous Haredim.

The fi­nal tier — “am­cha” — are the masses. These are the ‘Meir’s, the sim­ple God-fear­ing peo­ple, de­voted be­liev­ers in the rabbis, evan­ge­lists for the cause. These are the baalei teshuva (those who chose to be­come Ortho­dox), or those with­out money, or with­out lin­eage. It is from here that the move­ment of the “New Haredi,” of the ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als, has emerged, from the masses who have been fed up with liv­ing in poverty as life­time yeshiva stu­dents.

Be­tween these classes, so­cial mo­bil­ity ex­ists only through To­rah study (which is, of course, lim­ited to men): Ortho­dox so­ci­ety is a mer­i­toc­racy only when a bril­liant yeshiva stu­dent from a low­er­class fam­ily can marry into the first tier. These tiers are most vivid in the shid­duch (match­mak­ing) process, as “Shabab­nikim” il­lus­trates. Prices are set on yeshiva stu­dents’ heads for prospec­tive bride’s par­ents to as­sess: The brighter the boy, the more ex­pen­sive he is.

On “Shabab­nikim,” the poor Sephardic Meir falls in love with the very wealthy and very Ashke­nazi Ruth Got­tlieb, who has been set up with the much more suit­able Dov Laizer.

“You’re not a match,” Laizer tells Meir.

“Why not? Be­cause she’s one of yours?” Meir asks.

“Meir, this is how it works,’ Laizer says. “I didn’t cre­ate this sys­tem, okay?”

Where else would one find this sort of height­ened drama of for­bid­den love to­day, if not in a re­li­gious com­mu­nity?

This sort of hi­er­ar­chy is the price one pays for liv­ing in a com­mu­nity that is so tightly knit, so com­mit­ted to one another by divine covenant. When peo­ple choose to be con­stantly con­nected to one another through an ex­change of spir­i­tual and mon­e­tary val­ues, some or­der in­evitably evolves.

For bet­ter or for worse, this elitism has be­come the very so­cial DNA of this com­mu­nity, and it has fu­eled zealotry, al­low­ing fringe ex­trem­ists to spit on those in uni­form or riot in the streets.

But there is also a pride that keeps many young peo­ple within the fold — and that’s what makes “Shabab­nikim” so mes­mer­iz­ing for both re­li­gious and sec­u­lar view­ers.

This pride oozes from the main char­ac­ters; it is de­lib­er­ately in­stilled into young grad­u­ates of Bais Yaakovs and yeshivas — to be “Haredi” is to be a pa­triot in the black-and-white army of To­rah. It is this pride that en­sures that even the shabab­niks, with their swag­ger and hip-hop sound­tracks, will stick to the yeshiva world. Be­cause this is where they will re­main roy­alty and where their fu­ture fam­i­lies will be cared for.

Not long ago, those who sought to lead more mod­ern lifestyles would leave the com­mu­nity al­to­gether. But to­day, re­ten­tion rates are high in the Is­raeli Haredi com­mu­nity, with only 7.1% of Haredim 20 and older, (ac­cord­ing to JPPI and a 2009 Is­raeli Cen­tral Bu­reau of Sta­tis­tics census), say­ing they be­came less re­li­gious over the course of their lives — com­pared to 20 to 21% among other re­li­gious peo­ple and those who iden­tify as tra­di­tional.

This is largely, I be­lieve, be­cause the out­side world is be­com­ing less “tempt­ing,” with the phe­nom­e­non of the New Haredi, as “Shabab­nikim” por­trays so col­or­fully. Per­haps, these young men imag­ine, one can en­joy more and more of the wider world’s plea­sures — both ma­te­rial and in­tel­lec­tual — while keep­ing one’s black hat.

As long as you have the req­ui­site so­cial clout, that is.

Avi­tal Chizhik-Gold­schmidt is the Life/Fea­tures ed­i­tor at the For­ward. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @avi­tal­rachel


FEAR OF A BLACK HAT: The four pro­tag­o­nists

of ‘Shabab­nikim’ are room­mates in a Jerusalem Yeshiva.

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