How ‘Shababnikim’ Explains Israeli Society
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.