Talking Heads 2: Men

When you walk down the street in Jerusalem and see someone, you instantly know everything you could ever want to know about their religious standing. Israeli men’s headgear and hairstyles, even more than that of women, tells us about their social and religious lives. As with clothing, there is a lot of leeway for heads and hair in Israeli society. One is as likely to see a hipster fedora (distinguished from a religious one by the narrow brim and sunglasses) in the boardroom as at the bar.

In the religious world, there are kipot and there are yarmulkes. There are hats and there are shtreimels. There are beards and beardless, with and without peyot (side-curls). The Moslem religious keep their foreheads clear for prayer. The average Israeli can sport a funky hat if he chooses, with an army haircut, mohawk, ponytail or shaven head.

A head covering usually proclaims a man a religious Jew. Modern Israeli religious men wear a kipa (the kipa sruga is the crocheted version) declaring affiliation with National Religious/Modern Orthodoxy. A black velvet yarmulke (from the Aramaic yerei Malka—fear of the King) is worn by the hareidim, the ultra-Orthodox. Sephardim (though not strictly required) often wear the same head coverings as Ashkenazim, with Shas adherents wearing the yarmulkes and hats of hareidim. Simple enough, but there are variations like the Yerushalmi, a white cap that resembles a small ski hat, complete with pom-pom. Although it is crocheted and white, it is worn by the Breslover and the Toldos Ahron, among the strictest hasidim.

Then there are the hats (for hareidim and hasidim). The Lithuanian (non-hasidic) wear a broad-brimmed fedora, with yeshiva students wearing the hat tilted far back on the head. In contrast, Chabad hasidim wear an extra-wide fedora. The “beaver” hat is actually felt or velvet, with variations of brim and crown that indicate the specific hasidic affiliation. On the Sabbath and holidays, hasidim upgrade to a fur-trimmed hat, the shtreimel.

It is often claimed that the shtreimel was adopted from the hats of Polish noblemen but a more likely origin is in the dress of Sephardic emissaries from the Holy Land and Jewish merchants from the eastern reaches of the Russian empire. Paintings and early photographs show modest caps in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many Eastern people who could afford it wore fur trimmings on their headwear because fur attracts lice from the hair.

Growing affluence in the modern world transformed the shtreimel into a magnificent hat richly covered in prime sable. Traditionally, the shtreimel is a gift to a bridegroom from his father-in-law, who, having fitted out the new couple, may have no choice but to present the groom with a faux-fur shtreimel.

It is not necessary, but considered admirable for Muslim men to cover their heads at prayer. Because Muslim prayer requires the head to touch the ground repeatedly, all traditional Muslim hats are without brims. Whether the kipa-like crocheted skullcap, the turban or the keffiyeh, all must leave the forehead unimpeded. Even baseball caps are worn backward at prayer. The very pious—or pretentious—sport a bruise or callus on their foreheads, indicating special enthusiasm at prayers.

Religious Jewish men answer the biblical command about not cutting the “corners of the head” in distinct ways. The Modern Orthodox usually have sideburns with or without beards, courtesy of the electric razor. Hareidim have minimally or un-trimmed beards, with peyot growing from the top of the ears including the sideburns. Hasidim prefer curly payot. For those who have straight hair, barbers in religious neighborhoods discreetly offer permanent waves to turn the lankiest payot into perfect corkscrews.

Spoiler: Other than the beard and payot most hareidim and Hasidim wear their hair very short, all but clean shaven. You can spot that a movie was made by an outsider when supposedly hareidi men have even slightly long hair. (Looking at you, director Amos Gitai.)

Despite the moustache’s role in the past as the ultimate symbol of Arab masculinity,  it is disappearing from this population. Clerics and the ostentatiously fervid favor beards, but with the moustache close-trimmed or shaven. Many young Arab men and boys wear the fade, a patch of longish hair on the top of the head, often styled in a pompadour, with the sides and back closely shorn or shaved. This style is also popular with secular working class Jews.

More than in most Western countries, long hair is widely worn by men in their twenties and thirties, in reaction to completing their required military service. Flowing locks are worn with and without matching beards.The man-bun is especially popular with young secular Israelis. From a sleek coil at the back of the head to an explosion of curls at the top it is a practical option for many men with long hair. In a cross between the fade and the man-bun, the long hair on top of the head is held in a ponytail or bun, while the sides and back are shorn or shaven. The look is that of an invading Mongol.

Balding secular men have taken to shaving off all of their hair, and the look has become so popular that even some young men with plenty of hair have adopted the style. Only age and balding cramp a man’s style. In this case freedom’s just another word for something left to lose.

About the Author
Gila Berkowitz was born in Haifa and received a B.A. from the Hebrew University. The daughter of survivors, she grew up in ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. Her curiosity is so intense and her interests so broad that friends have dubbed her "the walking Wikipedia." She has been a news reporter in Israel as well as a science writer here and abroad. She taught journalism at Stanford University and has written best-selling novels. Two of these novels are about women in the Holocaust, "The Ugly Sister" and the forthcoming "Your Sister's Blood."-- as victims and survivors, heroes and perpetrators -- books based on real events and people.
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